We have many myths about nature. Most of them are about ‘wildness’ — savagery, hardship, suffering. Most of our stories about nature are of the ‘Man vs. Nature’ variety, about ‘survival in the wild’, as if that were some extraordinary thing. We build these myths to keep people from running away from our well-meaning but damaged, terrible, unsustainable culture. Richard Manning in Against the Grain has just exploded another of the myths about our culture: He provides a compelling argument that the Great Wall of China, a work of staggering and gruelling human labour visible with a telescope from the moon, was not built, as we were told, to keep the Northern hunter-gatherer cultures (the ‘Mongol Hordes’) out, but rather to keep the stooped, slave labour in the ‘new’ civilization culture’s peasants in. If you really believe nature is savage, turn off the hysterical nature documentaries and read Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World, about how, even in Northern winters, even the tiniest ‘wild’ animals live joyful, carefree, comfortable lives. And then read David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous to find out how you, too, can reconnect with lovely, peaceful, easy, sustainable nature.

The myths we teach our impressionable children about nature, from dragon fables to Old Yeller, are usually about nature’s terror and the need to defend and return back ‘home’ to our ‘safe’ civilization. There is an astonishing amount of animal cruelty in children’s stories, and it is an extremely predatory and desensitizing indoctrination technique. We reinforce these dreadful lies about nature’s savagery by sending our children to under-supervised day-care operations called Summer Camps, which, despite their locations and stated objectives, are not at all about nature, but rather deplorable and usually incompetent immersion courses in social skills. At least the British are honest enough to do this without pretext of it being a ‘natural’ experience: Their social indoctrination is called Boarding School and occurs principally indoors. Whatever its intention, the principal effect of Summer Camp is to untether children from their parents’ protection and their need for privacy, and force them to ‘get along’ with others, find their place in the social pecking order of their ‘peers’. For the shy, the weak, the uncoordinated, the physically and emotionally scarred (and that’s most children) it can be living hell. For psychopathic children and predatory adults, its lack of supervision provides the ideal environment for honing their manipulation skills on unprotected and vulnerable victims. Whatever this may be, it is certainly no way to introduce a child to nature.

Even psychopathic adults use the ‘natural experience’ cover to prey upon weaker adults. This activity was most famously depicted in the film White Mile, where the aggressive company CEO (played by Alan Alda) bullies younger staff who want to ‘get ahead’ to go on a ‘character-building’ white-water rafting trip where they are absolutely at his mercy, and where nature is set up as the straw-man enemy. This psychological brutality is also evident in many cults which use social isolation and deprivation in a pseudo-‘natural’ setting to break down resistance to the cult leader’s propaganda. I recently witnessed a plane-load of teenagers returning from a six-month ‘working field trip’ billeted in peasants’ homes in Paraguay — these kids were raw with emotion and filled with horror and loathing at the thought of returning ‘home’ and ‘abandoning’ the poor Paraguayan families who had opened their homes and hearts to them. Absolute gut-wrenching culture shock. We humans are so easy to socially recondition, so vulnerable to programming and re-programming! Our psyches are so fragile that, especially with the young, we must take great care not to tear them even by the simple act of exposing them to new ideas. This is very dangerous stuff. Damn our adaptability.

Not surprising, then, that most people view nature with great fear, as something to be conquered or survived. Most of us have no alternative experience of it. And not surprising that so many of the well-intended ‘communing with nature’ alternative living experiments have collapsed or been hijacked by psychopaths or megalomaniacs.

If we were to start with young people, how could we expose them ‘naturally’ to nature: Teaching them gently the Spell of the Sensuous without so unhinging their psyches that they would be incapable of returning to civilized life and working within it, and without exploiting their ideological vulnerability? (I know, I’m a hopeless liberal — I refuse to use propaganda to advance the cause).

