Animal Heritage, Employment, and Being Wild

As I write this, I am taking a brief break from what I call an “artwork frenzy”. As a full-time self-employed artist and author, I spend a great deal of my time in creative pursuits. However, there are times when I am relatively free of immediate deadlines and scheduling static, where I am free to spend several days buried in a particular project or set of projects. I refer to these as artwork or writing frenzies. It’s during these times where, unfettered by the needs and expectations of others, I can write the bulk of a book manuscript in the space of a few weeks, or dance back and forth among several art projects adding a little paint here, checking a sealant there, giving my hands a break from yards of hand-braiding, and so on. It’s really where I do my best work.

I am preparing for an event I’ll be vending at this weekend; while I have more than enough artwork to fill my booth, I always like to have new offerings to debut. It gives me an excuse to show off, and often breaks me out of creative ruts. As I’m taking hides and antlers, paint and yarn, and creating a variety of ritual wear and tools and other such things, I have Netflix going with a steady stream of shows about history, prehistoric animals, geology, cosmology, and the origins of life itself. It takes me temporarily out of this moment and is the closest I can get to travelling and exploring somewhere new.

But it also gives me context for where we as a species are right now. Just a few thousand years ago there were only a small handful of humans scattered across the land, just one more species of wild animal amid the rest. So much time was spent by all creatures either procuring food, or avoiding becoming someone else’s meal. Jack London’s dour law of “eat or be eaten” that ruled his canine character Buck in The Call of the Wild may seem extreme to those of us who are used to buying food at a supermarket or convenience store, and who do not have to spend every waking moment looking over our shoulders in case some other being leaps upon us and tears us to pieces. But for most living beings that have graced this planet, today and before and beyond, life is full of unpredictability, and constantly at risk of being brutally brought to a close. We here enjoy a level of safety and security very rarely experienced by any beings throughout the planet’s history.

Similarly, in the half-year and change since I became fully self-employed, I’ve gotten the barest reminder of the aforementioned unpredictability. While overall I’ve been a success, I’ve also had to learn to weather the ebbs as well as the flows of the business. There’s only so much I can do on my end to bring in enough income to keep my household going. I can make a ton of art, I can promote it, and get out to events to vend. But at the end of it all, none of it works if there are no customers buying what I create. In the same way, the most powerful and crafty hunter, the most skilled scavenger, and the most resourceful grazer or browser, cannot eat if the food is not there. No matter how much they may roam, how many chases they may make, how many miles they tread in search of prey or carcasses or edible plants, there are still days where they go to sleep with empty stomachs.

This is unlike domestic animals, and people employed by others who receive a regular wage. They have more security in that someone else rations out the food–or money–they get on a regular basis. Sure, there’s the chance the farm may fold or the business may collapse; famine and downsizing are both dangers. But one of the amazing recent creations of humans are societies in which you can more or less know exactly how much of a given resource you’re going to have access to depending on the current arrangements you’ve made. If your job is secure and you get consistent pay and hours, you likely know when payday is and how much you’re getting. That’s pretty damned impressive in the grand scheme of things, and almost unprecedented in the Earth’s entire history.

I am not a wild animal. I am happily domesticated, for the most part. I’m happy in an apartment, where I have easy access to food and medicine and warmth and companionship–and, for that matter, where I’m unlikely to get eaten by a saber-toothed cat. But I do like to think a little about my wild heritage, and that of our species as a whole. See, I don’t think it’s the trappings of wildness that make us wild. I could run around Portland wearing my creations, and seek out ever more dangerous and untamed deities and spirits, and spend nights backpacking in the woods. But if I’m still coming back to the security of home, if I know I have that secure base to come back to, it really doesn’t make me any more of a feral human being than I was before. It would just make me a dilettante.

