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Roughing It


There are a lot of ways that a person might go back to nature. If you lived in Europe, as an aficionado of medieval technology, you might consider splitting a large tree fork in half, and use each side of the split to form the gable of a roof. You would drive  posts, into the ground, and weave the branches of the willow between them. Fill the gaps with daub, a mixture of mud and manure. Paint it with lime, to keep the insects away. Tramp down fresh rushes on the floor, to make a mat. Nothing could be closer to nature, than that house.

I read a book by Thor Heyerdahl, Fatu Hiva-- Back to Nature, in which he described his youthful facination with living off the land. As a teenager, he actually tried to do this, in Norway, in the dead of winter! Later on, he and his wife, on their honeymoon, lived off a much more comfortable landscape, on one of the Marquesan islands. They built a hut on an old heiau, and found ripe fruit hanging in the trees, streams teeming with fish, rich earth which produced a wonderful garden, and wild pigs begging to jump on the barbecue. Yet, the island wasn't exactly wild. Before the first ship arrived on the island, over ten thousand people lived on Fatu Hiva. Now, due to the ravages of Euopean diseases, less than several hundred people remain. But the land still teems with the agricultural life that once supported that population.

Even to survive on this ancient infrastructure isn't exactly easy. My brother, when he lived in Honolulu, noticed a number of coffee trees growing in the forest. He harvested as many beans as he could, carfully roasted them on cookie sheets in his oven, ground them up, and made coffee. Several days of work, and he produced just one cup of coffee. But it was a truly great cup of coffee, it goes without saying.

For most people, going back to nature would probably mean camping somewhere, perhaps after hunting or a fishing trip, and cooking the wild game. To do this, they buy all kinds of merchandise-- cast iron frying pans, and other outdoor kitchen paraphenalia. A person could buy a lot of devices to make life comfortable, out in the wild. At the hardware store, I saw an outdoor chemical toilet that actually flushed. You could also buy a special tent to keep it in, which is probably desirable because it keeps the mosquitoes away, as well as providing privacy. All these things are pretty heavy, and can't stray very far from your car. I myself own a Chevy Suburban, and since I acquired the vehicle, I find myself daydreaming about going on another cross country trip, car camping the whole way. My whole family admires my ablility to throw together a meal, cooking on the flames of a campfire.

However, these products, which you find in catalogs, only scratch the surface of the culture which the people in the Western States associate with living in the wild. For me, my education in these things began when I was a small child, and we made our first excursion as a young family to East Rosebud Lake, a small lake hidden in the Beartooth Range of the Rocky Mountains in Montana. My grandfather owned a cabin there, which was built in 1900 after a forest fire, along with a number of other cabins, all built with logs killed by the fire.

The road leading to the Lake was created by Model T Fords, and had two tracks.  Within ten years after this first trip, the road was gradually improved, because modern automobiles were not high enough off the ground to use this road. Occasionally, one had to drive with the wheels on the center, to avoid scraping the oil pan on a large rock. Half way up the canyon, we stopped at an old ranch, the T O Bar. My father knew this family well, for they had built the first cabins, and my father grew up with them when he spent summers at the Lake. They had an old telephone on the wall, which they cranked, to make a call. It still worked. It was the only telephone in the area. There were no lines going to the lake.

The cabin had no electricity, and at night we used kerosene lanterns. Outside, the skies were so crowded with stars, that it was difficult to find the constellations. There was a large cookstove which made cooking a complicated task. You could bake bread in it. It came with an iron, for ironing clothes. The cabin once had an outhouse, but this had been replaced with a flush toilet and a septic system. Water traveled over the ground in pipes from a spring, and inside there was a large covered basin formed out of cement,  filled with constantly flowing, ice cold water, to keep food cool. The cabin was filled with all kinds of obsolete devices for the nineteenth century household. As soon as they no longer needed these things at home, back in Billings, my grandparents would take these things to the cabin, where technology had come to a halt. The shelves were even loaded with ancient National Geographic and other magazines, from the 1930s. As a young boy, I found that these magazines contained a lot of pruriently interesting material.

