Habitat, a healthy place in nature, is the birthright of most creatures. Yet this is something we humans seem to have lost. Finding that place, making it real, is a dearly held dream of mine. It's a work in progress.
I grew up in Eastern Washington, which was, to my young mind, a place of extreme contrast. Straight sharp lines separated the old from the new, faith from atheism, urban from rural, wilderness from civilization. It is a place where roaring highways wind through miles of uninhabited forest, where giant man made lakes dot the desert, a place where elk browse on urban landscaping, a place where you can spend life watching television commercials or reeling in trout.
My family moved a lot, and I learned early to enjoy my own company. Long solitary walks became my chief amusement, and I blame those walks for radicalizing me. I walked it all: logging roads, canal banks, sidewalks, orchard rows, highway shoulders, cow paths, hiking trails, bulldozer tracks, fence-lines, river banks, power-line routes, jeep trails, rail lines, potato furrows, empty lots, gravel roads, swamps, and right through the bushes.
I vividly recall an encounter I had with a cranky cow moose. On my way home from the woods, I found her plucking apples from the high branches of an apple tree. Not long after I dropped to my haunches to observe the creature, she got nervous and charged straight for me. I bolted for safety, and found it in the high fenced yard of a three story home. The moose then resumed eating, standing in a pile of lawn clippings, under buzzing power-lines, as light traffic buzzed in and out of the gated community behind her.
To be an aware citizen of such a world is to embody dichotomy. My world did not make sense. Like most teenagers, I suppose, I had a lot to be disillusioned with. On my walks I saw of two radically different worlds, and naturally I formed a preference. You can't love what you don't respect, and during my invincible years, only mother nature's tough rules and raw lessons could command my devotion. I came to identify more with coyotes and sagebrush than with my classmates. By middle school I was making every effort possible to drop out of civilization.
I studied survival skills fervently. I learned how to make fire by rubbing sticks together, how to tan animal skins, what wild plants I could eat, and how to sleep warm without a sleeping bag. I went out for days at a time, sometimes against my mother's wishes, living in whatever fragment of wild landscape I could find. I felt alive out there. Nature's language spoke to my whole being in ways that school and church couldn't match. And I was free, free from a family falling apart, free from a society where students shot each other, free from a default lifestyle that thoughtlessly destroyed the land.
When I was seventeen, I lived as a hunter-gather for a month in the foothills of the Eastern Cascades. The experience forever altered my perspective. I now understand why native people espouse humanity's childlike dependence on mother nature. Our survival is a delicate thing. When I returned to the noisy world of roads and buildings, my first impression was that none of it could possibly last.
However enlightening, foraging solo was a difficult life. I lost about 20 pounds. Mentally, I was shaken. I'd gone further than anybody I knew in isolating myself from human company.
It was only after this experience that I became involved in the primitivist or "rewilding" movement, a small subculture with literature and logic to back up a passion similar to my own. I siezed upon thier philosophies eagerly. They embraced ancient skills as valuable, as the common denominator of all people, as a pathway to remembering what it is to be human. The hunter/gather past was where people evolved, and where we belonged. We'd strayed from our roots, and gone mad in the process.
I'd come of age during a Renaissance in humanities understanding of the deep past, of prehistory. Perhaps for the first time, the general public has begun to understand human evolution, the migrations that peopled the globe, and the origins of civilization. Science has unearthed new view of the stone-age past, a view which is challenging conventional beliefs. Some authorities have concluded that our hunter/gather ancestors were significantly more fulfilled, intelligent, healthy, mentally stable, socially grounded, ethical, and environmentally benign than their civilized predecessors, and perhaps even their affluent modern counterparts. Popular authors have begun to criticize agriculture, the basis of our culture, as being fundamentally destructive to the environment and human health. Others have gone so far as to label our very culture as the most abusive machine the planet has ever seen. Ideas like these are the logical basis of the primitivist and rewilding movements. I devoured as much literature on the subject as I could get my hands on.
