Ray Mears v Bear Grylls

Just who is the best TV forager?

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I’m confident that I speak for my people (women) when I say that the translucent, white British male thigh should only be exposed in the gravest of emergencies. Sorry, menfolk, but that means tiny shorts are out. And this applies tenfold on television.

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But one man’s pasty thigh-flashing I’ll let pass: that of king forager Ray Mears, whose cropped, utility beige legwear is an essential aid to his acrobatic hunter-gatherer demonstrations. I’m also sure that a full trouser would cramp his trademark stance: the squat-and-explain.

It’s not his scoutish khaki outfits that I find so helplessly alluring. It’s his utterly earnest desire to imbue us with lost knowledge. When he conjures complex structures from a heap of mulch and twigs, I want to do that too. Or at least buy a shed and watch someone else put it up.

Mears evangelises about the great outdoors in a way that makes us yearn for a forgotten hand-to-shrub-to-mouth lifestyle. And, like an interior designer, he can visualise, then carry out, plans to turn basic jungle matter into huts. We see a prickly forest rife with unpredictable beasts; Mears sees plush sheltering and umpteen uses for a freshly sharpened stick. We see weeds, fungus and suspicious tubers; he sees “good eating”.

There’s something so reassuringly lovely about individuals who dedicate themselves to – let’s be honest – a redundant art form or skill set. Mears must know that foraging will soon die out, but he hammers on regardless. He loves it. We love that he loves it. And we’re happy to pretend that him teaching us how to suck the juice from bramble stems or ruffle up tinder is time well spent.

Now a word on – or scoff at – the competition, namely former SAS hard man Bear Grylls. Whereas Mears sensibly but engagingly demonstrates survival skills long forgotten by everyone who isn’t Ray Mears or part of a tribe, Grylls contrives life-or-death escapades. He also bites the heads off reptiles and, as was recently uncovered, stays in posh hotels when he’s supposed to be roughing it. He’s not even a real bear.

Mears’s brand of survival may be less sensational, but he backs it up with an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and indigenous peoples. I’ve no doubt that he’d eat a snake – and be able to give a rousing lecture on how best to kill and hot-rock-bake one – but he’d only do it if he had to. And he’d do it with a quiet respect for the creature whose life he was taking to keep himself in calories. Grylls’s eating methods are the wilderness equivalent of burying your face in a KFC bucket.

Mears is a wise, excitable scoutleader who manages to make us feel safe, learned and ready for adventure all at once.

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Who knows, maybe next time I’m in a men’s shorts department, I’ll finally make use of his how-to-set-fire-to-anything-with-anything teachings.