What I feel brings me just a shade closer to myself as a wild animal is the uncertainty I’ve taken on. This ebb and flow of income and resources is just a touch closer to what my distant ancestors went through their entire lives out of lack of any other option. Granted, even this slightly greater risk is still somewhat of an affectation. Even with Portland’s crappy economy, I have enough formal education and matching experience in multiple professional fields, and the ability to relocate if need be, that I have more than one potential fallback if I need it. (Specialization is for insects, as Heinlein said.) But in this moment, where the ability to pay for the food that comes onto the table is dependent on a much more variable income, I can appreciate what my ancestors, what many of my fellow human beings today, and what almost all other wild animals, experience on a daily basis–just a tiny bit, anyway. I can’t know what it’s like for sure to be any of these others, but it’s a bit of a wake-up call here in my privileged, comfortable urban lifestyle.

And most attempts on the part of my fellow domesticated humans to “be wild” are affectations to some degree. Going out to the woods to play overnight is not the same as having your home, your source of food, your security suddenly disappear. Those who are unwillingly homeless, or who otherwise fight every day to survive with no safety net, are closer to the wild than those of us secure in our homes and full pantries. No amount of fur and feathers, or fake hipster war paint, or trance-dancing at drum circles, or worshiping ancient deities of natural phenomena, brings us closer to wildness than having one’s life in more danger than before, even a bit. The more I know of the violent and dangerous track that life on Earth took to get to this moment, the more I appreciate that the wild is built on risk and threat, nowhere near as romantic as society would make it.

I don’t intend, of course, to give everything up and go live in a cabin in the woods and eat only what I can hunt and gather. And I don’t feel that being self-employed has somehow turned me into the Wild She-wolf of the Northwest. It’s just a tad bit riskier than having a day job, and I contemplate that risk, and greater risks, in this moment.

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9 thoughts on “Animal Heritage, Employment, and Being Wild

  1. Don’t underestimate the perils of a desk job. Not everyone has a “secure” one, despite having to work 8-5. True, that mine is more stable now, but when I first started I always felt in danger of losing it. Whether that fear was real or imagined isn’t the point. The point is, just because I’m not self-employed doesn’t mean 1. I have never experienced that fear and 2. I don’t think about wild survival of animals.

    • Hence, why I specified things like “If your job is secure and you get consistent pay and hours, you likely know when payday is and how much you’re getting”. I’m well aware of the ephemeral nature of traditional employment and how quickly a job can dissolve.

  2. I think this is one of those very rare times where I greatly disagree with much of what you said. The idea that our early ancestors lived horribly brutal and risky lives is a greatly exaggerated ethnocentric stereotype that the cultures of civilization has created in regards to pre-civilization and tribal cultures.

    There certainly are comforts that first world civilized culture gives us. One that is always immediately pointed to is a longer life span. However, this can be largely attributed to one major factor which is modern medicine has greatly decreased the chances for fatal childbirth for both mother and child. And I certainly won’t deny that that is an amazing thing.

    In almost all other cases we have either traded one risk for another or actually fare worse than non-civilized people. Yes, every year a given percentage of hunters may be fatally wounded during the hunt. Just as every year a given percentage of commuters will die in car crashes.

    And all said, we actually fare much worse in terms of disease and epidemic. Yes, tribal peoples lack the means to treat some diseases that we can more easily find cures or treatments for. But we are far more likely to be exposed to epidemic than they were. And we have produced a way of living that has facilitated many diseases that are nearly unheard of among tribal people. As for famine, many tribes had high mobility and diversified ways to get food. Certainly shit happens, but the difference is that when shit happens to us a much larger number of people in our cultures will be effected. Even taking their worse case scenario, a whole tribe being wiped out, it pales in comparison to what happens when disaster hits civilized nations and large populations starve due to inflexibility and the needs of much higher numbers of individuals.

