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.
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.
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.
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.