Coming Home

Home of the Free

Consider a remote village in India where everybody occupies that oft-lamented condition of ‘living off less than two dollars a day.’ Imagining ourselves with such an income, we see a life of relentless hunger and deprivation. The truth may be quite different. Consider that the people there grow most of their own food within extended families that may number over a hundred people, so they don’t need money to buy food. Similarly, everyone knows how to build a house out of freely available materials, so they don’t need money for housing. If land is owned in common by the extended family, no one needs money for rent either. Entertainment, drama and play are functions of village life that don’t require money as well. There is no need for insurance, as people take care of each other. There is no need to pay police, as informal social pressure and perhaps village councils enforce social norms. Of course, in the extended family there is no need to pay for cooking, cleaning or child care. And the village might have rich traditions of herbal and folk medicine.

Now replace the mud-brick houses with concrete. Replace the extended family compounds with nuclear family apartments. Replace systems of mutual aid with insurance. Replace communally held land with deeded property. Replace culinary knowledge with fast food restaurants. Replace the identity conferred by local stories and relationships with identity derived from brands. Replace walking with automobiles. Replace traditional songs with entertainment products. Replace sustainable subsistence agriculture with commodity export crops. Replace experiential land-based learning with school-based curricula. Replace the village healer with a medical clinic. Send all the young people to the cities. That is called development.

Charles Eisenstein, “Development in the Ecological Age

and just this for allAll this theorizing aside, the simple reason so many of us opt for fast food and cheap prices — to hell with the environment — is so that we can pay the bills. You can’t expect people to give an iota about the biota when they’re barely scraping by. That’s why we “can’t be bothered.” We already have a lot on our plates.

And what are we mostly paying for? Usually rent. Guess what? Hunter-gatherers don’t pay rent. My friends at the small, rural, primitivist community Wildroots pay less than $200 a year. Granted, they are basically camping in a foot of snow as I write, but I pay twice that much a month. It’s hard in here for a wimp!

Compared to most people, the $450 a month I pay to share a thousand-square-foot house in Asheville is cheap. I wonder what Drennan pays. Two years after The Roadkill Chef, he had to abandon an attempt to eat exclusively wild food in order to pay the rent. He didn’t have the do re mi. In our economic Fear Enterprise system, I guess you can’t have your carrion and eat it too. Time to join The Rent is Too Damn High Party.

Call of the Wild

The basic act of knowing how to find your own food, to feed yourself with a meal you didn’t buy, is a small act of freedom in an increasingly regimented and mechanical world.

Hank Shaw, Hunt, Gather, Cook

In a life-satisfaction survey conducted in 2004, on a scale of 1 to 7, homeless people in Fresno scored 2.9. Slum dwellers in Calcutta scored 4.6. Topping the charts with an average score of 5.8 were Forbes magazine’s richest people in America. Tied with the richest people in America were the Pennsylvania Amish, the Inuit of Northern Greenland, and the African Masai, who live without electricity or running water in huts made of dried cow dung.

So much for the American Dream. Clearly comfort and convenience don’t necessarily add up to contentment, especially when you have to put in long hours to pay for it. Americans work harder than any other industrialized nation. I bet you don’t have the time to read this book!

When urged to settle down and work the land, Smohalla, one of the early founders of the Ghost Dance movement, said, “my young men will never work, for men who work cannot dream.” He must have been talking about the Native American Dream. The Europeans’ pursuit of happiness here had started at least 100 years before. That’s when Ben Franklin said, “no European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.” By 1783, Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur reported that “thousands of Europeans [have joined the] Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines from choice having become European.”

Surely a handful of savages succumbed to rum, sugar, and other costly comforts, but otherwise, why the flight from Progress? Fergus the Part-Time Forager explains:

Our lives today are so full of constraining regulations and laws and boundaries… to get out in the country is to get away from all that. You can just feel the simplicity of it. All those demands on you just fall away.

Ask any forager in the world — “old” or “new” — and they’ll tell you the same thing. We feast unpoliced.

Can’t Buy Me Lunch

There’s a breed of person who’ll never punch a timecard. Folks who wouldn’t be caught dead in a cubicle. Their only boss: Mother Nature.

National Geographic Channel, “Filthy Riches”

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absoutely free from all worldly engagements… When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too… I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.


Mother Nature offers both enjoyment and employment through the world’s oldest profession. That is, if you can call it work.

Today, few Americans know how to forage; most don’t even know the term. At first, my mom called it “scavenging.” Maybe that explains the attitude of most of her generation toward Euell Gibbons. Who is Euell Gibbons? That’s my point.

