When Miriam Lancewood and her partner Peter set off to live alone deep in the New Zealand wilderness, they told their families they’d be back in a year.
But the couple came to enjoy their nomadic, off-grid lifestyle — foraging for edible plants and killing their own animals — so much that they’re still living it, nearly a decade later.
“It’s perceived as being scary but I see the wilderness as my home, so I feel very comfortable there,” says Miriam, who has written about her life in her memoir, Woman of the Wilderness.
Miriam, who was born in the Netherlands, says there is freedom in her lifestyle, one that is “without time”.
“We sleep when we are tired, usually when the sun goes down. When the first birds sing, we wake up,” she says.
“We eat when we are hungry. We don’t know the days of the week, or the date. That is irrelevant really.”
Ditching conventional living has brought significant struggles, but Miriam says it’s been worth it; she now feels deeply connected to natural beauty she once merely observed.
Killing to survive
To prepare for her move to the wilderness, Miriam practised her aim with a bow and arrow every day for a year.
She and Peter had decided that, in their new living environment, she would hunt and he would cook.
“I thought, well, hunting will be a great success. I’ll be little Robin Hood running around in the forest,” Miriam says.
But things didn’t go as planned.
Miriam’s aim was excellent, but finding animals to target was hard work.
Also tricky was the fact that she was raised vegetarian.
“I was always like, ‘oh, no animal needs to die for me’. I was very judgmental of meat-eaters,” she says.
But there was an urgency to expanding their diet.
“We got so cold that we were losing weight just by living, and in the morning we would wake up with hunger pains,” Miriam says.
“Just getting through the night cost so much energy and so after a while — Peter was visibly losing weight — we said, OK, we have got to get onto this hunting.
“I ended up doing exactly that — killing animals to survive.”
The first meat Miriam ate was possum, and the experience, she says, was “absolutely traumatising”.
“I put the trap out and then one day we were very happy, there was a possum in there — a very cute little possum looking at me — and I thought, oh God,” she says.
“I had to smack the possum, but they’re very tough animals and they’re very hard to kill. It was a really dreadful moment … it wouldn’t die.”
She says she was left feeling “very guilty” and wondering: “What am I doing here?”
But, she reasoned, possums are classified as a pest in New Zealand and hunting them is encouraged by the government.
Plus, she says, possum meat is delicious.
“When Peter finally cooked it, it was absolutely amazing. It tasted fantastic,” Miriam says.
Most importantly, however, the meat gave them the fuel they so badly needed.
“[Wild] meat gives so much energy,” she says.
“People say you are what you eat, and that’s definitely so very true with wild animals. You feel really so much healthier and stronger with eating good meat.”
‘The wilderness has changed me’
After years of living in the bush, emerging only rarely for supplies like tea or flour, Miriam says she’s not the same person she once was.
“The wilderness has changed me a lot,” she says.
From someone who used to feel nervous alone, Miriam has grown confident that she can live well independently.
And her perspective of herself has changed.
“In the mountains I feel very small. I am insignificant really, and my petty little problems seem even smaller,” she says.
“It seems that the trees pull the burdens off your shoulders.”
Miriam and Peter spent six years in the New Zealand bush, and then spent three years walking for months at a time around Europe.
Miriam says “always walking into the unknown” was exciting, but also exhausting.
So the couple decided to return to New Zealand and set up camp once more.
It seems unlikely their path will ever lead back to a conventional lifestyle.
“To live in a tent, waking up with the first light, adjusting to weather and seasons, hunting wild animals, makes me feel so alive,” Miriam says.
“When I hunt, and come back with a goat for dinner, I feel, wow, this is so real.”
She is struck by the beauty of the environment she has called home for so long, and by how comfortable she is there.
“We sleep underneath a big tree and its branches are our roof. The thick layer of moss is like a soft carpet underneath our feet,” she says.
“The river nearby is our drinking water, and there is always a little breeze that brings fresh air.
“We are living in a living world.”