The crows are cawing at the blue jays, their corvid cousins, from the almost-bare uppermost branches of a black walnut tree, as squirrels and chipmunks scurry — up and down and around the trunk — dashing to stash some food scraps before the dirt floor of the forest freezes, before the snow falls and then freezes, and before perhaps even they freeze.
With winter looming over this late-November day, though it’s mild and not especially foreboding (45 degrees Fahrenheit, clear skied, and sunny), there is a pervading panic that’s seized every creature in these woods, except for me, the only domesticated animal among them. While they go about their life-and-death business, I’m crouched, watching, unworried, and holding a $5000 camera, because I know, when the cold months do come, there will be a refrigerator in the kitchen of my heated home, just overflowing with fresh vegetables, runny cheeses, cured meats, dried morel mushrooms, and cold beer. I will not starve. And I will not freeze, as long as I pay the utility bills on time.
Here, I am the outsider. I do not belong. And they know it. But they’re also not afraid of me. The day-to-day residents of this patch of forest seem to consider me to be a bizarre yet benign presence, a harmless interloper. They definitely don’t want to get close and cuddle, but they clearly do not think of me as a serious threat. If anything, they probably pity me for being too dumb to properly prepare for the inevitable arrival of winter.
Maybe if these particular animals had more experience with men wielding shotguns, they might be as alarmed by my tramping through the leaves as they are when the red-tailed hawk circles in the sky, then mockingly dives toward the trees. However, without killing tools bought from my local outdoor megastore, carrying no weapon in my soft clawless hands, every animal, even the fawn that almost bumps into me while nosing around for acorns, can see that I am the least dangerous predator.
Now, there are plenty of “nature lovers” who would insist it’s entirely possible for people to achieve peace, balance, and synchronicity with animals and the natural world. And there are plenty of camouflaged he-men who would insist they’re entirely capable of mastering nature and bending her to their will. Both, I’d say, are full of deershit.
I love being in the out of doors too. I probably love wandering the woods more than any of my other obsessions: reading, writing, cooking, etc. But I also recognize that our kind split with nature a long time ago. We are tourists out here. We are not wild.
Truly, if you can distance yourself enough from the expectation of encountering at least one of the 7.6 billion members of our species absolutely everywhere on Earth, there is a certain absurdity to spotting a human being in the middle of the forest.
So, I understand why the crows are cackling at me from the trees right now. Even I’m weirded out by the incongruity of a 300-pound hiker, rather than a well-fed raccoon, stumbling out of thick brush and into view of my binoculars. It’s like seeing a moose in Manhattan, waiting on the corner for a chance to jaywalk across Fifth Avenue. Or a bear cub digging through the produce at your grocery store.
Most of our wild places (e.g. city, state, and national parks) are not so wild either. They’ve been tamed just enough to still be beautiful, and often wondrous, yet safe for children, pets, and those who prefer to wear flip-flops on a seven-mile hike. Unless venturing to the remotest regions (say, Antarctica), we are never far from civilization or its infrastructural influence, and almost never out of eye- or earshot of other humans or the remnants of their recent passing-through.
Looking closely at the floor of the forest, here in Windsor, Canada’s Ojibway Park, where I first indulged my wilderness habit as a seven-year-old wannabe cowboy, I now notice the actual trash amid the leaf litter: crushed Molson XXX cans, shredded potato chip bags, plastic water-bottle caps. Listening carefully, beyond the whisper and creak of the trees in the wind, and the chatter of the birds and squirrels and chipmunks, I now hear the roar and whoosh of transport trucks hauling loads of salt from nearby mines toward the US-Canada border. And walking through these woods, I now take note of the signs warning people like me to “Stay on the Paths” and the wayfaring posts pounded into the ground to prevent us tourists from getting lost, even though walking a mile in any direction would lead directly to highways, suburban neighborhoods, and fast food. Checking my cell phone, the reception is excellent.
These may seem like primitivist gripes, but they aren’t. (After all, like every other person on Earth, except maybe certain members of the uncontacted tribes of South America and Papua New Guinea, I covet at least a few of the comforts and conveniences of human civilization and its thousands of years of evolution. My feet would get very sore without my car. My treasured personal library wouldn’t exist without the printing press. I wouldn’t be publishing these ramblings on the internet without the internet.) These are just the most honest thoughts and observations that happen to be running through my skull as I ponder the question: Why am I trying to be wild in the 21st century, when such a thing is certainly archaic, and possibly ridiculous?
Well, unlike the “nature lovers,” I am not searching for purity, because I can’t see how untainted wilderness can possibly be recaptured when the world’s fish are now made of flesh that’s flecked with plastic microparticles. (Although, I still think lazy assholes should stop leaving behind their beer cans when getting wasted in the woods.) And unlike the he-men, I am not interested in attempting to prove myself to be the world’s most exceptional beast, because I know a 900-pound grizzly is much better built for a fight than me.
Still, why exactly am I so compelled to dart off into the woods whenever the chance presents itself? The simplest reason: It feels good. My muscles loosen and my breathing slows as both trivial anxieties and extreme existential dread are rendered momentarily moot by a clarity of mind that only seems to come with heedlessly indulging my primordial instincts. In this case, explore, explore, explore. Or, more precisely translated, hunt, hunt, hunt.
Another less simple reason: After the initial instinctual thrills wear off, exploring the wooded and watery and wild places of the world, just like writing in the middle of the night in a dark room while everyone I know is asleep, offers the literal and mental/emotional quiet that I need to revel in circuitous contemplation of an entirely impractical kind. That's how, recently, while attempting to think hard about the root of my fondness for outdoorsy pursuits, a somewhat overwrought, though probably apt phrase — “The Rites of Survival” — popped into my mind and out of my mouth.
Hunting for meat, hunting for fish, hunting for mushrooms and roots, lighting a fire, then cooking, then eating, sleeping on the ground, and waking at dawn to wash yourself in a river. These are the kinds of life-sustaining behaviors that, though seemingly unnecessary in 2018, and now called “recreation,” remain links to humankind’s wild, pre-civilization, prehistoric period, when we were just another animal on this Earth caught in a ceaseless scramble to see the next sunrise and sunset and sunrise and sunset.
Doing these things are ways for me, and all of us, to reenact an irretrievably lost past, and maybe stumble across a few insights into our human selves, the 50 million other species that surround us, and the perplexities of life on Earth.
That is, I guess, the best that I can muster to explain why I spend so much of my free time lost in the delusion that I belong in the woods as much as a squirrel or a chipmunk or a well-fed raccoon.