Are you glowing with inner peace? Is your journey healthy, balanced, and joyful? Do you believe that the world is close to perfection because of technological progress? None of the above?
Miles Olson is a young man with an old soul. He has never felt at home in modern society, even in childhood. The only people who made sense to him were the Native Americans, because they lived with respect and reverence for all things. When he was 17, he spent the summer living alone on a remote island. Solitude in wildness is powerful medicine. In a week or so, he could barely remember his name.
He struggled to find his life’s vision and calling. There was no integrity in pursuing a career that injured the family of life. There was no integrity in eating food produced in an atrocious manner. There was no integrity in devoting his life to robotic consumption. The “normal” mode was wacko.
The proper way to live in industrial civilization was to plug into the system, obey the rules, and never ask questions. But this was not a path with integrity, and Olson refused to submit to a dishonorable life. So, he commenced thinking. If the system was destroying the future, then the system was insane. If the system was insane, then so were its rules. Therefore, the virtuous choice was to disregard the rules, listen to his heart, and purse a life of integrity, by any means necessary. He did just that.
He’s been squatting for almost a decade on the fringe of a large unnamed city in
. He hunts, traps, forages, and gardens. He gets profound satisfaction from reducing his dependence on the machine, and reducing the harm he causes. He wrote Unlearn, Rewild to describe his life as an outlaw with high principles. (Well, he’s an outlaw to the system, but consumers are outlaws to nature, and nature bats last.) British Columbia
Unlearning is a process of throwing civilized illusions overboard, of cleaning our minds. Rewilding means “to return to a more natural or wild state; the process of undoing domestication” — to become uncivilized, to reconnect to place. The bottom line is that “without genuine, raw connection to wild nature we, as creatures, go insane.”
All of us have hunter-gatherer genes. When we were born, our souls expected to spend life as wild and free creatures in a sacred world. What went wrong? Olson sees domestication, agriculture, and civilization as being catastrophic mistakes in our journey.
“Sustainability” has become a meaningless word, hijacked and disemboweled by greedheads, nutters, universities, and shameless marketing hucksters. Nothing is unsustainable anymore. Our world is totally awesome. We just need to burn a bit less fossil fuel, make a few minor tweaks, and our way of life will become utopia. Olson disagrees. He’s become a revivalist who preaches a fiery message about “radical sustainability” — good old-fashioned fundamentalist sustainability, the genuine article, the most important word in our language today.
One of his sermons illuminated the grave misconceptions that torment vegans and vegetarians, and lead them down a dark path into the valley of malnutrition, impaired health, and prickly self-righteousness. He was once a vegan, until he saw the light, and returned to the normal omnivorous diet that everyone’s ancestors had enjoyed for a million years.
Yes, of course industrial meat production was abominable, cruel, and ecologically foolish. The dim-witted domesticated livestock and poultry certainly suffer for it. But why does no one grieve for the thousands of wild creatures murdered by every pass of the plow and combine? Why do we ignore the blood gushing from our tofu stir fry? “There are precious few humans that hear the screams of the Earth….”
Olson recommended that we stop feeding grain to animals, and use it to feed hungry folks. But this would require continued soil mining to produce the grain. Instead, in the spirit of big dreaming, I would suggest that we cease growing grain for animal feed, and convert that cropland back to grassland, restore the soil to good health, and give it back to the indigenous wild life — let it heal.
He wondered if hunting with firearms was ethical. How much technology is too much? When the Cree replaced bows with guns, they killed more caribou. But “…the ones truly being victimized by this technology were not the caribou. The caribou were still free, the people had entered a trap.” This chapter began with a Ran Prieur quote: “Every technology begins as a key and ends as a cage.” Well said.
Obviously, the turd in the swimming pool is the way we think — our insane culture. If our civilization burned to the ground today, we’d start rebuilding it at dawn tomorrow. “If humans had clean minds, like grasses and thistles, we would return to a state of balance when the forces of domestication ceased.”
It is at this point that the two sacred verbs “unlearn” and “rewild” summon immense power. Are we capable of firing up our brains and envisioning humankind living in balance with the rest of life? Yes, if we try. Are we capable of escaping from our cage? Yes, with patience and determination. Is it possible that sanity is contagious? Let’s find out! Olson concludes that we would be wise to make some effort to evolve. It will take generations to create cultures that win the Radical Sustainability seal of approval, but all we have to lose is an insane way of life.
The book has two parts: ideas and endangered skills. The ideas section describes his philosophy of life. The skills section is a sampler of essential knowledge for squatters: making traps and snares, skinning and gutting game, medicinal plants, food preservation, sex without pregnancy, tips for cooking earthworms, slugs, and maggots, and so on.
I learned some new tricks here, but this is not the last book you’ll need to read. Chestnuts are good food, but horse chestnuts are toxic. How do you tell the difference? Camas is good food, but death camas, which looks the same at harvest time, is not mentioned. Why is it called death camas?
Olson doesn’t write like a dusty scholar surrounded by piles of musty books. He writes like a cheerful outlaw who has created a rewarding career in harvesting roadkill, foraging for nuts, roasting grasshoppers, and feasting on dandelions. It’s a loose and feisty tome with strong opinions and a strong sense of hope and enthusiasm. It’s not flawless and polished — it has some squeaks, leaks, and rattles — but it still works.
Olson has not given us “The Solution” here. Obviously, this week is an inconvenient time for seven-point-something billion to become squatters. But the rising cost and scarcity of energy may turn us all into squatters before long, ready or not. Nevertheless, he is fully engaged in the most important work of our era — finding the path to genuine sustainability. Truly, every week is a perfect opportunity for unlearning, rewilding, thinking, and living with greater integrity.
Olson, Miles, Unlearn, Rewild, New Society Publishers,
, 2012. Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada