SHANE STEINKAMP'S BACKPACKING BASE CAMP
GRAND UNIFICATION THEORYPHILOSOPHY OF THE GRAND UNIFICATION THEORY
1. Everyone who returns to the wilds, does so for the same basic reason. I call this reason, the Grand Unification Theory. The GUT is: 'Instinctually, we all yearn to return to our natural habitat.'
This theory is just that. A little theory I use to think about the reasons I and many others feel the need to return to the wild. It does, however, raise some questions. These questions are buried deeply within the subjects of instinct, sentience, consciousness, and self-awareness. It is interesting that this instinct is not limited to 'modern' man. You can witness this phenomenon in primitive cultures as well. The Australian Aborigines seem to have coined the term 'walkabout' to describe the temporary abandonment of society, even a primitive one, in favor of wilderness solitude.
I find it rather fascinating that even fourth world peoples have a 'tradition' of 'back to the wild'. I also find it rather fascinating that many modern peoples have lost this instinctual drive.
Of course, not everyone is looking for wilderness - or wildness - or even fresh air.
The GUT doesn't cover non-outdoors types. It's only my theory on why those who go outdoors do so. There are lots of reasons to hike. But what is the ONE common reason? I think it's the desire to reconnect as a natural animal with one's natural habitat. Not everyone is looking to do that, but I think that those driven outdoors by some inexplicable drive are experiencing that desire.
Those who live in the natural world crave our modern comforts, but if you give them our lifestyle, they will eventually desire a return to their natural habitat.
Let's say we took a naked Bushman out of the heat of the summer, and put him up at the Waldorf Astoria. Fine food, comfortable bed, running water, swimming pool, fine shopping, TV, AC, and all the lavish luxuries of modern society. He would be in heaven. Everything he could ever want handed to him without pause or problem. He doesn't have to hunt, fish, gather food, search for water, or go through the trouble of starting a fire. He would settle into this life quite comfortably for quite a while.
But then what? The novelty wears off. Slowly, he would begin to desire going outside - and eventually he would want to escape into the wild, if only for a little while.
Having lived in both worlds, I personally find that each has its benefits and its drawbacks, and that when I am in one I desire the other in some way. When in the city, I start to have a longing for the wilds. When in the wilds, I start to have a longing for a cheese burger and some fries...
Eventually, though, some people become dead to these desires. We all know somebody who wouldn't be caught dead in the woods. There are also a few people who have given up on city life entirely and have 'gone native'.
I do not mean to imply that man is unnatural. On the contrary, man IS an animal - and it is the failure to recognize this fact that gets some people into trouble. As an animal, man must also have a natural habitat. Note that there is a difference between man's natural habitat and the 'natural environment'. A subtle difference, but one does exist. Think about it: Antarctica is full of natural environment, but no natural habitat for man. Man's natural habitat is the place in nature where he belongs. That includes the food chain. (If you don't think man is in the food chain, just remember that without good embalming, the worms get us all in the end...)
Man, by his natural tendency to form social groups, has been able to take the social group to its highest form - the CITY. Due to the concentration of resources, however, cities isolate natural man from his natural habitat. He has created an artificial habitat that he has not yet adapted to.
This artificial habitat arose quite suddenly in historical terms, and all of our instincts are still geared toward the 'natural' world rather than our 'artificial' constructed environments. It will take quite a long time, but eventually we will adapt to this new environment and perhaps no longer hear the call of the wild.
This artificial habitat - the city - is not Unnatural. In fact it is the natural extension of natural desires as allowed by technology. However, the city IS artificial, and it DOES isolate man in a constructed environment. If the environment were constructed in such a way as to mimic the instinctual expectation of man's natural environment then man would probably be much happier generally.
Look at zoos. When I was a kid, Audubon Zoo here in New Orleans was HORRID. Animals locked in steel cages that were far too small for them. This was bad for the animals, and rather depressing. Today, Audubon is the second best zoo in the country. The model? Reconstruct the natural habitat of the animal on display, and give it lots of room in that environment. Is man any different? What's better? The office cubicle by the hall, or the cubicle by the window? The closer we are to our natural habitat - or at least the illusion of our natural habitat - the happier we are. Witness the many plants in office buildings... Of course, I am not a proponent of regression either. We do often forget that just 100 years ago people routinely died from things that are considered minor today.
