Civilizing Influences, Part 1

Tent with Catskills
waking up outside

This morning, I read this article on Michael Fay, a loner conservationist who’s decided to hole up in a pair of cabins in Alaska to study wilderness there. He works alone, for months at a time, holding thoughts of civilization at bay by spending his days hiking, exploring, hunting.

For a long stretch of my life that was what I imagined adulthood would mean for me, and I couldn’t wait to do it. At first, when I was 10 or so, it meant circumnavigating the globe solo in a sailboat and flying bush planes in Alaska to provide medical care to people isolated in the backcountry. When I got older I figured I’d get a job teaching English at a college close enough to a wilderness area that I could live out of a tent and commute to the school on bike or by foot. I envisioned grading essays by lantern light, keeping only the books I needed and relying on the library for everything else, stacking up papers neatly to store in a plastic bag so they’d make it back to school dry even if the skies opened overnight. I didn’t see any reason this fantasy couldn’t work, as long as I was happy being single (I wasn’t and couldn’t imagine being so, but I didn’t let that get in the way of the fantasy).

I started camping in high school and chose my first college based on this prospect: studying ancient Greek and reading Thucydides on weekdays, hiking arroyos and camping on mountaintops nights and weekends. For months when I was between schools I slept on my parents’ lawn rather than in the perfectly good bedroom they had for me because I wanted to wake up outside and feel the contrast between the warmth inside my sleeping bag and the cold dew-soaked air on the outside.

The longer I spent in school, though, the less accessible these fantasies, and these ways of living, seemed. I never shared them with my friends or my family because every hint of it that I dropped in front of the people I wanted most to impress–my advisor, my smartest friends–caused eyes to roll. I began to see them as childish dreams that needed outgrowing, a course through life navigated only by hippies whose ultimate destiny was a claustrophobic cul-de-sac of handmade moccasins and irrelevance. By the time I graduated from college and managed to spend a few blissful months camping and vagabonding around the northwest with my girlfriend, I’d become sophisticated enough to make fun of myself every time I got too excited about spending the night on a cliff’s edge or sleeping in the back of the car by the ocean.

And then I got to graduate school in the eminently civilized city of Boston, where I was studying poetry in the storied and civilized program at Boston University. In one sense I felt I’d made it: I was studying with Nobel laureates, great writers and thinkers who were clearly enriching and extending a literary tradition that went back hundreds of years and shot right through the very room we sat in for our seminars. But I’d made it, I felt, by eschewing any thought of living alone under a tarp in the woods. I still allowed myself to enjoy the outdoors, but it helped my enjoyment immensely if I found it in some culturally saturated place: swimming across Walden Pond, where words dripped from my hands as plainly as water.

It was at B.U. that I came across this poem by Philip Larkin, which I thought of this morning when I was reading the article on Michael Fay. I read the poem now and I can’t quite make out Larkin’s attitude: resignation? irony? mockery? self-loathing? I think when I first read it what I thought was, right, the notion that life is elsewhere–that you could find happiness, or at least something happier, if you just “cleared off”–that’s a fantasy of the soft-headed. An adult who understands that life is a series of choices also understands that any life he leads is necessarily provisional and limited–one choice made among many–and he makes the best of the one he’s chosen (intentionally or not) without pining for another life.

And so I tried to outgrow the fantasy of a life in the woods. To some extent I measured my maturity by the distance I travelled from that fantasy, and I treated any longing for a night under the stars or a month in the mountains as a warning sign of relapse. I took some comfort in movies like Grizzly Man and Into the Wild that seemed to confirm the notion that wilderness lovers are intellectually undeveloped and socially stunted. And the Larkin poem felt like a strong vaccination against developing wilderlust.

But I still can’t give up on the idea. Almost daily I work consciously to adapt to the life in front of me, and almost daily I’m tempted by the thought of retreating to a remote cabin in the woods to be alone and away from people (or most of them). Maybe the struggle makes me better: I’m aware that my life in the city is a choice I’ve made, something I’ve intended; I don’t take it for granted. And on the rare occasions I’m able to get out and away from roads and jets and trail signs, I see with the stunned vision of someone who’s been waiting endlessly for his reward and finally receives it. Or maybe the struggle is a kind of disorder–a dangerous romantic yearning that leads us away from engaging here and now. Maybe it’s something I should continue to struggle to overcome.

There’s a lot I want to say about this, and I want to keep thinking it through. I also want to say some of it in public. The changes we’re trying to make in the food system often rely for their emotional force on the image of a rural life less complicated than life in the city, and the language we use to talk about that rural life is almost always the language of time travel: a return to a simpler time, and so on. But on that chronology wildness stands even further back, and in comparison to it agriculture looks like Babylon.

Here’s the poem:

Poetry of Departures

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand, as epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,

and always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
Its specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard.
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

1 thought on “Civilizing Influences, Part 1”

  1. I love this post. I can identify with the similar lifelong urge to disappear to someplace remote and foreign where all the hassles of everyday life will be gone and I’ll be blissfully happy in the novelty and strageness of it all. And then the other place becomes the everyday life place, and you miss home again.

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