By Patrick J. Kiger

What It Means to Rewild

In a remote corner of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, eight miles from the nearest town, a man named Thorn lives in an improvised hut that he built from wood and leaves, dines upon beans and squirrel meat, and wears mittens fashioned from raccoon pelt. In a day and age when most of us depend upon elaborate electronic gadgetry and dine upon food grown on industrial farms, Thorn aspires to be a self-sufficient modern primitive, who relies upon the forest around him for his daily needs.

“I’ve been accused of being born 14,000 years too late,” he explains, in the initial episode of the National Geographic Channel series Live Free or Die.

Thorn’s lifestyle may be unusual, but he’s not alone. Throughout the U.S., a small but seemingly growing segment of like-minded people are choosing to opt out of civilized comfort and the conventional economy. Adherents of “Rewilding”, as the movement is called, instead live in rural areas where they seek to subsist off the land, hunting and fishing and gathering wild plants for food, and build their own dwellings from materials they find there. To varying degrees, they eschew manufactured products and modern technology as well, preferring instead to rely upon the sort of tools that they can make themselves and operate with muscle power, such as the arrows that Thorn fashions from river cane, or the traps that Gabriel, a California-based fellow hunter-gather, builds from sticks and rocks. They don’t just live off the grid, but often do without electricity and tap water altogether. Thorn won’t even use matches to make a fire.

At the heart of Rewilding is a belief that a modern culture, in exchange for comfort and security, inflicts an unsustainable psychological and physical toll upon humans in exchange for comfort and security, and harms the environment in the process. As Rewilding activist Miles Olsen wrote in his 2012 book Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive, Rewilders seek “to grapple with the problem of civilization at its roots, and our place within that problem.” But Rewilders often see those woes as too profound to solve merely by switching to greener sources of energy, or by sustainable practices such as recycling or buying organic food from local farmers. But unlike Preppers, who stock up on dried beans and ammunition in preparation for the collapse of civilization, Rewilders often think the answer is to opt out of civilization altogether and strive to reconnect with nature, in the way that natives, settlers or even ancient humans did. 

“We lived for 2,000,000 years without civilization and people got along very well,” philosopher John Zerzan, who advocates that humanity return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, explained in a 2014 magazine interview.

The spirit of rewilding existed long before there was a trendy name for it. “This idea of a return to wilderness is in the American psychology,” photographer Lucas Foglia, who has documented rewilding adherents in his work, told the Utne Reader in 2009. Its roots may lie in part in the rough-hewn 18th Century frontiersmen of the sort described in James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, who spent their days “between the skirts of civilized society and the boundless forests,” relying upon their hunting prowess for their next meal. The urge to abstain from civilization resurfaced again in the 1960s, when youthful hippies fled the cities to try making a go of it on rural communes in the back-to-the-land movement. In 1998, GQ journalist Elizabeth Gilbert told the tale of a man named Eustace Conway, who’d dropped out of society as a teen to live in the North Carolina woods, where he built a teepee, bathed in icy streams, and made fires by rubbing sticks together. When Gilbert met him, Conway wore a deerskin shirt that he’d sewn together with strands of sinew from the animal’s spine. “He’s not hiding from us,” Gilbert wrote. “Eustace Conway is in the woods because he belongs in the woods.”

In recent years, though, Rewilding has become a distinctive subculture, in which enthusiasts who are new to subsistence living can acquire the needed skills—such as how to make tools or forage for edible plants—by perusing books with titles such as Bushcraft 101: A field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival and Practicing Primitive: A Handbook of Aboriginal Skills, both of which are conveniently available in Kindle editions for those who haven’t yet unplugged from the Internet. Neophytes also can attend one of several Rewilding schools that provide hands-on training. One organization, ReWild Portland, offers a six-month-long Rewilding immersion program. For a tuition cost of $5,000, participants learn everything from do-it-yourself metal-smithing to hunting wild game and foraging skills. Also included is a course on the philosophical underpinnings of Rewilding, in which “you will begin to understand the mental trauma and psychosis inflicted on us every day and how to overcome them through grief, praise, ritual and ceremony.”

Others, such as nomadic California woodsman Gabriel, actually have traveled to other countries where native hunter-gatherer groups still exist, in order to learn from them. For his part, Gabriel doesn’t seem to need a complex philosophical rationale for Rewilding.

He explains, simply: "Being in the wilderness for me is being alive.”

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