In back of the cabin was a small shed we called the bunkhouse. All the kids had to sleep in it. It had bunks and a large double bed that we constantly jumped upon. Everything was covered with home made quilts. There was a stable near the Lodge and Store, and the wrangler would allow the horses to roam freely and graze among the cabins at night. In the early morning, when the sun began to trace a widening band of bright orange upon the hights above us, a horse occasionally would stick his head in the window of the bunkhouse, and snort loudly, waking us all up.

Of course, all these things change. At the Lake, they even have high speed internet, now.  The old cabins are gradually being replaced by beautifully made cabins built with scribed logs and beautifully designed river stone masonry. The wilderness is still there, of course. And there will always be a number of people who love the wild and want to protect it.

I was extremely privileged, just to have these experiences. Too many Americans have not known much else than the middle class way of life. One accumulates all the symbols of comfortable living. Houses have beautifully manicured lawns, several new automobiles out in front, fenced back yards with play structures for children, or a pool. The closest we can get to nature is to barbeque a steak on a summer night, and build a fire in a pit, drink a beer and enjoy the stars.

But we are all dying. The very ideal of living epitomized by the middle class is killing us. I recently read The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. The industrialization of the food supply in the United States is destroying the natural world in countless ways, and causing us to lose our vitality. I walk down the aisles in the supermarket, and see nothing but death. I can't stand to buy lettuce there any more, after seeing a photograph of how lettuce can soak up into its leaves, the pesticides in the poisoned soil. Everything that has label on it, it seems, it made at least partially from high fructose corn syrup.

It's getting worse. The news of sudden bee colony death, likely caused or aggravated by nicotine-based insecticides, is promising a deadly threat to the ability of farmers to produce crops at all, for the lack of pollinators. I  personally fear that crop losses of fifty percent may become commonplace in only a few years. What is especially infuriating is the amount of money that our elected officials can accept from Monsanto and other industrial concerns, without any shame whatsoever. This doesn't just threaten large agricultural concerns. Even the farmers who take their produce to small open air markets will be affected, if GMO crops are growing nearby. They say that city bees are still doing relatively well. Maybe people in Brooklyn and Manhattan will come to rely upon gardening, just as people in the suburbs now are able.

I remember the first Earth Day. I loved the Whole Earth Catalog, and spent hours poring over every section. Yet, all this optimism about a New World Order soured with time. People made jokes about recycling. The American people wanted cars that were powerful and masculine, not fuel efficient ones. Or so we are told. I would think that advertising is a powerful enough force to change peoples minds into doing what is not right for them. Just like a cigarette habit: If you've smoked for a long time, it hurts to smoke one. But, if you haven't smoked for a hour or so, the nicotine in your system gradually changes your mind. Now, you really want one, and you think it will be a very pleasurable experience, as soon as you light one up. Gotcha. Still hurts. Wish you could quit.

I don't think there is a simple answer to all this. The right wing media is attacking anything that could possibly challenge the status quo, that is, all the ills of our society. For example, they don't want teachers to teach children bad things. They might try to teach our children that Easter is just a way to sell tons of sugar to American children. We don't want our kids to have their religion to be threatened by these godless liberals, they would have us believe.

But it would take a top down, thorough effort to reeducate the public, to reject what we have been led to believe is civilized behavior. We need to leave the "controlled shopping environment" ( a term from The Malling of America: Travels in the United States of Shopping, by William Severini Kowinski)  of the mall, the television, and the internet, and take a deep look at what is much more primitive, yet most vital to the life that we have forgotten, the life that we need to start living. We need to appreciate the culture of the African, the Asian, and the European peasant, to learn how it is possible to live in close harmony with nature. We need to listen to the scientists who study the natural world, and learn how vital it is to preserve the natural envelope we live in, and learn how to live responsibly. The cabin that I grew up in, with its primitive devices, its obsolete technology, is for me a symbol of the type of life that we need to embrace, in the very near future. The cabin of the future in which we will live may take all kinds of forms, depending where we actually live. But we need to start roughing it. Anything less than this, is suicide.