Every creature has an ideal habitat, a place where it’s every need is met freely by the immediate environment. Habitat preservation is key to the survival of any species, which is why the wildlife refuge concept has been adopted worldwide. At a wildlife refuge, one may witness firsthand the ways in which nature consistently and sufficiently provides for her menagerie of flora and fauna. This may leave one to wondering: Why is there no such refuge for people? Examining the possibility of naturally sufficient environments for people is a primary focus of this website.
This blog follows my own efforts to restore a human habitat on a twenty acre site in Northeastern Washington. I'll also cover relevant events, from the bioregion and around the planet.
This website also hosts my articles, which discuss the ideas and concepts behind the mission, as well as methods for practical application. Click Videos to watch my films.
(I am perpetually collecting and trading seed/starts of usefull plants. Please contact me if you want to trade.)
Homepage and Blog: Exploring our Niche in Nature
Thoughts emerging from planning the Spring Foraging Project: An Ode to Meat Mammas, a Letter to our Videographer
An Ode to Meat Mammas:
I feel both spiritually triumphant and childishly indulged, knowing my foraging project will be joined by more than one of the brutally badass women I call "Meat Mamma". My Meat Mammas are queens of carnage, pioneering leaders in the primal arts of animal processing and hide working. They surpass, humble, and horrify men, in their comfortable talent with gore. Yet these women are uncommonly nurturing people, innocently kind somehow, perhaps not in spite of their brave bloodiness, but because of it. They remind me of a side of womanhood which is underappreciated these days- the deep capacity to embrace what is visceral and morbid in life. Women must see and deal with violent realities, which so many men in this culture would rather turn away from. But my Meat Mammas are like priestesses who show me how move beyond fear, and see life and beauty emerging from pain.
It seems to me a good path, which is wound about with paradox. The joining of Meaty Matriarchs with a Man of Plants, on a botanical exploration, is a perfect irony, engendering a dynamic depth and balance. Caught up in such a mysterious and hilarious union, I feel close to the earth. I feel a closeness to the sacred feminine which I have coveted yet struggled to understand. I feel close to something like ancient Goddess worship, which maybe isn't religious at all, but a euphoric embrace of my my own primal nature, connecting me to all things real.
And, if that weren't enough to make me cry and laugh, this plant project is also joined by a brotherhood of sacred hunters. These tender spirited men-of-the-chase are giving pause, to appreciate the plant-friends beneath their feet.
This is my ART!
From my letter to the project videographer, regarding our artistic direction:
" ...I appreciate the questions, since I'm thinking that the biggest issue with filming this is the need to form some clear goals and messages. And I recognize that this is real work. I'm happy to work with you here.
So, even without filming or photography, this project is story-telling. I want all the participants to have a valuable story to tell about breaking out of the mainstream narrative. I want the collaboration to bring us all social currency usefull in the continued pursuit of our dreams. So, I think the film should be something than any of us could present (say at a conference) that demonstrates relevance and influence in our respective communities. Now, that won't do as a goal in art, but we should keep that in back of our minds.
And it brings up what is an important project theme for me- alternative currency. I'm organizing this trip in a way that reflects my sense that the monetary economy is breaking down, and is hardly adequate anymore for average people trying to meet complex human needs. I think we're going to have to operate largely outside of the monetary economy to succeed. And I think the alternative is relying more on the magic of relationships. I decided I couldn't organize this project as a class, exchanging a service for a fee, because that feels like pretending we're all comfortable middle-class equals. But that's just less and less true all the time. I don't want to perpetuate paradigms of exchange that squeeze the vanishing middle-class. I want to create paradigms of exchange that promote free movement and resource sharing within this stratified society. I want to show the world how art and relationships command value necessary to bring about desperately needed cultural shifts. Our project is already an achievement in this regard.