Really, though, are we in our cities any different from the first beaver that succeeded in damming up a big creek and building a large family of beaver dens there?
Yes, and I think a large reason for this is electric light. In the cities we are ISOLATED from the natural world. A beaver in his den, no matter how large, is not. For example, a hiker who has been on the trail for a few months is likely to be able to tell you when the sun will rise, when the sun will set, when the moon will rise, when the moon will set, what phase of the moon will appear, what the weather will be like later today and probably tomorrow, and many other things 'connected' to the natural world. The average city dweller, however, will know none of these things unless they watch the weather man on TV because they are isolated from such events and their effects.
In the city, and even in the 'burbs, we are isolated from the day, the night, the heat, the cold, the seasons, etc. In such places we have an artificial - which isn't necessarily to say unnatural - environment. WE control when the sun sets by the flick of a switch. WE control the temperature. WE control when the sun rises. We even control the natural rhythm of our own biological clocks with alarm clocks that scream in our ears and tell us to get the hell up and go to work, and I don't care if it IS Saturday... I always found it more pleasant to awaken slowly and naturally...
At some point, like living in a space station eating food-paste-goo, man HAS created an un-natural environment, even if man is a natural animal. To argue otherwise is simply an argument of semantics. Like arguing that cocaine is natural. Sure, it's natural, and snorting it causes a natural biological response. You have, however, altered your body chemistry un-naturally...
So, what is this experience of belonging in the wild? The experience you are looking for will happen to you suddenly, but you probably won't notice. You'll have to look back in your memory for the exact time and place when you walked out of your armor and into your humanity. Even experienced hikers and outdoorsmen take time to adapt back and forth between the wilds and the city, but it is possible to eventually walk between worlds at will. When I step into the sea, or the woods, or a running stream, I am suddenly alive and the moment is now. My friends all say that I have either a small satisfied smile on my face, or I'm grinning like an idiot. That's because they haven't crossed over to where I am and they can't comprehend that kind of natural joy.
Anyway, I have started to ramble. I will tell you the first and most important step to achieving what you are trying to experience: RELAX! I am constantly amazed at beginners who go out into the wilds and are wound up tight with the expectation that they will be snake-bit, rained on, eaten by bears, and many other things. Just breathe and relax. Let the wild come in on you. Turn off that damn flashlight and let the night encircle you...
The second step is to trust yourself completely - but you can't do that until you relax...
There are subtle semantic differences between ecology, environment, and habitat that remain as well, but I shall ignore them for now and tell you a little story...
When wandering Nevada I decided to spend some time as a rock. I stripped off, smeared myself with sun screen, and rolled around in the dust until I was coated in it, and the same color as all the rocks. Then I proceeded to sit on top of a nice big rock in the yoga pose where you sit cross legged and cradle your face in your hands sort of rolled up in a ball. I was right in the middle of nowhere. Or so I thought... After a few hours I was really into it, and the sun had partially cooked my brain. Suddenly I heard a voice, "Look mom! A statue!" "Now who would put a statue out here?" Being a little startled, I sat up. The voice I heard was evidently that of a boy about seven years old and his mother. Dad was evidently struggling behind in the distance under his heavy pack. The boy, looking up at me, declared, "OH! The statue is alive!" This was potentially embarrassing, but I was very in tune and the situation didn't perturb me. I was high up on the rock and they couldn't see that I was nude. The mother immediately began rambling, "It's an Indian! I didn't know there were any Indians around here. We wanted to see some Indians but didn't know where any were. I'm so glad that we got to meet a real Indian." She went on like that for a little while, like she was looking at an animal in a zoo... The woman didn't seem quite real. I had the feeling like a buzzing fly was nearby.
Finally she stopped, and the boy asked, "What kind of Indian are you?" "I am a rock." "I never heard of Rock Indians before, do you live around here?" "I have always been right here." This kind of questioning and answering went on for awhile. The father caught up and was glad to rest and tell me all about their grand hiking adventure - they had only been out two days but they were going to be out for a whole month. Inwardly I hoped that at some point they all learned to shut up, but instead of saying that I commented, "I'm glad I'm not a hiker." He replied, "Well you should try it sometime! It's great to be outdoors!" At which point he hefted what had to be a million pounds back onto his back and started on his way. At the edge of hearing I just caught him remarking that Indians must not bathe too often. Human beings are so strange... It's much better to be a rock...