my short essays
sw 4 part 2
The Story So Far
It's been a year since I finished my last little book, Civilization Will Eat Itself. Since then I've lost count of how many new one-draft handwritten texts I've started and abandoned because they weren't good enough. Helen of Unknown News saved the year from being a creative wasteland, by inviting me to write some internet columns that I'm very happy with; but nothing beats straight to final draft for creative satisfaction, and this time I'm going to put my feet back under me and start with my personal life.
Even when I tell people I'm older than I look, they usually guess me about 27. In fact I've been here almost 35 years. When I was a kid, and read stories about the "black sheep of the family," I never imagined that would be me. I always thought I'd be rich. But here I am. To my friends my age, I'm somewhere between an unsettling eccentric and a hero, because I have few obligations, seldom have a job, get food out of dumpsters, and go off on relatively bold trips. To my younger anarchist friends, my lifestyle is pretty tame, but to the ones who want to live this way permanently, and not just in a phase in their late teens or early 20's, I'm living evidence that it's possible.
I get more outside the system as I get older, and almost everyone else gets more inside it. I don't know why. Sure, I'm stubborn and hopeful and my mom raised me to have a strong inner sense of my own value, but that's true of a lot of people, and I'm also physically weak and delicate, and I tend to avoid conflict and take the easiest path.
I think it's my memory, which is probably the strongest thing about me. I remember what it feels like to be a little kid, relatively wild and free, and then to be crushed between the wheels of the machine of civilization. I remember, not just 30 years ago but last month, having to go along with an insane ritual, to pretend to be someone I'm not, under the threat of certain punishment. I don't exactly remember, but know, in the residue of a thousand memories, how the system gets us: We start out just pretending to go along, and then, gradually, we forget we're pretending.
But I never forgot. I hated the schooling system all the way through college but got good grades; I hated having to go to jobs but did them well. In hindsight I was much too cautious, but other people were much too impulsive, rushing into the dead end rebellions that the system sets up for you to break your spirit, if they didn't get their spirits broken even sooner. Meanwhile I was building my strength year after year, saving up money and spending it on time, learning cooking and bicycle repair and plant identification and other skills for the borderlands between civilization and the real world, and studying the beast that's swallowed me, probing for its heart so I can kill it, or its skin so I can get out.
Now it's May 24, 2002, and I'm at a picnic bench on a bike trail at the edge of the Seattle metropolitan area, on the first day of a summer of wilderness bike camping around the northwest. My bike is lightly loaded for what I'm doing -- I looked at several "the minimum you need to bring" lists and I'm bringing less than any of them: a good sleeping bag but no tent, no fork or spoon, no soap of any kind, no duplicate clothing (short and long cotton shirts, a long linen shirt for heat, a polypropylene undershirt, a fleece, an old gore-tex windbreaker, rain pants, jeans, and shorts, socks for hot and socks for cold, and no shoes but the sandals I'm wearing), and for bike tools just a Ritchey CPR 14 multi-tool, tire removers, self-sticking patches, a pump, four spokes and an extra tube. I don't need a freewheel remover to change spokes because I can take my freewheel apart by hand, because I've stripped it down to two gears plus the "cap" gear which I never use. Except for being able to switch between 39:19 and 39:17 by moving the back wheel, I'm doing this on a one-speed bike.
I don't say "singlespeed," because to a cyclist that word has baggage. "Singlespeed" is what ultra-hip cyclists do to prove they're more hard-core than wimps who have to shift. That's not me. I'm a bad athlete and usually the slowest cyclist on the trail. I didn't convert my ten speed to a one speed because it's harder. I did it for the same reason I use a bike and not a car -- because it's easier.
Cars only seem easier than bikes when we're short-sighted. They cost a fortune to buy and/or maintain, which normally requires a fortune worth of some combination of hellish wage labor and living a lie. Because you can drive them only on engineered routes, and leave them only in regulated designated places, they effectively rob you of the use of your legs and force you into a highly controlled sub-world. And of course, building and fueling cars requires the attempted murder of the Earth and the successful enslavement of poorer people, and if you stop yourself from seeing this you're suffocating your soul, and if you see it and drive anyway at least you're being honest with yourself, but you're still not at peace with yourself.
I'm not morally judging you for allegedly owning a car -- the car owns you, and I'm sympathizing with you caught in that terrible trap. Or actually it's a sub-trap of the trap of civilization, which I'm caught in too. Nobody's pure, but anyone can fight to get free.
Now, a one-speed bike is easier than a multi-speed in not quite the same way, and not for everyone. For me, shifting breaks the flow, and only makes it seem easier for a second, and then I'm working just as hard to go slower. It might be different if I had super-low gears and super-smooth shifting, but a bike like that would cost a small fortune to buy and/or maintain, plus its theft value would limit where and how I could leave it. One way or another, shifting gears is a burden, and I'd rather just make the adjustments with my own legs. This brings up the question, "Isn't it harder on your legs?" No! Because I'm only pedaling a third as much as a multi-speed cyclist. The other two thirds of the time I'm walking the bike up hills and coasting down them. This is slower, but slower isn't harder -- slower is easier, because it goes with a more relaxed and open state of mind.