Because if we don’t show them nature, what possible hope is there for our world when we can only romanticize (or demonize), idealize, try to imagine a natural way to live and love and be? We learn (especially as children) what we’re shown, not what we’re told. There are almost no remaining models of natural life to show them, to correct the entrenched, neolithic misperception of nature as something brutal, savage, dangerous, frightening, threatening, hard, and apart. As James Taylor puts it in his song Gaia, we are taught, and left with no alternative but to:

Turn away from your animal kind,
Try to leave your body just to live in your mind,
Leave cold cruel Mother Earth behind — GAIA,
As if you were your own creation,
As if you were the chosen nation,
And the world around you just a rude and dangerous invasion.

I was at a conference a week ago with some of the most creative and intelligent people on the face of the Earth, but when I talked to them of the importance of wilderness, these mostly urban geniuses had no idea what I was getting at — they could not imagine what I meant.

I think we need to abandon the route of in-class nature documentaries and the one-day (or six-month) field trips (and ‘summer camps’), and instead invent and design something completely new: Model Intentional Communities that will give children and adults the opportunity to rediscover nature, and our true nature, first hand. Just as we save endangered species and try to build their populations back up in ‘natural’ settings, we should try to recreate, and show, alternative human cultures, so that people brought up in our monolithic and troubled culture can be exposed to people living in balance with wilderness. Not in order to learn how to ‘survive’ it, but to learn how to be part of and at peace with it. Glenn Parton talks about this in his essay Humans-In-The-Wilderness.

I advocate the development of a human lifestyle in which people live in small villages sparsely scattered through a wilderness environment. Although this framework or groundplan is borrowed from aboriginal peoples, it is far more flexible than has been thought. We can devolve or scale-down modern civilization to closely fit ancient land use patterns without returning to the Stone Age.

So we’re not talking about a back-to-the-land commune that refuses to use technology and shuns the ‘civilized’ world, but rather a series of communities of, say, 100-150 people each, plus perhaps another 20 guests at any one time who would stay no longer than a month, and bring in new ideas and take away their learning of another way to live. These model communities would meld the best of do-more-with-less innovation and technology (the Internet, solar energy, hydroponics etc.) with the best of natural community (zero growth, 100% sustainability, everything recycled, no pollution, no hierarchy, LETS money, no private property or separate ‘family’ dwellings etc.) These communities would ‘use’ only a tiny proportion of ‘their’ land for human purposes, leaving the rest as wilderness for other creatures, for learning and exploration and discovery and reflection and connection but not exploitation. Their population density would vary depending on the carrying capacity of the area, but on average would probably not exceed one person per four acres (a globally sustainable level). Everyone would live as part of a self-sufficient, self-managed and self-selected community, and everyone would also live on the doorstep of wilderness. The people would work only as hard as they needed to, to be comfortable — perhaps an hour per day each (as primitive man did according to revisionist history, and certainly enough in a modern egalitarian society with the benefits of today’s technology). The rest of the day could be spent in leisure, in learning, in discovery, in making love (possibly, as Glenn suggests, with more than one partner, at the collective discretion of each community), in art, in writing or other expression — whatever each individual wanted to do. Members would be free to travel, and through the Internet and communications media and visitors there would be lots of interaction with other Model Intentional Communities and with the ‘outside world’, but if they stayed away too long they would be asked to give up their membership in the community.

What would be needed to make this work would be someone to donate the land, without recourse or obligation, and some self-selection mechanism for determining who the members of the communities would be. Building on a small standard set of inviolable principles to ensure egalitarianism, no-growth, and wilderness protection, each community could develop its own rules and code of conduct (or operate without rules, if it so chose). It would probably take some time, and learning from failure, before these model communities would stabilize and be ready to accept visitors — their only obligation to the civilized world.

Now imagine a young person exposed to such a community for a month in adolescence or high school. She would probably find it fun (certainly more than classwork, anyway), charming, stimulating, but not appealing enough to want to stay. But when she graduated and realized the devil’s bargain of civilization — the trade-off of ecocide and wage slavery and emotional suffocation in return for ‘financial security’, she might well decide then to join an existing Model Intentional Community, or start her own, spreading out and refusing to buy the crappy consumer products and over-priced postage stamp building lots that drive the current economy. In short, she, and many or most or all of her similarly-exposed classmates, might walk away — millions each year, until diverse Model Intentional Communities flourish across the globe, and the old economy, with no ‘consumers’ left to sustain it, crumbles away, and with it the old politics and the old social rules and the old hierarchies and the old education systems, and a new culture that values wilderness and well-being rises in its place.