Related to this is my philosophy that affluence brings us full circle. Contemporary culture is weakened by its affluence, to the point of collapse. The families and communities who survive will be those seeking an original affluence, a tribal affluence, relearning barbarian strength and cleverness. The future will belong to those who can work together to defend vast pristine territories, rich in wildness, rich in animal wealth, rich in elemental challenges honing the body and mind. I want to introduce the rigors of wild nomadism to the leaders of the future, and rise with them.
The botanical element of this project also brings us to nomadism. This project must integrate nomadism, because our relationship with the plants asks for mobility. The plants have a lesson for us, about who we are, and the direction we've taken as a culture. They emphasize the difference between intensive and extensive resources. That's a huge takeaway I'd like to emphasize. Contemporary culture is psychologically maldeveloped because it doesn't know how to relate to extensive opportunities. Our agriculture is on a sick runaway intensive trend- it's utter control freakery. To use extensive resources you have to lean to relinquish control, and be discerning and flexible. And we're damn lucky to to have the indigenous example in this, considering that we're products of a culture continually bent on murdering theirs.
And that's a an issue too, one that I don't pretend to provide a clear resolution to- how can a bunch of white people appropriately employ indigenous ecological knowledge? I think this needs to be an ongoing discussion in the group. How does this project relate respectfully to native people? If you had my sense of how sensitive these particular ethnobotanical relationships are, and my sense is limited, you'd count yourself guilty until proven innocent. And I will not be offering the group any moral rationalization for our involvement with these culturally sensitive things. And I'm not going to use my privilege to summon some sympathetic native "authority" to sanction our actions and relieve our consciences. I hope the ethical dilemma eats at all of us personally, and that that we each find our own way to get right with it. I think we each owe the systemic damage our personal healing abilities.
Another theme of this project transcends culture. I'm not going to make "Grandmothering and the Evolution of Homo erectus" required reading, but I'll be making sure that everyone is familiar with the thesis- that the "underground energy storage organs" of plants contributed to making us human. And they made us human by providing a means of intergenerational support. They made us a grandmothering and grandparenting species. And I feel every human should experience this relationship to which we owe so much.
Matriarchy is another theme running through this project. These roots were traditionally harvested by women, women who brought home more than half of a family's calories, women who controlled the provisions of the household, and exerted a corresponding political influence. This sexual equality, lacking in our culture's history, is thought to be the prehistoric forager norm. And so female authority is also something the plants help us remember, perhaps independent of culture. I have a personal interest in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Goddess cultures of my ancestral Europe; and I hope the native plants can teach me how to revive the Goddess spirit in my own spheres.
Another theme: the native plants can teach us things about creating a well-adapted bioregional horticulture, which is something I've devoted much of my life to (the Human Habitat Project).
Another theme: our culture doesn't know how to relate to arid steppe. We irrigate everything, trying to re-create Northwestern Europe- not appropriate. Not fish friendly. We need to learn to be better stewards of our arid lands. We need more familiarity with their species. They are disproportionately imperiled.
Another theme: we need a proud and bioregionally distinct culture, on every level. History is a resource.
This email doesn't address all of your points, but I think it is enough to digest for the moment, and something to go on. I'm glad for the opportunity to articulate these things in writing. Lets keep talking."
Old World botany can be intimidating for a North American. This is one reason why some nurseries forgo Latin.