Into The Real World
Of course, civilization is a deviant fantasy world, and the real world is what civilized people call "nature." And since I've been broken in the machine I can never go all the way into reality. But I'm going farther this time than before. My intention is to practice real-world skills like making shelter and tracking and identifying plants, and my intention also is to set up one or more semi-permanent campsites, where I can stash heavy stuff and not have to haul it in next time, and where I can hide from the authorities if that's ever necessary. And since the authorities will read this if it also happens that they're looking for me in particular, you'll understand if I'm vague about where I'm going.
It's my second evening out. The first day I made the mistake of accepting an invitation to join a friendly japanese bike tourer in way over his head. He speaks almost no english, his bike is way overloaded, and he's much slower than even I am. I thought it would be worth it for a few days to share his tent, but I also want to make my own shelters, and he snores loudly and non-rhythmically all night. So this morning I got him to understand I was breaking up with him, and got on my way. We were camped at the dead end of a trail that my map falsely showed connecting through. It was a long dead end.
It was also raining, and the tolerable 50-pumps-a-day leak in my back tire suddenly sped up to 50 pumps an hour, so I changed it and there goes my spare tube. My water was running out, but not as fast as I was getting into drinkable stream area. I have a very strong immune system against bacteria and happily take chances with small wild streams.
Almost all the weight on my bike is food and water, sprouted grain crackers (homemade) and dense bread and a tub of organic clarified butter in back, and up front two two-liter water bottles in improvised carriers made of tupperware pitchers held on the front fork with those things they use to hold pipes together on the ceiling of your basement. Around noon, down to half a bottle, I found a magic waterfalls. Of course all wild waterfalls are magic. I think each one has a fairy. So I made friends with the fairy even though, having been civilized, I can't see it, and I sang it a song.
It never occurred to me before to sing this to the Earth, but it fits perfectly -- that great Pretenders verse, which I'll copy here without permission. Try it: "The powers that be / That force us to live like we do / Bring me to my knees / When I see what they've done to you. / If I die as I stand here today / Knowing that deep in my heart / They'll fall to ruin one day / For making us part." Writing that just made my cry!
So I stopped for the day very early, maybe 1PM but I don't have a watch. My legs were getting sore and I found a great spot, at least a hundred yards off the road, apparently legal, dry, and invisible. The normal users of this place are locals who light campfires or fish or drink beer, but I found an area with no footprints going to it (there's very basic tracking), sandy and overgrown. One of the plants is a shrub of the pea family, covered with yellow flowers. Another is a tall stalk, jointed, red-speckled, with large heart-shaped leaves. When the river floods, it covers this place and debris sticks in the plants, which the sun has now dried to mats of old leaves and roots. I found an opening under some bent-over shrubs, and cleared out the inside into a sleeping space. I dug the damp sand out and threw dry sand in, and leaf debris, and I stuck lots of dried up matted stalks into the shrubs to make them slightly more rainproof.
I think I was not especially lucky. I think it's normal for the real world to give us everything we need for shelter and water and fire and food. Those are in increasing order of difficulty, and I'm years away from eating off the land, but shelter's pretty easy. The books show you this design and that design, which helps only if it gives you a sense of what's possible. The way you really do it is improvise with whatever you've got. The shelter I built is practically implicit in this little place. It's sunset now, and some geese just flew over, crying out how happy they are to be alive and wild.
What I Think
So I'm slightly famous now. Because I called my last zine "Civilization Will Eat Itself" instead of "Superweed 4," and spent $20 on flashy cover paper, I attracted some attention and became an obscure figure in the obscure "anarcho-primitivist" movement. Now I'm tempted to detail how I agree and disagree with other anti-civ writers, as if I'm trying to author the official doctrine of the movement. Of course I won't. I hate authority more than anything, and having some writer-authority of my own throw away is something I dream about, like owning property and putting up signs saying "Property Is Theft -- Trespassers Welcome."
So I'm just a person talking about what I observe and think, and for that matter, so were Einstein and Socrates. Or, you are an important thinker, without having to write anything, at the moment that another person finds your thoughts helpful. That's what "qualified" really means -- not "who says so?" but "does it help?"
I don't make walls -- I make cracks. And because I don't care about credibility, I can say things that people who care about credibility can't even think. We'll see how many I get to before this is over.
It's the end of day 3. In civilization the days are never long enough, but out here they're just perfect. I thought I rode a good long day with good long rests, but it turns out I stopped really early again. I explored one spot but found no water, rode back half a mile to a stream I saw, found a beautiful spot, ate, talked and listened to the waterfall, built my bed, carried out a lot of broken glass, and got ready to go to bed as the sky darkened, but it was just thickening clouds. They cleared and the sun was still really high! So I improved my bed, ate again, and still time to write.
In hindsight, yesterday's site was not so great, just good shelter-building practice and a good bad example of what happens when a bike gets into wet sand. Today I'm in a little hollow invisible from the road, under a big dense fir tree that blocks the rain, beside a rocky stream with a little waterfall over a log. A little while ago a duck or goose came flying down the stream and we startled each other.
The basics of shelter are to get something under you that's soft and insulates against the cold ground, and to get something over you that stops the rain. (If it's windy it gets a lot harder.) Last night, half-dry sand and a gallon of old leaves under me were not enough, and I got sore hips and a lot of cold pressed skin. Tonite I should sleep better than any mattress. In this area, the thing to do is get under a big tree that's all dry underneath, and make a bed out of moss, which you can pull right off of living and dead trees in thick sheets. I'll have just the moss under me (and under that I pulverized and cleared out the soil), and my sleeping bag on top of me.
