Mother Nature’s Sons

For the last few years I’ve been seeing woodsmen on my city’s streets. They wear long beards and long hair, or long beards and no hair. They favor beat-up leather boots and wool beanies and jobs involving wood. At Best Made Co., a downtown boutique, they purchase hand-painted axes and canvas portage packs. At French atelier APC, they try on pieces by Carhartt, a manufacturer of blue-collar outdoor wear, that have been recut for slimmer legs and thicker wallets. Until recently, they were able to hone their bow-hunting skills in the basement archery range of clothier/barbershop Freeman’s Sporting Club.These urban dwellers seem to be getting ready for a long camping trip that never takes place; their flannel grows tatty and their boots scuffed, but they are never stained with real dirt.

Actual lumberjacks, of course, no longer wear flannel. They wear polyester fleeces and CAT boots and wraparound sunglasses and XXL T-shirts. Professional explorers (mountaineers, polar researchers) now wear outfits—often puffy down or synthetic loft in a breathable waterproof shell—that resemble spacesuits. Turn on the Discovery Channel or NatGeo, and you’ll see both types of outdoorsman within two hours: the blue-collar workers emptying our forests of trees, our oceans of crabs, and our rivers of gold; and the explorers, Gore-Tex clad, embarking on extravagant, high-risk vacations. But in order to find Brooklyn’s noveaux voyeageurs, you’ll need to flip over to FashionTV, because they do not exist in the wild.

In any era since the invention of polyester fleece, flannel is a patently absurd choice for outdoor work: when woven from wool it is too heavy; when woven from cotton it fails to retain heat once wet. But the fashion industry, in its ongoing campaign to dust off bygone archetypes of masculinity, has revived the fabric. Along with waxed canvas and leather, flannel plays an important role in repackaging the sex appeal of the vintage outdoorsman while sidestepping both the flimsy artificiality of petroleum-spun fabrics and also the earnestness of organic cloth, which carries with it a whiff of environmentalism—a supposedly emasculating ethos that prudishly promotes the suppression of desire.

Basic physics dictate that, in order to become more sustainable, technology must become ever lighter, quieter, and less hungry. Is it merely a coincidence that these engineering constraints also mirror our favored model of femininity?  In a recent study, pollsters found that 82 percent of respondents felt that going green is “more feminine than masculine.” The risk of feminine contamination, the researchers concluded, “holds men back from visible green behavior like using reusable grocery bags or carrying around reusable water bottles.” Add to that the reproachful tone that environmentalists often resort to in their attempts to spread the gospel of Deep Ecology—which stresses the rights of the ecosystem over those of man—and you glimpse how environmentalists came to be miscast as sanctimonious nags.

To expiate their green guilt, tough guys go to extreme lengths: they live in unheated houses, fuel their trucks with rancid cooking oil, subsist on other people’s trash. The tension emerges most clearly with regards to food. Many progressives would like to eat local and organic but don’t want to be seen as either pampering or depriving themselves (or both pampering and depriving themselves, like the diners in Portlandia who must personally visit a chicken on its farm before they can feel sure of its free-range pedigree). In an attempt to live more naturally, a few dozen men in New York City, along with one woman, have reportedly committed themselves to a so-called caveman diet. The diet’s strictures allow them to eat only meat and vegetables—no grains, sugar, dairy, or oil—and requires days of fasting between meals. “I didn’t want to do some faddish diet that my sister would do,” one of the dieters told the New York Times.

Like many Americans, the cave people seem distrustful, even contemptuous, of vegan asceticism. Abstaining from animal byproducts is considered difficult, but not tough: your kid sister might gladly survive on barbecued seitan and cartons of Rice Dream. Even as progressive men renounce the traditional notion of subordinated femininity, many still harbor conflicted notions about manhood. They want to feel individually reckless, but not socially irresponsible. They want to minimize carbon emissions, but not to scold, scrimp, or carry tote bags. They want to be pure of deed but wild at heart. So they dig ever deeper into the past, searching for a way of life that existed before “real” men and their ecological consciences parted ways.

Five years ago—roughly when the ultra-rustic trend in men’s fashion began—the Discovery Channel began broadcasting a reality series called Man vs. Wild. The man in question is a boyish, cocksure Brit named Bear Grylls, a professional adventurer who honed his survival skills as a trooper and a medic in the British Special Forces. In each episode, Grylls is dropped from a helicopter in various remote locations and is forced to find his way back to civilization on foot while eating slimy things and fending off the occasional predator. In the very first episode, raves the DVD jacket, Grylls “encounters a grizzly bear, jumps off a 70-foot cliff and floats nearly 12 miles in treacherous and freezing white water, all on a diet of rattlesnake, raw fish and worms.” The show fascinated me, in part because Grylls appeared to resolve the problem of eco-masculinity: by adding radical self-sufficiency and the heightened possibility of death to the conservationist norm, he managed to look both principled and macho. Bear (real name Edward) is both a wild man and a man who worships the wild.

