Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

Wild Thing

Woodwose (detail), Albrecht Durer, 1499

Woodwose (detail), Albrecht Durer, 1499

Whether going up mountains, down rivers, over canyons, or across the pack-ice, adventurists often express a malaise with “civilized life” back home. In the wild, the drudgeries of the mall-shopping, lawn-mowing, 401K-filing world fall away, and with them, the barriers to authentic experience. Says Mt Everest climber Stephen Venables:

Although you don’t deliberately seek an epic, you know that one day something like that might happen. When it did happen on Everest, it was harder and more prolonged and draining than anything I had ever done, but also more exhilarating than anything I had ever done. It was like a watershed. It was something I was probably never going to repeat again. [quoted in Maria Coffey, Where the Mountain Cast Its Shadow, 137]

Why does civilization make some people feel so queasy that they’d travel to the most dangerous places on earth to find relief? A common answer is that human beings are not well-adapted to the world they inhabit, that some deeply buried instinct drives us to leave our suburban ghettos and take up high-altitude mountain climbing. A related argument holds that humans are innately curious, so curious that they are impelled, like cats near washing machines, to explore at any cost.

I don’t like these explanations. No one doubts that human beings have inherited behaviors, all animals do, but humans have proven remarkably plastic as a species. Speech patterns, fashion, diet, and language all show how impressionable we are to environment, experience, and culture.

Perhaps this reveals my bias too: as a cultural historian, I tend to think of explanations that are cultural rather than biological. In this case, I am inclined to believe that explorers and adventurers find catharsis in the wild because, well, they have learned to think of such places as cathartic.

Historians such as T. J. Jackson Lears and Gail Bederman have built a strong case for this argument. Looking at a wide array of evidence from the 19th and early 20th centuries, they link the urge to return to nature with cultural events. In particular,  “going native,”  Primitivism, and the Arts and Crafts movement all gain popularity just as Western societies transition from agricultural to industrial economies. For Lears and Bederman, the “call of the wild” has less to do with the feral impulses of the human psyche, and more to do with the disorienting world of the industrial city.

Tarzan of the Apes (Cover), Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912

Tarzan of the Apes (Cover), Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912

Yet, I will admit, the “call-of-the-wild” impulse cannot be entirely explained by culture either.  If we travel back in time before industrialization, we can still find a certain malaise with civilization.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Allan Ramsay, 1766

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Allan Ramsay, 1766

Living in 18th century Paris, Jean-Jacques Rousseau railed against the vanities and corruptions of civilized life. He found role models in the islands of the South Pacific where native peoples lived – so he thought – more virtuous lives closer to nature.

The Fight in the Forest, Hans Burgkmair, 1500 CE

The Fight in the Forest, Hans Burgkmair, 1500 CE

We can go back even further.  For Medieval Europeans the “Wildman” was a common, if legendary, figure in art and literature.  Often, wildmen represented civilized men who, in the throes of madness, grief, or unrequited love,  cast off everything and entered a state of nature. They reverted to savagery,  acted violently, and lost their powers of speech and reason.  Yet when these wildmen, by chance, were returned to the civilized world, they often emerged better for the experience: stronger of spirit and purer of heart.  Such was the case with Merlin of the King Arthur legends.

Even the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates to at least 2000 BCE, features the feral wild-child Enkidu, a boy raised by beasts and ignorant of all of civilization’s pleasures until seduced by the temple prostitute Shamhat. No industrial cities here.

What to make of all this? Perhaps there is something of the “call-of-the-wild” that strikes deep, beneath the reaches of culture (is there such a place?). From what we know, it appears that human beings spent most of their 125,000 year history in motion, as nomadic,  itinerant tribes. Only in the last 10,000 years or so have we put down roots, developing agriculture and the foundations of complex, specialized societies. Is this restlessness a a biological shadow of our long journey as hunter-gathers? A vestigial organ of the civilized psyche? I never used to think so but I wonder.


  Phil Clements wrote @

Interesting. I wonder also about biological explanations–in the case of mountaineering, Europeans didn’t really start climbing until the eighteenth century. If the desire to summit tall peaks (or swim frigid Channels, or journey into the Heart of Darkness) is biological, then why aren’t people engaging in these activities prior to the 1700s? And what about non-Europeans? Mountaineering is a European export; why weren’t non-Westerners (who are made up from the same biology) climbing mountains?