That’s my dream. It cannot work, of course, in a world of six billion people, let alone the 12-14 billion we are likely to see by the end of the century. But if we show people another model now, a better way to live, maybe it’s not impossible to believe that people will willingly, eagerly reduce their family sizes to no more than one child per female adult, so that, within a couple of centuries, our population is down below one billion and we can all live this way. We could therefore do what early ‘civilizing’ cultures like the Anasazi and Incans perhaps did, when, after experimenting with urban civilized culture, they suddenly and inexplicably walked away from their cities and returned to a non-hierarchical and natural life.

What a valuable education that could turn out to be.

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  1. Cyndy says:

    “I was at a conference a week ago with some of the most creative and intelligent people on the face of the Earth, but when I talked to them of the importance of wilderness, these mostly urban geniuses had no idea what I was getting at — they could not imagine what I meant.”I find that terribly sad, although not surprising. It’s a testament to the disregard held on many levels and a reason why environmental policies fail. People just can’t imagine, if they’ve never had the experience. Lately I’ve been finding myself consumed with the idea of surrounding myself with something other than concrete and sidewalks and working towards a way to get there. It’s a worthy dream and I’m encouraged when I see others sharing something similar. Yours is more developed than mine thus far and I see possibilities in it. Keep the ideas flowing. I’d jump aboard in an instant.

  2. Rob Paterson says:

    So True DaveThe most powerful thing that I learned from nature was wonder. Wonder at its majesty and wonder at how i fitted into it. Aged 18, I worked as a diamond prospector in the Kalahari desert in Botswana. I spent 9 months living in a tent in the desert, The main part of the job was walking 11 miles a day. I experienced this part of Africa on foot. I slept in a tent or outside. I ate food cooked on an open fire. I drank water from the river or from a hand dug well.It got the point when I did not return to town for the monthly 4 day RR but elected to stay in the bush. After all when was I ever going to be able to live like this again.I felt very safe in spite of many poisonous snakes, lions and elephant. You get very good very quickly at how to be careful. They don’t want to be close to you anymore than you do. What I remember with most joy were the night skies. Hundreds of miles from even the smallest town, I had the night view that our hunter gatherer ancestors had. Every night I would sit by the fire and look up at the heavens as they wheeled through the night. The night sky gave me a lifetime perspective of where I was and who I was.Nearly 40 years on, this 9 month experience of living close to nature becomes ever more powerful and helps me understand who I am and how I came from this universe.I cannot imagine a more helpful learning stimulsus for our young today than having this type of experience.

  3. Indigo Ocean says:

    I would recommend people take a look at the Good Enough community in WA for models of working intentional communities, albeit not within a wilderness setting. I hear there is also a group of great communities in the San Juan islands off continental WA. Too cold up there for me, but some of you might enjoy spending a month or more visiting and experiencing the IC model. Friends and I continue to hash out our vision for IC here in Hawaii. We have varying ideals regarding the balance of nature and modernity. It is hard enough to find agreement among people within the narrow confines of mainstream life. It is that much harder when suddenly everything you can imagine is a possibility. My idea of “liveable” necessarily includes flush toilets and the ability to get on the internet in the middle of the day if I am so inspired. To someone else, that is excessive or even unacceptable waste. The trick is finding what is most important to each member of a potential community and building on that common ground within a relationship of love. If the people can relate to each other with love and mutual respect, they will be able to make peace with their natural environment. If there is conflict or distrust within the community, you can set them up in the most beautiful, abundant, gentle areas of the world and they will still have a daily experience as tough as an urban ghetto. That toughness will spill over into the way they interact with the Earth around them. We build up or tear down our outer world to match our inner reality. Peace begins within each of us, extends to our relations with other people, then spills out into how we treat that which cannot hit back.

