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rewilding the mind

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 Senses   

"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

"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve God's will—God's good, pleasing and perfect will."-Romans 12:2

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 as mother.   

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. 

As we study and critique civilization, it is important to recognize that it is more than just social theory or even theology: that our very physiology is susceptible to its poison, just as our very cells are no longer impervious to the ever-expanding tentacles of corporate privatization and patenting. Yes, the landscape of our mind, the tenor of our spirit, along with the actual configuration of our brain cells has been altered by the carceral archipelago of civilization and its demands.  

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.   
Derrick Jensen is fond of saying, “Dismantle globally, renew locally.” I assume that he is talking about dismantling infrastructure and technology and renewing bio-regions.  But how do we first dismantle the civilization within us and renew or re-wild our minds?

I want to be cognizant of the cyclical nature of dismantling and renewing. While I think that there is certainly value in Jensen's slogan, how do we ensure that if we are dismantling, we have something within ourselves that has already been renewed or re-wilded? Something like a mind, a spirit, senses.... 
This is imperative if those of us trying to practice an undomesticated spirituality are to materialize the liberatory, already-but-not-yet world/kingdom/lifeway that we hold in our hearts and minds after this civilization implodes under its own weight, and ensure that we don’t simply reproduce domesticating systems, oppressive hierarchies and false binaries that for so long have deafened human animals to the spirit's urgings and the messages of non-human life.  In other words: how, when this civilization crashes (like every other civilization before it), do we keep from building one more civilization on which to depend? Not to mention continuing the competitive, racist and misogynist socialization that has been being massaged into most of us since before our cognitive faculties were fully developed?   
How is this not a hopelessly impossible task? 
There is more nuance than I am setting out here—when civilization crashes it will probably not look like the blank slate presented in Hollywood movies or Cormac McCarthy novels. We might not even use the word crash for what happens. We might have to invent a whole new language for what happens. Or learn an old one. But I think that as people attempting to connect our minds, bodies and spirits in a struggle to recognize and resist the disease of civilization and to move toward total emancipation we can play a powerful and prophetic role in envisioning and actualizing what comes next. 

But to do this, we must begin to understand, to help each other understand, what it means to no longer conform to the pattern of this civilization and to re-wild our minds, to recognize what instincts remain intact within us and resurrect them, reclaim them for their intended purpose—to help us live on this earth as we were intended. I hope that we can practice this and that we can, therefore, practice hope.