Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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December 16 2014

The Call of the Wild

By Mark Sisson
56 Comments

The WildWe 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 (tubersmeat, 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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56 thoughts on “The Call of the Wild”

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  1. One of the reasons I feel really invigorated when I run on trails in the woods. It’s just so different from anything I’m used to, and I definitely don’t do it enough. Nice reminder!

  2. the wild is within us.

    So is space–the atoms that make up space, that is. That’s why I sent copies of the new Cosmos to every family member with a computer. Now I see it’s available on Hulu for free…I should’ve waited. Everything’s free (or nearly so) if you’re willing to wait for it.

    Now if Neil DeGrasse Tyson would only do a wilderness video…

  3. Any time I felt like- yeah, this is what life is about! – was not in an expensive real estate or in a luxurious vehicle- it was in the middle of savannah in Sri Lanka or in a desert in Emirates, unprotected, barefoot, with no civilization miles around.
    Love that feeling.

  4. Working in my garden on a warm summer day…barefoot…listening to the birds! Connecting with the earth!
    Cross country skiing up a mountain checking for rabbit and Lynx tracks! Getting close to the wildness of nature….feeling so healthy!
    Hiking in the Rockies….coming face to face with a Mama Grizzly and her 2 Cubs! YIKES! Now that was the REAL Deal…and no pictures(except the one in my mind which will probably stick there forever) …we were too scared to move…and feel lucky to be alive to tell about it!
    Now THAT got the Adrenalin pumping!!!!!

  5. GREAT TIMING!!! Literally JUST finished reading”Call of the Wild.” Awesome book on so many levels and great post as well!!!

    1. One of my favorite books. I got in from Amazon for free, on my Kindle. I recently ordered the Jack London collection for $0.99.

    2. One of my favorite books. I got it from Amazon for free, on my Kindle. I recently ordered the Jack London collection for $0.99.

  6. Some great memories I had in my earlier twenties (mind you I’m only 29 now) is going out to camp with friends. We’d arrive at our private camp spot smack dab in the middle of nowhere at around noon. From noon until dark, we’d play paintball and then hang out around the campfire.

    In retrospect, I could argue it was a incredibly Primal, forest-bathing experience. We weren’t just walking in the woods. We were walking, running, crawling, and scrambling through the woods. We were on constant vigilance carefully inspecting our surroundings for hidden threats.

    As nightfall approached, we’d build up the fire and laugh and joke around the campfire as we cooked our meals.

    Good times.

  7. I see something amazing on my walks everyday. Quail, bobcat, bear, coyote, ants, flickers and clouds, sun, feel the wind. It’s all a miracle.

  8. I am lucky. Once or twice per month I manage to slip away to a wilderness area for a weekend. No phone service. No TV. No internet. Barely can receive AM radio (except at 2:00-3:00 in the morning). The only reminders of civilization are the vapor trails from passing planes, maybe the faint hum of a Forestry Service patrol plane, or a distant rumble of an ATV on a mountain road.

    I think the break from civilized contact, coupled with an overpowering awareness of the sights, sounds and smells of the wilderness recharge me. Arrival back in the city, at the end of the weekend, is always a bit disconcerting to me. Too bad they won’t pay me to stay up there.

    Danger? I’m sure the critters lurk nearby but I’d much rather take my chances there than on the streets of the city.

    1. I tend to block fm radio signals maybe a few feet to either side, at least based on the static when I’m in a certain position relative to a certain radio. So does my roomate so I think it must be normal. Recently though, one night, I had like a 6 foot span on either side of me interfering with the radio. I think my electromagnetic field was expanded much more than normal and I noted that it seems like a good thing that I apparently block radiation. So I’m a bit less worried about being in the vicinity of electrical technology now.
      Also on the morning of Dec. 11 I was in a mostly dark room handling a broken plugged in lamp with no bulb in it, which was plugged in, and I got a shock in my hand that made me jump back in reflex and say, “Whoa!”. Shortly after that I was a bit twitchy and felt like I was overcharged with electrons, half voluntarily and half spasmodically dropped to my knees and basically freaked out with my arms and forehead on a wardrobe that was right in front of me, felt like screaming, crying, and throwing a violent fit all at once, and then thought that I desperately needed to get grounded asap so I sprinted outside barefoot, down a flight of grate-style metal stairs (normally hurts to walk on them barefoot but I was not hurt in the least that time) and then slid down onto my back in the snow feet first and lay there for maybe a few to five seconds, felt better, and would have stayed a bit longer except that there was a vehicle approaching and I felt embarrased and hustled back inside, where I felt kind of ecstatic/giddy. Yeah, I know that’s a bit unrelated to this post but I was going to say it somewhere anyway; the mention of radio caused me to recall these memories.