  4. Johnny Nemo says:

    “We can devolve or scale-down modern civilization to closely fit ancient land use patterns without returning to the Stone Age.”No we can’t. Technology requires an industrial base; the higher the technology desired, the more industrially-directed the society must be.Solar energy is inefficient and highly polluting; you should champion wind power instead. Hydroponics requires a much greater investment than soil-based agriculture — which you’ve already come out against. The costs of even having an Internet are staggering: mining (gotta have that copper, gold, steel), petroleum (plastic), manufacturing (requiring power, resources, and labour), pollution (they’re ruining the oceans off Singapore, where your RAM chips were made, and that old monitor you threw away contains maybe 9 kilos of lead); there’s manufacturing, laying, and maintaining cable; there’s electricity to power the whole thing.How will people travel between these communities? Railways are better than roads, or are you proposing walking trails? What will stop small communities from becoming xenophobic, intolerant of outsiders or internal differences, as Jared Diamond says used to be the norm?I’ve been following your reading list, and while some items do provide food for thought, they are a long way from proving your hypotheses — either that it’s possible to live that way, or that it’s desirable to do so.Dave, you’re a capital-R Romantic. You and Blake, man, all the way.

  5. Hi Dave. I’ve enjoyed your essays for several months now and couldn’t resist responding to this one. What you describe is exactly the motivation behind a non-profit educational organization I started a few years ago called “Living Routes – Ecovillage Education”.We work primarily with U.S. college students and create semester, Summer, and January-Term programs based in ecovillages around the world. So far, we have programs at Auroville (India), Findhorn (Scotland), EcoYoff (Senegal), Crystal Waters (Australia), Ecoversidade (Brazil), and Sirius Community (Massachusetts, USA – where I live).These communities are far from utopias, but they’re trying. And it is this process – of striving to live in harmony with each other and their local environments – that make ecovillages ideal “campuses” for students to learn about sustainability while actually living it. Students who attend these programs are truly changed and can never again say “It can’t be done” because they see people devoting their lives to making a positive difference and that it is actually working.For more info, you can check out our website (which is in the middle of a complete overhaul ;-) at http://www.LivingRoutes.org.You can also learn more about ecovillages in general at http://gen.ecovillages.org/.Thanks for your good work!In community, – Daniel

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Cyndy/Rob: Thanks. Indigo: I will check out these, and other intentional communities. What I am looking for is probably at once more radical and less spiritual/back-to-the-land than most ICs. That’s not to belittle the value of any of them, especially as an educational opportunity for young people. They will only really work if the people that make them work are very close in objective and worldview to each other.Johnny: You’ll have to read my novel, when it’s finished, to understand why I believe that a community-based society can self-manage itself much, much more efficiently than a capital-driven society. Innovation is the key to making solar power cleaner (which I agree is needed) and computer manufacturing and sourcing more responsible (which is also needed). Just because industrial society makes products that are dirty, wasteful and socially devastating doesn’t mean that those products can’t be produced in ways that aren’t. You may call it romantic, but I think it’s perfectly possible, and reasonable to expect, that man can develop technologies that do not require wage slavery and environmental damage. I have seen self-selected and self-managed teams do some amazing things when they had the power to do so (like ending the Vietnam War) and I have great faith in human ingenuity and in human concern for the environment. Most of us are not happy about the world, and given a better model would gladly give up the one we have.Daniel: Wonderful initiative, for which I congratulate you. I sense that these experiences are more about cross-cultural learning than about how to create a scalable model that will allow us to walk away from civilzation culture, but nevertheless, bravo!

  7. Nancy says:

    I’m just beginning a blog and a website about an intentional community called Eucardia. I found this site very valuable and hope to see you at mine some time in the future. http://eucarthia.blogspot.com

  8. Nancy says:

    After reading these comments before mine, I would like to say that utopia is by definition impossible. What we need is what Maslow called a Eupsychia – the best place for your psyche. And that is possible.

  9. Magmak1 says:

    Readers interested in this topic might also check out James O’Neill and his work at http://www.wilderdom.com

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