For years now I’ve had a google alert set up for the word “Rewilding.” I like to check the pulse of how the mainstream is perceiving it, as well as the multiple permutations that it has taken between conservation biology, and humans returning to hunter-gatherer lifeways and culture (and the inevitable merging of the two that will take place at some point). I was surprised one day when I was alerted to a news article about a racehorse in Europe named “Rewilding.” For a long time I followed Rewilding’s success. Horse races are disturbing to me. Still, I wondered if it was a sign; should I “bet it all on Rewilding?” In spite of the horrible animal cruelty of horse races, I loved getting headlines that began, “Rewilding Takes Clear Victory…” Was the universe telling me something?
One sad day I got an e-mail alert. Rewilding had been running full speed when his leg bones buckled and turned to jello. He fell under the weight of a useless leg and had to be euthanized right there on the race track. Upon reading this I burst into tears. I cried and cried. I was inconsolable. It was silly really. Yes, it was sad the horse died. Yes, it is sad that horses are forced into this kind of performance slavery for human entertainment. But beyond that, I had psychologically projected the essence of the rewilding renaissance into the success of a racehorse as though it were some mystical metaphor. For that reason, I was heart broken when Rewilding was dispatched.
Projecting an idea onto a specific set of sounds we call a word, in this case the cultural movement of returning to ancestral lifeways, I am always disappointed when the system kills it. Horse races by nature are disgusting and exploitive of horses. Just as civilization, capitalism, and empire are exploitive of humans, and their ideas. I am similarly heart broken when I see an idea as ripe as rewilding, as deeply needed as rewilding, grasped up, beaten into submission, and forced to parade around as something it is not in order for someone to make a dime. The meaning of rewilding maimed, destroyed, dispatched.
…Which is why lately I have been considering changing my name to Peter Rejuvilicious, culturally appropriating a folk medicinal practice that has been disproven by science, bottling it and selling it to wealthy white people with orthorexia for $250 a pop–and all the while calling it rewilding. In phase two of this new master plan, I will write an e-book that is just a rehash of every wilderness survival skills book out on the market. I will market it as the Survival Bible and call it “The Surbible.” Oh by the way, I just trademarked that. It’s now SURBIBLE™. It comes totally free when you subscribe to my spam service.
In case you can’t tell… that last paragraph was satire.
As more and more people over the last few years have begun using (and abusing) the term “rewilding,” I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise in its popular use as the latest buzzword. Nothing is more frustrating than to see people co-opt the term from the rewilding community and water it down (usually for their own commercial purposes). On top of that, I get insulted when I see people clearly copying my work and the works of other rewilding catalysts. It’s even more insulting when those people act like they invented the term, but don’t even understand where it came from, what it means, and fail to honor those who have been doing it for a long time.
In my book Rewild or Die (2008), I wrote briefly of how I came to the word rewilding. I didn’t go into much detail, but after looking at this I’ve realized how important lineage is to me, and so I feel the need to share it with you. When I found the word rewilding, it was a subpage on a (now-defunct) webpage (www.greenanarchy.info) of a particular anarchist ideology called Anarcho-Primitivism. The site described the concept of rewilding in a single paragraph. This paragraph described the entirety of the lifeway of rewilding:
For most green/anti-civilization/primitivist anarchists, rewilding and reconnecting with the earth is a life project. It is not limited to intellectual comprehension or the practice of primitive skills, but instead, it is a deep understanding of the pervasive ways in which we are domesticated, fractured, and dislocated from our selves, each other, and the world, and the enormous and daily undertaking to be whole again. Rewilding has a physical component which involves reclaiming skills and developing methods for a sustainable co-existence, including how to feed, shelter, and heal ourselves with the plants, animals, and materials occurring naturally in our bioregion. It also includes the dismantling of the physical manifestations, apparatus, and infrastructure of civilization. Rewilding has an emotional component, which involves healing ourselves and each other from the 10,000 year-old wounds which run deep, learning how to live together in non-hierarchical and non-oppressive communities, and deconstructing the domesticating mindset in our social patterns. Rewilding involves prioritizing direct experience and passion over mediation and alienation, re-thinking every dynamic and aspect of our reality, connecting with our feral fury to defend our lives and to fight for a liberated existence, developing more trust in our intuition and being more connected to our instincts, and regaining the balance that has been virtually destroyed after thousands of years of patriarchal control and domestication. Rewilding is the process of becoming uncivilized. -www.greenanarchy.info
Rewilding was about a new way of living, a new story to live by. I don’t know who wrote this beautiful paragraph, but thank you (If you find this page and contact me, I will give you proper credit if you so desire). On this site, there was a link to the (now-defunct) website, www.rewild.org. On their website, they had a definition of rewilding:
rewild v. to heal from domestication & rejoin the community of nature; redefining a relationship with nature on nature’s terms; to return an area to a more natural or wild state; to return a captive animal to its natural habitat.