Accepted scientific name:
Prunus cerasifera Ehrh. (accepted name)
Cerasus myrobalanos hort. (synonym)
Prunus caspica Kovalev & Ekimov (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. caspica N.N. Luneva (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. divaricata (Ledeb.) Schneid. (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. georgica G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. iranica (Luneva & Erem.) G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. iranica N.N. Luneva & Erem. (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. macrocarpa G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. macrocarpa G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. myrobalana (L.) C. K. Schneid. (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. nachichevanica Koval. (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. nairica G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. orientalis M. Pop. (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. ovali-putaminata N.N. Bregadze (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. pissardii (Carr.) J. Dostál (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. pissardii (Carriere) L. H. Bailey (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. sogdiana (Vassilcz.) Eremin (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. taurica G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. turcomanica N.N. Luneva (synonym)
Prunus divaricata Ledeb. (synonym)
Prunus divaricata subsp. boreali-caucasica Kov. & V. Ekim. (synonym)
Prunus divaricata subsp. caspica (Kovalev & Ekimov) Browicz (synonym)
Prunus divaricata subsp. nairica Kov. (synonym)
Prunus divaricata subsp. pontica Koval. & Ekim. (synonym)
Prunus domestica subsp. cerasifera (Ehrh.) Arcang. (synonym)
Prunus domestica var. myrobalana Ser. (synonym)
Prunus domestica var. myrobalanus L. (synonym) 1
Prunus mirabilis Summ. (synonym)
Prunus monticola K. Koch (synonym)
Prunus myrobalana (L.) Desf. (synonym)
Prunus nachichevanica (Koval.) Kudr. (synonym)
Prunus orientalis (M. Pop.) Kudr. ex Vassilcz. (synonym)
Prunus pissardii Carr. (synonym)
Prunus sogdiana Vassilcz. (synonym)
Prunus sogdiana var. mirabilis (Sumn.) Bondar. ex O.N. Korovina (synonym)
I’ve had the privilege now of co-teaching a couple of multi-week foraging intensives, with author Tom Elpel. There’s a lot I like about the model we’ve adapted. I love the collaboration and immersion element of what we’ve done. The experiences we’ve offered have been uniquely relevant. The learning has been prodigious.
It’s also become clearer to me that the conventional pedagogical model doesn’t work for me. Formal student/teacher roles chafe my personal learning style. The knowledge and perspectives I most value did not come to me in the passive student role. And the authoritative teacher role seems seems inadequate to communicating my passion.
These experiences I’ve helped create are visionary- they are lifestyle artistry, and it’s time I represented them as such. Future experiential offerings will not involve students or teachers. Rather, I’ll be advancing a model connecting lifestyle pioneers with sponsor/participants. The goal will be to advance the culture of foraging, learning at the cutting-edge, through inspired relationships.
As our planet faces ecological cataclysm, I’m not content merely transcribing old information onto the contemporary mind. Expression of our boldest dreams has never been more important. My vision is to radically transform humanity’s relationship with biodiversity. The Edible Arboretum, as paleontologically inspired primate habitat, is a physical manifestation of my vision that must be supported by the learning experiences I offer. Each foraging mission must also be a seed collection mission, a nutrient cycling mission, and a stewardship mission. I’d like to see the Edible Arboretum seeded across the bioregion, but my prototype at the Kettle Falls property is ground zero. In the field of agroforestry, no other project aspires to such mythic and evolutionary depth. I’ll be adapting future learning experiences to support, sponsor, and protect the Edible Arboretum. The property is also a prime gathering place which could use some caretaking residents and infrastructure improvements.
It’s also inseparably important to me to advance megafauna restoration and “Pleistocene rewilding”. I’m in research stage of a project using grazing allotments on public land for experimenting with proxies for extinct/extirpated megafauna, including bison, camels, llamas, and horses. A pastoral element within such a project could support a small community. In the meantime, I’ll be fencing my land and aiming to acquire a breeding pair of bactrian camels. I’d like to use camels as pack animals for supporting foraging expeditions.
How can you be a sponsor/participant in these visions? You need not necessarily be a benefactor of financial means. Being a sponsor/participant could be as basic as shuttling a group to a foraging mission in your vehicle. It could mean playing a role in an expedition (cook, packer, guide, creative contributor, ext.) It could mean providing or loaning equipment to help projects sustain themselves. It could mean contributing time and energy as a seasonal intern. It could mean helping develop niche business opportunities like seed sales, value-added animal products, ext.
