How does a Rix go feral?

I still remember the first seeds of my rewilding. They were sown in my childhood–little things that took root. My mom told me one time, while I was blowing away dandelion fluff and making wishes, that dandelions were edible. She had never eaten them, but she’d heard that people did. I also heard from my mom that queen anne’s lace was a wild form of carrot–though she never remembers telling me that. Later, when we moved out into the country, my grandmother told me about eating poke–how you have to boil it several times and never eat the purple stems and avoid it once the flowers start growing. I think she also mentioned that “pigweed” (aka. lamb’s quarters) could be cooked up as greens.

It wasn’t until college, however, that I stared to act on any of this lore. At an old fashioned bookstore in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, I found Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Cookbook and Field Guide. In that moment when I picked it up off the cluttered shelf and flipped through the pages, my mind went back to those things I’d heard, and I realized that I could try them for myself. The best part was that Tatum is based in the Ozarks not far from where I grew up, so the lore was directly applicable to the flora of my surroundings.

Later in college, two of my best friends found themselves in the most unusual required life science class. The professor would walk them around campus and sometimes around town, introducing them to various tress and shrubs and wildflowers, teaching them the binomials as they went. Since I didn’t have a class in that time slot (and had unfortunately already taken my life science class,) I would join them on these hikes. I still remember the timbre of the professor’s voice as he would chant “Now this here is a Morus rubra. A Morus rubra. A Morus rubra. Morus means mulberry, and rubra means red. So, it’s a red mulberry.”

By this time, I had already started trying some of Billy Joe Tatum’s recipes (like dandelion fritters) and was happy to append my wild knowledge in any way possible. I would often spend time pouring over my little field guide, just letting the pictures and descriptions soak into my mind. I found that my method really worked for me, as later that summer, working at a cattle ranch, I would see a vine growing and realize it was maypop. Or I would smell the licorice scent of a patch of weeds I was supposed to cut down and realize that they were sweet goldenrod. I found some stray sassafras saplings on the edge of our property and decocted their roots. It was as wild of a summer as I had ever known. Complete with blackberry wine and a lonely mayapple found in the shade of a grove.

After college, I lived in and around Austin, Texas. I was poor and out of work most of the time. So one day I decided to walk around and see if there was anything wild that I could eat. I found plantain and sow thistle growing by the Univeristy of Texas off-campus housing and took them home to cook up for dinner. They lasted me a few weeks before the sow thistle got too tough and prickly to eat any more. But it nicely supplemented the burritos I had been stealing from my part-time job at Taco Bell.

Several years passes after I left Austin where I didn’t do any wilding of any kind. I moved a lot, got married, changed jobs often, and seldom found the time to continue learning about the wilds. Eventually, I found myself in New York, reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, sitting on the fire escape of my apartment in Morningside Heights, thinking, “I’ve got to start doing something.” I went back through the links I had accumulated in my internet wanderings and discovered that there was a man in New York City named Wildman Steve Brill who led people on wild foraging tours in the city parks. “This is awesome!” I thought. Not only could I have somebody to learn plants from, but I would also have the chance to find out exactly where things were growing and go back there any time I wanted.

I was able to satisfy my foraging urges quite a bit in New York. I suppose it’s appropriate that the heart of civilization is where I learned civilization’s darkest secrets. My Christian upbringing had taught me that you can only reap what you sow. But Euell Gibbons told me otherwise. I can reap what the Earth herself sows. From the cattails and blackberries and sassafras in Van Cortlandt Park to the wineberries and jewelweed at Inwood Hill to the raspberries and mulberries and violets in Morningside, I reaped wherever I went. When the blackout struck in 2003, I walked home from Midtown to Morningside via Riverside Park, noting the first-year burdocks, the stands of lamb’s quarters, an elderberry tree and the abundance of squirrels. If the power stayed out and our supplies had dwindled, I felt certain that with a camp shovel and a few rocks I could keep my family alive.

But I knew that the wilds held more than merely a few things to keep me alive. Steve Brill, Euell Gibbons and Billy Joe Tatum had all taught me that you can dine deliciously on wild fare. Daniel Quinn and Jean Auel taught me that people–ordinary people, in fact, no different than you or me except for the way they had been raised–had thrived and continue to thrive in the wild. I wanted out of this prison. I wanted to eat like my aboriginal ancestors. I wanted to learn to hunt, to forage, to treat and prevent ailments, to master the skills of life. I wanted to know how to actually live.