Armed with a newfound importance, I began to attend primitive rendezvous and teach stone-age survival skills. I befriended people with beautiful visions for the future. They believed in a future of tight-knit tribal groups, a future rich in healthy relationships between people and the natural world, a future of natural heath and wild vitality, a future free from oppressive aristocracies. These people emboldened me to live unconventionally, idealistically. I was plunging into the school of hard knocks.
I spent my first two years away from home exploring the backroads of the West, working for a few months here and there, playing wildman. I was more free than I'd ever been. Yet, eventualy, I began to feel dissatisfied with where life was going. As a teenager, I thought I'd spend my adulthood living primitively, completely divorced from civilized life. I'd gained a lot of expertise in the area, ecspecialy in ethnobotany. I had learned almost everything I could about living off the land. When I could pull it off, living in the wild, foraging my food, and working with natural materials felt more fulfilling than anything else I knew. But it was hard. The environment was damaged. The salmon runs and camas meadows were in decline. Hunting and fishing regulations were serious obstacles. I had no tribe and no cultural education. As a modern hunter gatherer I was only applying additional stress to declining ecosystems. Social punishments for bucking the norm stacked up. Company was often scarce. I was being pushed hard toward earning a wage, groceries, and torching fossil fuel; a default lifestyle. At age twenty I felt tired, hypocritical, and disillusioned.
It was around this time that I discovered an idea called Permaculture. Permaculture was about applying ecology to human endeavors, in other words, understanding nature's laws and heeding them. This didn't necessarily mean a return to the stone age. I underestimated the idea at first. It seemed tame. Permaculture enthusiasts had neat little gardens and wore straw hats. My current crowd wore buckskins and lived in earth lodges. I appreciated that the movement for striving after sustainability, but I didn't become fully interested until I learned about the the "food forest "concept. Food forests are the antithesis of agriculture, functioning much like native forests, yet designed to produce food. A forest of food can be a diverse polyculture, building soil, providing for it's own fertility, and benefiting wildlife. While the environment at large has less and less to give, the food forest concept offers the opportunity to remake healthy relationships with flora and fauna. Such forests could heal damaged landscapes and simultaneosly provide for the needs of people. Possessing extensive experience in ethnobotany, the idea tickled me. My dream was revived. Perhaps this was the way to be a modern hunter/gatherer.
I'm not the first person to make the connection between permaculture and rewilding. Both movements hold that natural systems are crucial to our survival and a sustainable future. Both movents see agriculture as the primary environmental problem. Both look to indigenous and traditional cultures as examples. Both seek self-sufficiency and independence from fossil fuels. Permaculture methods for managing food forests, for a broad spectrum of resources, are remarkably reminiscent of the way indigenous cultures managed their forests. Permaculture and primitivism alike draw from the philosophy of "deep ecology". The wild fringe of permaculture has even been called "feral permaculture". Both of these movements are manifestation of an increasing cultural awareness of how nature works and what is at stake. And especially where food and diet are concerned, both movements are becoming more mainstream. I consider myself part of this momentum.
For the past year, I have worked in the field of wilderness therapy. We take troubled teenagers, often from bad environments, and immerse them in wilderness setting, where they live in small nomadic groups and pass the time walking, crafting, and gleaning needed resources from the desert. In some ways, this experience is completely unnatural. Yet despite its shortcomings, the therapy brings kids closer to the human baseline than they would ever get otherwise. And it helps them, makes them strong, makes them sane.
I think of my efforts to restore human habitat as my own therapy, part of a broader cultural regrounding that is desperately needed.
This website is about getting back home. It's about finding a way back to the human niche, our habitat, a place where we belong. If you're like me, if you want to get back to a place where food falls from the trees, where you are immersed in a rich company of living things, where you can be part of a self-sufficient family, a place where you can be completely and apologetically human, this website is for you.
I'm currently living with on twenty acres outside of Kettle Falls, Washington. I am planting this property to food forest and meadow, and restoring human habitat here as best as I know how. I'm hopefull that these are the first steps in a lifelong pursuit. If you live in the region and are interested in fostering human habitat, please contact Kyle Chamberlain: practicalnaturalist (at) gmail.com