A credible survivalist would say it's cheating to bring a bag and a tarp, and a bike touring "expert" would say it's foolish to bring only a sleeping bag and a small tarp. I haven't used the tarp yet -- I hate the way they feel but it's still better than being soaked.
And I wonder: Is anyone else doing survival bike camping? It seems so obvious. Bikes are a better way to get around than cars or walking, and the real world is a better way to live than civilization, and its ultra-light material needs are a perfect fit with the light carrying capacity of a bicycle. Why aren't more people doing this?
I think I have rare motivations. I mean: I want to have fun and adventure, which is a typical motivation, and I want to save the world, which is somewhat common, but my biggest reason for doing this is that I want life to be easy, which is rare. People possessed by civilization want life to be hard and keep getting harder, like an addiction. That's why everybody chooses a lifestyle that costs more than their income, so they can constantly be rushing around to make ends not meet and go deeper into debt. That's why, when normal people go on real world adventures, they don't camp by a stream in a temperate forest and slack off for a week and practice skills to make the next time easier -- they push themselves furiously along "trails," commanded paths and goals so they're still being slave-driven, or they even climb to the frozen tops of mountains where nothing is meant to live. That's why so many people on the margins of society are severe substance addicts, because the civilized psyche can't tolerate life without obligations and has to create difficulty somehow; or, slaves know how to trade one master for another but they don't know how to be free.
I'm a super-ambitious slacker. My mom tells me I was the happiest little kid, and would get absorbed in some little thing for hours. Then the system sent me to school for 18 years, and then to work. It almost got me. I almost forgot what happiness is, and who I am, and what was done to me. But I'm remembering now, and the more I remember the angrier I get. It's not enough now for just me to be able to slack off and play all day. I'm going to break the system open and bring the whole world with me, or die trying. Better kill me now.
Near the top of this page it became day 4, some kind of military-themed holiday on which the higher class slaves don't have to work, so a lot of them drove somewhere for the 3-day weekend and today the oncoming lane is full of them carrying their metal vehicles on their backs at 65 miles an hour back to the city.
I'm writing this with a pen I found on the side of the road, which was an especially lucky find since I only use one kind of pen, a Pilot V5. Last night the moss wasn't thick enough to be especially soft, but it was warm. So I got good sleep, but today I'm not making the time that I thought I would. This isn't a weekend hike where I can trash my legs and let them recover for a week -- I have to use them again day after day. So today I'm going to stop in an area I hoped I would get through.
Right now I'm at a place where a lot of people stop and picnic. My food is running out faster than I hoped, so I got the idea of harvesting the trash. So far I got some french fries and half an egg and ham muffin. I won't openly rummage through the garbage bins but I quickly worked out a system: go to the bin with two bags, open it, reach in, and throw out one bag while switching the other one with one that's in there. But there's not much in there now, at least not at the top. Strangely, I found a nearly full pack of cigarettes (Newport Menthol for you urban trackers), which only a non-smoker would ever find in the trash. I'm keeping them as a potential trading commodity.
This is the kind of thing I meant by "borderlands" on page two. One of the strawmen that pro-civilization people set up and attack is the idea that people alive today must change to living exactly like Indians. I personally think we're going to live ten thousand different ways, each one of them economically like all "nature"-based people and mentally like none were before. And obviously, in any case, it's going to take generations for us to work through the residues of domestication and authority and industrial technology. As one way dies the other will grow, so that between the two there's always a way for someone who's making the journey.
We're all walking through the borderlands or waiting to die. This little book is about my particular path, eating fascistically farmed food (organic is only the first step back), using products manufactured with petroleum and forced labor, taking advantage of the lingering conveniences of dumpsters and highways and the postal system and the internet, so I can survive while I learn to travel under my own power and talk and listen to nonhumans, so I can work with other humans to get our minds free. If your path is using a corporate job to survive so you can learn to cook more healthful food and read about ecology, I have no problem with that (and it's none of my business). I just want people to be moving and not holding a position until they die.
So it's day 5 now. Yesterday I couldn't get to a promising garbage bin because a bunch of people were right there barbecuing chicken. So I rode up a hundred yards, went in the woods and made a camp, and when I rode back, not only were they gone, but they had left plenty of unfinished pieces of chicken, and below that I found some fast food chicken. It saved me from a serious food shortage and I stretched it through this afternoon.
Last night I was in a hurry to camp so I used the tarp, the corners attached with four mini-bungee cords (homemade from the lightest bungee cable and coat hangers) to trees or sticks I stuck in the ground, as the roof over my moss bed on uneven ground matched to the contours of my body. When the rain started, I noticed that the tarp and bed didn't exactly line up, and that the lack of a good roof support was making water pool on top, and that the actual wet/dry line was not the edge of the already small tarp but six inches inside the edge. I ended up barely sleeping on uneven ground not matched to my body, scrambling all night to keep the edges of my down sleeping bag from getting wet.
As soon as I was sure the sky was getting light, I got up, and waited under a roof at the tourist stop, stretching and massaging my legs until the rain stopped. I kept stretching and massaging throughout the day, and remembering to breathe hard, and made excellent distance in every way, into the land I wanted to be in. When I spotted a bicyclist's dream, a paved road blocked to cars, I followed it and am now lying on a bed of evergreen needles under my tarp which this time is correctly placed over a straight fallen tree two or three feet off the ground.