Future experiential offerings will not be limited by tuition funding. Rather:
-I’ll plan the most excellent adventure possible
-Itemize everything that adventure needs to fly
-Define how the adventure can be sustainable for all involved
-Solicit support and participation accordingly
-I’ll aim to incorporate the finest collaborators, the primest locations, the greatest learning opportunities, the most appropriate equipment, and high aesthetic standards.
In 2016 and 2017, I’ll be pursuing experiences based on the following themes:
-LATE WINTER Habitat stewardship. Edible Arboretum sponsorship. Planting, silvicultural thinning, prescribed burns, hide tanning, megafauna projects.
-SPRING Exploring the wild root vegetables of the shrub-steppe, the role of plant’s underground storage organs in human evolution, the future of frost-dependant plant communities, and the possibilities of native forbs in horticulture. Comparing the productivity of prime wild root patches to horticulture.
-SUMMER Exploring the biodiversity of feral fruit trees in Hell’s Canyon and beyond. I would like to get some horticulture authorities and possibly geneticists on board with this. There is opportunity for a canoe-based expedition. Collecting hardy and distinct seed for the Edible Arboretum. Minimalist food preservation. Defining ecological amplitudes of feral fruits.
-Tour of food forest pioneers. Visit Feral Farm in Rockport, Mt. Vernon Research Station, The Hell’s Canyon Plant Prodigy.
-FALL Wild walnut exploration. Wild rice harvest in Idaho. Bear processing. Hide tanning. Flint knapping.
If any of this interests you please email me- email@example.com
I am seeking additional folks to “co-instruct” with, and someone who can help me set up a seed sales co-op online.
I’m already grateful for the tremendous support I receive from my community. I think transitioning from pedagogue to experiential art director will be still more rewarding for everyone.
-Franz Vera works with a horse/cattle rewilding system on fertile marshland in the Netherlands. He asserts that his system is stable without predator regulation, that it is "bottom-up" regulated by plant productivity, and that plant diversity is protected by the succession of thorny shrubs. He even claims that there is no carrying capacity. Are there herbivores or natural systems in nature which are likewise 'forage limited' versus 'predator limited'? Is it on a spectrum?
-What is the recommended irrigation amount for arid pasture? What amount of moisture creates the most fertile "no carrying capacity" pasture? What nutrient budget?
-How is the recommended commercial stocking rate of optimal pasture different from what Franz Vera gets with natural mortality?
-Are there categories of plants which would suffer under Vera's unregulated grazing and shifting thorn mosaic system? Or would there still be a niche for all of them?
-Yellowstone is elk do have a carrying capacity, and require predator regulation, right? What about Yellowstone bison? What if Yellowstone bison had access to significant bottomland pasture?
-Are buffalo in Africa possibly limited by forage, and not by lions (the largest predator)?
-Obviously, elephants, and perhaps giraffes and camels, are less limited by non-human predators. But these species have low fecundity. Do these species merit their own 'fecundity limited' group?
-Cattle may be the largest herbivore species with a high fecundity. Perhaps this is why they are such popular meat livestock.
-Perhaps herbivores fall into four groups: mobility limited (goats, sheep, cliff habitat), predator limited (elk, pronghorn), forage limited (cattle? buffalo?), and fecundity limited (elephants, camels). This would have implications for rewilding and grazing.
-For instance, forage limited herbivores would want to dominate the most productive sites, regardless of predators. Predator limited herbivores would want to be more mobile across more marginal sites. Perhaps marginal lands have a long relationship with predator influenced species, whereas productive lands have had herbivore distributions and densities less influenced by predators.
-Particularly in the arid west, it is clear that herbivores have a choice between intensive use of fertile bottomland and extensive use of less productive rangeland. How were these resources partitioned by megafauna?
-Where would cattle go if there were no fences? Would they concentrate in the bottomlands as do buffalo? Would they migrate over grasslands like bison? Is ecologically less than optimum to stock rangeland with livestock adapted to bottomlands?
-How does topography influence wild ungulate distribution? Are there species that avoid slopes? Is Africa a good analogy to the North American megafauna when so much of Africa is relatively flat? There must be ridge seeking and ridge avoiding herbivores- how do thier movements differ?
