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.