I still remember the first time I killed an insect. My dad was telling me about how I needed to smudge its guts across the wall, and demonstrated it to me before trying to get me to do it. I think I tried, but ended up just injuring one, so that it limped around a bit before it died.
Such was my dad’s sense of humor- gross-out hilarious, but a bit too far for its own good. I was horrified by it, though, having been raised in the city by a very protective single mother who brought me into a very sanitary, artificial world (as much as you could on her income, at least). Touching or being touched by any kind of animal was terrifying, let alone the idea of killing one by crushing it so its innards left a 3 inch trail behind it.
I was thinking about this because yesterday I skinned an animal for the first time. It was a 30lb roadkill beaver, which Mike plopped in front of us to decide what to do with. The meat was a little suspect because of a pretty violent looking injury to one of its legs (looked like it was gnawed on by a dog or something), but it was good practice for preparing a hide.
It’s not that the experience was traumatic (no more so than the hundreds of insects I’ve killed since that first one). It was remarkably like carving wood- in part you can’t forget that this was once a living thing, but on the other, it’s really just long strands of cellulose and a thin layer of cambium with a little crust on the outside. And truthfully I found skinning an animal not at all unlike peeling bark. But I couldn’t help remember how much crushing a mosquito once frightened me, as my hands separated skin from muscle. What brought me from there to here?
In most outdoor activities, but I think especially in primitive skills, there are lots of little moments of surrender and breaking of old barriers. They start small- the first time you pick up a knife, or walk barefoot, or pick a weed out of somebody’s lawn and eat it. And then somewhere down the line you find yourself sleeping in a debris hut, cutting down large trees, reaching into a foot and a half of mud to find a cattail rhizome, and so on.
For most of the people reading this, these behaviors are normal and accepted. It becomes easy for us to forget, perhaps, just how alien they are to the average person living in western civilization. And for those of us who morphed from one into the other (which is most of us), there’s always that moment of accepting that you’ll be wet, that you’ll have bugs crawling on you, or, like yesterday, you have to accept the flies buzzing around and the smell of early decay and put your hands inside a carcass.
In many ways, that’s what makes this place great, and also so intimidating. We have no choice but to go places we’re afraid to go, including ones we didn’t expect. I came to these skills as an angry teenager who hated the sound and smell of humanity and went looking for a way to escape it; and following that drive has made me more friends than I ever would have otherwise. The irony of that isn’t lost on me, but if the woods were only a place we went to escape one another or the loud noises we make in big groups, we’d surely lose interest soon enough.
To circle this back around, it’s those barriers- physical, mental, interpersonal- that keep us from forming the kind of appreciation for nature that we as a culture need to have. Not a general affection for it, but a deep and tangible relationship, both spiritual and utilitarian. You can only come to live in a “real” human habitat (if such a thing can really be said to exist anymore) by accepting all the aspects of what it means to be human. Those barriers need to be broken, and they need to be broken fast and on a grand scale. I’m not saying I have any clue how to make that happen, but I can only imagine this place is taking us in the right direction, warts and all.