-Can regional plant communities be predicted by topography and aspect? I think so.
-If Alan Savory seeks to optimize grass production by harmonizing their ecology, would the methods be different in the mountainous Western US, where topography influenced migrations were presumably the norm? How are intermountain grasses ecologically different from plains grasses? What does Savory have to say about the influence of annual precipitation timing (winter vs. summer)?
-What were the bottomland grasses in the Intermountain West before canary reed grass and common reed? Could they support a forage-limited fauna?
-When are predators influencing herbivore distribution and movement, and when are they influencing population?
-Buffalo may herd for mutual defense, zebra may herd to decrease individual risk?
-What kind of herding is Joel Sahlitin productively mimicking when he does daily cattle rotations on fertile humid pasture? Could the herding of forage-limited animals look anything like this?
-Did aurochs migrate? Did woodland bison migrate?
-Do humidity and migration of large herbivores correlate?
-Can faunas be snow limited? Topography limited? Plant dormancy limited (summer and winter)?
-How much can herbivore biomass fluctuate annually due to winter mortality?
-Can snow depth predict the distribution of of browse-sensitive plants such as willows and poplars in bottomlands? Can snow depth also predict the distribution of thorny plants like hawthorn and buffaloberry?
-Does snow depth explain the pattern of more palatable and less animal-dependent vegetation toward the poles?
-What woody riparian plants replace palatable poplars to the south of deep snows? Sycamores? Is coyote willow palatable? Would ginkos function?
-Is there a good pollen record for prehistoric trends in poplar cover?
-What are the productivity-optimizing grazing regimes of the distinct types of intermountain grazing zones? Bottomland, winter range, summer range, mountain pastures. How much are these are these respective communities capable of the productive change described by Savory?
-Where is the productivity of the plant community limited by factors other than fertility? At what slope does erosion undermine the fertility gains of grazing?
-If we let ecological communities, including all plants and birds like sharp-tailed grouse, determine the timing of and intensity of grazing, what would they dictate? Would there be more conflict or more general consensus?
-How would we get the best quality standing "hay" on winter ranges in the mountain West? Would it be first or second cutting?
-Do Savory's techniques assume year-round potential grazing? Might this be appropriate to Africa or Texas but not the Intermountain West? Would periods of non-use optimize productivity? How much did snow limit foraging by the full suite of megafauna?
-Is there a pattern of difference between steppe herbivores like pronghorn and grassland herbivores like bison?
-The Ecological History of North America describes a theory of how humans transformed bison morphology and behavior. Did humans change bison from a forage limited species to a predator limited species? Did we expel them from bottomland sedentism and make them smaller flightier herd animals?
-Why did some Ice Age herbivores "shrink" in the Holocene, and why did some remain the same size? Did we create predator limited-species out of previously forage-limited species? Size is an asset in non-human predator deterrence, but a liability when humans are the dominant predator.
-If there forage/predator limited herbivores are defensible categories. We could expect that predator limited species would move constantly for high quality forage, as fuel for flight. Whereas herbivores limited by other factors could handle coarser forage and longer gut residency times (horses versus cattle).
-What explains the superior forage use of goats and sheep? Do they have a longer gut residency than leggier ungulates? Is this because their ancestors were limited by cliffy territory more than predators? Does a cliff-protected ungulate have more time and evolutionary flexibility to digest food? A big male bighorn almost rammed my brother off a cliff. The bighorn was obviously more concerned with fight than flight.
-The dominant predators would have had control over the most productive pastures, where prey density was highest and 'windfalls' were more frequent. Predators in the most productive areas would be characterized by size and opportunistic carcass claiming (lions, grizzlies). Predators in less productive areas would be characterized by smaller size and greater commitment to pursuit of prey (cheetahs, wolves). Can we expect that herbivores in marginal rangelands were more influenced in their movements by predators?
