27 September 2010

Alone in the Wilderness or Together

Richard Proenneke is one of my new heroes. A man from the American West myth, of the generation of renaissance men that knew how to build, hunt, plant, tend, and otherwise completely survive on their own in the wilderness with the added aesthetic of not taking too much from their environment, blending into the scenery to observe, commune, become a part of Nature’s boundless poetry. A generation or two later these figures have been all but completely lost to the modern, Western consciousness, not to mention their incredible repertoire of skills and the physical endurance to wield their tools.

As the modern young person body builds in a gym between Bauhaus-ing on imported coffee and clicking through text on increasingly small, plastic devices, the importance and significance of the surrounding physical environment begins to evaporate: this could be New York or London or Tokyo or Sydney with the daily life experience becoming ever-encapsulated in the generic spaces of commerce, which are directed not by a craftsman’s hand, but by the outputs of factory-scale construction materials standardized from afar and shipped world-wide. I do not make these statements completely begrudgingly. I fully acknowledge the factory dies that trimmed to dimension the wood beams and boards which make my house, pressed and transported the mined minerals that became my roof, my nails, my screws, and all my tools. But watching Richard Proenneke’s self-filmed documentary of a year of his life in the Alaskan wilderness gave me more than one reason to reflect on the direction of our mainstream, modern evolution and the value in trying to follow a wilder path.

I do not disguise my envy that Mr. Proenneke grew up in a time where he was given ample opportunities to learn, hone, and perfect survival and construction skills, and the physical musculature to accompany such work, so that at 51 years of age he was perfectly poised in health and mind to embark upon his Alaskan oddessy that would become his world for the next 35 years. I watched his hour-long documentary in awe and near-disbelief, but also with a quiet sadness at the increasing loss of the long-standing craftsman guilds. Perhaps the intricate sills of the Gothic and Baroque masters who brought artists’ architecture to life in perfect, ornate function and form were too elaborate to be long-sustained, but what happened to the inherent knowledge of how to build a comfortable shelter, make the tools necessary for daily life, or create a unique aesthetic of space that reflects the character and story of who we each are and where we have come from? Why have we as an increasingly globalized human race so easily chosen uniformity in nearly every aspect of the modern, urban daily life in the industrialized West? Is it that we have never paused to reflect on our options, or are we so driven by the joint-markets of time and cost that our options self-selectively dilute into the illusion of plastic abundance as presented by any area’s big box store?

As the Richard Proennekes of the West disappeared into that frontier, happily cutting ties with our modern consciousness, those left behind were raised with the false confidence that food can be conveniently fast, that electric and sewer grids are endless, that more money can solve any problem, and that the natural environment can be partitioned and re-designed as necessary without physical or emotional consequence. In one or two generations we modern humans have completely altered our planet and our relationship to it, but I do not think it impossible to acknowledge this uniform trend and to re-envision a myriad of alternatives. Sub-cultures are exploding throughout the modern consciousness, calling themselves by different names, proselytizing a specific creed or life-style, some passing as trends while others form schools of thought, build community and impetus. Permaculture, self-sufficient, or intentional communities are some of the generic terms for a growing network of urban and non-urban individuals taking their own-scale steps toward the relearning and the teaching of the craftsman’s guilds, the ability to manifest one’s daily needs, create, inspire, observe the world with the wonder and respect of a naturist’s eye, and to return our focus to life-giving endeavors rather than on life-taking tasks.

I can understand the sensibility that might react to this modern age with a longing to be, as Mr. Proenneke demonstrated, “Alone in the Wilderness,” but I’d much rather, and I hope many others agree, that we can find the rhythm and the patience to bring us all “Together in the Wilderness” some day soon, sharing stories and possibilities we have not yet forgotten in ways we can not yet even imagine. To return a little honor to the modern paradigm, and a little more humanity to the human experience where hands create and minds imagine and our hearts can be taken inwards once again by the true miracle of our living planet and our existence within it. Perhaps then the mythical figures of the modern past like Mr. Proenneke will no longer have to keep their distance. My generation was once promised that the Lorax would return. Dr. Seuss said it starts with a seed and you.