The above campsite was spooky. A burned tree stump at the center looked like a shadowy figure. The cans and bottles from previous campers were unusually old, nearly rusted away cans and unfamiliar bottle shapes. For every living tree, three were stumps a few inches high, marked for death with blue X's. In the night when a train passed, I dreamed it was an airplane overhead getting louder and louder until it had to be on top of me, about to crash. I woke and didn't know who or where I was. In the morning I found a bolt missing on my bike, and replaced it with a piece of a hard stick, some fir pitch, and when that wasn't enough, some wire I brought, scavenged from a wire-bound notebook. In a hurry to get going, I left behind three of my five mini-bungees.
My food almost gone, I made it to a town and restocked, and rode on, on a day that seemed impossibly long, with two long legs of riding and time to explore an area and build a solid shelter. That was last night. It's day seven now, and I'm resting.
Back on day 3, in the enchanted riverbank, I remembered how Derrick Jensen made deals with coyotes in A Language Older Than Words, and I tried making a deal with the mosquitoes: I'll let you bite me three times, and you'll leave me alone. They landed on me three or four times and went away, and I didn't know if they were biting me or not, because it was on my head where I couldn't see them, and afterwards there was no evidence of a bite. But they were biting me. It was out of my sight so that my beliefs could gradually get used to what I was seeing: On the next night, three mosquitoes bit me on my hands and in the morning there was no evidence of a bite unless you knew just where to look. This was better than I had hoped -- not only were they keeping the deal, but the bites didn't itch!
The next night, in the spooky place, they didn't keep the deal or even recognize one, and the bites did itch. The next day, here, I tried again, and again they kept biting me, and there were a lot of them. I tried talking to them, killing them, and swatting them away. I got out my herbal mosquito repellant, and the first two big oily spots of it I put on my hand, mosquitoes flew right into. So much for that. I was rushing to get my shelter done, picking up and arranging dry branches and armloads of dry pine needles, while keeping my head shaking and my hands waving around to stop them from landing on me.
When I finished the shelter and sat down, I noticed that the first three consensual bites had all but disappeared, while the nastiest, itchiest bumps were where I killed a mosquito mid-bite. In a desperate experiment, I sat still and let the whole mess of them bite me. After a minute or two, it became clear this would not work as a long-term tactic, so I covered my hands and head while I got ready for bed, and slept with the bag covering all of me. It occurred to me that there are people being tortured at this moment, all over the world, who would love to trade places with someone camping in the wilderness and just being bit a lot by mosquitoes. And I know now from personal experience that having fifty mosquito bites doesn't feel any itchier than having ten.
I asked my dreams for an answer to the mosquito problem, because I really wanted to stay here longer. Every time in my life I've asked my dreams for help, they haven't told me a damn thing, although a few times they've given me obvious valuable help when I didn't ask. Tonight I dreamed that a man abandoned a bicycle with a broken frame, and other people scavenged the parts. Should I give up this survival bike camping idea and work on squatting in the city? Or even make another wishful attempt at finding a long-term source of income that's better than death?
This morning, sitting all covered except my face, with the mosquitoes trying to land there, I tried another desperate experiment. I began sucking mosquitoes into my mouth and eating them. After a while I realized I didn't have to just use my mouth, but could go after them with my hands. This was fun! I was no longer the hunted but the hunter, luring them with my scent and snatching them out of the air like a frog. I wondered how many calories are in a mosquito, and whether I could live on them if I did this all day. But after a few minutes, they were gone. It worked!
After a day of observing, this is how I figure it: Eating the mosquitoes is not necessary, although I think going after one with the intention to eat it really does work better than just intending to kill it. The important thing is to give them my attention. There are a finite number and they come in waves, much more frequent when the temperature is moderate than when it's too cold or dry-hot. If I don't deal with them, they build up -- they don't go away unless I kill them or they get my blood. There's no trick -- it's just being mindful, and also understanding the terms of natural warfare: I'm not trying to eliminate my opponent, but to defend my territory and maintain equilibrium.
I'm about to spend my third night in this great spot. I've seen lizards, chipmunks, hummingbirds, a squirrel, at least one eagle, a tiny bright blue snake, and some kind of massive walking bird. I've seen bear poop and thousands of deer tracks, but no bears or deer. There's a plant everywhere with a potentially edible massive root if I can prepare it just right. And I'm effectively pretty remote, even though I'm not 800 feet from a good road.
There are only three reasons normal industrialized humans go into the wilderness: to follow designated trails, to sit around a campfire drinking alcohol, and to exploit the Earth -- to cut down all the trees or kill the biggest, healthiest animals. I'm not on a trail, I'm too far off the road for drinking, and deer season isn't for months. If I had the skills to live off the land and not go into town for food every three days, and if I didn't attract attention by building a fire, I could sit back here for months watching the cars go by and no one would guess it. And if you looked at a pretty detailed map, like the DeLorme state atlas, and pointed to where I am, I'm so close to the road it would look like I'm on the road, and behind me is a big space before the next road.
Or actually, on all but the smallest scale map, behind me is what looks like a trivially small space, a little blue trickle branching off from a slightly less little blue trickle, not even worth going into. Today I went into it.
You might guess, from the map, that you could just walk up the stream. In the real world, it's so overgrown and messy that no one would walk 200 feet up it for any conceivable reason. I walked up the ridge on one side, and walked and walked and on the map I was barely moving. This world is big. I stood on a spectacular rock promontory that doesn't appear on any map, and looked over a vast bowl full of trees into which, conceivably, no human had bothered to go for years.