  9. I guess I took for granted what I experienced as a child, growing up on a large farm with plenty of animals, both domesticated and wild nearby. Later on, living in the wilderness for a couple years, seeing coyotes, and mountain lions was a frequent occurrence. It WAS very exhilarating.

    I agree with Mark about the wonders of it all, built right into our DNA. I wish everyone could have that chance, might make the world a better place.

  10. Yeah megafauna! I’ve been intrigued by megafauna since seeing an exhibit in my local museum as a kid (Launceston, Tasmania). Wombats the size of VW beetles. How cool!

  11. Sailing in a small wooden boat, out of sight of land, is a good ‘wild’ experience. Even with GPS and radio in case of trouble, you really feel it’s just you and the elements.

    1. Hey, I agree. It’s a fantastic life. Living on the edge constantly; dealing with whatever mother nature decides to throw at you that day – there is no escaping the huge seas, howling winds or the days of total calm; seeing the wonders of marine life from 60 tonne whales breaching over your bow (that is when you need a second pair of undies!); pods of dolphins playing in the bow waves; being pursued by schools of sharks to being attacked by crocodiles (that’s when you need a 3rd pair of undies). Eating whatever decides to take the bait on the end of the hook. It really is living on the edge, and you sure know that you’re alive. As I read somewhere “if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space!”.

  12. Dude if seeing a coyote from a maintained trail is as wild as you get you need to get wilder! Where trails end is where the wild really begins.

        1. Following a path may be nice and good clean exercise but it’s not wild. A trail is a civilized manner to travel through the wild. Get off the trail into the real wild. The dark timber the brushy draws. Hop on a game trail every now and again as they fade and reappear. Get lost where you cant follow “the way” back. Make your own way. Mountaineering, backcountry skiing, backcountry hunting or anything in the open ocean, that’s when it gets real for me. You’ll also notice you don’t bump into people off trail in the old timber where there are no views, just nature, the hunter and the hunted. My favorite day is when I see more large mammals (deer and bear and elk) than humans.

        2. Yes. For sure I’d rather be rapping into a Utah canyon or bivvying on the side of the Grand Teton than hiking a trail. Most of my outdoor sports (climbing, fly fishing, hunting, mushroom foraging) take me off trail. But I’m still happy to have the trails of our nearby city park to stretch my legs and be in the forest after work.

  13. Mark you just reminded me of some of my wildest expereinces. I was lobster diving off Malibu. I was in the process of dragging a big bug out of a hole. When I got it out there were two blue sharks just drifting and eyeballing me from about three feet away. They vanished just a quickly and silently as they appeared. If you want the wildest rush of all, take up spearfishing. You live in the perfect place for it. Coyotes are to be respected but sea lions are more intimidating than sharks when they are determined to steal your catch.

    1. I think he might already spearfish based on a picture from the top of this site. He’s on the beach with a spear. I don’t remember seeing it in a while though so it might not be in the rotation anymore.

      1. Perhaps, but it would only be impressive if it had a nice big calico bass on the tip. Mark, If you are following this look up Bill Earnst. He taught me how to spearfish in Malibu many years ago and he is a legend in the ocean hunting community.

  14. This goes well with the “Civilisation is Boring” link in Sunday’s Link Love, which tab I still have open.

    I’ll call it real civilization when we can walk out our door and be either at the grocery store or in the wilderness in 15 minutes. On foot. Real wilderness.

