The following is an excerpt from my novel, Girlfriend in a Box
When I was in college, a professor asked me what I plan on doing after graduating. I told her I would like to go to a forest and live by foraging for food such as acorns, or buy a small farm so I can grow my own food and live a self-sufficient life. When she first heard what I said she laughed, probably because she realized I will be graduating with an advanced degree in computer science and can get any job in the high-tech industry, why I would then decide to live off the land like some primitive hunter-gatherer or simple farmer? But after her initial laughter she was very supportive and told me that I should pursue it if that’s what I wanted to do with my life.
Although I wasn’t completely serious when I said I wanted to live a nomadic life in the forest, I wasn’t completely joking either. When I was a teenager I watched a television documentary about the lives of people in Alaska. The filmmakers documented the lives of people who lived in the remote wilderness far away from civilization where they made a living by growing gardens, fishing salmon and hunting caribou. Something appealed to me about their lifestyle. Maybe it was the beauty of the endless wilderness they are constantly surrounded by. Maybe it was how exotic their lifestyles were compared with people in a modern society. Whatever it was, I was intrigued.
In my childhood and early teenage years I had faith in the goodness of humanity, and the ability for everyone to treat everyone else with respect. But as I grew older I became more disillusioned of the world I lived in. In the United States we like to think of ourselves as a country based on liberty, and even built statues to this ideal. Despite this, our country also has a long history of celebrating people who can intimidate, dominate and subjugate the weak. This attitude exists as a troubling component of our business culture, which exacerbates the already strained relations between class, race and gender. I think it was at this point in my life that the idea of going off to live in the Alaskan wilderness (or any wilderness) became a desire to escape from these terrible problems in modern society.
Those who have read the book Walden might wonder if I am rehashing this great work of literature. Unfortunately I have never read the work in full, but I think I am part of a tradition that goes back to hermits in the Middle Ages which disdains the trappings of “civilization” and praise the virtues of nature. Despite this romantic notion of living out in the wilderness, leading an independent life away from a corrupt society, I still value the civilized way of life.
While the civilized way of life has problems, it also has its upsides. If one were to live outside of civilization one would miss out on the creature comforts such as homes with central heating, indoor plumbing and refrigerators. But the thing I appreciate most about civilization is easy access to lots of information. We might romanticize about the “noble savage”, but when our ancestors lived more primitive lives they were rather ignorant. Maintaining large storehouses of information such as libraries or Wikipedia require teams of dedicated people, which is only possible through civilization. It is largely thanks to them that we know that the earth revolves around the sun, diseases are caused by germs and not witches, and vampires aren’t real.
All of this leaves me with conflicting feelings about the virtues of living in the wilderness versus living in civilization. On the one hand, I do not like the way people treat one another in the “civilized” world. On the other hand, I would not like to live outside alone by myself in the wilderness in a state of naked primitivism. Perhaps eventually we will find a balance between the two ideals, and learn from what both have to offer to us. In the meantime though, I can only dream about what an ideal life could be like away from the problems of our world.