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Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive Paperback – Sep 1 2012
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Picture a world where humans exist, like all other living things, in balance. Where there is no separation between 'human' and 'wild'. Unlearn, Rewild boldly envisions such a world, probing deeply into the cultural constraints on our ability to lead truly sustainable lives and offering real, tangible tools to move toward another way of living, seeing and thinking.
Part philosophical treatise, part hard-core survival guide, this unique and thoroughly unconventional manual blends philosophy with a detailed introduction to a rich assortment of endangered traditional living skills, including:
- Harvesting and preparing unconventional proteins
- Feral food preservation
- Dealing responsibly with waste
- Natural methods of birth control
- Tanning and processing animal skins.
Lyrical, humorous, surprising, enlightening and thought-provoking by turns, Unlearn, Rewild is essential reading for those who wish to heal themselves and the earth, live gracefully into the future primitive and experience their wildest dreams.
About the Author
Miles Olson has spent the past decade deeply immersed in learning and practicing earth skills; living intimately with the land on the forested edge of a sprawling city. While foraging, hunting, gardening, and gathering for his livelihood, his life has been shaped profoundly by a desire to nurture healthy relationships with humans and the non-human world. Miles' experiences have put him at the forefront of the rewilding movement, radical self-reliance, and the impact of civilization on the natural world.
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Miles Olson is a young man with an old soul. He has never felt at home in modern society, even in childhood. The only people who made sense to him were the Native Americans, because they lived with respect and reverence for all things. When he was 17, he spent the summer living alone on a remote island. Solitude in wildness is powerful medicine. In a week or so, he could barely remember his name.
He struggled to find his life's vision and calling. There was no integrity in pursuing a career that injured the family of life. There was no integrity in eating food produced in an atrocious manner. There was no integrity in devoting his life to robotic consumption. The "normal" mode was wacko.
The proper way to live in industrial civilization was to plug into the system, obey the rules, and never ask questions. But this was not a path with integrity, and Olson refused to submit to a dishonorable life. So, he commenced thinking. If the system was destroying the future, then the system was insane. If the system was insane, then so were its rules. Therefore, the virtuous choice was to disregard the rules, listen to his heart, and purse a life of integrity, by any means necessary. He did just that.
He's been squatting for almost a decade on the fringe of a large unnamed city in British Columbia. He hunts, traps, forages, and gardens. He gets profound satisfaction from reducing his dependence on the machine, and reducing the harm he causes. He wrote Unlearn, Rewild to describe his life as an outlaw with high principles. (Well, he's an outlaw to the system, but consumers are outlaws to nature, and nature bats last.)
Unlearning is a process of throwing civilized illusions overboard, of cleaning our minds. Rewilding means "to return to a more natural or wild state; the process of undoing domestication" -- to become uncivilized, to reconnect to place. The bottom line is that "without genuine, raw connection to wild nature we, as creatures, go insane."
All of us have hunter-gatherer genes. When we were born, our souls expected to spend life as wild and free creatures in a sacred world. What went wrong? Olson sees domestication, agriculture, and civilization as being catastrophic mistakes in our journey.
"Sustainability" has become a meaningless word, hijacked and disemboweled by greedheads, nutters, universities, and shameless marketing hucksters. Nothing is unsustainable anymore. Our world is totally awesome. We just need to burn a bit less fossil fuel, make a few minor tweaks, and our way of life will become utopia. Olson disagrees. He's become a revivalist who preaches a fiery message about "radical sustainability" -- good old-fashioned fundamentalist sustainability, the genuine article, the most important word in our language today.
One of his sermons illuminated the grave misconceptions that torment vegans and vegetarians, and lead them down a dark path into the valley of malnutrition, impaired health, and prickly self-righteousness. He was once a vegan, until he saw the light, and returned to the normal omnivorous diet that everyone's ancestors had enjoyed for a million years.
Yes, of course industrial meat production was abominable, cruel, and ecologically foolish. The dim-witted domesticated livestock and poultry certainly suffer for it. But why does no one grieve for the thousands of wild creatures murdered by every pass of the plow and combine? Why do we ignore the blood gushing from our tofu stir fry? "There are precious few humans that hear the screams of the Earth...."
Olson recommended that we stop feeding grain to animals, and use it to feed hungry folks. But this would require continued soil mining to produce the grain. Instead, in the spirit of big dreaming, I would suggest that we cease growing grain for animal feed, and convert that cropland back to grassland, restore the soil to good health, and give it back to the indigenous wild life -- let it heal.