  15. Once my sister tried to save a squirrel from one of our cats and I was a bystander until it jumped at her, trying to attack her, so I went for it and it ran a bit away under a crab apple tree. I picked an apple and threw it at it, hitting it in the head and knocking it out. 🙂

    1. Strike three!
      I didn’t do anything else but it was gone a bit later. I’m hoping the cat got it.

  16. I love this post! “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” … gave me chills and makes me wish I could go BACK.

  17. This past September I spend 4 weeks hiking the John Muir Trail south to north solo. It was a great time of the years as there were few people and I had the trail almost to myself and camp sites. I really felt like I had gone back to nature again. Every year I try to do some kind of trip like this and it really help keep me sane until next season. Next year the Teton Crest Trail north on into Yellowstone and then a 4 week backcountry grand circuit of American’s first national park. Ahhhhhhh, now that’s PRIMAL!!!!

  18. I’ve joined a walking/hiking group (Sydney Explorers) that does local and overseas trips. It’s a great way to get out of the city with like-minded people. Heading your way next year – hiking Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Yosemite, Zion. Super excited 🙂

  19. After getting laid off from work this spring I spent my free time camping and rock climbing all over California. It was rough going back to work on a computer all day, but knowing how much happier and healthier I was during that time away I’ve made it a huge priority to continue to unplug and get outside whenever I can. My sister and I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Yosemite climbing, snow camping and being paranoid about bears stealing our food and it was by far our best holiday to date!

  20. I grew up in the country, surrounded by forests, so wildlife was literally part of the landscape (to this day I find zoos terribly depressing places): Coming home from school to find a herd of elk lounging and grazing next to the house; keeping track of the location and distance of a coyote pack as I walked my dog before sunrise*; eagerly anticipating the yearly salmon run that turned the surface of the creek into a swirling, churning mass of grotesque, deformed fish, desperately making their way upstream to spawn and die.

    Even in the suburbs, I am surrounded by wildlife: The duck pair that tried to nest under the downspout; the fox that decided to partake of his squirrel lunch on the front porch; the noise and drama of grackles protecting their nest from marauding crows, and the robins protecting their nest from marauding grackles; the largest of our resident snakes sunning itself on the porch and making the UPS man “scream like a girl” (his words – oops, I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone).

    *Coyotes will send one member of the pack to lure a dog away from its person, and then the rest of the pack will surround and kill the dog.

  21. Lots of good points but I don’t think comparing nature documentaries to junk food is apt, at all. In fact, it’s a little unfair, pretentious even (uncharacteristically so), as some of us have lifestyle demands that prevent us from hopping out into nature whenever we want. I’m unlikely to head to the African safari any time soon, so in that regard, a documentary is as good as I can get right now. A study in 1993 by Roger Ulrich proved that just looking at scenes of nature speeds the healing process, so I prefer to celebrate the ways I can bring nature into my life–for example as I type this at work, I have three beautiful potted plants at my desk and several stills of nature scenery around my cubicle. At home (and sometimes at work using headphones) I play nature sounds–birds, rainstorms, etc. And these things benefit me directly, if not as impressively, as a camping trip would. Maybe you could liken nature documentaries and their ilk to a multivitamin–something which is no substitute for the real thing–food–but which is wholly beneficial in itself, unlike junkfood.

    The way I look at it, the small bits of nature I include in my daily life bring me back into balance and increase the likelihood that REAL nature will be more available to me in my life in time. I would never, EVER consider my nature-proxies junk food.

  22. Each of us has a voice inside. Unlike the voices we hear each day, urging us to consume, consume, consume, and which do so in a bewildering variety of ways that take us further and further from our innate humanity, this inner voice speaks with a barely perceptible volume. And only when the artificial voices of “modern living” are attenuated – perhaps by venturing into the wilderness – can we hear this voice. But once you hear it, you will never forget it.

    I disagree that we have anything of value in reality television, or in virtual encounters with the natural world. By definition, these are really not…real.

    Our inner voice is like a campfire in a lonely forest. Without a supply of fuel, it begins to die, and to flicker like a candle in a breeze. When the flame is gone, there is no life…and that is the “reality” we face today in the world.