The simple explanation–that they might have done, but did not leave records of it–isn’t very satisfying.

Also, one should never underestimate the power of the overachiever’s psychology. Or the possibility that the “call of the wild” is part biology, part culture, and part personal imperative. After all, a “call of the wild” requires a non-wild space to be called from, be it geographic, cultural, or psychological.

  Nayanika wrote @

A Vestigial Organ of the civilized psyche?

Vestigial Organs are reflexive and are not without their worth. I have used these organs and their nodes as an acupressure reflexologist. They release and make for smoother conduit of all the traffic internally.

Yes we are nomads and answer to the biorhythm within us at all times. We homosapiens also tend to come with a varying degree qualitatively, of what can be termed cultural admix. The word culture here as genre refers to spirituality. We are all spiritual beings transiting through a terrestrial journey of our calling.

The Nomad in us , is a pathway chosen to put together, the material and the projection of what would make for a quantum leap in our chosen fields . We seek the wild, the monastery, the mountains or the caves for this very reason. There needs be no reason beyond the absolutely plain explanation.

Life is a spiritual journey. We can chose to live it in many dimensions and amply demonstrate the reason behind every choice. It is our calling. Besides, the characters like Tarzan, Mowgli and many others which open up the world of the animals in ways which make us really look into ourselves and wonder at the slovenliness within us. We interpolate and get into animalistic, and demonic traits which demean and also make for a lot of introspection.

At the SGI we have the ten daughters , euphemistically named so, which we delve in and out of at will. These traits which mark out the purity within us can be chosen and followed to give our lives the kind of
direction we want.

We can make for space in our daily life and find the time to govern these traits. The Lotus Sutra chants which open and embrace, are potentially the gate ways to knowing the mysterious laws and the universal consciousness . Take a look at SGI, it is a pandora’s box!!!!

  Jessica wrote @

I could’ve sworn I posted about this, but I guess I forgot to hit “Submit.”

I am not sure I know of many people who completely return to the wild. You know, going on a week-long camping trip in Denali National Park is one thing, but most people always have the comfort of returning to civilization. Really, what people do you know who moved away, into the wild, forever? Not many people do. I think people need change. They need to see what else is out there. I think the term “exploration” is very broad in definition.

I think also that Arctic exploration began when it did for specific reasons: profiting from whaling; heroism; naming something for one’s country; etc. How are we even sure that there was any “call of the wild”? Many crew members of MANY ships looking for the Northwest Passage were mortified when they went to the Arctic! They did so for notoriety! To be heroes! It seems that few if any had some “call of the north.” Maybe people like Stefansson. Maybe some of the guys who ended up as part of the Hudson Bay Company. A few here and there had that interest, but I think being a hero was HUGE back then — look at Shackleton — he didn’t accomplish any of his goals, but he WENT. And he’s a huge hero!

Fast forward to today. These days, if you look at tourism, specifically in areas like Alaska and Svalbard, you’ll see that it’s more of a novelty. Global warming is a motivator. A lot of people look at pictures of polar bears and think, “well, I might as well see one while they’re still there.” The ice is melting. The northwest passage could be a popular shipping route soon. The north is a novelty now — something to be seen before it becomes history. How do you distinguish someone’s week-long camping trip in Gates of the Arctic National Park to Jerry Kobalenko’s annual or bi-annual sledge adventure on Ellesmere Island?

Despite this, I am sure that many people out there, and many explorers, return to the north because they feel a pull. You should find Robert Service poems: “The Lure of Little Voices” and “The Lone Trail” — he wasn’t kidding! If you’re a certain kind of person, and you take that first step into the boreal forest, or onto the tundra, you will always always always dream of going back. I don’t know if it’s in a person’s blood, or the north just captures people — and this comment really doesn’t answer any question at all — but realize that in times of high traffic in the Arctic (totally can’t speak for mountaineering or anything), there were other reasons for exploration — for returning to the wild — that should be taken into consideration. Show me an Arctic or Antarctic explorer who wasn’t motivated by (a) heroism (b) money (c) notoriety or (d) novelty. One of those is ALWAYS a motivating factor. I guess how MUCH of a factor it is is the variable.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Phil: You raise a good point – expeditions away from civilization are very historically specific – mountain-climbing doesn’t come into vogue until the late 18th century.

