In the months since leaving Wild Roots, I have felt a powerful sense of defeat. Something about my vision for the Uncivilization project was fundamentally wrong or unachievable. But I couldn’t quite identify what that something was, and, as a result, my defeat fed itself, tempting me to close the Wild Will Project down altogether.
Finally, though, I’ve identified several problems — and one main problem — with the Uncivilization project. Thanks to this, I have regained the will to try again. I won’t be closing the blog down after all. Still, some things have to change, and the Uncivilization project is finished. Here are some reasons why.
II. The negative effects of media
Between completing my book and starting the Uncivilization project, I rebranded the Wild Will blog, turning it into something that mixed personal and lifestyle blogging with ideological evangelization. Part of this move involved harnessing the significant social media influence I, Jeremy, Jonah, and some others had built around the blog. The hope was that a lifestylist aura would attract a larger audience to whom we could evangelize. All of this was a huge mistake.
If you drop out of society and the only thread connecting you to your former life is social media, you are going to fuck yourself up psychologically. We all know that Facebook disfigures our social relationships, commodifying them for corporate, not human, purposes. We can see this clearly when real world encounters with people reveal the media illusion. But if you leave these people physically and can then only see them through the Facebook filter, you will slowly start to understand real life in terms of social media life. I began, for example, to see my family as fans, my allies as adherents, my friends as followers. My ego grew. I lost touch with reality in a fundamental sense.
This diverted me from my goal of learning how to flourish in the wild. Instead I began to see my actions in terms of the story it would create. How could I blog about this? I thought. What will this look like? My goal shifted from identifying my needs to trying to maintain my audience. In other words, I became a corporate pawn, a source of free labor for Facebook, often with a vague hope that I could monetize my blog. This, despite at the beginning of the uncivilization project committing to a moneyless life!
Another reason the change was a mistake: At Wild Roots I finally got around to reading Brave New World. In the story, a man called The Savage leaves the barbaric outskirts of civilization to experience technological society. He rightly decides it is a decadent hell-hole, and leaves it for an aesthetic, isolated traditional life. But, not long after he leaves, a journalist shows up. Hi, I’m with Final Hour Radio, can I ask you a few questions? he asks. The Savage answers the questions, and the journalist goes on his way. Then another journalist shows up. Then another. Then another. Then tourists come to see him. People gawp and stare. The Savage, frustrated by his inability to escape, hangs himself. And then the books ends.
Right after I read this book, a journalist who had contacted me several months before flew from New York to visit me at Wild Roots. You can imagine how I felt. Since then, I’ve continued to be haunted by the final chapter of Brave New World, and I have the creeping suspicion that I should eschew any media attention my project receives, no exceptions, if I am to remain properly oriented toward my goal. I am, I’ve realized, much too susceptible to the temptation of fame or recognition. Besides, too easily the media can turn efforts to live an earnest life into a spectacle. The promise, of course, is exposure, and the possibility of spreading ideas. But the reality? The ideas are flattened, almost exclusively consumed, and all that energy that went toward creating a consumable media project will never be recoverable for the actually fruitful work of forming real-world relationships. The reality, in other words, is that media has the same effect as Facebook: it subordinates your own needs to a corporate will (of media companies), or to the market demands that even freelance journalists have to satisfy.
III. Subsidiary problems
A huge factor in the failure of the Uncivilization project was how unprepared I was. After leaving college, you need some time to recover. There’s a whole big world out there, and it’s much different from the environments college students are immersed in for years.
For example, succeeding at college almost always means sustaining an astounding number of social relationships, much more than is natural. I had never had as many relationships at one time as I had in college. Three years of this will overdevelop your gregarious instinct, which is why so many people, post-graduation, experience a profound sense of loneliness, even if they have the same amount and quality of relationships as they had before college. One college grad explains, “I realized I was dealing with post-college depression specifically, because my depression was directly linked to things I had in college that I no longer had: namely, the experience of being a part of a tightknit community. Even though my partner and I are extremely close, I felt suddenly very lonely. I had co-workers, but not the kinds of relationships I had in college.” This kind of thing certainly affected my inability to cope with loneliness while I was travelling and at Wild Roots.