Though I found this definition online, I believe it was first written by the people who wrote the zine Reclaim, Rewild, who also later created rewild.org. I believe these are the same folks who founded the Wildroots Collective, but am not sure about that detail. 2004 was a big year for human rewilding. Along with this zine, John Zerzan’s Green Anarchy Magazine published an issue dedicated to the topic. I loved this definition. However, it felt too long. I shortened it in a way that I thought would encompass all of the main points. Also, it had no synonyms that would help people understand the word even more. I had a t-shirt with the definition of “unschooling” on it, that included a few synonyms to help people grasp the concept (my favorite was “auto-didact”). This gave me the idea to add synonyms to the definition of rewilding. The definition I came up with was this:
rewild, v : to return to a more natural or wild state; the process of undoing domestication. Synonyms: undomesticate, uncivilize.
My edits to the definition didn’t change the original, core idea. I created www.rewild.info (now living at www.rewild.com), an online forum for discussing rewilding. I put this definition on the “splash page“. At the time there were many bloggers venturing into the territory of rewilding. The three people who had blogs entirely dedicated to rewilding and who had written the most, were me (under the moniker Urban Scout), Jason Godesky (Tribe of Anthropik), and Willem Larsen (College of Mythic Cartography), later Wilderix (Rix White), Miles Olsen, and Penny Scout (Emily Porter). People started linking to the forum and within a few months there were many conversations going on about rewilding. Finisia Medrano’s web master linked up with us and all the hoopsters began influencing the direction the subculture was taking. Pretty soon the conversations became super “advanced” and we required new people to read up on rewilding before beginning to have conversations there, so we wouldn’t have to tread over the same ground, but could keep building on what we already had in order to go deeper and deeper.
It seemed as we went along, that the definition on the front page was too vague for people who were new. In one of my blogs I tried to articulate the definition to be more obvious to new people, and offered this:
Rewild, v; to foster and maintain a sustainable way of life through hunter-gatherer-gardener social and economical systems; including, but not limited to, the encouragement of social, physical, spiritual, mental and environmental biodiversity and the prevention and undoing of social, physical, spiritual, mental and environmental domestication and enslavement.
No one was ever happy with this, as rewilding is something so deep, and requires so much work undoing the mythology that our culture has pounded into our heads about indigenous and “primitive” people. This definition wasn’t meant to take the place of the simplistic one, but to augment it: un-doing domestication means abandoning civilization. Abandoning civilization requires a revolution. Rewilding is a renaissance that requires a revolution. It is a movement that addresses environmental destruction and social injustice simultaneously. This has been articulated by many rewilders, including myself. Though, for a couple years there, I, as Urban Scout, was the loudest proponent of rewilding on the web and in the press. Most friends of mine understood what I was doing with the persona of Urban Scout; hipsterfying the aesthetics of rewilding, but without sugar-coating or changing the ideology behind it–putting it in a shell that the mainstream would accept more readily. Those who didn’t get the satire sent me angry private and public messages. Kevin Tucker, a prominent Anarcho-primitivist (and author of For Wildness and Anarchy), wrote me this e-mail:
You and the other ‘primitivist’ bloggers are fucking douche bags. I’ll give you credit for having a sense of humor, but then you err on that side. Trying to make rewilding just some new hipster shit is pathetic. You’re selling yourself and no one who will still be around in a few years will have bought it. Benefits for fucking fashion shows and dance parties? I imagine you might mean well, appealing to other hipsters or what-the-fuck ever, but you’re only making a mockery of yourself. Perhaps that’s your intent? Urban Scout is, after all, just a character right? Fucking PATHETIC. The rantings, daily affairs, and love life of a fringe blogger do not constitute a primitivist site. The sooner you realize that the better off we’ll be when the hype fades and y’all stop trying to co-opt valid shit.
