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Unlearn, Rewild

One of the least useful words in the English language is the word “wilderness.” I grew up wandering the woods, and, to me, where the road and the trail end and the animal (and human) paths begin is a point of fundamental transition: beyond this point lies something else—an older, perfectly ordinary, normal way of being, in which we are just another animal among many others. (An even more atrocious term is “unimproved land”—which is what developers call land that they haven't had a chance to bulldoze yet; “undestroyed land” seems more like it.) Perhaps a more reasonable perspective is to not call “wilderness” anything—it's just another piece of the planet—and instead find a word that applies to its opposite: human blight, perhaps? Human infestation? You get my point.

So, how is life in the human blight zone working out for you? Isn't the “civilized” living arrangement starting to seem a bit problematic? The corn crop (which is where Americans get most of their calories) is in the process of getting torched by a record heat wave, caused by global warming, in turn caused by burning fossil fuels which are a key element of life in the human blight zone. Corn prices are up over 40%. These are the only terms in which we can perceive the phenomenon of crop failure; we can't see, touch, smell or taste the corn, it has been reduced to just a statistic. And when there isn't enough of it, you too will be reduced to just a statistic. How do you like the sound of that?

A lot of people don't like that at all, and react, strangely enough, by using the word “unsustainable.” You see, everything would be fine if we made it sustainable, by recycling or putting up solar panels or driving electric cars or what have you. We need to transition to a sustainable future, and for that we need a transition plan. We've been following the wrong plan, you see—the plan to exterminate all life on earth—but with a new plan, one that leaves out the bit about the extermination, all that would change, right? Why doesn't it occur to anyone that the human industrial monoculture is, if anything, a little too sustainable? It may well sustain itself right up to the point where it kills everyone. A bit less sustainability might be a wise choice at this point. Then small groups of feral humans (and lots of other animals) could thrive indefinitely amid the ruins; maybe even grow a little corn here and there.

There are entire shelves of books full of talk about “preparation,” “survival,” “sustainability” and so forth. Just about all of them avoid the real issue. And so I was very happy to come across one that doesn't: Unlearn, Rewild by Miles Olson, which is just going to press as I write this. Miles is not a theorist but a practitioner: he and his group of friends have been living off the land as squatters for many years. He doesn't mince words: we “civilized” humans are living in a “human monoculture” prison; we have fallen into a technology trap.

How can you get out of this trap? Miles does not mince words: escape is illegal. If you want to escape, you have to break the law. “As soon as you begin to act outside the system, you are breaking its rules... Red handcuffs or blue handcuffs. Anything too far outside this culture’s mandate is not accepted; non-participation is not a legitimate option... Really, if we are all forced to work as part of a death machine, with no other viable alternative, where is the possibility for a sustainable future? The answer is obvious: in breaking the rules. Or, to put it more accurately, breaking the ridiculously insane rules.” [p. 48] Need an example of “ridiculously insane rules”? “It is illegal to salvage roadkill in many places, so learn your local laws and act appropriately. Whether that means following them is up to you.” [p. 107]

Does this mean that Miles is one of those easily dismissed idealistic back-to-the-land types? Judge for yourself:

If everyone disenchanted with this culture decided to wander off into the lonesome wilderness, it would have absolutely no effect on its workings. The back-to-the-land communities of the ’60s and ’70s may provide an illustration of this: a movement that was solid and strong in urban centers scattered into the countryside and gently faded away in dysfunctional utopian communities.

I think the most strategic place to be is on the fringes of this culture, in rural areas and at the edges of cities and towns. There one can interact with both civilization and wildness, dancing back and forth between both, feeding off the mass human energy and non-human energy. For those who feel called, there is important work to be done in the cities and in the wild blue yonder.

What we need is to build autonomous spaces, to create havens where the tools and skills we are going to need can be developed, and this can happen anywhere. Actually, it needs to be happening everywhere.

With that out of the way, Miles moves on to tools and skills, and there are pages and pages of them. What's covered is comprehensive, almost universally useful and is rarely presented as clearly and memorably. Unlearning plays a big part: the first world standards on which the surrounding culture insists need to go by the wayside. A diet of animal protein and saturated animal fat is good for you; a diet of soya, wheat and corn cause physical and mental difficulties. Veganism is disregarded as a viable alternative because it relies on industrial agriculture. “There is no guilt-free food option for us (except for maybe bankers, politicians and the like, if you’re into that) and there shouldn’t be.” [p. 99] Meat does not need to be refrigerated (which is good news, since there won't be refrigeration). It can cure at room temperature (making it taste better) and can be smoked to preserve it longer. Maggots taste like what they've been eating; lots of cultures eat maggots (and so will this one once people get hungry enough). Many types of vegetables can be preserved by allowing them to ferment in their own juices with a bit of salt.

There are chapters on medicinal plants, on trapping (eating meat does not require firearms) on tanning hides and on dressing animal carcases. There is a chapter on non-industrial birth control. There is even a chapter on blending in and going undetected (basic prescription: act white; in this culture non-white people get locked up and exterminated). Amazing bits of information are scattered throughout: need a non-industrial substitute for Viagra?—try deer testicles; they taste like hot dogs. If there is one chapter missing, it's the one on gathering food in the intertidal zone, which is dead easy and provides good nutrition. Mussels and dulse taste great and are easy to catch. This is probably because on Vancouver Island where Miles lives the coast is privately owned, densely populated and mostly off-limits. Still, I found it quite possible to go and gather at low tide (provided you dress like a tourist and wave and smile and generally act white). There also isn't enough mention of wild mushrooms.

In all, I think this is a very good book to keep around. I don't have a lot of room for books (or anything else, for that matter) and I am constantly paring down my library by giving books away, but I think that this one will be a keeper. By the way, the fiddlehead on the cover (not mentioned in the text, so I will mention it here) is edible too, sautéed, stir fried or pickled. Enjoy.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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