We civilized folk have it pretty good. Our water is clean, drinkable, and usually free of infectious microbes. The streets are paved, flat, and dotted with signs indicating our location and lamps to illuminate our way at night. All the food we could ever need or desire is a car ride, a bus ticket, or a phone call away. We have machines that safely store this food for months and even years, wash and dry our dirty clothes, shoot out hot water to wash our bodies, and maintain whichever ambient temperature we choose.
And those are just the basics – food, shelter, and water. When it comes to leisure time, to entertainment, we have it really good. Our televisions, tablets, laptops, and phones stream tens of thousands of high-definition movies and TV shows. The collective output of the world’s musicians, past and present, is also available for instant streaming or downloading, and we can fit thousands of books on an e-reader that fits in your back pocket. If you’d rather not pay for any of this stuff, libraries let us borrow the books, movies, TV shows, and music for free.
We’ve also got video games, board games, card games, sports, parks, swimming pools, surfboards, skateboards, snowboards, mountain bikes, road bikes, fixies, inline skates, museums, art galleries, blogs, Twitter feeds, newspapers, magazines, and literally hundreds of other enjoyable and engaging devices, hobbies, resources, and physical and mental pursuits perfect for whittling away our free time.
If the safe interiors of our constructed societies represent the pinnacle of human achievement, comfort, and cultural innovation, why do we rock climb? Why do we go helicopter skiing? Why do we tune into television shows depicting humans trying to survive on a deserted tropical island or convince a 500 pound anaconda to swallow them whole? Why are we so obsessed with Shark Week?
“It’s interesting.” Yes, it is interesting. But why?
“It’s exciting.” Absolutely. It’s cool seeing how people react to being dropping off on a deserted island.
“Sharks are awesome.” Agreed. What makes them so awesome, though? Those things are scary.
I’m not trying to come off like an annoying five year old who just learned the word “why.” Bear with me.
Why do wild animals fascinate us? Why do millions of people self-identify as hunters, bird watchers, butterfly collectors? Why, on hikes, do I still go “Oh, check it out!” every time a regular old lizard runs across my path, I narrowly miss stepping in coyote poop, or I hear a rattlesnake’s warning off in the bushes? Why was I so stoked a few years ago to snag the Planet Earth Blu-ray for half price on Black Friday?
Because the wild calls. And we listen, or at least our subconscious does, because the wild is within us.
One of my favorite pastimes is reading about the megafauna, especially the megafauna humans encountered. Between giant sloths, bull-sized rodents, ten foot tall kangaroos, elephant-sized rhinos, short-faced bears that dwarfed modern grizzlies, situationally-bipedal marsupial lions with Popeye’s forearms and Wolverine’s retractable claws, and elephant birds laying 22 pound eggs, you begin to realize that we lived in a world full of wonderful and weird and monstrous creatures. We used to face those things. We would eat them and, probably, be eaten by them. Can you imagine it? You’re among the first humans to reach Australia. You’ve just caught sight of land, you’re exhausted, and as you make your final approach the first thing you see are giant kangaroos bounding along the beach with gargantuan birds trying to escape giant eagles swooping down with 20-foot wingspans.
That’s where we come from. A world of fantastical monsters. A non-linear existence punctuated with unparalleled excitement. No, life wasn’t a blockbuster adventure movie. Most of it was sleeping, chatting, eating, laughing, hunting, gathering, fishing, tinkering, and playing — normal, everyday stuff — but the backdrop was always nature’s architecture and the potential for high adventure and full sensorial engagement was there.
And then we left. We settled into our progressively cozier and cozier civilized lives, our routines, where most days are the same, where the beasts are kept at bay. But ever since we left the wild and settled down in towns and cities and farms, the call’s gone out. It’s never stopped.
From Gilgamesh to Huck Finn, the Garden of Eden to Into the Wild, the Lord of the Flies to 60s counterculture, Jurassic Park to Planet of the Apes, Steve Irwin to David Attenborough, writers, philosophers, artists, and anyone who’s ever lived in “civilization” have grappled with and felt the pull of the wild and the savage. The polarity between civilization and wild nature is a constant force in our lives, manifesting in the media we consume and the hobbies we pursue. Even music helps us transcend normal human consciousness to access the same inexplicable sense of awe and wonder we get communing with nature.
That urge to take a sick day and watch Shark Week in your pajamas and tweet about it? That’s the call of the wild. That mountain bike we’ve been considering or those surf lesson Groupons we paid for months ago and never redeemed? That’s the wild calling for you.
You should heed it. And maybe, just maybe, get out there and get into it. In person, rediscovering nature.
I remember, clear as if it happened an hour ago, an encounter Buddha and I had with a coyote several years back. We were out in Calabasas hiking Red Rock Canyon, this gorgeous trail winding through red sandstone cliffs and caves that give off an ochre dust that covers the area. Now, Buddha’s your typical white lab – gregarious, inquisitive, and friendly but also loyal and protective. So when the coyote emerged from the bushes, feet dusted red from the dirt and looking more dog-like than you’d think, Buddha took a few steps forward, tail waving speculatively. He was bigger than I’d imagined coyotes around there got. Slight of build but long and tall and wiry. Capable, scrappy. Almost friendly, if you didn’t know better. He’d look at you, then avert his eyes when he caught you looking back.
The coyote followed us for ten minutes or so, keeping his distance. He was obviously fascinated by Buddha, this mysterious non-coyote canid blundering through his turf. Or maybe he was annoyed, just wanted us out of his territory, and this was his way of subtly escorting us along. The encounter rejuvenated me. It was small and we weren’t in any danger, but being in the presence of a wild animal — the trickster figure himself — made me feel alive. Buddha, too, if his happy trot to finish out the rest of the hike was any indication (dog owners know that trot). Maybe I’m just a sheltered victim of civilization. Maybe that’s the entire point. I could have read a Wiki entry on coyotes or watched a documentary and come away very knowledgeable, but it just isn’t the same as being in the immediate presence of one.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with watching nature documentaries. Just know that they’re probably not enough, that something vital is missing. They’re a bit like junk food. Junk food advertising works so well because it plays on our natural desires for nutrient and calorie-dense whole foods. And as we’ve discovered and shown over the past half dozen years, this mismatch between the nutritional needs and expectations of our bodies and the modern food landscape destroys physical health. We eat Pringles and pizza and drink Coke to sate the body’s demand for carbs, fat, protein, and calories because it’s all we know. But those foods don’t come with the micronutrients that their whole food corollaries (tubers, meat, fruit) come with, and we suffer, grow sick, and get fat.
We watch Attenborough documentaries, Survivor episodes, and visit the zoo to sate the body’s demand for soaring vistas, crushing surf, looming mountains, teeming forests, and close encounters with powerful and beautiful and dangerous wildlife. Those shortcuts don’t give us the micronutrients our bodies need — the stress-reducing volatile organic compounds released by trees and leaves, the sounds of bird calls and crow wings and scuttling squirrels, the feel of real earth, the uneven surfaces that make traversal more fractal and healthier, the close encounters with wildlife, the adventure, the intensity of full sensorial engagement.
They’re junk food. Junk food can be fun on top of a nutrient-dense diet, but it can’t replace real food.
That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading.
Do you ever notice the call of the wild? If so, how do you respond?
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