Towards a Re-Wilding of the Mind:
On Instinct, Loss & Renewal
Liza Minno Bloom
"We tend to see our distant
past through a reverse telescope that compresses it: a short time as
hunter-gatherers, a long time as 'civilized' people. But civilization
is a recent stage of human life and for all we know, it may not be any
great achievement. It may not even be the final stage. We have been
alive on this planet as recognizable humans for about two million years
and for all but the last two or three thousand we've
been hunter-gatherers. We may sing in choirs and park our rages behind
a desk, but we patrol the world with many of a hunter-gatherer's drives,
motives and skills."-Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the
"The wind told a story and everything understood, everything in the woods, but I could not understand. And I felt that I had lost something fine from an earlier age..."-The Illalogical Spoon
I have long wondered about the possibility
of living without civilization not in terms of whether people want
it, but whether people are capable
of it. Thinking about the evolution (or devolution) of the brain,
for one thing, makes me question some of the boundaries that civilization
has erected within us, boundaries or diversions beyond just the emotional
and social ones.
It was actually my mother who began
me thinking about this. When I was in high school, we were in the car
together and she was musing out loud: “If we had to survive now in
the wild,” she said, “we would be so poorly equipped. We are so
dependent on these cars, on these stores...we are so cushy.”
Well mom, in a way, you're right.
When humans lived without civilization, their sensory receptors—determined
by their brain make-up—were far more refined, equipping them to not
only survive, but thrive in creation.
Stephen C. Cunnane, in his book on
human brain evolution called Survival of the Fattest, says that
gatherer-hunters had such finely-tuned olfactory sensors that they could
not only detect the presence of food from far away, but could pick out
what particular kind of food they wanted—what animal, tree, etc.—and
where precisely to go to get it. Now, the majority of us have olfactory
sensors that are so clogged with and deadened by perfume and smog that
they couldn't smell their way to the cereal aisle in the grocery store,
not to mention to a specific fruit tree in the forest.
My interest here, though, is not so
much in what we (as a species) have lost, but what we retain,
instinct-wise, and how we are (mis-)using it.
Through anthropology, we know that
humans used to live much more closely to non-human animals—physically
and relationally. With domestication came anthropocentrism and
the human-animal binary. However, we still see the need/desire
of humans to commune with non-human animals. Social critic John Berger,
for example, notes the rise of stuffed animals as toys in the mid-19th
century during the industrial revolution and the growth of cities, i.e.-moves
away from the natural world. Now, of course, stuffed animals are
an absolute given in any modern child’s bedroom or fast food happy
meal. Berger says that stuffed animals “address our loneliness
as a species” and signify the presence of an instinct or desire within
us that remains from an earlier age, but is unrequited in this one.
Another hang-over instinct from our
collective memory of nomadic times is the general delight that people
take in high spaces. People build skyscrapers and will pay exorbitant
amounts of money for the penthouse apartment or office. You can
see it too in children’s propensity for tree climbing. Elaine
Brooks, among others, attributes this to the fact that we are still
biologically and genetically programmed as hunter-gatherer nomads and
identifies it as a protective instinct from our days as potential prey.
When being chased by a predator, a tree or other high place provided
safety, respite and a strategic view of your pursuer. The relief
of being high up out of the path of the predator, the rapid slowing
of heart-rate and subsequent relaxation translates into pleasure and
still occurs within most humans when in high places (excluding acrophobics).
Furthermore, Cunnane argues that imprintability—the
ability of infants to learn certain responses and distinguish between
highly-nuanced sensory stimulants—is "hard-wired" into humans
and primates, as something like deep memory, or instinct. Humans and
primates can, through imprintability, catalogue countless species of
plants and animals and recognize their mother by her smell alone. However,
in many cases, animals that have been domesticated and separated from
their group will imprint genetically-unrelated or inanimate objects
I see this last example as a sort of metonym for our situation now. We (domesticated human animals) are still capable of imprintability—it is, as Cunnane says "hard-wired" into us—but, lacking regular significant interaction with our land base or “group” (as it were)—we imprint totally meaningless things. Life-less objects become pale replacements for the life, the connections, we would like to have stamped within us. We can recognize hundreds of different car models, call them by name, we can distinguish between the subtleties of shoe designs, but we don't know what plants we can eat, or which animals to avoid. We still have the capabilities, but we are wasting them on vacuousness, the mirages of civilization.
I believe that we have gotten our
(collective, civilized) selves into this mess in large part through
practice—we have practiced buying things, staying inside, watching
TV, practiced submitting to bureaucracies, obeying false gods. Most
of us no longer need governments or power structures coercing us into
domestication; we are practiced enough that now we domesticate and regulate
ourselves. Therefore, it seems that practice must play a part in getting
us out. This is where re-wilding can be very, well, practical.
Practice it. Learn the plants that
live around you, learn about your animal neighbors, learn about your
body. Cunnane notes, “Successful hunting takes time and practice so,
even when stimulated by hunger, few humans without considerable experience
can successfully trap or kill an animal for food. Hunting is a learned
skill, but not under the duress of imminent hunger or starvation.”
Again, if you want to be able to feed yourself, practice feeding yourself
(the same goes for gathering, all you vegans out there).
Having said that, I suggest that we
need to conceptualize re-wilding in much broader terms. Beyond learning
skills that will allow us a certain degree of freedom from governments
and centralized (but constellation-like, far-reaching) power structures,
we must re-wild our minds, our very spirits—must reverse the self-domesticating
flow that our civilized ways, domesticating religions and gluttonous
consumerist practices have set in motion.
There is no shortage of challenges
to such a charge. Indigenous people who are trying with all that
they have, in this moment, to remain in close communion with creation
and to practice an undomesticated land-based spirituality and lifeway,
are being assaulted from all sides. Many in this country are being violently
relocated away from the land that they belong to as we speak.
Beyond the fact that they’re being forcefully relocated so an elite
few can make money, I see this attempt to separate people from their
land as a deeper move to sever some powerful connection with the spirit
that those humans have not lost, a connection that, as proponents of
civilization know and deeply fear, could explode the beast, belly first.