The most famous wild foods books of the past fifty years were written by Gibbons in the 1960’s. These classics include Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Stalking the Good Life, and outdoor activities like camping and foraging are a good part of their charm. Basically, Gibbons lives like a big Boy Scout. And in fact, he usually had to spend his time with young people; the adults were too busy.

Why is Norway said to be one of the happiest countries on earth? Friluftsliv (“free air life”) may have something to do with it. Like allemannsretten (“every person’s right”), it means freedom to roam, specifically, out in nature. As chef, forager, and White House “Champion of Change” Bun Lai describes, “what I do for a living today — you know, splashing around the ocean, running around the woods — is no different than what I was doing as a kid.” How many of us can say that?

When I first moved to Asheville, my rent was $65/month. Granted, a cup of water left by your bedside in winter would be frozen the next morning, but who’s complaining? One day I ran into my friend’s ex’s new girlfriend (small town). She said, “Steven doesn’t like the crowd Natalie’s hanging out with. He says they don’t like to work.” I still don’t work. I have an unlimited vacation policy with the company I keep.

Here’s one more passage by another noble savage, as recorded in 1691 by the missionary Chrestien Le Clercq. You may not have the time or patience of an Aborigine to read it, but don’t miss the last line.

I am greatly astonished that the French have so little cleverness, as they seem to exhibit in the matter of which thou hast just told me on their behalf, in the effort to persuade us to convert our poles, our barks, and our wigwam into those houses of stone and of wood which are tall and lofty, according to their account, as these trees. Very well! But why now do men of five to six feet in height need houses which are sixty to eighty?… Hast thou as much ingenuity and cleverness as the Indians, who carry their houses and their wigwams with them so they may lodge wheresoever they please, independently of any seignior whatsoever?…

Thou sayest of us also that we are the most miserable and unhappy of all men, living without religion, without manners, without honour, without social order, and, in a word, without any rules, like the beasts in our woods and our forests, lacking bread, wine, and a thousand other comforts which thou hast in superfluity in Europe… I beg thee now to believe that, all miserable as we seem in thine eyes, we consider ourselves nevertheless much happier than thou in this, that we are very content with the little that we have; and believe also once for all, I pray, that thou deceivest thyself greatly if thou thinkest to persuade us that thy country is better than ours. For if France, as thou sayest, is a little terrestrial paradise, art thou sensible to leave it?…

Now tell me this one thing, if thou hast any sense: Which of these two is the wisest and happiest: he who labors without ceasing and only obtains, and that with great trouble, enough to live on, or he who rests in comfort and finds all that he needs in the pleasure of hunting and fishing?

First People, First Voices

where's the beef?Why work, Le Clerq? Three hundred years later, all we can say is, can you please repeat the question? A Hadza tribesman recently asked, “why stand in a field all day and wait for weeks or months for food when you can eat berries from a bush, find as much honey as you can eat or spend an hour inside a porcupine den and feed an entire camp?”

Who says there’s no free lunch? We live in The Garden of Eden, yet blinders direct us through sliding glass doors to our food. Have we been led down the garden path?

“Tell me what you eat,” says Brillat-Savarin, and I will tell you what you are.” We are what we eat, for to be civilized is to be domesticated. When you shop outside the box, on the other hand, it’s not just the food that’s wild and free.

The Golden Cage

It seems such a waste of time
If that’s what it’s all about
If that’s movin’ up
Then I’m movin’ out

Billy Joel, “Movin’ Out”

Questioning human history is not just an academic endeavor. Nearly all of us at some point ask ourselves, “why am I doing this?

There’s a classic song about the mod-life crisis. I first heard it in college. I’d convinced Princeton University to give me credit and financial aid for a self-styled degree in “Philosophy of Ecology.”

the_busMy goal at the time was two-fold: one, to escape studying Western Philosophy; and two, to escape Princeton. I met both of these objectives by spending the first half of my senior year exploring the western states with the Expedition Education Institute, a.k.a., “The Bus.”

For a spoiled, stuck up, suburban South Floridian, sharing a motorcoach with twenty-four hippies and camping out every night was hard enough. To add insult to injury, I had to listen to folk music. I couldn’t believe that people actually wrote songs about trains, not to mention that even more people were happy to sing these songs.

One of the few campfire favorites I could stand was “Night Rider’s Lament.” It’s been recorded many times since, including by Nanci Griffith and Garth Brooks. It told me why I was putting up with the folkwagon and the freezing nights. I realized I’d be a poor man if I never saw an eagle fly.

The Show Must Go On

Other kids are brought up nice and sent to Harvard and Yale.
Me? I was brought up like a mushroom.