He wondered if hunting with firearms was ethical. How much technology is too much? When the Cree replaced bows with guns, they killed more caribou. But "...the ones truly being victimized by this technology were not the caribou. The caribou were still free, the people had entered a trap." This chapter began with a Ran Prieur quote: "Every technology begins as a key and ends as a cage." Well said.
Obviously, the turd in the swimming pool is the way we think -- our insane culture. If our civilization burned to the ground today, we'd start rebuilding it at dawn tomorrow. "If humans had clean minds, like grasses and thistles, we would return to a state of balance when the forces of domestication ceased."
It is at this point that the two sacred verbs "unlearn" and "rewild" summon immense power. Are we capable of firing up our brains and envisioning humankind living in balance with the rest of life? Yes, if we try. Are we capable of escaping from our cage? Yes, with patience and determination. Is it possible that sanity is contagious? Let's find out! Olson concludes that we would be wise to make some effort to evolve. It will take generations to create cultures that win the Radical Sustainability seal of approval, but all we have to lose is an insane way of life.
The book has two parts: ideas and endangered skills. The ideas section describes his philosophy of life. The skills section is a sampler of essential knowledge for squatters: making traps and snares, skinning and gutting game, medicinal plants, food preservation, sex without pregnancy, tips for cooking earthworms, slugs, and maggots, and so on.
I learned some new tricks here, but this is not the last book you'll need to read. Chestnuts are good food, but horse chestnuts are toxic. How do you tell the difference? Camas is good food, but death camas, which looks the same at harvest time, is not mentioned. Why is it called death camas?
Olson doesn't write like a dusty scholar surrounded by piles of musty books. He writes like a cheerful outlaw who has created a rewarding career in harvesting roadkill, foraging for nuts, roasting grasshoppers, and feasting on dandelions. It's a loose and feisty tome with strong opinions and a strong sense of hope and enthusiasm. It's not flawless and polished -- it has some squeaks, leaks, and rattles -- but it still works.
Olson has not given us "The Solution" here. Obviously, this week is an inconvenient time for seven-point-something billion to become squatters. But the rising cost and scarcity of energy may turn us all into squatters before long, ready or not. Nevertheless, he is fully engaged in the most important work of our era -- finding the path to genuine sustainability. Truly, every week is a perfect opportunity for unlearning, rewilding, thinking, and living with greater integrity.
Richard Adrian Reese
Author of What Is Sustainable
While authors such as Daniel Quinn and Derrick Jensen have introduced to a new generation the concept that our culture is not only NOT the pinnacle of evolution, but is also the cause of immeasurable death and suffering - their books also have at times fallen short of offering applicable solutions. This is understandable in a way, as there is no one magic pill that will solve our collective sicknesses like many expect or hope for.
But the fact remains that the crisis our world faces not only has an identifiable root cause, but an identifiable solution as well. And that solution is not as complex as most would have us believe. The way we live, and make our living, within the confines of civilization is contrary to our make up as human beings on every level - from the genetic to the spiritual. There is a mismatch between who we are and the world most of us live in, and that has severe consequences. However, this is not our destiny and there always has been examples of people who are still living in a workable, uncivilized way. And Miles Olson hits the nail on the head in Unlearn, Rewild.
I had been following Miles's old blog for a while when I found out he was writing a book. This is the same time I was deeply into authoring my book Reclamation: A Tale of Blood, Betrayal, and Bioregional Meat. Our books came out around the same time, so I was curious and went ahead and purchased Unlearn, Rewild. I had a feeling that, though having different focuses, the two books would be somewhat philosophically aligned. But I was surprised at how appreciative I would end up being of this book.
Unlearn, Rewild is divided into two sections, "Ideas" and "Endangered Skills", which already separates it from most of the other wilderness skills or anti-civilization books out there. And in each section, Miles distills down this stuff in a very digestible way. Whether he is talking about not identifying with the white man's world, the shortcomings of veganism, or entomaphogy - this book just keeps hitting me on an instinctual level. And I assume things in here would do the same for most readers. After all, we are all humans and descendents of hunters, gatherers, and gardeners. While Western civilization has largely succeeded in domesticating and breaking us, we still have the blood of wild animals flowing though us.
I could keep going on about this book. But the point is, this isn't just some book to order from Amazon. While no magic pill exists - Unlearn, Rewild is filled with medicine that we need very desperately right now.
The issues and advice he gives seem arbitrary, for example, he talks about catching mice, but doesn't talk about housing, cooking, or money/barter/credit. I like his thinking about how we need to change how we view nature, but his advice doesn't seem practical on a large scale. Also, this type of "back to the basics" thinking has been around for thousands of years, and it's strange the author didn't refer to any of the previous art/literature (Anarcho-primitivism? Green anarchy? Golden Age? Pastoral? Primitivism?). Also, why no reference to the 150 million tribal people on earth today -- do they have the same level of violence as states and empires?