Yet there are, perhaps, parallels with other kinds of journeys – such as the ascetic pilgrimage into the desert (or in certain Asian cultures, up the mountain) – which go back thousands of years for purposes of purification, penance, or enlightenment. My hunch (and its just that) is that your last point is right: its probably a combination of factors including biology and social environment.

Jessica: Good point too. We are talking about a small subset of travelers who “hear the call” (Although it seems like a pretty big subset when you read books about high-altitude climbing.) After reading Maria Coffey’s book Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow, I am becoming persuaded that a lot of this obsessive wanderlust has deep psychological roots. That being said, we are still left with the question: is the psychological urge one patterned by society or hard-wired? And maybe we should even distinguish between types of wanderlust: maybe the Everest climber who goes back to the mountain (after losing fingers and toes) is operating according to a different set of motives then Chris McCandless in Alaska, or John Muir in the mountains, or the ascetic in the desert.

And maybe the final question is this: is this all that different from the other places and experiences we are called back to? I’m feeling the “call of Cape Cod” right now – which represents a place where I can shed a great deal of the responsibilities I shoulder here in Hartford and revel in new experiences. Is this a difference in kind from extreme travel or merely a difference of degree?

  Jessica wrote @

I don’t think your feelings about Cape Cod (and my similar ones about Long Beach Island, NJ) are the same as how “the call of the wild” feels. I’ve dreamt of living in the north most of my life. I could cry reading Robert Service poems. I think if I teleported to Lapland, northern Sweden, I’d feel a different kind of relief than I did if I was teleported to the beach at LBI.

Maybe that is different for other people. I am sure a lot of people have one special “place.” What’s the difference between one’s love for that “place” and the “call”?

P.S. – I may be relocating to Fairbanks after all….I received a bizarre, surprising phone call last night.

  Patricia Erikson wrote @

I’m probably too tired right now to do this stimulating topic justice, but here goes…keep in mind that I’m a cultural historian trained as an anthropologist. Although I agree that we can identify certain historic moments as being marked by particular, er, questing fads (such as mountain climbing with ropes or sledges), I think the human universal emerges when we reframe the question in terms of rites of passage. Although this is cultural, it is often paired with an individual’s biological stages of life. These are those limbo moments and experiences where an individual enters the liminal space as one person and emerges as another. This liminal space has also been a very spiritual realm, not only where we commune with the otherworld but where, as Durkehim would say, we engage in a collective consciousness, too, something larger than ourselves. I think it has been argued fairly well that most of us in a (post)industrialized world live with far fewer of these formalized rites of passages that used to organize the human experiences. I personally feel that many of the challenges faced by youth today would be well served by the reintroduction of this notion, and I’m not talking New Age playing Indian or just getting a driver’s license either. Phew, I think I need to crash now but thanks for the great images and the chance to think about this.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Interesting point Patricia. Within anthropology, are these universals – the practice of rites of passage across cultures – seen as biologically determined? Or are they framed as a response to environment and culture?

  Erika wrote @

I feel like a slacker only reading this now. A thoughtful piece as usual. I have been reading and enjoying (albeit very slowly) a book called “Forests: The Shadow of Civilization” by Robert Pogue Harrison (1992). Although Harrison teaches literature, the book has, I believe, great purchase in architecture programs as a tool for thinking through precisely the dichotomy of wild and civilized (natural and constructed) you discuss, and the forest edges where they meet. Harrison cuts a wide swath through time, discussing Gilgamesh, Dante, Rousseau, The Brothers Grimm, and Walden (among others)!

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Erika: I’m going to have to check this out – sounds great!

  Jeb wrote @

I think it is an understanding of the taxonomy of this creature that will trap the wild man rather than a search for origins. I don’t think we have a straight line decent to Gilgamesh.

The early Scottish and Welsh examples are gems.
For a creature that is ‘mutum et turpe pecus’
it seems to speak of a number of different things.
I think it is this flexability that allows it to evolve and maintain cultural ‘fitness’.

  jeb wrote @


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