-How does cover/visibility determine herbivore distribution?
-What prey density is required by a pride of lions? By a pack of wolves?
-Can we expect that predator limited herbivores form larger herds than forage limited herbivores?
-If we overlaid a map of the Northwest with strips of land running perpendicular to contour (from peak to river), where would the strips contain the fewest property boundaries?
-What ecological processes cause mosiacs? Which cause shifting mosaics? Which cement mosaics? Did the intermountain West have shifting or stable mosaics?
There are some well intentioned ideas about planting native foods going around, but I want to be clear about something.
I DO NOT recommend planting biscuitroot, or any of the native perennial root vegetables, for food.
I'll tell you why.
In extreme cases of land degredation, it may be appropriate to plant these things, for restoration purposes. But for the most part, these plants have very specialized habitats, and are already growing where they should grow. These plants don't have a seed distribution problem, they have a land use problem. Appropriate stewardship of perennial native root vegetables would involve changing grazing/haying practices, reversing development, and/or mitigating climate change. Most of these plants are as palatable to cattle as they are to people, are are among the first to suffer under poor grazing management.
Biscuitroot is a great food for foragers because it grows extensively and offers an excellent return on calories when harvested from the wild. This does not mean that biscuitroot makes sense as a garden plant. Biscuitroots are perennial. They may take decades to reach a harvestable size. If you've invested any energy in cultivating biscuitroot, you've undone it's chief value. Edible biscuitroots generally grow in extremely stressed soils on arid ridgetops, which alternately frost heave and bake dry. Planted in normal garden soil, biscuitroot would be out-competed by almost any other plant. So you would have to weed them for twenty years to get a yield. Biscuitroot is an appropriate food in the context of extensive hunting and gathering- not intensive horticulture. If you have a small plot, you might plant a few for novelty. If you have a large plot, you should be asking if you actually have biscuitroot habitat, what your native species are, and if your native species are somehow suppressed. If you don't have frost-heaving basalt lithosols, you're just not in the habitat of the best biscuitroots. Most biscuitroot habitat is marginal public rangeland, and could never be developed for agriculture.
Camas was more intensively used. But camas was only a sensible food in prime habitats where it grew densely over many acres. There are only so many of these prime locations, and their historic locations are well known. Many of these locations have been drained for hay, wheat, or urban development. If you love camas, restoring these historic sites would be appropriate stewardship. Otherwise, the sparse camas of other sites is a novel occasional snack. I suppose one could invest enormous energy into creating a large artificial camas swale, but you'd get a better energy return on other crops. Again, these foods cease to make sense outside of a forager context. Some indigenous people have been offended by the attempted domestication of these plants.
I've said that seeding perennial native root vegetables may make sense in restoration projects. But another caveat is that the restoration projects we most need are focused on threatened species and global carbon. If you've got resources for restoration, please do what you can for native grasslands and creatures like sage grouse. Biscuit scab-lands are not conservation priorities.
Appropriate plants for intensive horticulture include biennial root vegetables (like yampah and thistles), and perennials with an annual yield (like golden currants and hazelnuts).
I advocate both responsible foraging and appropriate horticulture. But it is important to understand the difference. Intensive practices like sowing and weeding are not appropriate to foraging. Practices like extensive burning, and branch-breaking incidental to harvest, may be appropriate to foraging.
A last word on biscuitroots, to those who care about them, is that they rely on frost-heaving, and that warming temperatures may mean losing biscuitroots. The most important species grow on basalt soils, which are attitudinally and geographically limited. The present rate of climate change may end some biscuitroot species. If nothing changes, foragers should be looking to California to see how root-foraging looks in a place without severe cold. Foragers further south used more grass-competitive species, like hyacinths, segos, and soaproot. Southern foragers relied less on roots overall, and more on mast from trees like oaks
"Hi Kyle! Hope you are well. I noticed that you had attended the Saskatoon Circle gathering and wanted to reach out about the show 'Alone' on the History Channel. I'm not sure if you have seen or heard of it, but I was curious if you'd be interested in doing the challenge. We are definitely looking for some amazing people for our next season. Let me know if you'd like to chat!"