And, aside from that, I was generally naive, still too young to really succeed at fulfilling a life vision the first go around. I barely even understood how money works! I still barely understand it! That’s not a great position to be in when you’re going into the adult world. Even if you decide (idealistically, I might add) to eschew money, you need to understand the incentives and economic frameworks that shape everyone else’s behavior. You will, after all, be interacting with the moneyed world. You can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s simple, and people warned me. But now I know why people call tweenies arrogant.
I won’t say much more. Many of these problems are highly personal and nuanced, and not stuff I can easily explain on a blog even if I wanted to. It’s enough to say that these problems, at least, are conquerable, and I don’t count them as the major stumbling blocks I will face in my second attempt at living according to my values.
IV. Almost reviving a primitivist commune — except not
A major distraction, and one that came quite early, was the opportunity to run the Wild Roots property. As I explained previously, Wild Roots was founded about fifteen years ago by a bunch of burnt-out activists, anarchists, rewilders, and hippie types. A sister of one of the founding members had received a huge inheritance, and she used some of the money to buy the land necessary for the crew to start their land project. Ever since then, the sister has let the ragtag group of people living on the land do whatever they want with it so long as they pay the property taxes and use it for educational activities (e.g., survival skills, blacksmithing workshops, etc.).
By the time that I arrived, the community had long been in a state of decay. The principal resident of the community had been hinting that he was going to leave. And, right when I showed up, the property owner announced that she no longer wanted the property in her name due to personal issues. No one residing there wanted to put their name on the paperwork. So the opportunity was opened to me. I was, of course, enthusiastic. I couldn’t believe my luck. Not only had I found the perfect place to achieve my goals, I thought, but I would be able to help restore it to its former glory! It should have been clear to me how suspicious that situation was. But, as I said, I was naive and unprepared for the real world. Predictably, the offer fell through. And by the end of my time with the community, I was wasn’t exactly sad.
Still, for almost the whole time I lived at Wild Roots, this offer to help run the place dangled over my head. It was a dirty temptation, and it negatively affected my behavior. I even saw how poorly I was acting, how polluted my motives were, but I couldn’t really stop myself. The stakes were too great: imagine what a success it would be to drop out of college in the name of primitivism and immediately become a central figure in a primitivist commune; and what a failure it would be to miss such a grand opportunity.
The issue is resolved now, but after I left I still felt like I missed a great opportunity. It took me a while to realize that it never actually existed. There was a reason no one wanted to put their name on the deed.
V. The Real Hurdle
My expectation for community
Down to the central problem. I wrote before that my biggest hurdle with the Uncivilization project was the lonely conditions it put me in. Although some of this may have been due to the influences of university life, much of it was not. It was quite clear that the conditions I faced were not satisfying my social needs. Some of this had to do with lacking intellectual peers, some with lacking a stable community to orient myself in, some with lacking sex or even touch, some with lacking people my age…
At the beginning of the Uncivilization project, I figured that forming a community would be a difficult, but not impossible problem. In college I had learned to utilize charisma, and a large amount of drop-outs were already lacking community or a sense of purpose. Combining both elements, I thought, could easily instigate the formation of a small social group.
I did not believe that this would work perfectly at first. In fact, I expected the first few efforts to fall apart. And I never expected a roving band of friends who stuck together for years; only a band of friends who got to know each other as they travel together for a while, then travel separately, then travel together again.
That is certainly an achievable goal within the traveller subculture, but, I quickly realized, it was going to take a lot longer than I initially thought. Or, rather, I may have aprehended the length of time, but I didn’t really comprehend it. Even a year is a long time to be alone, and it would certainly take longer than that, all while I experienced failed attempts in the meantime.