There’s a scene in Jean Auel’s The Valley of Horses where the male protagonist and his brother are on a long journey and lose their boat and almost all their belongings in an accident on a river. They manage to survive and make it to shore, but they have nothing more than what they were wearing. With just the clothes on their back and a flint knife that had been tucked in a belt pouch, the two men were able to start all over again. They made wooden spears with fire-hardened tips with which they were able to hunt. Once they had some game, they were not only able to eat, they were also able to use parts of the animal to make new clothing and gear. They wove baskets from reed grass to carry their new supplies. And they were able to continue their journey.

That’s what I wanted. I wanted to be like those characters–able make everything I needed from whatever was at hand. I believed it was possible. Humans have been doing it for millenia. It’s just that we civilized humans have left that knowledge behind. Fortunately, though, some have started seeking it again, and they are sharing their knowledge. When I was in New York, I had a mentor of sorts in Steve Brill, in that he could show me where to find plants and how to use them. But when I left New York, I knew I was leaving that support behind. I still have Steve Brill’s book, and I use it all the time, but the comfort of another human being to physically show and teach me about my local flora is gone.

In response, I turned to the internet. It wasn’t too long before I found some new stuff that I hadn’t ever happened across before in all my previous searches: other people who were also trying to know how to actually live. I read a lot of Urban Scout, Anthropik, Aftermath and Ran Prieur, and I rejoiced that I was not alone. I saw that there are lots of people out there already who are trying to figure all this stuff out. Some of them have gone to schools and seminars and gatherings to learn primitive skills. Some are trying as much as possible to live primitively in their daily lives while others are trying to rewild themselves as they continue to plod through their civilized lives. I wanted to join their ranks, but I didn’t feel capable of leaving my civilized entrapments just yet. Ironically, it was a rather sobering bit of news I saw on Anthropik that gave me the most hope.

In Where Have All the Savages Gone?, Anthropik author Jason Godesky asks and answers the question of why no one has completely broken free of civilization yet. Even the big names in primitivism (Tom Brown Jr., Thomas J. Elpel, etc.) don’t live their lives completely free of civilization’s yoke. They basically still have “day jobs”. It’s just that their day job is selling primitivism. So, if the big dog’s can’t get off the porch, then how is a pup like me supposed to do it? There are just too many laws, too many restrictions in the civilized world right now. Basically, civilization can’t let anything non-civilized co-exist with it. All other cultures must be consumed by the machine of civilization.

It seemed like all was lost. This pup was doomed to stay on the porch. But Godesky ended the article by stating that as the collapse of civilization progresses, “the civ” will be so busy trying to keep itself together that it won’t be able to police its competition so fiercely. Think back to the Great Depression and how many different ways of “getting by” were allowed back then. People lived in ramshackle shelters on Central Park’s Great Lawn. Hopefully that means it will be easier for me to live in a debris hut or wikiup in Fayetteville, Arkansas, when the civ starts going down this time.

So that brings me to my current state of hopefulness and determination. Anthropik and Aftermath have inspired me by the solidness and systematicness of their escape plans, and Urban Scout and Ran Prieur have inspired me by their willingness to dive out there and try something uncivilized on a daily basis. I don’t have much in terms of monetary resources or large chunks of free time. I won’t be trekking off to Outward Bound or spending a year at Teaching Drum. I’ll invest in books (Thomas J. Elpel’s Participating in Nature has already lit a fire under me) and invest in the smaller pockets of time that my family, friends, and job allow. If I can find a different line of work that gives me the means to have more time for myself while still providing a high enough degree of safety and comfort for my wife and son, I’ll jump on it. But until then, I’ll go at my own pace. Someone once said (I’ll fill in the source when I can go back and find it) that being a modern aboriginal isn’t a matter of what you do or how fiercely you do it–it’s a state of mind more than anything else. So this blog will be my travelogue, recording the move of my mind from one state to another. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by luke on 02/25/2007 at 11:07 am

    Sandifer also said, “It’s just a person’s name. It’s like saying Sandifer Gonnorhea.”


  2. Thanks for reminding me of his name. I didn’t get any Sandifer coli or Sandifer gonorrhea comments on the walk-around-Arkadelphia tours. But you and Chad certainly said those two phrases enough that I should have remembered. I still remember that Dendrobates pumilio is the strawberry tree frog. Although it looks like they changed the Genus name to Oophaga last year. I guess Sandifer will have to update his repertoire.


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