The thrill of “civilized delight.”
I recently received an e-mail from a pen pal I had while in college. I was surprised to discover he had left his university research and teaching post to live in the remote wilds of the eastern Cascades.
I learned my friend, who has a doctorate in cognitive psychology, lives in a small cabin he built himself and ekes out a self-sustainable existence among a small community of like-minded people. He makes his own clothes, fells his own logs, grows his own food and slaughters his own meat.
I imagined him like Thoreau, the Harvard alumnus who at the beginning of his Higher Laws chapter in Walden gives this unforgettable description: “I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented.”
When I finished reading my friend’s e-mail, I admit I couldn’t help but feel a hunger, too, for a simpler, wilder way of life, away from the incessant barrage of modern stimuli.
In his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv writes about how we have, to our detriment, given up the outdoors in favor of a more artificial existence. Louv writes,
“Many people now of college age – those who belong to the first generation to grow up in a largely de-natured environment – have tasted just enough nature to intuitively understand what they have missed.”
As a Generation X’er, I have tasted just enough nature in my life to know when I have not had enough of it. At such times, I think of novels like Herman Melville’s Typee, where the narrator, Tommo, jumps ship ashore a South Pacific island and forays into its pristine, Edenic wilderness, soon to discover the Typee tribe. The Typee tribesmen are cannibals – not just any cannibals, but kind cannibals – and Melville deftly casts this tribe in a more favorable light than the European missionaries who brought civilization to native lands, albeit along with, at least in some cases, the seven deadly sins.
The noble savagery idealism in Typee holds a certain attraction, if one accepts it as true. But to accept it as such is too big of a stretch. Instead, I think we must ask ourselves if a civilization that often conjures up images of materialism, greed, violence and an inordinate desire for power is truly representative of such a state. Certainly civilization has, in our time and in many other times and places, become something less noble – by way of, I believe, original sin.
Consider the great Roman civilization that degenerated into what the statesman and philosopher Seneca called “a cesspool of iniquity.” And in his classic work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon writes, “The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay.”
As for primitive peoples, they were not without the consequence of original sin, either. Yet, to live more in harmony with the rhythms of nature, do we have to advance backwards to recover what it means to live authentically, as perhaps desires Kerouac’s wooden ice-cream sticks in MacDougal Street Blues “that were once sincere / in trees”?
Some, like my friend, believe primitivism has a monopoly on the science of living well, as some believe modern society has a monopoly on it. However, I believe the more truly civilized we become the better chance we have of building a civilization fit for the dignity of humankind. If everyone in the world chose to live a more primitive existence, thinking it is the truly enlightened way, we have no chance of building a society that engenders the great social, cultural, artistic and intellectual achievements of which we are capable and which help raise us to the stature I believe God meant for humanity.
As for my friend, there are aspects of his way of living that could be carried into modern life. Of course, it would take quite a conscious effort, but I believe such would lead us toward a life boasting of the best of both worlds, one that replaces Thoreau’s thrill of savage delight with the thrill of, shall I say, civilized delight.
Bart Price lives with his wife, Angie, in St. Augustine, Florida, and works in the Finance field as a Six Sigma Black Belt. A former newspaper reporter, Bart enjoys reading, writing essays and poetry, composing religious music and dabbling in photography. He has published a poetry book entitled “The Wild Woods Edge.” He also creates and sells what he dubs Photo Poems, combining original poetry and photography on 8×10 mats. His art can be found at www.bartprice.com.