For wildness and ANARCHY,
I’m certain he is still proud of it to this day, and wouldn’t mind me reprinting it here, as we are friends now (after I reached out years later because after going back and reading through our exchanged I agreed with a lot of his criticisms). Kevin didn’t know me personally or see Urban Scout as an expression of authenticity because he didn’t understand the satire. I always thought that they mostly hated me for aesthetic purposes. I didn’t look like one of them; I was a “hipster.” Back then I would throw this kind of thing back in people’s faces. I turned his e-mail into a Madlibs-style contest, in which the winner of my choosing would receive a signed photograph of yours truly. Looking back I just roll my eyes at that whole thing.
He was wrong though. I didn’t co-opt rewilding. Co-opting implies changing the meaning behind something for your own purposes. I was just giving rewilding a superficial change, a quasi-hip facelift. Not an ideological one. Now, though, I think I actually understand where their frustration with me was coming from. The hipster culture I was appealing to was centered around an obsession with novelty. This is part of our culture at large, but was especially true (and still is) of hipster culture. Urban Scout (from the audiences perspective) was simply just another novelty to be consumed, like Jack White recording an ICP album of Mozart covers. Urban Scout, the hipster, made rewilding appear as a novelty. Seeing this now, I understand why those who hold these ideas close to their hearts, were pissed off at me. In spite of this, many people were able to see through the hipster facade and satirical aspects, and understand the sincerity and deeper meanings of rewilding. In fact, a graduate student from Indiana, that I had never met before, wrote a dissertation on how activists use language to recruit people. She included a chapter on “Anarcho-primitivism” and wrote this:
In these mock-mainstream encounters, anarcho-primitivists revel in the contradiction between mass media spectacle and primitivist sentiment. By using blogs, YouTube, and red carpet events, they acknowledge the success of corporate, technological strategies of “selling” ideologies, and they insist that their anti-technological perspective can best be spread through the media that they hope to destroy. When they announce their simultaneous love and disdain for E! Entertainment Network’s brand of consumerism, primitivists produce a critique of the media while guarding themselves against co-optation. Because they produce slick, shiny promotional materials, the mass media has no need to alter the anarcho-primitivist message if it wants to sell it. Urban Scout can therefore have quite a bit of say in his own public representation. As long as his images look professional and corporate, they will appear as he created them.
In 2008 I compiled my “Philosophy of Rewilding” blogs into a book called Rewild or Die, but didn’t publish it officially until 2010, all the while adding updates to the book. In 2011 I finally went on a West coast book tour. During the tour my car was totaled by people who were angry with things I had written in the book and on my blog. Originally I thought that it was anarchist vegans who were mad that I wrote about veganism in my book. The reality is that I don’t know the exact person who did it, so blaming members of a subculture seems counter-productive. The point of mentioning it here, is that it shocked me. I wasn’t born with a thick skin. On my blog I acted as though things didn’t bother me, but they did. I realized that life in the lime light, and one where I am inciting people to total my car, is not the one for me. After my book tour I basically stopped blogging altogether and I’ve spent the last few years creating Rewild Portland, a local non-profit dedicated to creating a rewilding community in my home town of Portland, OR. Rather than be snarky on the internet, I’ve been sincere in person (and a little snarky).
