Monday, 18 February 2008

wilderness survival

"By the end of this course, you will know how to make or do anything you see in a museum."
Edward Rackley ponders his experience at Tom Brown's famed Tracker School in Florida, where exercises emphasize becoming aware.

Usually my basic needs are immediately, magically satisfied, with a minimum of conscious effort. There is no stealth, no guile, no creativity involved.

All these actions I can perform on autopilot, a blissful state of full-blown mind/body dualism. So long Homo Faber. Meet Zombie Man, connoisseur of post-industrial carrion, the Twilight Consumer.

Rackley isn't just talking meta-awareness, awareness of how much or little we're actually aware of in our everyday lives. Tom Brown wants us all to snap out of our reveries, even those of the meta persuasion, and start paying attention to our surroundings in a deep way, as though our very survival depended on it. After all, it does.

But this is a blog--it's a place built for meta, built for reverie. Here's mine:

I learned of Tom Brown fourteen years ago, when I was fourteen. That was the summer I worked as a counselor at Camp Bomazeen, a wooded peninsula jutting into Great Pond in Belgrade, Maine. Spreading over 200 acres of waterfront, peat bogs, mixed forest, and low hills, Bomazeen is an ideal space for a boy to explore over a period of weeks in the summer. I taught first aid and wilderness survival skills to young scouts of all ages. It's probably the best job I'll ever have. I believe I was paid $65/week, plus room and board.

Tom Brown was a bit of a guru among the more experienced counselors. In spare moments, I read a few chapters of his books. Most qualify as light philosophy and social activism. Brown wrote wondrous stories of stalking deer in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, interspersed with paeans against pollution and thoughtless living. All boys everywhere (aged 7 to 72) would be, for a moment at least, entranced.

Therein lies the essential tension. It is possible, in today's world, not to think about where food comes from. It is possible, even for the poorest among us (or perhaps especially for the poorest) never to visit this place we call nature, never to touch this thing we call wild. In part this is because we have redefined them; we have made a linguistic move away from their necessity. Wilderness is an artificial place, one untouched by human hands. None of us has been there, or will. What great conceit to define a location by our absence. What greater conceit than to regret its destruction?

Recent history has liberated us from our evolutionary past in stages. It isn't that we have moved from low hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists and pastorals and on up to Marx's capitalist alienation from labor, though such faerie tales have their use. Tom Brown doesn't care that we have become alienated from labor through private ownership of the means of production; his worry is deeper: we have become alienated from the means of existence. Liberation is alienation, and alienation imprisonment.

It has been months since I tied a knot, years since I started a fire, a decade since I built a shelter from brush. These activities I remember wistfully, yet to them I do not wish to return. Rather, I wish to attend to the activities of the present with the fascination I had for them. Wilderness survival is about identifying and tapping into biotic cycles, living lavishly through efficient, end-directed activities. There is no urban survival merit badge, and yet there is an underutilized skill. The unliving, unthinking masses, we horde, over caffeinated and buzzing, we are oblivious. What even would count as the 'scoutcraft' of urban life? Timing the lights? Wayfinding among side streets, shortcuts through lobbies? Avoiding ATM surcharges? Should we attend, rather, to the creatures we encounter on the sidewalks? Not the squirrels or pigeons, but Hipster ironicus and Corporate wingtippus? Shall we track the predator-prey interaction of the motorists and cyclists? Instead of bird-calls, would we learn gang signs or how to talk to a Goth?

1 comment:

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Isaac,

My own personal take on this is to be found in the subject “survival”, whether it is of Tom Brown’s type or the urban one you mention. I suggest that it has always been mankind’s ambition to move beyond survival as the goal of existence. That is rather than to simply consider that life’s purpose is to be to strive, yet rather strive to be. The first perspective sees life as both a danger and a struggle, the second an opportunity and a pleasure. The former breeds mistrust, fear, confusion and paranoia; while the latter expectation, confidence, clarity and reason. As I see it, there will be no change in humanity until we move away from becoming, to actually being. Of course I am not the first to propose such, only another to concur.