    Which leads to the similar topic of natural disasters. Civilized cultures are sedentary. Even when we know in advance something is coming it becomes a desperate and slow attempt at escape which is more likely to fail. One only has to live through (or in my case, give up on) a hurricane evacuation to have that pointed hammered in. And when disaster does hit, the greatest amount of misery doesn’t occur during the disaster itself but rather during the aftermath as people are forced to wait for food, electricity, medicine and the safety of an intact law enforcement system to return. And if their house is gone, it’s gone. Unless they have a stash of money their living standards is instantly downgraded and it will be hard to regain that. Compare this to mobile tribes who are not wedded to specific plots of lands. A tribe has a far greater chance of, first, escaping a known disaster, and, secondly, relocating without suffering much material loss.

    I also challenge your definition of risk. Certainly people in non-civilized society face threats, many of which seem horrific by first-world standards. And yet it is not they who are facing epidemic rates of depression, anxiety disorders, addiction, and suicide. A tribal person has an immediate cradle-to-grave plan for their life the moment they are born. In the vast majority of these societies they know for sure what will happen to them if they are injured or who will care for them when they are aged. Do you know what your life will be like when you are 50? 80? Do you know what will happen to you if you permanently lost your legs? Your sight? Our lives are *far* more uncertain than theirs and this uncertainty has helped breed a culture where it is reaching the point that one out of four of us will develop a mental disorder. Another issue that has led to the rise in mental illness is that we are increasingly losing leisure time and “down-time” to be with friends and family. The average tribal person spends far *less* time hunting and gathering than a non-tribal person spend making money to buy food.

    “They have more security in that someone else rations out the food–or money–they get on a regular basis.”
    That’s not a source of security. Not having autonomy over your own security is a source of constant, daily dread. See above.

    “Those who are unwillingly homeless, or who otherwise fight every day to survive with no safety net, are closer to the wild than those of us secure in our homes and full pantries.”
    No. Flat out no. A wild animal is adapted to their environment. A homeless person is more like a stray, an abandoned domesticated being who still needs the trappings of domestication but is only able to find a bare minimum amount of those trappings, if any. Some may be “lucky” and transform into streetwise “ferals” but most are fated to waste away and/or die. Or perhaps they will end up in places that not-so-ironically share the same name as the places their animal counterparts may end up in…shelters.

    tl:dr summary: I am challenging the idea that domesticated (civilized) = comfortable and safe and wild (non-civilized) = dangerous, uncomfortable, and risky. We traded the risk of certain injuries and illnesses for the risk of other injuries and illnesses. And in many ways we are far, far, *far* less secure than our pre-civilization ancestors. *We* face risks in our lives that would probably horrify *them*.

    • Except you’re missing a very important point–I wasn’t ONLY speaking of humans, or even recent humans. I was including ALL of life that has lived on this planet, of which human civilizations proper are a tiny, miniscule fraction. I agree with the points you made above, but your answer is a LOT more anthropocentric than I was speaking of. Nowhere did I say I was only comparing us to other humans. I said things like “But for most LIVING BEINGS that have graced this planet, today and before and beyond, life is full of unpredictability, and constantly at risk of being brutally brought to a close. We here enjoy a level of safety and security very rarely experienced by any BEINGS throughout the planet’s history.”

      • I do mostly agree with that, although the “red in tooth and claw” picture of nature is also overly emphasized and seen in the light of “thank god we escaped that!”. What isn’t considered is that most animals don’t go about their lives obsessing about possible death. If they aren’t facing immediate threat, they aren’t fretting at the levels we delve into. Humans do which is in a way is a downside for us and why when we look at their lives the thing that pops into our minds is “they might die horribly, their lives suck”.

        You have written extensively about how humans are part of nature, how we are an animal as well. In this you called yourself a “domesticated human”. If you are domesticated, than who are the wild humans? You equate domesticity (wherein you point to things like money and the ability to obtain plants without growing or gathering them, defining traits of the collective of cultures we call “civilization”) with comfort and lack of risk. This sets up a duality between your culture and cultures that aren’t defined by such things.

        By pointing to the hallmarks of the civilization-cultures and claiming this makes you domesticated *and* also suggest that domestication is a more comfortable, less risky life it follows that humans who don’t rely on this things aren’t domesticated (think of the bygone term “wild Indian”) and by not being domesticated their lives are less comfortable and less risky. And our cultures’ response to this very line of thinking is “Thank god we escaped that!”.