Of course, implicit in this is a fourth reason to go into the wilderness, which, if not normal, is clearly visible from there: to get so far back that you will never be bothered by civilization. And I see at least two varieties of this. I'm thinking of Chris McCandless, who traveled all over the margins of the western states and finally famously starved to death in the Alaska outback, as documented by Jon Krakauer in Into The Wild.
I would have called the book "Dead White Men." All the outsiders described in the book are very, very white, and do things that only a very white person would understand. Now I consider whiteness to be a culture and a social class only accidentally related to skin color. Only someone against civilization could get away with saying this, but a white person is just a more advanced form of a civilized person, one step below a Nazi. I was raised white and will always be a recovering white person, holding my body stiffly, seldom spontaneously laughing, struggling with the habit of seeing everything in detached mechanical terms. But even when I was 20, I was not as white as McCandless. I read that people described him as having a mad stare in his eyes, like he was always looking, looking for something, and I remembered reading that Indians in one of the desert tribes described the first white people exactly the same way.
What we white people are looking for is our lost oneness with the world -- not necessarily the world of roots and berries and animal tracks, just whatever world is in front of us. Because we have had alienation built into us, we can never find oneness, not even in the deepest wilderness. Now that I think about it, there must have been a lot of "white" people in the Eastern branch of civilization, or they wouldn't have had to invent all those spiritual traditions of being in the moment.
As for the other variety of getting away from civilization, though I usually cite Charles Fort's The Book Of The Damned as my biggest influence, my real biggest influences were books I read as a kid: Fantastic Mr. Fox when I was five, The City Under Ground when I was eleven, and when I was sixteen, a book a friend handed to me, Bill Kaysing's The Robin Hood Handbook. It described, in wonderful over-the-top sixties language, why and how to live free in the woods instead of getting stuck in some "establishment job." Two friends and I swore we'd do it, and of course none of us did, but almost 20 years later I still haven't given up the idea.
A similar contemporary book would be something by the Crimethinc people, but now it's not hippies living in the woods, but anarchists living on the urban fringes. Why? Why are there no contemporary radical books about living in the wilderness as a way to fight the system?
I think it's because people are smarter. The sixties were only practice for what's coming, and the purpose of practice is to work through mistakes. Radicals today don't simplify and idealize nature like they did in the sixties (though conservatives think we do). It turns out that surviving in the wilderness is hard. If you don't learn a lot of it as a kid, learning long-term wilderness self-sufficiency as an adult is about as hard as learning to be a chess master or a classical musician. But surviving in the city outside the system is relatively easy. Also, if the war of our time is over human consciousness, then the city is where the action is. Also, if you're a freak or a member of some deviant or underground movement, the city is safer, because you blend in with thousands of people who look exactly like you, whereas in the country or the wilderness, just being seen is being noticed. Or, if infrared surveillance can detect a single person hiding in the woods, it can't tell which one of a million people in a city is the one they're after.
I haven't been noting the date changes, but it's now Sunday evening, June 2. Yesterday I went into town for food and ended up staying for hours just to be around people again. On the way back, I spotted something that thrilled me more than the ten million wild plants living in harmony around my campsite -- a single weed coming up through the pavement. That's me. That's who I am in this life, or at least right now, not living-in-wilderness man but someone moving back toward wildness from the sterile heart of civilization.
This was only supposed to be a three week trip anyway, and now I might go back sooner. Then I was thinking of going out again for a month or two, but now I might stay in the city for the summer. Civilization is an unsustainable fantasy world, but it's my place, and if we really do have a few generations to get out of it, then I'm pushing too hard trying to get out of it in my lifetime. But then, if it is going to crash in my lifetime, I want to survive! I'm walking a difficult line. I'll definitely keep coming back to the real world, but I'll also keep living in the city and sometimes playing computer games.
But not just yet: Today I finally went deeper into the wild, to check out the super-remote area I found after hours of studying maps, and was aiming for from the beginning of this trip. After a couple hours of hard traveling on the roads, I discovered that the road that went closest to the place was private and "no trespassing." I wasn't ruling out sneaking through at night, but wait! A different map showed another way around. I rode there -- and yet another selfish land-"owner" zone. But wait -- on the keep out sign was a map more detailed than any I had, that showed yet another way, though it wouldn't get as close and would require some walking through the woods. I rode there, and it was good. It would work.
Navigating on topographic maps is harder than one would think. I figured out where I was by lining the map up with my compass and looking at how the land sloped. Then I began walking straight through the dense trackless woods, using the compass to sight a tree as far away as I could keep my eye on, and walking there, and so on. Then, unexpectedly, I came to a road, seemingly a continuation of the road I had left, which I had thought, from the map, would go a different way. Never mind: I kept following the compass, and after a while, all of a sudden, there it was: the inaccessible canyon I'd been seeking all day, the Valley Of The Dinosaurs, the whole length of it stretching out below me from the cliff I had emerged on. And strangely, below me, there were roads, a dirt road and an overgrown road farther down. This must be normal -- the roads on the maps don't go there, but a road on no map does.
I sketched the new roads onto my map, from what I could see: the two below and another one on a farther ridge, which might connect to the two below, and might also connect to another road shown on the map, but a long way around, requiring an extra day and another base camp. Then I walked back through the woods with the compass to my bike, and tried the road it was stopped on.