This book is written by a young healthy childless white guy squatting in British Columbia documenting his experiences, likely doing this with a small group of people living in the same lifestyle enclave (as opposed to a community). There are more detailed ideas and advice in other books about living in a post-industrial world and about subsistence activity, though this book gives an ok overview.
Some issues I have:
1. Assertions and evidence. This books makes A LOT of assertions, most of these are made without any evidence. (e.g. "as pure vegans, we wouldn't be able to reproduce after one or two generations") <-- assertions like this need a reference, even if true
2. Veganism. If all 7 billion of us took the author's advice about eating wild animals in large quantities, we would probably depopulate the planet of the remaining large animals. He ignores any option between vegan and eating large quantities of meat, such as forms of vegetarianism.
3. Overpopulation. He makes the following assertion: "Overpopulation is, of course, a problem of civilization. It was not an issue for sustainable indigenous cultures." This is false. From the textbook "Anthropology: What Does It Mean To Be Human", the authors write that the most powerful explanation of the transition from hunter-gather to agriculture is multiple strand theory that considers the combined local effect of climate, environment, population, technology, social organization, and diet on the emergence of domestication.
4. Birth control. He suggests the pull-out method, or possibly lambskin condoms. Hunter-gatherer cultures breastfeed their children for several years, naturally spacing births out. He doesn't mention STDs.
5. Open defecation. There is a huge problem of open defecation leading to illness in India today - he should have talked about this instead of ignoring this altogether and suggesting open defecation could be a possibility. Also, what about the book, "the specialist"?
6. Climate change. No human has ever had to deal with this type of climate disruption, and I think it should have been discussed more. From the latest IPCC report: "CO2-induced warming is projected to remain approximately constant for many centuries following a complete cessation of emission. A large fraction of climate change is thus irreversible on a human timescale, except if net anthropogenic CO2 emissions were strongly negative over a sustained period."
Some issues he left out: housing, cooking, health care, pregnancy and birth, conflict resolution, horizontal direct democracy or other forms of self-governance, disabilities, care of children and old age, death, transportation, money/barter/credit.
Despite the shortcomings, his intentions are fantastic, and the world could use more people like this author.
I could be wrong but I probably won't be squatting on someone else's land or eating roadkill or boiled mice anytime soon but it's good to know a protocol for these practices exists should it come to that in my lifetime. At age 67 I'm glad some young, in-touch, very alive person, especially one like Olson who can write well with an open heart about his passion for All Life, is thinking about and test driving the skills that may be required for a drastic reset. His advance guard explorations will make it easier for others to follow in time of need.
As in any collapse or transition it isn't so much the how-to logistics that are really difficult; the painful challenge is shifting consciousness enough to successfully adapt psychologically and emotionally as well as spiritually to what is. As the civilized world careens down a collision course towards the limits of the planet's resources and its carrying capacity, it's heartening to know someone is able to speak eloquently about the grief and heartbreak of massive ecological and species loss with pithy statements such as this:
"While industrial society has the collective momentum of nearly seven billion humans, wild aliveness has the collective momentum of everything else in the universe. Tap into that."
He begins with a critique of the foundations of contemporary society, including a re-assessment of the value of agriculture. He doesn't stop for long to dwell on arguments over whether a societal collapse is imminent or not, instead he assumes that the society of the future will be post-industrial. He then offers some survival tips and resources for further research to prepare for this possible future. The survival tips encourage a hunting gathering lifestyle, and includes information on hunting and trapping, skinning and dressing game, medicinal plants, food preservation, starting a fire as well as other informative tidbits on recovering the 'primitive'.
As a reader I wish Mr. Olsen had included more on his years in the woods. I think that would have added to the value of this book to hear more first hand experience of what it is really like to be living the lifestyle that Mr. Olsen advocates.
Also, as I read, I felt like Mr. Olsen jumped from topic to topic some. For instance in one chapter I am reading about undressing game, then there is a chapter on contraception, and then I am back to reading about techniques on preserving skins used for clothing. I feel it would have been more logical for the chapter on preserving skin to follow the chapter on undressing game.
Furthermore, a reader should not depend on this book as their sole resource on survival skills. It does however, make a nice companion book to some of the other survival literature out there as well as providing a different perspective on sustainability.
Finally, I admit, I had difficulty chewing on some ideas that Mr. Olsen offered. Maybe it is my culture, but I do find eating maggots to be unappetizing! Still, Mr. Olsen provides some fresh perspectives on post-industrial living that anyone concerned about the fate of society should not pass up.
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