I became a naturalist as a repat. That came with studying nature, including literature that romanticizes “the wild.” Then I reached the limits of fun in the wild.
I recently spent three nights camping alone. I’ve been going through some midlife questions that started to weigh on me, and I decided to get out of my head a little. I told people I would disappear behind the tree line, and that’s what I believed. But I came to see it as less romantic in practice than in theory.
Both are about boys surviving alone in the wild, with Hatchet being more realistic. My Side of the Mountain piqued my interest on to the ancient sport of falconry. And when I say “piqued my interest,” I mean I watched some YouTube videos. I’m not getting a bird of prey for a pet.
I then read them Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, the latter of which I finished but they lost interest in. Both are great for people who own dogs, which we now do. I remember Mark Twain’s Huck Finn was controversial for a hot minute in the 1990s because of the “n word.” I was surprised when I came across London’s portrayal of native Americans, and curious there was never a similar uproar. Here’s a taste:
It was at Fort Yukon that White Fang saw his first white men. As compared with the Indians he had known, they were to him another race of beings, a race of superior gods. They impressed him as possessing superior power…
I was never fascinated by the native tribes of North America. I turned the corner after reading Tribe and Of Wolves and Men., which illustrated that precisely the North American tribes’ primitiveness is what made them more interesting than the more advanced civilizations of Central and South America.
The Spaniards made quick work of the dominant civilizations in Central and South America, but they were stopped in their tracks and sent home by the North American tribes. The last bands of Apaches resisting the United States didn’t fall until the 1920s!
Conquistadores details the misadventures of Hernando de Soto, a veteran of the conquests of Maya and Inca. But when he landed in the southeastern United States, he met with repeated failures until he perished in Arkansas. The Spaniards ultimately left the wild north to the puritanical zealots of northern Europe.
The South and Central American tribes were more developed civilizations with larger, sedentary populations, domesticated livestock, large-scale agriculture and complex social hierarchies. It was precisely their development that made them easier for the Europeans to subdue.
Sedentary populations are fat and happy. If the Aztecs and the Incas were in the Bronze Age, the Mohicans and the Sioux were still in the Stone Age. While that sounds like a disadvantage, it was actually their strength. Without the comfort of sedentary establishment, they were fierce hunters accustomed to picking up and moving. How do you subdue that?
The 20th century romantics idealized the Native American as the noble savage more in tune with nature.
Junger details in Tribe that Ben Franklin, America’s most interesting founding father, wrote about a peculiar trend in the early colonies:
It may say something about human nature that a surprising number of Americans—mostly men—wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. They emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them. And the opposite almost never happened: Indians almost never ran away to join white society. Emigration always seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal, and it left Western thinkers flummoxed about how to explain such an apparent rejection of their society…
As somebody who had gone the other way, from the developed world to a developing country, that struck a chord.
The most terrifying and important test for a human being is to be in absolute isolation … A human being is a very social creature, and ninety percent of what he does is done only because other people are watching. Alone, with no witnesses, he starts to learn about himself—who is he really? Sometimes, this brings staggering discoveries.
More from Tribe:
Modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.
While the life of abundance is what human nature prefers if so many people opt for it, there is something attractive about a simpler life closer to the elements. When worried about the minutiae of getting ahead in your career, managing money, the house, the car, relationships and children in a complex society, the simplicity of nature is attractive. At its essence it’s a competition for the basic needs of life. And simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
It’s also tempting to think that, if the shit hits the fan, learning to live in the wild is a safe hedge against disaster. If civil war or the zombie apocalypse, a country boy will survive.
I told a few friends I was going camping alone. One of them mentioned survivalism. That wasn’t my thing, I said. I’m just looking to get out of my head a little, figure some things out. I’m not about being a “prepper,” but it is interesting. Can’t say it’s a bad skill to have.
In Walden, Thoreau wrote one of the most famous odes to naturalism. He built a cabin by a lake and lived there for two years. That was closer to my idea. Thoreau still had contact with people and often went into town.
My idea was to disappear behind the tree line and get out of shouting distance of others. I’d do more fishing and hiking than my children have the patience for. And I’d get out of my head a little.
It wasn’t long before I realized how unrealistic the romance of life in the wild is. On the first day, I went hiking near Missouri’s highest mountain and didn’t see another human for hours. I had been hiking these last few years with my whole family, but now I was alone. If I broke a leg, or even sprained an ankle, I’d be in quite a pickle. Nobody knew where I was. Being old and losing my edge, I thought this a little risky as the provider for a family of five.
