In her book about human-animal relations, Made for Each Other, Meg Daley Olmert tells the story of C.J. Buffalo Jones, a 19th Century frontiersman who, in her words, “witnessed one of the last demonstrations of the natural order that shaped the logic of our ancestors” and left record of it. “On a hill in Canada’s Northwest Territory,” she explains, “he watched herds of caribou congregate until all the eye could see for ten of miles around was a giant mast of animals whose antlers became a mighty forest. For several days this living landscape flowed past him day and night.” The number, which Jones estimated at 25 million, absolutely staggers the modern imagination.
Whether or not his approximation was accurate, still the size and force of such an experience seem beyond comprehension. Yet, it’s exactly the kind of natural event that inhabited our ancient ancestors’ communal consciousness and, not surprisingly, directed their cosmology. As Olmert suggests, it’s a major mental stretch for us moderns “to fathom a world in which we were not the top predators.” Yet, we evolved not in a state of dominion but coexistence, observance and even reverence for nature’s many forces.
What a far cry from our experience today of course. Few if any of us (at least among the Internet connected readership) live at the whim of wilderness anymore. Our society has done a good job at erecting a pretty solid wall between us and these experiences. For better and worse, the power of nature can feel like a remote concept at least in day to day living. Seldom are we humbled by it with the exception of random, localized weather emergencies.
Even if we fit in our “green hours” and get the kids to the local preserves on a regular basis, even if we live in the countryside, even if we’re avid outdoors people, as great as these are, there are whole dimensions we miss, I believe. How many of us have ever hiked – and camped- above the tree line? How many have come face to face with an animal predator? How many have taken on a wave or mountainside that could easily undo us? The beauty of nature is one thing. The power of it is another.
Anyone who’s ever sat with a dying animal (dying by natural/hunted means), experienced first hand true natural devastation or had a genuinely life-threatening run in with the wildlife knows what I mean here. Experiencing the wild world in all it’s glory means encountering its fierceness as much as its grandeur, the danger as much as its sublimity. As reader Kyle Rife put it to me in an email when describing a nasty experience with a hive of yellow jackets he’d had, it was somehow “satisfying,” this “encountering nature and losing.” I think there’s something essential and revealing to that.
While nature was the living, looming backdrop of our ancestors’ experience and imagination, for many of us moderns it can seem more like postcard material – remote places we go “visit” that have relatively little meaning to our lives or how we perceive them. When we manage to get out of the city or suburbs or farmland to spend time in the wild, we definitely enjoy ourselves. The day or weekend or week fulfills a primal desire but probably also modern expectations – a story much tamer than frontiersmen, let alone hunter gatherers, would’ve witnessed. No judgment. That’s simply the age we live in.
What happens, however, when we change not only our itinerary but our attitude? It’s not about consciously donning a Grok style mindset but more about shedding the modern mental baggage to even give our primal awareness room to breathe. We can head deeper into the woods, farther into the state or national park, but it’s ultimately about letting go of expectations, being in the moment and encountering the particular environment fully on its own terms – as a force as well as a setting.
What’s possible when that happens? What opens up? What rises to the surface? How do we come away changed as a result? Do we need the hair-raising peril to get in touch with that humbling energy? I’m guessing it helps but isn’t necessary. The days of massive migrations are gone, and seeking out danger is as foolhardy now as it would’ve been in Grok’s day. Perhaps there’s something to the authentic fight or flight response though. An encounter with death, after all, can be profoundly life affirming.
Yet, brush with death or major injury aside, I think there’s plenty of room for our experiences in nature to change us without threatening life and limb. For me sometimes it’s just spending the day in the dustiness and brightness of the SoCal chaparral. In the face of something bigger and harsher, we can come undone – bared down to our essential primal humanity. We can perhaps imagine a kindred hunter gather spirit some 20,000 years earlier gazing with the same open observance. It’s enough to take us out of ourselves and put us at the center of life – a force greater than our own, an experience more timeless than our individual existence.
I think that’s when we get at the heart of it – when, for so many readers who write me about this – Primal living becomes a way of seeing and experiencing parts of life, particularly the natural world and their part in it. Once you’ve felt that inherent energy and ancient sense of proportion, you gain a different (some would argue pretty counter cultural) perspective on modern life. You live less sheltered and more grounded for it.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a good end to the week. Share your thoughts and comments.