(A side note to this, is the problem with commercializing aspects of rewilding at all, including my non-profit Rewild Portland. For example: charging money for classes, books, information, community, etc. That is a related matter, but is the topic of a whole other conversation. If you are interested in continuing that conversation, join in on it!)
Others published works as well. Finisia Medrano published an auto-biography (Growing Up in Occupied America). Willem Larsen published a collection of his blogs (College of Mythic Cartography). Rewilder Miles Olsen, wrote a book Unlearn, Rewild (New Society, 2012) and used the definition I created for the Rewild Forums in it. In his book, Miles failed to credit me or any other rewilders. In fact, his book doesn’t even have a bibliography. In a private e-mail exchange with me, he agreed to modify the book to include acknowledgements if the book has a second printing. Miles’ book is great, and he was one of the first people to contribute to join the Rewild Forums and shape the conversations there. You should definitely check out his book if you haven’t already.
Many of us who made this initial online push for rewilding haven’t had time to pay much attention to the online world of rewilding for the last two or three years. The rewild forums quieted down for a while without a core group of people driving conversations. We had all talked about it enough, and went to work to rewild our lives in the physical world.
In the last year or so there have been a few websites popping up with people claiming to be “rewilding” but gutting the meaning of it, and using it as a new buzzword for anything “Paleo.” It has been confusing, because some are even using the word as a synonym for just going on a hike in “nature.” As if “un-doing domestication” simply means sitting at the base of a waterfall for 15 minutes a day. It’s even *more* confusing when you look at the most commonly known definition of rewilding, and that is actually conservation rewilding, which explicitly excludes humans (also off-topic but interesting, and is probably the origin of the term in popular use). Human rewilding is the kind we are referring to.
A couple of these people have even become internet famous through modern internet marketing campaigns, seemingly plagiarizing cherry-picked elements of the conversations from the Rewild Forums. All the while, failing to give any of us any credit or linking to any of the websites. Lineage is important to follow because it keeps people on track with the growth of a movement. What is most disturbing about this trend is that it mis-directs what rewilding means from the larger subculture of rewilding, and attempts to close it off in a vacuum of self help routines. Though these sites may add to elements of rewilding culture, they do not add to the rewilding culture overall, but in fact are reducing it by deluding the goal from walking away from civilization (and/or dismantling civilization) to simply taking in a breath of fresh air at the park, or walking in synthetic “barefoot” shoes. With free e-books on things like, “10 Simple Things You Can Do To Rewild” none of which include returning to a hunter-gatherer way of life, or challenging the pervasive hierarchical culture that is destroying the planet. Rich people have always been more active in nature, now they get to be smug about how healthy they are for it.
It is strange that these people would use the word rewilding, without doing some research.These are internet-based businesses. Google “rewilding” and the rewilding wikipedia page and rewild forums are in the top hits. It’s hard to imagine they did no research into a word that they would be using as part of their brand. The wikipedia page of rewilding is listed under a subsection of anarchy. Yet these sites have no ties to the driving analysis that begat rewilding, or the culture surrounding it. It is hard to miss that there is a radical foundation to a topic, even with minimal effort. One of the reasons I take major offense to this (other than lack of credit, changing the frame and goal) is that tacking the term “rewilding” onto a capitalist venture of “self-help,” that only benefits the rich (and mostly white), is simply bad publicity for the rewilding movement. People who are doing actual rewilding (the kind that benefits the entire planet, not just a muscle grouping in your abs) such as: planting back wild foods, assisting Natives in land reclamation, bringing these skills and ideas to communities of color, and communities with economic disparities, will be discredited. It’s bad publicity because it makes it look to the general public as if rewilding is just something for self-absorbed, rich, white people, who just want to look good naked, rather than a cultural movement for all people to reclaim an ancestral lifeway of serving the earth through the tending of the wild–with any means necessary. It’s the intention, the goal, that is important here.