        *That* is what I had issue with.

      • I don’t see it as “thank god we escaped that”, though, or “their lives suck”. There are pros and cons to every single way of living. I’m not seeing any place where I made any sort of value judgement in that regard. You’re pointing out general attitudes among some humans, but there’s nowhere in that essay where *I* make that judgement.

        I also don’t see this issue of wild/not wild as a duality. I see it as a continuum. I don’t know that there is any sort of strict barrier of “this is wild, this is not”, just as there is no single line of “this is an advanced civilization, that is not”.

        As to the wild/domesticated thing? It wasn’t the neatest of comparisons, and again shouldn’t be seen as a dichotomy so much as a continuum. Nor are the examples I gave the only markers of what makes something wild or domesticated, to use ill-fitting terms.

        This whole essay was only a brief, rough musing on a few threads of thought and influence I’ve had over the past few days. Nothing that is written is above critique; however, understand that this was an exploration into some ideas I hadn’t brought together before, not a polished thesis.

  3. Thank you for an interesting perspective – I can certainly see how self-employed people (especially artists) experience a higher level of risk and uncertainty, which imparts a bit of the feeling of being wild (lacking the umbilical cord of modern society). I agree that homeless people in particular are even more feral than those who have homes. However, they too are dependent on modern society for their survival – foraging out of dumpsters, etc – just like backpackers who wouldn’t survive without their pack. It is only those who know how to get everything they need from the land around them (food, shelter, water) who are truly wild and free – even if they go back to a modern house at the end of the day, they don’t truly need that house to survive.

    In one sense we are safer now than we were when we lived as hunter-gatherers (from predators), but overall we certainly are not. Consider the odds of experiencing child abuse, rape, random violence, car accidents, etc in modern society today compared to indigenous cultures. And also the general state of amazing health enjoyed by those people, compared to our increasing rates of cancer, diabetes, and various crazy new disorders & diseases (like MRSA). We have modern medicine to help us (somewhat) deal with these afflictions, but they are pretty much unknown among native peoples (living traditionally, in an unpolluted environment).

    Also, “wildness” (and the uncertainty and danger than implies) is very much a matter of perspective. I have read quotes by American Indians who say that what the white man saw as wild, they saw as tame. Unlike the white foreigners, they felt no danger in their environment, because it wasn’t wild to them – they knew it intimately, and closely participated in making it the way it was. In reality the land was more like a loosely managed garden than the “untamed wilderness” the white people imagined it to be.

    Because they knew it, and the other inhabitants of the land, so well, they probably experienced less danger than you or I do in our so-called “safe” neighborhoods. Also, it is a thoroughly debunked myth than hunter-gatherers experienced more food uncertainty than civilized peoples. Because they ate such a wide range of foods from the land, it was a very rare event when there wasn’t plenty of things to eat – in huge contrast to farming peoples, whose diet largely depended on one or two crops, and who thus starved when those crops failed.

    I know that my great-grandparents had winters where they ate nothing but potatoes and apples (literally, no butter, salt, or anything), because they moved to a new landbase they didn’t know, and the farming wasn’t going well. I’m sure they were literally surrounded by food, but being ignorant of the land around them, they just didn’t know about it (and their worldview was such that they considered the inhabitants of that land to be the enemy, to them and their farm).

    Anyway, I couldn’t resist attempting to clarify this. I think that how we view modern society in comparison with its alternative (living like our ancestors, as humans have for 99% of our existence) greatly impacts how we act in the world, to either hold onto the way things are now, or work to change them.

    • Please see my reply to Paleo; you both took a very anthropocentric view to what was meant to be an all-encompassing exploration of ALL beings. I’m not only speaking of humans, and especially not only of recent human civilizations, whether urban or not. Humans are a tiny blip on the map I was describing, one that includes all life from beginning to present.

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