September 19, 2016

In 1988, the author Kurt Vonnegut finished a letter to the “Ladies and Gentleman of 2088” with the following lines:

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The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms:

  1. Reduce and stabilize your population.
  2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
  3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
  4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
  5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
  6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
  7. And so on. Or else.

Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now? Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians. For all I know, even bag ladies and bag gentlemen will have their own personal helicopters or rocket belts in A.D. 2088. Nobody will have to leave home to go to work or school, or even stop watching television. Everybody will sit around all day punching the keys of computer terminals connected to everything there is, and sip orange drink through straws like the astronauts.


Kurt Vonnegut[1]

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Surrender to nature?

What does that mean?

Seems like a pretty un-American idea.

It seems like a pretty strange idea to anyone marinated, aware of it or not, in the Judeo-Christian ideas of linear time and implied progress and the human domination of nature that suffuse society, science, and the culture at large today.

As a preliminary to the ethnographic study which will be the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation, I spent most of June and July in Oregon and Colorado, with people who take these stern surrender terms very seriously. Indeed, they are taking the fast track on this surrender. They are of the opinion that the only sane and sustainable way of life for humans, ultimately, looks more like the majority of our species’ time on the planet than it looks anything like the present, and certainly any exaggeration of it.

These people are rewilders. Rewilders want to undo domestication or civilization. More concretely, they see states, social hierarchy, and complex divisions of labor, sedentism, cities, agriculture, and technologies as the roots of our global woes, and that the kind of life led by humans in the Late Paleolithic was about as good as it gets, on balance. What the doctor ordered is not just the paleo-diet, but paleo-life. While permaculture (small-scale agriculture) might be a bridge to this future, most are skeptical of the restrictions that sedentary life and farming would impose and view nomadic gathering and hunting as the ideal.

Practically speaking, rewilders are learning about how it was to live “before history” and practicing what they can of the skills, some ancient and some more recent, that get them outside of the global market economy and technosphere and into the wild. Some live most of their lives out-of-doors, either as nomads or in small, self-made shelters on small, secluded communes. Others, for one reason or another, have to keep one foot in the door of the civilized world and work as camp counselors, archaeologists, therapists, or babysitters, but spend more time picking wild edible plants than they do in grocery stores. Some hold the view that the industrial-digital economy will collapse due to social, political, or ecological reasons, perhaps soon, and that they will be best prepared for the post-apocalypse. However, more are concerned to create cultures and communities outside of and at the margins of civilization, no matter the day or the hour of Babylon’s fall, as a matter of moral necessity and as a means to start a generations-long transition toward the ways of life modeled on the deep past of the human species.

They are used to arguments against their ideal. Sure, there’s no plastic, chemotherapy, or grocery stores with ice cream in this feral utopia, but humans got along without all of that until very, very recently. The wants and needs, real and apparent, fulfilled by industrial production were often caused by it, too. Sure, a world without mass agriculture couldn’t support the global population, so we should work to reduce it over time. Yes, it would imply the loss of much that we moderns in the developed world have come to accept as normal, including a standard of life defined by material goods and the valuation of human over all other kinds of life. But, if anthropology teaches anything, it’s that what we think is normal is often utterly bizarre. The most important consideration for many in this trade-off of all trade-offs is that a return to prehistory doesn’t pose the threat of exacerbating anthropogenic climate catastrophe and mass extinction, nor does it encourage global overpopulation, and it couldn’t snuff out the only known cosmic experiment with life, like the present program of unrestrained progress does. As the Doomsday Clock runs ever closer to midnight, rewilders would like to rewind, or spring forward, to daylight.[2]

There isn’t much that separates these folks from some others similarly inclined to live “off the grid” or get “back to nature,” except a particular vision about the future and awareness of certain literature, ideas, and practices. Judging by the cyber-dust kicked up by this topic on the internet, by the sale and distribution of books on the topic, and by attendance at “primitive,” “ancestral,” or “traditional” skills gatherings and at various weeks-long “stone age immersion” courses, there are many tens of thousands of rewilding dilettantes. A few thousand committed rewilders are spread throughout the US, and a significant fraction also live in the rural margins of Europe. Some spend only short seasons of their lives, usually between the ages of about 18 and 30, in this world, while others have spent decades outside of the mainstream.

I got interested in this whole orbit because progress, so-called, has eaten up the lifeways that were common to the human species for a very long time. From reading some history, I realized that we tend not to talk about the violence that is a part of forcing that progress on people who didn’t want anything to do with it,[3] and about the damage it entails. Studying paleoanthropology at Penn as an undergraduate and beginning graduate student, I got a sense that the way we live, from the perspective of natural history, is unspeakably strange. Or, perhaps, it was just that my chronic unease was validated. A big part of what draws rewilders into their way of life is not just that feeling, but the notion that the state and its agricultural base must be transient phenomena if the species is going to continue. For this reason, these people have decided to turn away from progress and attempt a conscious re-imagining of the future inspired by the past rather than the Jetsons.

By and large, the rewilders I met are aware that there is no possible return to the Paleolithic—not, at least, while the rest of us hum along in the industrial-digital economy and the human population continues to surge, and not, at least, for however long as the detritus of this world’s artifacts and edifices remains. “I don’t do this just for myself, I do this to show that this is possible,” one rewilder told me. Another told me that the important thing was to practice and preserve traditional ecological knowledge: “It’s about wild food! This is a gastric religion!”