You don’t go to a tree sit to climb trees, you go to a tree-sit to stop a logging operation. There is a purpose beyond self. Rewilding, like tree-sitting (protecting wild spaces by any means necessary is another aspect of rewilding) is rooted in a purpose beyond the self. So, the idea of “rewilding yourself” is a misnomer. Rewilding isn’t about YOU. You’re mental and physical health are important… just as breathing, eating, and sleeping are important. Rewilding isn’t some narcissistic, masturbatory meditation, health, or fitness program. It’s about serving the community of life and the land, in the face of Empire.
These people are climbing trees for fun and calling it tree-sitting. Yes, climbing trees is important for participating in a tree sit, but it’s not the goal. There are people on a facebook page for one of the websites that ask “Why is the wikipedia page for rewilding listed as a subsection of anarchism.” This is akin to “Wait, I didn’t know we we’re learning to climb trees in order to stop a logging operation?!?” It is clear from statements like these that the meaning of rewilding is being lost of these people. Anti-civilization, anti-empire, and anarchy (in the general meaning of a “stateless” culture that self-governs) are at the root of rewilding. Rewilding originated from social and environmental activism, not the survival skills world, not the dieting world, and not the new age meditation world. The core of rewilding has always been about planting back seeds (actual seeds) for a future beyond our own. The children of our future (if there are any) won’t care how good we looked naked, they will care if we planted food for them to eat. Of course, we need to take care of ourselves in order to do awesome rewilding stuff like planting back seeds on the hoop, so nourishing traditions are things we need to focus on, but they are not the reason for the season.
I would say that if your objective is to live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the fullest extent possible, then you are rewilding. If you are just doing paleo diet and going camping to feel healthier, that is not rewilding. I didn’t make up this definition, though I have played a role in crafting the culture that surrounds it. This is just what it means to the culture of people who are attempting to walk away from civilization and create something new. Why do definitions matter? People must have a shared reality in order to work together in that reality. I once got into the most insane arguments with a man who refused to share reality with me, claiming that “nothing is real” and that “there are no such thing as facts”. These arguments looked like little more than philosophical masturbation to me, than practical thinking for taking actions to create a sustainable planet. While I agreed in the philosophical sense with him, it didn’t help anyone to make choices in the real world.While I don’t believe in the concept of “facts” I do believe that we need to have shared observations of reality. We can observe that agriculture destroys the soil. If we can’t have that shared reality, we can’t work together to change our subsistence strategy to one that builds soil. Similarly, if we can’t have a shared reality of what it means to rewild, the word might as well mean nothing at all. The more we clearly define an idea, the easier time we will have using it for practical purposes. If you don’t have “planting back” the land (reciprocal land management strategies) listed as the main “fundamental” of rewilding (the main thing that separates indigenous lifeways from civilized), then you haven’t been at it very long and are just bringing the same concepts of civilized mentality-> rendering the term “rewilding” into just more of the same. For this reason, it is easy to tell who is new to rewilding and who has been at it for a long time based on where they put their emphasis. Agricultural civilization takes more from the land without giving anything back, whereas “hunter-gatherers” give back more than they take. A simple example of this is taking a single Camas bulb from the ground, but planting dozens of camas seeds in its place. Newbie rewilders tend to emphasize primitive skills, foraging, and enact the individualistic “mountain man” cliche, which is missing the whole point of rewilding. Foraging is not rewilding. Foraging, while planting back the seeds of the plants you are foraging, and under the threat of Empire, is rewilding.
The last chapter in my book was called, “Rewilding: a Term to Throw Away.” In it I spoke of how the word could change over time to become something else, and lose sight of the goal. The vision is what is important, not the word. We were rewilding before “rewilding” was a word to describe rewilding. It doesn’t really matter if these people continue to run the word rewilding into the ground. If people are alive in 500 years, it’s because they will have returned to a hunter-gatherer way of life. In the moment though, as someone trying to prepare people for the changes we are experiencing by uniting them under a common term, it is really, really annoying.