-a message from a new Facebook 'friend', who turned out to be a reality television recruiter, sent just hours after I published this essay
Among my life's great ironies are the recent inquiries from television producers,
who've sought me as reality television character.
This is not an unusual experience for those of us identifying with the
"primitive skills" community, or whatever you want to call it. Some
friends of mine get barraged. Our connections are mapped and mined. We
are under strategic siege.
My first encounter with the television industry excited me. I helped a
producer get some footage of deer-butchering, in a cave.
(It was kind of ridiculous. It was a pain in the ass to carry an
un-quartered animal cross-country to a cave. And the dusty fecal cave
floor was a terrible place to butcher. I also borrowed my friend
Katie's loin-cloth, which was not designed for male loins, and my
loins were inadequately girdled. Despite working with deer hair a lot,
I have an embarrassing allergy to it. When I carried the deer into the
cave, for the camera, my pale chest and shoulders broke out in a
The experience left me wondering if television could help me be
influential. Of course, most television influence is pretty useless.
Even the most popular movie stars are politically stifled. But I can
think of a few notables, like Carl Sagan, who used television to
bolster their overall career.
Television perpetuates a dynamic which anyone doing anything "old
fashioned" already deals with. To cope with antagonistic outside
pressures, we become celebrities to survive. Subsistence living will
get you locked up. I've faced criminal charges just for eating
roadkill. Yet authorities gave my producer friend a free pass, to use
a roadkill deer for her scene, just for mentioning the Discovery
Channel. I don't forget that I live underfoot of the same culture that
had to slaughter the indigenous to exist. Anyone who leads a
quasi-natural existence is under pressured to amuse the dominant
culture, or face annihilation. Sitting Bull's last refuge was Buffalo
Bill's Wild West Show. Even animals have to play celebrity to survive.
If wolves weren't television stars, they would only be a liability to
your Big Mac.
I have purist hermit friends who would never capitulate to television,
but it doesn't change the fact that they have to cater to other
people's notions to maintain their niche. If you don't prove you're
some nostalgic American ideal, you're a frightening pariah. You can't
just be primitive- you have to sell your primitivity. An ironically
evangelical primitivist is what the culture really loves. I'm
convinced that we citizens of the American West are all living within
the boundaries of a National Spectacle Park, convincing ourselves how
free and natural we are.
I've become sensitive to the toxicity of individualism.
In a Skype interview with a casting director, I was asked, "What
advice would you give to someone who wants to be completely
self-sufficient?" My response- "That person suffers from psychosis and
should seek counseling."
My private home, my property, is a tipi in the woods. TV people love
that. They want to hear all about how difficult and dangerous it is.
You know what? I fucking hate living alone, in a tipi, in the woods.
Living in a tipi isn't necessarily more exhilarating or challenging than
living anywhere else. It can be downright boring.
You know how I ended up living alone in a tipi in the woods? I'm there
largely because I felt deeply wounded by my childhood and my failed
marriage. I've been depressed for most of my life, without anything to
contrast it with. I've been caught in a vicious cycle of floundering
social confidence. Living in the woods is really convenient when you're
socially anxious, and prone to ugly bouts of depression.
You know where I prefer to spend my time? My refuge is a boring house
in the suburbs where my girlfriend and her daughter live. Because when
I stay there, I feel like part of a family, and part of humanity. We
play board games and do the dishes. It's beautiful.
Do you think anyone will make a television show about a dejected
outsider finding emotional healing? Do you think they'll make a show
about the honest trajectory of the loner impulse? I doubt it. A novel,
Rugged individualism is not the antidote to civilization's
discontents, but an equally toxic mirror-image. Pioneering
individualism is the origin-myth of industrial consumerism. Americans
descend from paranoid pioneers bent on an anti-social utopia. Stories
of mountain men and isolated families against the wilderness are
essential to the justification of the antisocial way we live today.