I was fasted and on drugs, which didn’t allow for peak performance. After the rugged hike I went to a popular river among bluffs. I hiked to the bottom of the river, then walked upstream to where most people swim. This was effectively rock climbing over a swift current. One false step could result in blood and broken bones. People have died in this spot. While there were plenty of people around to help, it wouldn’t be an easy exit out of there.
After I got through that Day 1, I decided to give the drinking and drugging a break. I’ve been sober ever since.
I had planned on “backpacking,” not in the travel sense of bouncing around cities and countries, but in the outdoorsmen sense of sleeping in the forest, not in the campground. I hiked to three stone shelters built in the side of a mountain. But it was the thick of summer. While in some regions it’s the bears, cats, snakes or gators that will kill you, in Missouri it’s the bugs. Even with pants and boots and covered in DEET where exposed, they tred to get at my eyeballs. I balked at sleeping in their forest.
The shelters would have required me to bring my own water. You take for granted the convenience of a case of bottled water in the trunk of the car, or electric outlets at the campsite. Clean water and electricity are no joke. Then I have air conditioning inside the camper, not to mention an enclosed mattress on which I can strip off to sleep in soft sheets.
While the natural life is simpler, it’s still hard. You’ll trade complex work for hard work. You may think about fishing and hunting every day, but most likely you’ll give that up for the more reliable payout of agriculture. Thoreau plowed bean fields for his calories, and fished in his free time. His book is about how to live with little. And he went back to civilization.
Other people enrich our lives. Not just by providing company, but so we don’t have to spend our time plowing fields and procuring water. Even those who choose to do that will ultimately hit the nurseries for fertilizer or implements, which cost money. And money is simply a currency to tap the labor of others.
And of course being alone in the wild is dangerous. Without human help, a simple accident could kill you.
Ironically, I got through the first day of drugs and fasting without any close calls. The day I was nourished and sober almost ended in disaster. I was floating a river in my brand new
inflatable kayak kayak-shaped raft, which is a piece of shit…
Sidenote: Not only is my kayak-shaped inflatable raft a piece of shit, but a kayak-shaped inflatable raft is a piece of shit as an idea. I’ve heard they make some with net mesh in the bottom, which would wet your arse but not retain water, known as a “fun-yak”. That idea seems like it would work, but the
inflatable kayak kayak-shaped raft is a piece of shit.
… my first such voyage in the new purchase. It wasn’t sound and, I’m embarrassed to say, as a seasoned riverman, that I tipped over. I lost a two-pound bass and litter of sunfish, but that was the least of my concern.
Having my own raft, I had parked my car five miles downstream and paid for a simple shuttle service back to camp. After floating down the river to my car, I planned to drive back to camp. So having tipped my kayak-shaped raft, my main concern was my car keys. If I lost them, I would have had to walk … at night.
Fortunately I saved everything except the fish. I arrived at the car at nightfall. Being in a stupid hurry, I drove my car down to the river for easier loading of the kayak-shaped raft and things, and got stuck in the loose gravel. I barely got out. After saving the keys from the river, I almost had to walk for help again.
Speaking of cars and my aversion to driving, I saw that if you want to load three days of fun activities like visiting this mountain, then the shut-ins and then float the river, you have to drive around the region. The only way you escape the car is to spend all your time in one scene. And if you don’t want any people around, it’s not going to be a beautiful scene, because those sites attract visitors. The country can be worse ARSE hellscape than the suburbs.
I learned that I like naturalism as much as I had been taking it. State parks had first dibs on the best natural beauty, and they don’t try to maximize the number of paying customers. They offer a degree of rusticism, but toilets, running water and electricity are no more than a short walk away.
Can’t Hurt Me and Sherman weren’t specifically about the wild, but both featured orienteering, an activity that interests me. Sherman is known for his scorched-earth policy toward Confederates, but his real competitive advantage came from being a naturalist. He made better topographical maps of the southern states than the southerners had, which gave him an edge in maneuvering.
I’d like to start with a little hunting, backpacking and orienteering. Maybe after the children are out of school I’ll think about doing a stint in a cabin. But I’m not the hardcore naturalist I was dreaming about. I’m much more pedestrian, a mere enthusiast of popular recreation like hiking and fishing, the Great Outdoors. Getting out of the city to take a nature bath.
There is something undeniably therapeutic of about the nature bath. Nature bath is more than breathing in fresh air free of industrial pollutants, but air filled with exudates from trees, plants and wildlife. Even the allergens must be good for us in a way that makes us stronger. Walking on uneven ground and absorbing sunlight, rain and wind. I can feel the good it does for my mind and body.
So I’m still into the nature baths. But I’ve learned that being truly self-sufficient is more than a hobby. It’s like a second career. And you need to be careful.