Frank Costello

People often ask me how I first got into foraging. I tell them my family has always loved something for nothing. Every Saturday we would go yard sailing. Now I go to a yard sale every day: in my yard!

Everybody loves free stuff; it’s universal. The #1 daytime show in the states is The Price is Right. In Barcelona, it’s Mushroom Hunters. It’s basically the same show: free stuff! Foraging is a perpetual Easter egg hunt. You don’t even have to guess the price: it’s always zero.

The Kids are Alright

the kids are alright

My family’s favorite vacation was going to Disney World. Here I am at seven years old, the year they opened the Carousel of Progress. That was also the year “Night Rider’s Lament” came out and the year John Shuttleworth called civilization a “lunatic asylum.”

I don’t remember much from my childhood, but I remember that ride. Originally sponsored by General Electric, it is one of the oldest attractions at the park and the longest-running stage show in American history.

Most kids would consider the Carousel of Progress boring, I suppose, but it was my favorite — and quite likely, Walt Disney’s too. They say he asked that it never cease operation. Maybe that’s why, despite flagging attendance, a more adrenalizing attraction hasn’t taken its place. Maybe once they defrost him — or the power runs out — he’ll get to see it again.

Future Shock

The first six years of a child’s life is spent in a hypnotic trance. Its perceptions of the world are directly downloaded into the subconscious during this time, without the discrimination of the as yet dormant self-conscious mind. Consequently, our fundamental perceptions about life and our role in it are learned before we express the capacity to choose or reject those beliefs. We were simply “programmed.”

Bruce Lipton, “The Power of the Mind”

One time at Disney World, I got myself lost. I was brought underground by Chip or Dale (I still can’t tell which is which). According to my mother, when park security finally located my parents, my first words were, “what happened to YOU?” After that, whenever we went back to the Magic Kingdom, they kept me on a short leash — literally.

Looking back, I could see why I was so into Disney World. After all, I went on to study Basic, Pascal, and even Assembly Language in junior high. For those of you who didn’t star in Revenge of the Nerds, Assembly Language is the programming code one step up from ones and zeros. I took it in summer school at the local community college. In fact, by the time I graduated, I had earned seventy college credits, enough to finish college in two years. I took five. I had gone straight from suburbia to The Ivory Tower. I wasn’t ready to leave.

I suppose that if it had been the late sixties, I would have gone into plastics. But this being the early eighties, I set my sights on artificial intelligence. Somehow, robots were going to save the world. What was I thinking, the Country Bear Jamboree?

Studies have shown that until about age seven, children live in a perpetual dream state. I’m not sure I ever outgrew that. Like Smohalla says, men who work don’t dream, and I’ve never held a job in my life. Like my Cuban parents, I must have kept a current of idealism, of independence, beneath that thick layer of domestication. I always got straight A’s — in academics — and F’s in conduct. I fought authority while still playing the game. My biggest regret in life is not having gotten a hold of my permanent record.

By the time I left college, however, I had decided to get back to the land and out of The System. I drifted for five years. I looked for a commune and ended up on a farm. My Jewish grandmother classic line was, “for this he went to Princeton?” What happened to my American Dream?

Down to Earth

Chuang Tzu was fishing in the P’u River. The king of Ch’u sent two officials with the message, “I would like to offer you the administration of my realm.”

Chuang Tzu, intent on his rod, did not turn his head. He said, “I hear that in Ch’u there is a sacred tortoise which has been dead for three thousand years. His Majesty keeps it wrapped up in a box at the top of the hall in the shrine of his ancestors. Would this tortoise rather be dead with its bones dressed and honored, or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?”

“It would rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud,” said the two officials.

Away with you! I’ll drag my tail in the mud!”

I think three things led up to my fall from family grace. Three strikes and I was out. All three, I had first experienced in college; whether because of it or in spite of it, I’ll never know. My three wake up calls were hiking, whole foods cooking, and early taoism. The Chuang Tzu in particular was a real eye-opener.

It would take another ten years, however, before I really started to shake off my ego trip and get back into my own skin. I came across this passage from the Sufi poet Hafiz, its meaning crystal clear:

Once, after a hard day’s forage, two bears sat together in silence on a beautiful vista, watching the sun go down and feeling deeply grateful for life. After a while, a thought-provoking conversation began which turned to the topic of fame.

The one bear said, “Did you hear about Rustam? He has become famous and travels from city to city in a golden cage. He performs to hundreds of people who laugh and applaud his carnival stunts.”

The other bear thought for a few seconds, then started weeping.

Even today, I sometimes wake at night, close to weeping. Am I still in a golden cage? That time portal looms, beckoning…

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