Television is ravenous for that narrative. The mob doesn't want a way
out. The mob wants to feel feel justified in its desperation.
I didn't learn to be an iconoclastic loner from nature. I learned to
be alone from consumer culture. I learned to be alone from public
schools, movies, corporate employers, divorced parents, and the
internet. It's hard to sell widgets to people who rely on
relationships. But when people are individualized, they need every
kind of gadget and gizmo imaginable to live. My solitary squatting in
the dirt is a much a response to the ills of modernity as pornography
Contempt for society doesn't defy the dominant culture. Contempt for
society fuels the dominant culture. When you flip the bird to your
fellow humans, TV cameras come running.
Trying to escape society, I'm left with celebrity shtick as my only
leverage, and I have been worn down to the point I'm not hesitant to
use it. Maintaining a small personality cult is how I've come to make
my way in the world. Self-aggrandizing has helped me pay the bills and
meet women. I've used and abused public perception.
My relatives are always telling me I should write a book about my
eccentric outdoor adventures. But if I'm qualified to write about
anything, it's profound immersion in the loneliness of modernity. If
I'm qualified to write about anything, it's spectacular depression,
sexual frustration, and loss of religion.
I think most of my relatives would prefer television. In fact, I think
some of my superficially interested relatives would rather close their
eyes and scream than read the exorcism of a contemporary identity.
If you see me on television, I am only a reflection of the audience,
working a mundane job to make the most of an isolated existence.
As for me now, I am broke and despondent. My New Year's resolution is
mental health. I'm going to do whatever I can to make my life stable
enough for regular positive human interaction. I'm going to get a
regular job and build something like a regular house.
While the collapsing climate imperils human survival, I will be
cultivating tidy domestic habits. I'll be marking the calender and
There is the possibility, that much of what we are is irrelevant to evolution. More than efficient survival machines, our minds are also expressions of chaos, adrift. Perhaps the moods and proclivities we inherit are thinned only by the odd ice-age, volcanic eruption, or genocide. Perhaps we carry emotional mutations, as yet untested by a brush with death. We may harbor senses and capabilities which will again never serve the survival of our species. We may express utterly random inherent tendencies which only obscure adaptive habits. And yet, some innate inkling which persists uselessly now, could save humanity from future extinction. Our path has always been so unpredictable. Our minds are not prepared for the present, much less the future. Our feelings may find no natural purpose or resolution.
To the extent that our sophisticated brains ensure survival, they accommodate superfluous nonsense, irrelevant to survival. We are over-adapted, wielding mental capacities seldom necessary for our continuity. Our lives are punctuated all too infrequently by any natural imperative; the intervening space is as potent as it is vain. The fate of intelligent animals is to pass the time, with dangerously frivolous games. Our hard-won consciousness is left with nothing to do but entertain itself.
Perhaps, as long as vague instincts spur on the occasional reproduction, human experience is free explore, whimsically, furiously. We may be decadent apes, wandering freely in a forest of feeling. A wide realm there must be to wander. Modern minds must know just a narrow slice of what is possible, our lineage having dwindled, in times past, to just a handful of closely related individuals. Life's diverse and endlessly shifting physical forms hint at wild possibilities for thinking, feeling, and experience.
The looming possibility of humanity's extinction, at it's own hands, should make the absurd freedom of the mind all the more apparent. What excuse is there for the mundane? What excuse is there, for anything less than the explosive flourishing of life, into the unknown?
Tom Elpel and I are at it again! In 2016, our Botany and Foraging Intensive will begin March 20th, and I can't think of a better way to revel in the Spring green-up. The learning will be prodigious. Tom Elpel is the author of the acclaimed reference 'Botany in a Day', and 'Foraging the Mountain West'. Reserve a spot soon to join us! CLICK HERE