    Good post, Mark, but I can’t agree there is much of value in the programmable world.

  23. In the memoir “Sold to the Lady in the Green Hat” by Emma Bailey (my copy was published in 1962), the book begins with Emma’s husband Jack visiting the doctor due to periods of “extreme fatigue.” The doctor pronounces Jack “sound as a nut,” and says his life in the city and his job in a factory are causing the exhaustion. The doctor goes on to recommend that the family move to the country where Jack can work with his hands. The family moves to the country, Jack gets a physically active job, and the exhaustion goes away. I think this took place shortly after WW II–can you imagine getting that advice from a doctor today? (If you’re wondering about the book’s title, Emma Bailey was the country’s first female auctioneer.)

  24. This is exactly why I live in the forest. Of course at this point I have all the regular amenities to go with it, but the wild is just outside my door. I can see bears from my kitchen window during the spring and summer. 🙂 On black Friday instead of going shopping, my whole family, including sisters, nieces, etc. goes on a hike up in the Santa Cruz mountains. It is a lovely way to spend a day that most people spend fighting over electronics. 😉

  25. Mark your posts are often well timed :
    I went for a walk in nature today – came across a 5ft snake on a trial. It probably was as surprised as me and reared up as if a warning it could strike across the few feet that separated us.

    I understood it’s warning and moved on quickly – so did the snake.

    Does this experience count as “The call of the wild” 🙂

  26. This must be why my Pinterest board is full to bursting with images of Norway and New Zealand…

    I’m pining for the fjords!

  27. thanks for the word in print. the aminal world has a powerful pull for me too, not always aware of this….

  28. you have moved me close er to the outdoors world and the aminals that live there.

  29. I live in the remote reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert, which abounds with wildlife. A fox comes by every evening to pick up his hotdog (kosher, all natural) and a pod of javelinas takes naps by the fountain lined up like a row of sausages in the sun. The fox brought his whole family by one time and they did a “fox ballet”, really lovely. A huge raven washes his food in the fountain and red racer snakes slither into the basin, then poke their heads above water to look at the view. Mountain lions, deer, bobcats, coyotes, owls, hawks, roadrunners, a bull snake that I could have sworn was too huge to exist in North America but must belong in the Amazon…. the list goes on and on. There is no way I could give up these animals, or this wild purity, for the city or suburbs. So many writers (Erle Stanley Gardner comes to mind) have felt the same.

  30. I would recommend Banff National Park (Rocky Mountains). The scenery is amazing and I saw mountain goats, bear, elk and a wolf. No close encounters but it was awe inspiring.

  31. Mark, since you like being in the wild I highly recommend you research what’s called bird Language. Perching birds are sentinels giving warning to other wildlife. Native peoples read these signs as well. Bird language has the advantage in that city dwellers have access to it as well and it’s relatively easy to learn. Here’s some resources:
    http://youtu.be/GLUu-v72yVE
    http://youtu.be/rH9o9rsJcU0
    Here’s some examples of the different calls that birds make. Notice the two very different types of alarm calls that robins make and why. If you play these calls during mating season you’ll bring birds to you:
    http://whattherobinknows.com/read-listen/audio-library-of-the-five-voices/audio-listing-by-vocalization/

  32. Our nature deficiency is at the root of so many issues in my opinion.. When I get the call to the wild, it’s usually when I am around family for too long and am taking on their problems.

    When the stress builds up, I go outside and breathe the fresh air. The stress disappears immediately.

  33. Hmm… I must say I reacted at the phrase “Civilized folks” thus implying that people who suffer from malnutrition and contaminated water do so because they are “uncivilized”?

    Sounds a bit colonial…

    Otherwise a great post as always 🙂

  34. Into the Wild is one of my favourite books and I always love the nature pictures on Pinterest and the idea of going exploring. But in reality I hate camping and I’m too OCD for actually being out in nature for a length of time. Ive even had a debate (with myself) over whether to have a real Christmas tree or not as the thought of all the bugs on it coming off and into my flat has freaked me out in the past.