By Laura Busheikin
The day I’m supposed to interview local author Miles Olson, his home is being destroyed. So we meet at Serious Coffee instead of his hand-built cabin, which I’d wanted to see because it plays a central role in his book.
Olson had warned me in an earlier email that this might happen: “I suppose if my home has been bulldozed, I’ll just send you an email and we can meet up elsewhere :)” he’d written, smiley face and all.
That Olson is unfazed by the loss of his property does not entirely surprise me, having recently read his book, Unlearn, Rewild. His equanimity reflects a relationship to survival and to the material world that is markedly different than what prevails in Western society.
Olson is a self-described “feral homesteader” who at age 28 has been living outside the norms of civilization for the last 10 years: hunting and trapping, foraging, hand-building his home on squatted land out of salvaged materials, buying almost nothing, and learning the old ways to survive—or rather, he would say, to thrive.
Eventually, although he hadn’t planned to, he wrote a book, which was published in 2012 by Gabriola Island’s New Society Publishers. Unlearn, Rewild presents his reasons for choosing this life, and passes on some of the survival skills he’s learned. It is divided into two sections: “Ideas” and “Skills.” The result combines philosophical musings with practical instructions on gutting and skinning deer, political analysis with recommendations for good plants to use as toilet paper, and poetic reflections on our place in wild nature with suggestions of how we can use road kill as food.
The book changed Olson’s life. Where once he lived in semi-secret on the fringes of society, he is now a blogger, a teacher, and a public speaker. The week of the interview, he’s getting ready for an upcoming trip to Pennsylvania, to speak at a university and give some workshops. And he’s losing his home.
“I’m in a phase of transition right now,” he writes in his email, understatedly. The guy who walks into Serious Coffee at the appointed interview time isn’t immediately identifiable as a wild man of the woods or a burgeoning writer and international speaker. With straight, chin-length blond hair, a woolly sweater and jeans that, while not new, are reasonably clean, Olson looks, well, pretty normal.
But he has not made normal life choices. I begin by asking what started Olson down his path.
“I grew up in a completely normal way, very much a regular North American kid, disconnected from the land. But I had a constant questioning, for as long as I can remember. This is not uncommon—most people have that in the background. I was just really bad at ignoring it,” he says with a laugh.
“In my teens I picked up a couple of books that sparked ideas that what I saw in the world was not all there is: [Herman Hesse’s] Siddhartha, and [Thoreau’s] Walden.
Olson had a high school friend with a cabin on remote Maurelle Island, north of Read Island. When he was 17, after dropping out of Grade 12 at Vanier, he went there for the summer to live alone.
“I thought that was the Holy Grail in terms of getting the world to make sense. It turned out to be a terrifying experience. Being all alone, you don’t have any distraction from your own shadow. Really, it was a classic vision quest, although I wasn’t planning that. It was a hard-core experience of purging and cleansing and gaining clarity. I came out of it with a purer vision of myself and of life.”
After that intense experience of solitude, Olson knew that he wanted human interaction, society and friendship to be part of his life. This took the form of finding an unoccupied piece of land in the woods near Cumberland, and moving in. Thus began a great adventure—still living off the land, but closer to human society.
“If you were to call me a modern-day Thoreau, that would be insanely accurate,” he says and laughs. “I am living on the edge of a small city, just like he did on Walden Pond.”
Olson’s first task was to learn enough skills to build himself a cabin out of scavenged and recycled material. Also, he was looking for partners. A group of six others joined him in his project.
By intention and necessity, Olson and his friends were deeply engaged, on a daily basis, in learning skills for self-reliance. This meant reading books, talking to people, and, above all, trying things out. And where there was trial, there was also error. For instance, a winter spent trying to keep warm with green alder taught Olson the value of seasoning firewood. And he witnessed some friends learn the hard way not to eat cascara berries. “They are a violent laxative so they ended up suffering gut-wrenching agony with extreme diarrhea for a week.”
Living close to the land knocks your ego down to size. “You are humbled, again and again… and again ….” He laughs, and continues: “And that’s a good thing. It means you get grounded in reality.”
Life in the bush means persistent effort— hauling water, starting and tending a fire, finding and preparing food, and more. “It’s enough to make most people cringe, but for me it soon became not such a big deal. Actually it’s really wonderful, in so many ways.
“Sure, on the one hand it’s an annoying difficulty to have to wake up and go outside to chop wood to start a fire, but on the other hand, it’s enlivening. It makes the blood in my veins pump faster, it connects me to something that requires focus, and it’s, in a sense, very beautiful,” he says.
Another big challenge, and a source of beauty, came from sharing the land with others. “Really, the physical skills are superficial things you can figure out, but the complexities of living in a tight knit group that is interdependent—really interdependent because you are living on the land with each other— that’s huge. There was a tremendous amount of learning that took place. I had to learn to be open and receptive to my own faults,” he says.
The group eventually disbanded, but has stayed friends.