The show quickly attracted a loyal following among armchair outdoorsmen who watch basic cable, averaging over 1.6 million viewers in its first year. (At its peak—an episode guest-starring a bumbling, mock-terrified Will Ferrell—the show grabbed 4 million viewers, as many as last year’s Stanley Cup finals.) But in 2006, allegations arose that Grylls had misled his viewers about the extent of his risk-taking. Among the outrages: after feigning sleep for few minutes in a crude shelter, Grylls was often spirited to a hotel; certain “wild” animals were in fact domesticated creatures brought in as props; and one memorable scene, in which Grylls leaped over a steaming volcanic fissure in Hawaii, was “enhanced” using hot coals and smoke machines to make the cool lava appear molten.

Grylls eventually apologized to his fans in interviews with BBC News and Outside magazine. Amazingly, his ratings rebounded; unlike readers of salacious memoirs, Grylls’s viewers didn’t seem to mind if their reality TV lacked a firm foundation in reality. The Discovery Channel attempted to sidestep the Man vs. Wild controversy by tacking on an awkward disclaimer to each episode warning that certain situations are “presented” to Grylls in order to “show the viewer how to survive.” The wording is ironic, because the sharpest criticism leveled at the show was not that it was theatrical, but that it was dangerously misinformative.

In the years since, the Discovery Channel has doubled down on the Grylls model of survivalism, adding highly produced, minimally perilous fare like Man, Woman, Wild (which pits a survival expert and his lovely, weak-stomached wife against the elements) and Dual Survival (an Odd Couple–style pairing of barefoot hippie and military tough guy). Whenever I watch these shows, I catch myself wondering: why do they continue to feel so urgent, even when we know that the hosts are in no real danger?

Survival shows succeed in part because they grant us a false sense of ecological detente. At each episode’s conclusion, when the professional survivalist emerges from the wilderness, his beard coated in hoarfrost or soil or dried blood, it allows us the comforting thought that we, too, if so imperiled, would pull through. To be successful entertainment, survival shows must be embellished, because if they showed the hardship unvarnished— like Les Stroud’s bleak, shivery Survivorman—or worse, if they were to end in death, that fantasy would be shattered.

When I was 10 years old, my parents dropped me off at Pine Island, a summer camp on a fishhook-shaped piece of land in the middle of a lake in Maine. For six weeks each summer, a few dozen other boys and I learned to live like 19th century woodsmen: we bathed in chilly lake water, read by the light of kerosene lanterns, slept in canvas tents, chopped wood, built fires, constructed hemlock shelters, fished, shot bolt-action .22s, hiked, canoed, and shat in holes dug in the ground. One year, on the third day of camp, a propane tank in the kitchen exploded and the camp burned down, but for some reason no one went home. While the camp was getting rebuilt, we bunked on cots in giant Army tents, wore clothes from the Salvation Army, and went on a lot of hiking trips in the nearby Appalachians. Occasionally I would sneak off to pick through the mounds of ash that used to be the dining hall or the library for souvenirs. It was like excavating relics of a lost civilization: spoons melted into dull tin blobs, charred photographs of children in strange costumes, rusty nails, lengths of rope, a Styrofoam buoy blackened but otherwise weirdly unscathed. During our lessons in shelter building or knife sharpening, I found myself listening with new interest, because the possibility of being stranded alone in the woods suddenly didn’t seem so far-fetched.

I returned home with dirt caked so deep in the pores of my neck that my mother had to scrub for an hour with a washcloth to make me presentable. Over the fall and winter, I devoured Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series of survivalist YA novels, learned archery, had a brief flirtation with pyromania. I prowled my backyard, hunting Coke cans and the occasional squirrel with a BB gun. I returned to Pine Island the next summer, and the one after that. But in the years that followed, my jones for survivalism was worn down by the pumice of adolescence. In the preppy Chicago suburbs, starting fires and killing squirrels was behavior reserved for psychopaths.

I gradually forgot the small joys of rusticity—though I always missed, with a dull itch, the satisfying thu-chunk an axe makes when it splits a piece of wood. So in my freshman year of college, finding myself without a summer job, I applied for a position teaching woodcraft back at Pine Island. “Do you remember how to sharpen a knife? Triangulate your location on a topo map? Build a wet-wood fire?” the camp’s director asked me. I didn’t; the closest I’d come to building a fire in the last decade was remote-igniting the gas fireplace in my family’s living room. “It’s all right,” he reassured me. “It’s like riding a bike.”