All this is exacerbated by my unusual mode of travel and life, in terms of traveller subculture. I absolutely do not use drugs while on the road, except for weed, and only then when I am an area someone I trust controls (e.g., someone’s home or car). Nowadays I avoid drugs completely. And I never, ever get drunk while on the streets. Because I won’t travel with someone who more than occasionally breaks these habits, my options for travelling partners are severely limited. Even following them personally isolates me: in some places refusing to do drugs with another traveller can be interpreted as uppity and pretentious.
A slap from reality
Then, I gained my experiences at Wild Roots and my concurrent attempts to find travelling buddies, and my expectations about community went from difficult but not impossible to probably impossible and definitely difficult.
For one thing, if you know your main problem in the coming years is going to be a lack of community, Wild Roots is not the place to be. As I said, the place was decaying when I got there. Like all intentional communities and land projects that I’ve ever known, it had a history of souring social relationships and a dysfunctional to non-existent infrastructure for problem solving, accountability, and the like.
In hindsight I should have expected that. The first time I hitchhiked, I passed through Pittsburgh and searched for a land project that some anarchists had started several years earlier. When I finally found it, though, it had transformed into a homeless encampment maintained mostly by two sovereign citizens, neither of whom were playing with a full deck. (They were an iconic pair. One was short and fat and kind of dense. The other was tall and skinny, walked around everywhere with a machete on his belt, and was clearly the brains of the operation.)
But seeing the ghosts of a failed community is one thing. Being a part of it as it disintegrates is a lot more … intimate. I learned a lot about people and how terrible they can be to one another. I learned a lot about myself and how terrible I can be. I realized that even the greatest moral characters can lose their compassion when made dependent on a dysfunctional social arrangement. I realized a lot.
When I felt my time at Wild Roots reaching a close, I invested more energy in finding travelling buddies. All of it went miserably.
One of the guys ended up punching me in the face.
I took another guy to Chapel Hill, and he decided he wanted to stay there for a while, so I connected him with some friends who were looking for a roommate. A few months later I learned that the guy had fallen into heroin addiction again, stolen thousands of dollars worth of musical equipment from one of the roommates, and filled his closet with used needles. Today he’s no longer an addict but on the streets again (the two seem to go together for him, interestingly).
A girl I travelled with seemed especially promising, but her sense of entitlement grew as we grew closer. I learned later that her suit-and-tie father pretty much funds all her travels (even though she dresses and acts like a normal tramp), and that explained all the problems. In the end, she stole the first two deer hides I tanned, and I ended contact with her.
I should note that before Wild Roots I tried to find travelling buddies along I-40. All three individuals I travelled with ended up being drunks. And not the lovable townie drunks you read about in Tom Sawyer (although those do exist — I’ve met them!).
VI. A new experiment
Overall, then, the Uncivilization project is a failure. I did not learn how far outside the bounds of civilization I could live while still flourishing. I no longer even think that is the proper goal. I wrote at the beginning of the project that this might have been a possibility:
Speaking generally, I do not think it is possible for me to live permanently outside the bounds of civilization. At the very least not alone. Of course, humans can live in an uncivilized manner. The Paleolithic and extant primitive tribes prove that. But I am not a child of a primitive tribe, much less the Stone Age, and a 21-year-old learned by the city faces a hard limit in his quest to purge the civilized dependence so thoroughly bred into him. Furthermore, individuals totally independent of civilization flourish because they can live that way in groups (for the most part). That’s why banishment is so serious a punishment in primitive societies. Finally, to flourish outside of civilization, you need a flourishing habitat, and those have largely been destroyed. Those remaining are being destroyed at a rapid rate.
I also wrote that my project “entails a community, or a teacher, or a community of teachers, to aid in my transition.” But clearly the basic material for community simply isn’t where I was looking for it. If I am going to live by my values and take care of myself, I am going to have to do something much different. I have no idea what that is going to look like. For now, I am going to keep working until my apartment’s lease ends, in the meantime using any extra money I have to test out some other options.