Olson has loved the whole experience. “The best part of it is having a dream that seems to be outside the realm of possibility and giving that dream form. Even though it might turn out a lot different from what you expect. To come from knowing nothing, to feeling incredibly competent, with knowledge and skills worth sharing… that’s pretty sweet!”
And people are eager for those skills and that knowledge. It seems that Unlearn, Rewild has appeared at just the right cultural moment. Humans, clearly, are realizing they desperately need to reconnect with nature. We live in a time when educators and psychologists hold conferences on “nature deficit disorder,” when people consider it life-changing to complete the David Suzuki Foundation’s 30×30 Nature Challenge (spend 30 minutes outside per day for a month); when urban gardening is taking over backyards and rooftops. The Globe and Mail just last month identified “rewilding” as a cultural movement.
“People are craving a connection to the land—it’s both a practical necessity for sustainability and a deep heart craving,” says Olson. And it is far, far more than a trend. “I see as fundamental to the problems of the world that we are not connected to ourselves, to nature, to solid reality, that we don’t have a beautiful connection to life and aliveness,” he says.
Unlearn, Rewild articulately identifies these world problems—climate change, over-population, exhaustion of the earth’s resources, the increasing gap between rich and poor, war, the build up of environmental toxins in land and water, deforestation, desertification, species extinction, and “general ecological annihilation.”
He identifies the root of these problems as civilization itself, which he calls “a failed 6000-year experiment.” He sees the advent of agriculture as ultimately destructive and asserts that the only proven models we have for existing sustainably as humans are hunter/gatherer societies.
While many people might consider Olson’s analysis and life choices radical, he is also remarkably nuanced, and blessedly free of dogma. Olson isn’t pushing a specific course of action on anyone. He defines rewilding broadly (over the course of a 10-page chapter) and invites people to discover what it means for them.
“To fully embrace the concept of rewilding is to relinquish your judgement and preconceptions. You really celebrate the diversity and unique gifts and attributes of every living thing. Wildness doesn’t fit into a box. It’s not humans wearing loincloths and making bone tools.
“Wildness is the life force fully expressed. That could be me living in the woods. It could be Michael Jackson dancing on stage. There are a bazillion things you can do immediately to reconnect to the living world, to yourself. Without this real sense of aliveness, life is crap.
“Really,” he adds, “my whole shtick is about having a sacred relationship to life.”
Olson has done some hard thinking about where all this fits into the big picture of a world in trouble. So he doesn’t seem surprised when I ask him how tanning hides, making pemmican or dancing like Michael Jackson, no matter how authentically wild that may be, can fix the world’s problems. Isn’t there a need to address political and economic structures directly?
“To someone who feels like the world is falling apart, what I’m doing doesn’t seem to address the problem,” he answers. “But in a really deep way it actually does! Because if we just change [political and economic] structures, we are just changing the superficial workings of the world. Our internal conditioning remains intact and we will still treat life like crap, treat ourselves like crap, and we still feel like crap.
“Political action is incredibly valuable; it’s part of taking control of your reality, having agency in your world. But there are multiple layers to reality, and change has to happen on all of them.
“We can unplug all the bombs, get rid of all the guns, and all of that, but we’ll still have these brains that make us act like jerks. Revolutions are called revolutions because they go in a circle. The only true solution is a much more nuanced, complex, individual, slow process of reconnection and re-awakening.”
As he writes in his book, “It’s time to evolve.”
Evolution, he says, may happen in surprising ways—as it has in his own life. Olson now finds himself moving from the fringes of society to a more central place, which brings with it a number of paradoxes.
“Writing the book has necessitated me doing less on the land than I used to. And now I have to think about marketing and self-promotion. It definitely is funny and ironic. Years ago I would have been a proud ideologue and cringed at this, but the end result—sharing—makes entering into these ironic realms totally worthwhile.”
Olson is currently writing a second book entitled The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook. “It’s about hunting from a reverent perspective. Apparently hunting is the ‘in’ thing at the moment. It’s a more visceral expression of the local food movement,” he explains. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of talk about how amazing and beautiful and sacred that whole thing is.”
He’s also considering where to live next, but not with any sense of urgency. He’s a guy who can survive alone in the woods; he doesn’t need a house, let alone modern amenities, to feel secure. He knew, when he chose to live as a squatter (he developed a cordial relationship with the landowner, who has now sold the property to someone ready to build on it), that this home was destined to be temporary, but notes that many of his friends who have been renting have moved far more often than he has.
And change, including loss, is a core characteristic of wild nature, as Olson explores in a chapter called “Succession.” It is essential for health, and indeed for the continuation of life. Perhaps this is why Olson, as a “rewilded” man, isn’t fretting about a change in his living situation. Instead, he’s curious.
“I’m in limbo, vagabonding around, looking for somewhere a bit more legit than where I’ve been so I can facilitate this phase of my life. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens,” he says, with a smile.
For more information visit: www.milesolson.net