That summer, I spent my days watching tiny hands fumble around with sharp objects and spent my nights studying up to avoid looking incompetent in the eyes of 12 year olds. I began obsessively reading survival guides—the authoritative Wilderness Survival by Gregory Davenport, the folksy Primitive Living and Survival Skills by John and Geri McPherson, the factually outdated but cleverly packaged How to Stay Alive in the Woods by Bradford Angiers, which came bound in stippled rubber, like a ping pong paddle. In an attempt to boost woodcraft class’s notoriously poor attendance, I coined the catchphrase, “Woodcraft is wilderness survival. And wilderness survival is—cool.” It was moronic, but for some reason it clicked with the kids. By the end of the summer, attendance had doubled.

Though we Pine Islanders defined ourselves primarily in opposition to other nearby camps —the snobs at Camp Kieve, the hippies at Chewonki, the Jewish water-skiers at Camp Modin —we were all inheritors of the same turn-of-the-century anxieties: fears of masculine degeneration, military frailty, urban sprawl, shrinking wilderness, and teenage ruffianism. America’s first summer camp was founded in 1861 by an abolitionist named Frederick Gunn, who began taking boys on long hikes through the Connecticut foothills to recreate the living conditions of Union soldiers. Backpacking was—and to some extent, remains—a kind of de-weaponized marching. The original Boy Scouts of America uniforms were just miniaturized versions of US Army fatigues. Over the years, the design underwent a series of makeovers, including an overhaul by Oscar De La Renta in 1980 to downplay the organization’s martial overtones. When none other than Bear Grylls was dubbed the Chief Scout (or “king of the Scouts”) in 2009, he posed for press photos in a hoodie, polo shirt, and khaki hiking pants. His sole gesture to the original uniform was a red-white-and-blue neckerchief cinched around his throat with a woven brass slide. Similarly, many of the movement’s founding principles have been edited out over time—though not the neckerchiefs, aggressive patriotism, misappropriation of American Indian traditions, or the belief that teaching wilderness skills helps young boys mature into well-tempered adults.

But does exposure to wilderness turn boys into men? Much of the time, it seems the opposite: the woods are a place that men go to revert back to boyhood, to forget about the complex entanglements of love and career. What became clear to me in the course of teaching woodcraft is that survivalist gestures are a pantomime of the kind of self-reliance that adulthood is said to entail. The kids’ hemlock shelters were always rickety and porous, their traps never caught any actual animals, and starting a fire in heavy rain—without resorting to chemical accelerants like white gas or Purell—was damn near impossible. What wilderness survival teachers ultimately impart is not knowledge, but sentiment: how it feels to flourish in a menacingly vast and alien environment. This is a good thing. Roughing it in the woods remains one of the few activities in American life where children can act out their transition into adulthood without resorting to the violent initiation rites of gang or military warfare.

Sometimes, after waking up, firing up my laptop, and scrolling through a newsfeed choked with stories about deforestation and strip mining and bottom-trawl fishing and toxified Chinese rivers and bleached coral reefs and ecosystems petrified into barren canyons of stucco and vinyl and brick, I stop reading and begin fantasizing about pressing a planetary reset button. I am not alone. For those of us who believe that the globe’s ecosystem is inching toward a catastrophic tipping point, both in terms of population growth and the earth’s ability to absorb anthropogenic waste, there are few foreseeable solutions. Techno-utopians hope that future scientific breakthroughs will let our growth and consumption continue to balloon; eco-moralists advocate indoctrinating young people in an ethos of sustainability; economists (and a handful of impervious congress people) propose forcing polluters to “internalize the externalities” of their business activities through taxes, carbon credits and public shame. But as time goes on, these options—each valid in its own right—sound less like pragmatic possibilities.

If all else fails, there is another option that doesn’t require of us any major shifts in paradigm or industry—only the resourcefulness to surf the wave of civilization as it crashes. Reversion is typically considered a fringe position, a campaign led by militant environmentalists and anarcho-primitivists. But its supposed extremism is belied by the popular interest in survivalists like Bear Grylls and the continued growth of institutions like the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, whose popular  twenty-eight day survival field course costs nearly $4,000. Our culture’s commitment to radical reversion as a fallback plan runs deeper than most people care to admit.

Like survivalism, the Reversion Option is an adolescent obsession held mainly by first-world males. The people who successfully lived (and continue to live) off the land, from Paleolithic Africa to modern Papua New Guinea, did so (and do so) with centuries of inherited cultural knowledge as well the benefits of a tight knit community and a lifetime of physical conditioning. We have no such advantages—and subsequent generations will have even fewer.

Should the twilight of the Anthropocene come, the retro-woodsmen fashionistos would likely be among the first to die off.  But some others—hardcore survivalists, off-the-gridders, those country boys that can still skin a buck and run a trout line—might survive. And as they comb through the storefronts of downtown Manhattan for supplies, one imagines that beneath the piles of moth-eaten flannel and sun-cracked leather they might uncover an axe—beautifully crafted, with a handle of Appalachian hickory and a gleaming head of 5160 high carbon steel—and finally put it to its intended use.

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