Modern citizens often live their day to day lives on a single, connected piece of concrete with small islands of well-tended grass and trees and perhaps a few animals well-suited to the city, like deer, squirrels, and rats. The wilderness is obviously much different. Relationships with plants and animals are an intrinsic element of the individual’s social life. Some of these relationships are affectionate — like the relationships between a clan and the mammals and birds that follow them to eat their food scraps — and some are filled with danger — like the relationships between a clan and animals known to be violent toward them. A few transcend the division, such as cases when novel individuals form affectionate relationships with animals otherwise known as dangerous.
Living in a landscape filled with non-human life changes the landscape of the human mind. It is hard to describe, precisely and with words, what the change is like. Scientists have measured the effects in small ways. For example, psychologists have demonstrated that even a small amount of time in natural areas helps reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. And several books and papers have explored the concept of biophilia, a proposed innate human connection with non-human nature. But I have found that the best descriptions are religious and artistic. For example, the poet John Haines wrote:
As many have found, having once lived that life, nothing else ever quite satisfies the spirit. It is the original life of people, and there is in it something inexhaustible and fresh. To rise in the morning, look from the doorway of a tent at the early light on the land; to drink from a tundra pool, break fast, and then break camp; to pack one’s gear and with encouraging cries to the animals, set off once more to the hunting ground: it may in many ways have been the best life we have known on this earth, clean and unburdened, filled with peril and expectation.
Let me give an example from my personal life. I used to be amazed by accounts of hunter/gatherers who could sense in just the smallest detail what kind of animal went through an area, or whether it rained several days ago, or what might be going on uphill. At first I thought there was some kind of technique to it. If I learned the right system, I would have similar abilities. But after spending just a marginal amount of time living in the forest, the actual source of hunter/gatherer ability became clear: when the forest is your home, you will know it like your home.
Consider how a person can sense a disturbance in their house if a book was moved. It has nothing to do with the books having a strict order, and the person doesn’t necessarily have to remember a great many details about how book placement indicates what someone was doing with the book. Because the disrupted place is their home, a single disruption is enough to tell them how it connects to the way things usually are in that place.
In the same way, as I lived in the forest, I began to notice small details about the people I was living with, like the differences in their footsteps. This first became an important detail to me when a visitor came and, unlike everyone else, wore shoes, making the mud mushier than usual and leaving some of the nearby plants trampled. Weather patterns, never once explicitly communicated to me, also became apparent. I began to notice how sound and wind travelled through the mountain cove, knowledge I later used to go on walks without alerting the wildlife I wanted to see. Here and there others I lived with communicated specific details, but the psychological state as a whole, the sense of being home, simply developed with time.
Now I can’t wait to return to it. Not least because I taste the chemicals in city water, I feel tension developing in my shoulders and lower back, I feel the damage the concrete is doing to my feet and legs. The environment around me is inert, not thriving with life and motion. And whereas in the forest I could explore what I thought was interesting, here my paths are directed by signs and architecture, my motions monitored by cops and security cameras, and any behavior outside the normal bounds is noticed. How could I learn to feel home in a place like that? As I say when I make an escapade to the streets for supplies and friendly visits — “It’s everyone else who is homeless.”