Roots of the yampa, or wild carrot of the genus Perideridia, an important wild food staple. Photo by Paul Mitchell.
Roots of the yampa, or wild carrot of the genus Perideridia, an important wild food staple. Photo by Paul Mitchell.
Finisia Medrano has been living in the high deserts of the Great Basin for years, many of those in horse-drawn wagon, practicing traditional methods of wild-tending learned from the Shoshone to cultivate and plant back indigenous food plants. She and her hundreds of students, whom she has accepted into her camp and under her tutelage as long as they “come bearing gifts” and “are teachable,” are a significant part of the very small number who still have this knowledge and practice these millennia-old traditions. For Finisia, rewilding is first about planting back, preserving and practicing knowledge, and making possible a life beyond “civ.” Mostly, she is focused on increasing the abundance of wild foods on public lands, where they are mostly likely to flourish, free from threat of cattle grazing and development. While I was with her in late July in eastern Oregon, it was the time of year to collect seeds from yampa, wild carrots, and huckleberries. Throughout the year, she and other wild-tending rewilders collect and replant all sorts of native roots, fruits, nuts, and greens. In the winter, they tan buckskin. She has no compunctions about eating at Burger King, if the chance arises, or using her cell phone to check her Facebook. “It’s about impact! The Earth only cares about impact.” She will use whatever she can to further her cause of increasing the abundance of and knowledge about wild foods and ways of life that existed on this continent before “you ecocidal, genocidal” colonists came to wipe them out. “This isn’t about drag, you know, going around dressed up like an Indian. Either you are planting back or you are another part of the Swallowing Monster.”

Peter Michael Bauer tries a different tack: he runs the non-profit Rewild Portland in Portland, Oregon, whose mission is “to create cultural and environmental resilience through the education of earth-based arts, traditions, and technologies.” Through programs like the “Echoes in Time” ancestral skills gathering, the general public can practice basket-weaving, bow-making, hide-tanning, or knap stone tools. “All roads lead to rewilding,” Bauer says. “These skills are a gateway.” That gateway leads to an understanding of the Paleolithic not as “nasty, brutish and short,” the Hobbesian view,[4] but more like the original affluent society that Marshall Sahlins painted it to be.[5]

Participants at the Echoes in Time gathering meet to discuss the ancestral skills workshops of the day, including wet-felting, herbal medicine, friction fires, finger weaving, and leatherworking. Photo by Paul Mitchell.
Participants at the Echoes in Time gathering meet to discuss the ancestral skills workshops of the day, including wet-felting, herbal medicine, friction fires, finger weaving, and leatherworking. Photo by Paul Mitchell.

Others, like John Zerzan, feel that the best strategy is to show the fall from grace that was the historical turn away from gathering-and-hunting life. After leaving a Ph.D. in history, Zerzan spent much of the 1970s and 1980s developing a critique of civilization and technology which heavily draws on anthropology and archaeology to substantiate “anarcho-primitivism.” His writings remain indispensable for understanding the philosophical underpinnings of this movement. Zerzan, in practical terms, is not a rewilder; he lives in Eugene, Oregon, runs a weekly radio show, and continues to write books and contribute to magazines and journals. I met him at a bakery-cafe in Eugene; neither of us ordered anything. Around us, people were eating cake and occasionally cast a sideways glance when we discussed anarchy or alienation or the collapse of industrial civilization. He said, with a smile, that he was “still trying to figure out what happened in the sixties” and how a mass popular uprising could again threaten to unsettle entrenched ideas about how society is supposed to function. “We are due for something soon.”

Finisia Medrano. Photo by Paul Mitchell.
Finisia Medrano. Photo by Paul Mitchell.

Not everyone who rewilds, maybe not even most, expects that they will have any success in “changing the culture,” or even in creating sustainable alternatives outside or alongside agricultural civilization. Throughout my discussions with dozens of rewilders this summer, I heard reference again and again to an obscure Kafka quote which has become popular, apparently, in radical eco-activist and rewilding circles: “There is hope, but none for us.” After explaining her belief that the perils of climate change and long-term nuclear waste containment mean that most life on earth, including our species, is likely doomed, Finisia says, eating a huckleberry from our session picking together earlier that day: “I’m doing this so that I can live with my own conscience.”

I looked out at a field dense with wild carrots growing through lava rock. Shaken more than I cared to admit at the time, the lines from T.S. Eliot ran through my head:

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images…”[6]

[1] http://www.lettersofnote.com/2014/02/ladies-gentlemen-of-ad-2088.html

[2] http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/0127/Why-the-Doomsday-Clock-says-we-re-still-3-minutes-from-midnight

[3] Wub-e-ke-niew. 1995. We Have the Right to Exist. A Translation of Aboriginal Indigenous Thought, The First Book Ever Published from an Ahnishinahbæótjibway Perspective. New York City: Black Thistle Press.

[4] http://www.bartleby.com/34/5/13.html

[5] http://home.iitk.ac.in/~amman/soc474/Resources/sahlins_original_affluent.html

[6] Eliot, T.S. 1922. The Wasteland. New York: Horace Liveright.