“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
-Henry David Thoreau
When he wrote those words, the 19th century philosopher Henry David Thoreau was expressing a yearning for the wilderness, at a time when human beings could just begin to avoid it. The rise of urbanism and industrialism were making possible a life disconnected from direct engagement with nature, and for the first time, many Americans could choose not to go to the woods.
Thoreau’s words wouldn’t have made much sense a century before, but they’re more relevant than ever now. It’s now possible to live an entire life exclusively in the built world, and as the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, it’s even possible to survive just through direct engagement with the virtual world (at least, for a time).
But while this is possible, it isn’t wise. For tens of thousands of years, human beings have been outside, and engaging with the outdoors is human nature. Our minds are well-suited to the wilderness, and our bodies are too (as long as we’ve got a little clothing to cover our hairless behinds). Our ability to be in nature hasn’t changed in millennia, but what we have lost is the understanding of why we should do it, when the conveniences of modernity make it so easy not to.
The reason to go into the woods, to camp, or to do things like practice survival skills, is not because we actually believe we’ll need these skills to survive. It’s because doing those things makes us more confident in ourselves. We go into the woods to know ourselves better, and we practice our skills so that more of the world is available to us. Much of the world, thank god, is still undeveloped, and a lot of that is just a couple hours away from wherever you are.
You could call it a form of meditation or mindfulness, being out there. It’s also a form of fitness, not just for the body, but for the psyche and the soul. And like any practice, we should start with the basics. For us, we begin with fire.