The story of Chris McCandless, a 24 year old American who traded in his materialistically comfortable life for one in the wild and who in 1992 two years into his voyage died in the Alaskan outback, has resurfaced recently due to the book ‘The Wild Truth’ published by his sister Candice McCandless in 2014. Over the years the explorer has been criticised for being unprepared for the merciless, unrelenting and specialised Alaskan lifestyle. I write from my own materialistically comfortable life, whilst recovering from an Amazonian viral disease. And I wonder, how wild are we? Have we lost the ability to move at nature’s pace, to live in the wild and live well, both socially and practically?
From Walden (1854) we hear of Thoreau’s two year wild experience, living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, and of how he views society’s departure from nature. The English industrial revolution, from the mid 18th century onwards, played a key part in catalysing the perceived distance between ‘us’ and ‘nature’ as entities. Rather dramatically our direct contact with nature, for example through farming, was replaced by machinery and spurred on this gap. It could be so that with that separation we have lost our connection to the plethora of precious information developed alongside the evolution of our ancestors that came before. Without it maybe it is no longer so achievable to go back to nature or more specifically to be connected to nature in the way we once were.
Still, there are people that attempt it and take the plunge to leave the rat race and live back in the wild. Ben Fogle in his recent BBC documentary series ‘New Lives in the Wild’ follows countless people from the Namibian desert to the Himalayan foothills on their journeys back to the wild. And there seems to be a running theme in their capability to do so, a depth of knowledge and an air of open-mindedness. One such person is Justin who Fogle met in the Appellation Mountains, at the age of 25 the mountainous woodland has been Justin’s home for 7 years. He is a mostly self-taught master in primitive skills and explains, “If you don’t have a basis in primitive skills and technology, you’re relying on gear and gear breaks”.
Justin provides one insight into the knowledge of the Native Americans who once inhabited the region independently, tribes such as the Cherokee. They learnt that when mashed and boiled into a broth a deer’s brain softens the hide well enough to make clothes and blankets, and provides vital warmth. Justin heard that one fact and tried over and over again with countless deer hide to discover the technique. There’s things about the wild we can’t possibly know as individuals, knowledge that humans took thousands of years to discover. To succeed in nature’s world we need to tap into that collective knowledge, just like all species on earth do with their own kind, they learn from their past ancestors each generation to the next.
Often in South America the term ‘Gringo’ is used by a local to insult another local on their farming skills, building technique or on their general ability to use tools. It would often take us westerners, often referred to as Gringos, four times as long to machete firewood, mix cement mud or harvest the vegetables. Our skill sets were slightly different let’s say. Of course in every country there are truly skilled individuals well equipped for the wild, I know a fair few in deepest darkest Devon: the mossy English county nestled between the South and West coastlines. Yet in certain cultures communities seem to have held onto their connection to wild living more robustly and often in those countries less developed. They rely directly on the land to survive and work with nature every day in their hands.
José Becerra, a 70 year old Brazilian/Peruvian wildlife and Amazonian expert showed me around his river town, Puerto Nariño, and through his wisdom of the area I experienced the wonders of the life that surrounds it. Being amongst the river every day and building up an expanse of knowledge over his years José is a testament to the theory that “There’s no better way to learn than through actual experience, you are not going to learn this in the classroom” as similarly ‘wild’ Justin stated.
Many of the naturalistic people that I met on my travel and those I know back home rely in some way on electricity or fuel for transport or have a TV in their living room. From my experiences across Central and Southern America this gradual dispersion into ‘unwild’ things often coincides with development. The air of open-mindedness of those who had packed up and left their bustling lives for unknown depths of the wild to me reflects their realist outlook as they are willing to straddle the ‘two worlds’ between an ancestral style of living and one of conventionality. As we our now, we have access to a whole world of knowledge on one collective platform, the internet, and we have the ability to contact someone requesting knowledge from the other side of Earth. Something our ancestors didn’t have. Maybe we can’t go back to living in the wild like we once did but maybe that’s not so much of a bad thing.
Here an opportunity can be seized, through use of our modern research skills and the World Wide Web of knowledge we can bring the wisdom of the past with the knowledge of today to combine the two worlds. We can move forward living faintly on the Earth and with nature in mind. We just have to hope that old-age knowledge can be pieced back together and not lost forever. On living in the wild and really living in the wild, utilizing a long drop latrine and hunting for your dinner, Ben Fogle in his documentary questions, “Is it daring or just down right crazy?” Potentially it’s a little of both but for most people I think more it’s an endeavor to experience life like Thoreau did and embark on an ‘experiment of living well’.