And it turned out my triumphant compass walking had been unnecessary: The road I was on turned into the roads down below. I explored them and drew them onto my map. This was great! It's like Dungeons & Dragons but it's real: I'm exploring passages that no one has mapped and where almost no one has been. The better roads were closed to motor vehicles but had a horse track and what might have been a motorcycle track, but the roads that went deeper in had no tracks bigger than deer. On a higher one, an eagle took a look at me from only 20 feet up.
I wanted to explore them all but the afternoon was getting on and I was running out of water. I had brought food and gear to spend a night in the canyon and come back, but only enough water to get me there. I knew I would find water there, but now, with the delays, I would be lucky to find water and rig a shelter before dark. So I climbed back up and, in a shockingly short time, coasted back down to my base camp.
It's Monday June 3 now, and I was undecided whether to go up again and explore the canyon today, or rest and put it off for my next trip. What decided it was yet another slow leak in my back tire, the fourth or fifth now, in three different tubes. When I get back I'm going to throw these cheap-ass Kenda tires in the garbage. Anyway, today I'm going to rotate my tires, fix two tubes, eat my food down a bit, and soak some wheat berries which I will try to sprout on the road. And write:
Cyberpunk As Metaphor
It's commonly believed that living like Indians is a good metaphor or myth, which we can use to help us in civilization, but that actually doing it would be unrealistic, because we're going to have "technology" forever, so a more realistic vision of the future would be something like the cyberpunk genre of fiction, with advanced technology but all gritty and complex. I believe the opposite.
Living like Indians is by far the most solid vision for the actual future of humans, because it's been done, for millions of years, and some people are still doing it, and no society has ever been observed to stop doing it except under coercion. In fact, civilized people have been known to adopt it when their way failed, such as the ancient Mayans and the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke Island. (And I'm not asking you to go with me here, but fringe archaeology shows that very advanced civilizations have risen and fallen before this one, and living like Indians is just exactly where they went afterwards.)
I've shown a lot of excitement about a cyberpunk future, and the only way I've changed my mind is that I no longer think it's literally possible. Now that I understand technology better, I see that the particular fashion of tool-making that we call "technology" is inseparable from patterns of abuse and estrangement that can only last a very short time before burning themselves out and taking our computers and our cars and even our particular fashion of "science" with them.
But I still think cyberpunk is a brilliant metaphor, much better than the idea of living like Indians, which is too "backward." Now I don't mean that as in "we can't go back," which is just stupid propaganda, a pseudo-intellectual version of an institutionalized prison inmate saying he can't go back to the outside world. What I mean is, living like Indians is usually taken as a very specific goal, not open to interpretation like the Communist goal of rule of the proletariat, or to compromise like the goal of living like in Star Trek. It's as if we've been given the exact last chapter of a book and we have to write the rest of it, calculating backward from the ending. Now some people call this "goal-oriented" but I call it stuffy and anti-creative. I prefer to create history the same way I write this document and live my life -- with a vague idea of where I'm going that's flexible, and navigating by centering myself where I am and taking the direction that's most alive.
I think most people feel the same way. That's why living like Indians is seen as a serious good-for-you future, while cyberpunk -- extending the present world into beautiful chaos -- is seen as fun and wonderfully dirty.
I think it's a good bet we're going to end up living very much like Indians, but paradoxically, not by aiming for it. I think we can get there on paths of fun that look like they're leading elsewhere. I think all roads of fun and aliveness lead to the wider Universe. What's more fun, cutting down a tree to create factory farmland so we can get the human population up to a vaguely exciting twelve billion, or climbing a tree to see if there's a storm coming? If you could track animals as well as you can read, and stalk and kill them as well as you can drive, wouldn't you rather do that than read mildly entertaining forgettable novels and drive to your job every day?
It's Tuesday June 4, and I can't track or stalk animals and I don't think it's a good use of the rest of my life to learn it. Today I began riding back to the city a different way than I came. I misread the topographic map or else went through warped space, because again and again I thought I was almost to the spot I wanted to get to, and that last ten percent took a third of the day. That frustration has loosened me up, and tonight I'm risking not making any kind of shelter, just stretching out in my sleeping bag under a tree. The area I'm in doesn't even look real: It looks like a forest in a unicorn painting, with wide-spaced big trees and no undergrowth except calf-high silky green grass everywhere.
Next day, and I've stopped early, after riding for hours against a headwind so strong I often got off and walked the bike even though I wasn't going uphill. One of my water bottles went sour. I've been filling them from streams the whole time, but I should have been emptying and rinsing every time I filled, instead of putting new water on top of old. So I had to cancel a side trip and go straight into a town to buy a gallon, since I don't trust any nearby streams. I also bought some non-real fast food that I've been craving. Now I'm sitting alongside a river, and I've prepared a needle and leaf bed under a cluster of big trees that will keep all but the worst rainstorm off me, and I should really be happy except I am burned out on bike camping and ready to be back in the city.
The fun of traveling is overrated. People tell me they envy the fun I'm having, or they go traveling and email me about how fun it is. But I know it's a lie. Traveling is mostly painful and scary and difficult; but as a traveling zine-writing friend points out, you learn a lot. Also life is more concentrated -- I feel like I've been out a month. And by next summer or sooner I'll forget the pain and be ready to do this again.
Friday evening, June 7, and I'm in Seattle. After the last entry, things just got worse and worse. I woke up to a normal cold morning but, unlike every previous day, it never got warm, and it started to get rainy, and I got into an area where everything was wet. It's really hard to make good shelter if everything's already wet, unless you make a fire, which is really hard if everything's wet. For me, all that is an all-day job, not something I can tack on to the end of a day of hard pedaling and walking.
