Dr Gregory P Smith on the real price of food in the wilderness.
For ten years a man calling himself Will Power lived in near-total isolation in northern New South Wales, foraging for food, eating bats and occasionally trading for produce. But who was this mysterious man who roamed the forest and knew all of its secrets and riddles? Some people thought he might be Jesus. Others feared he was a more sinister figure.
The truth was that he was neither miraculous nor malevolent, but he was, most certainly, gifted. And when he finally emerged from the forest, emaciated and close to death, he was determined to reclaim his real name and ‘give society another chance’.
Today, Dr Gregory Peel Smith, who left school at the age of fourteen and shunned society for the isolation of a forest, has a PhD and teaches in the Social Sciences at university.
In the following passage from his memoir Out of the Forest, he describes an emotionally turbulent hunting experience from his time in the wilderness:
I woke up on my back with a large snake on my chest. Surely it was going to sink its fangs into my throat and leave me to die in the ferns and the dirt.
I’d slept in enough roadside ditches to know I shared Australia with an all-star cast of nasties, not least taipans and eastern brown snakes. They’re pretty much a slithering death sentence, especially if you have the misfortune of waking alone in a forest with one on top of you.
I can’t say that my life flashed before my eyes that night as I lay there frozen, but even if it had I probably would have looked away such was the waste it had been. One thing was certain, though: I wasn’t yet ready to die. I stilled every cell while the snake continued to explore my body and after minutes that felt like years its cold, scaly weight slipped off my left flank.
Cautiously I sucked in some air, rose to my feet, took a burning stick from the campfire and waved it around like a homeless Indiana Jones. There, on the forest floor near the edge of my camp, I saw it: a huge diamond python. One hundred per cent non-venomous. Just passing through.
The snake didn’t stand a chance as I lunged and gripped tight behind its jaws. Dinner! I hadn’t eaten in days. My terror was replaced by excitement as its body whipped and curled in the night air. I found my pocket knife, hacked the wide, flat head off the twisting creature and slung its body in the branches of a bush to deal with later.
I loaded up the fire with plenty of wood for the rest of the night and in the flickering amber I gave solemn thanks. I’d only been living in the rainforest for a few months but I’d developed a reverence for the natural world and deep regard for the spirituality of all things. I told the snake I was sorry that I’d had to kill it and how grateful I was that its flesh would sustain me. I vowed to never forget it.
I woke again just before sunrise eager to return to the business of the snake. The rewards for keeping my cool during the horrors of the night were even more apparent in the grey dawn. Suddenly I had at least a few days of food and I’d obtained an item of potential value – the scaly skin. I’d also been given something mystical and immensely powerful. Namely, snake blood.
After carefully separating the reptile into its component parts of skin, blood, meat and bone, I spent the rest of the day harvesting fern leaves for the coming night’s bed and gathering wood for the fire. Later on, when the sun slipped behind the mountains to the west, I threaded strips of snake onto sharpened skewers I’d made from gum-tree twigs, and dangled them in the flames. As I chewed on the meat and gazed exhausted into the dancing flames, I had no idea I had just opened the door to a nightmare more frightening than any giant serpent. And it felt as if it might never end.
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