I ended up sleeping in a roadside bathroom stall. It was a special non-stinky kind, and rarely used, so there was no bad smell. And it was dry. But except for a glacier, there's nothing in nature as hard and cold as a concrete floor in an unheated building. I ended up folding my fleece once and using that as a mattress pad for my ribs and hips, and then using baggies of food to keep my knees and ankles from touching the floor and having the life sucked out of them right through my tarp and sleeping bag. Plus I had a little bit of a fever, so I put on all the clothes I brought and pulled the sleeping bag over my head all night, and was just barely warm enough.
This morning I got up as soon as the sky started to get light, and began a planned 16 hour epic journey all the way back to my sister's apartment where I'm temporarily staying. After around six hours, in an outlying suburb of Seattle, I was near the end of my strength. Fortunately I happened to be riding along a bus route, and when a bus passed me, with a bike rack on the front and going somewhere that would take me three hours to ride, I happily waited an hour for the next bus, and I ended up busing all the way downtown, and getting to the apartment just before a thunderstorm broke. If I'd still been out in the suburbs, I probably would have got a motel room, something I will only do if I seriously think my life is in danger. As it was, even after a hot bath and a 3-hour nap I still feel feeble and starved.
And I am sick of the wilderness. If I see another waterfall or dead fern or deer track, I'm going to have a panic attack. I still think civilization is evil from the very idea, and that humans will probably go back to hunting and gathering if we don't go extinct. But if I personally have to learn to be self-sufficient in the wilderness, or die when the crash comes, the choice is easy: death.
Chellis Glendinning writes of our "primal matrix," the deep sense of belonging and meaning in nature-based societies. Well, what I have is an anti-primal matrix, a pathological matrix, a deep sense of belonging and meaning in a society that can only exist by abusing all other life, where I can only survive by exploiting or being exploited. That's the awful truth. This doomed world is my home, and the enduring world of nature is, to me, a harsh alien place where a couple days of rain will kill me.
Now I understand why pro-civilization people say "we can't go back." What they mean is "I can't go back, and I wouldn't want to if I could, because civilization is where I feel at home." I feel exactly the same way, but I don't make their mistake of projecting this very personal feeling on the whole human race. Thus you see stupid statements like "If we go back to hunting and gathering, our kids will just start using technology again." No! We are the ones who will be tempted to keep using industrial technology, because it's the world that we come from and that feels right to us. Our descendants will think we're insane. Having grown up in a world of nature-compatible "stone age" technology, they will have no reason to switch to our alienated and labor-intensive paradigm, not until the next time civilized people come and massacre them and steal their land and send their kids to re-education camps.
I don't see any conventional way around this: Whatever you see as the cause or driving factor of civilization, all it takes is a tiny bit of it surviving anywhere in the world, and it will spread like wildfire -- not the way an idea spreads "like wildfire," but the way a wildfire spreads like wildfire, by burning and consuming everything in its path to feed its own expansion until it burns out, over and over for all eternity.
Maybe this is just the way things are, like the Hindu idea that history is many millions of years old, and circular, and this is just another Kali yuga. Or maybe there's an unconventional way around it: a permanent change in human consciousness, so that we're resistant to the disease of civilization in a way that no one was before.
I Love Civilization
So my writing has been pretty negative for the last couple years, but at the same time, I love a lot of this twisted world: hunting and gathering at the natural food store, watching movies, riding around in a car with the stereo blaring, staying indoors for days playing on the computer and making pies. Let me dissolve the paradox:
Every society (or at least every civilized society) has two elements, which I will call the grass and the pavement. In my home society, the pavement includes the education system, which makes us stupid and obedient and spiritless, and the job system, which makes us one-dimensional and obedient and hopeless, and the news media and dominant science, which narrow and distort our perspectives while pretending to expand them, and our religions and countries and sports teams, which get us to waste our attention and sympathy on things we do not influence. And the grass includes people squeezing through the cracks in these systems, daydreaming, socializing, slacking off, breaking the law, doing personal projects, speaking forbidden truths, starting underground movements, playing, telling stories, inventing and creating.
Of course I love the grass, but I also kind of like the pavement, because it's so fun to crack, and because maybe stronger pavement makes stronger grass. Some animals grow much larger in the presence of predators, and just maybe the human soul grows larger in the presence of civilization, when it isn't devoured.
In The Absence Of The Sacred
If going through Western Civilization permanently transforms human consciousness, then what will that transformation be? Back when I made my "civilized people - white people - Nazis" progression, I didn't mean that was true in every way, or that I'm against civilization in every way. There's at least one way in which Nazis used a kind of non-civilized thinking that I don't agree with.
Derrick Jensen tells the story of some Indians who believed that a big mountain on their land was dreaming the universe, and that if the mountain ever woke up, the universe would end. Of course some civilized people came and violently threw the Indians off the mountain so they could mine it. And the night before they were to start, the Indians called their white friend in a panic: They're going to wake up the mountain tomorrow. What are we going to do?
Excuse me for being insensitive: What you're going to do is wake up tomorrow and discover that, in fact, the world has come to an end: The world you knew is dead. But you already know that nothing ever really dies -- it's only transformed. The mountain didn't wake up -- you woke up, from a simpler universe into a more complex one. And paradoxically, the mining company's motivation for doing you this favor is that they want to go more deeply asleep in their simple dream world of "developing" "resources," instead of waking up to the living Earth.
The same thing goes for Indians who greeted conquerors as "gods." Nobody deserves to be massacred or enslaved, but they needed to have their idea of "gods" pulled from in front of their eyes. Now seeing them as men possessed by demons or evil spirits -- that would have been perfect.
Jerry Mander called his anti-technology pro-Indian book "In The Absence Of The Sacred," but I'm not against genetic engineering and nanotechnology and space colonization because they intrude on "sacred" ground, or because there's anything special about the way the world used to be. I'm against them because they are being used to strengthen and extend top-down central control, because they are being used to insulate us from other life, and because we're just babies in our understanding of the universe and we're bound to cause painful catastrophes.
And if Mander's right that all non-civilized human cultures have taboos, then I'm inclined to not simply duplicate that way of being, because I am anti-taboo, anti-sacred, and anti-reverence.
I'm making subtle distinctions here, or doing delicate psychic surgery, separating things that might seem inseparable. I'm pro-myth, pro-animism, pro-magical thinking, and I love Lord Of The Rings. I think everything in the Universe is aware and alive and meaningful. I just don't think anything deserves special status. I think we're all equal and "looking up to" is a pathological emotion. I will not buy into a style of thinking where you can make fun of that or question that but not this, because this is sacred. What I'm trying to get at here is a rigidity of mind, a cult-like seriousness that tries to hold back the shiftiness and negotiability of absolutely everything. And if we can get over that, if we can open up to foundationless limitless flux, then we will have transcended all previous societies, civilized and non-civilized.
Civilized society claims to have transcended taboo, but imagine a politician or college professor saying some of the stuff I've written in my zines: their career would be over in a second. And civilized society claims to have transcended religion, but religious thinking is still built into its very foundations. The idea of "progress" is a religious doctrine. So is the idea that technology is "neutral" and so is the idea that "we can't go back." And the use of the word "evolution" to declare the development of civilization to be a continuation of the development of life on Earth, is not only religious but obviously false, since the development of life has been toward diversity and the development of civilization has been toward uniformity.
And dominant-science exclusionists, with their double-standard "skepticism" and "debunking" of diversifications of reality, resemble the worst caricatures of simple-minded primitives, reacting with fear and rage to anything that crosses the borders of their pea-brained universe. If we accept firewalking or spoon bending or rains of blood or orgonomy or even homeopathy, then our little universe is dead and reborn as a universe a little bigger and less certain.
I'm not "neutral" or impartial here. I am a reality diversifier, aggressively open to any idea or experience that leads outside the dominant reality. I'm not afraid of being "wrong." If you're in prison, and you see what looks like a passage out, you're going to follow it as far as you can, through any obstacle, and if it dead ends you're going to come back and try another opening; and someone who ridicules you for being "wrong" is not an imprisoned warrior but a jailer.
I see at least four paths that might lead to humans having lived with dinosaurs: anomalous evidence of the extreme antiquity of humans (see the book Forbidden Archaeology), anomalous evidence of the recent survival of dinosaurs, time travel (which I think is a dead end), and my favorite, the idea that reality itself is inherently dream-like and divergent, and what we call "reality" is an artificial island of predictability and sameness.
I think this is the lesson of all fringe research, not just the "paranormal" but seemingly dry and non-magical subjects like political "conspiracy theory" and strange science: Again and again, people have experiences that are perfectly real, but they can't "prove" anything, and other people's perfectly real experiences are contradictory. This lack of "proof" is not because the experiences are "delusions," and it's not because of bad luck. It's because what we mean by "proof" is something that would force everyone in the world to see it the same way, and these phenomena are glimpses of a world that doesn't work that way, a world too wide to fit out single-visionedness.
That's why I'm glad that no one has found a crashed UFO, or publicly demonstrated an anti-gravity machine, or brought back a dead pterodactyl from the north Mexico deserts where they're sometimes seen -- because that would represent these phenomena merely immigrating to our single-visioned world, instead of leading us to their multi-visioned world, to a consciousness where, as Charles Fort said, "We believe no more. We accept."
So this is where my fringe phenomena interests and my anti-civilization interests come together, in the guess that we can get out of civilization, and also stay out of non-civilized cultures that are susceptible to civilization, by learning to navigate a world of ever-shifting and contradictory reality, the same way we now move around in a three-dimensional world by using the ever-shifting and contradictory visions of our right and left eyes.
Of course, my vision of human transcendence to a world of contradicting vision can itself be contradicted. I haven't experienced the consciousness of nature-based peoples, and maybe they already have what I'm talking about. In that case, I don't see any way out of the scenario where we keep falling into civilization and rising out of it until we go extinct. But just because I don't see a way out doesn't mean there isn't one. And declaring civilization a one-time fluke is not a way out but a way of avoiding the question through very wishful thinking.
Also, my opposition to taboo and sacredness and reverence could be just a feature of the time I live in, when those things exist only to prop up dead and corrupt authority structures.
Also, even if we humans do have a chance to find a wonderful new consciousness, it's human-centric to assume it's worth it. If I were a forest about to be clear-cut, I think I'd want humans to forget their little transcendence games and just go extinct right now please. Then again, there's reason to think that the Earth is healthier and more abundant with humans acting as skilled stewards than with no humans at all. So maybe, if humans could work through this ugly phase and be as good as they were before, or better, and I were a forest, I'd take the chance.
go to part 2