Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, ideas and inspiration for the future primitive, by Miles Olson. New Society Publishers, 2012, 200 pages, diagrams, $19.99
Book Review by Pam Dawling
This is not a new book, but I was drawn by the title, as rewilding is a word I’ve been hearing lately. I thought I would learn about growing diversified hedgerows, and including areas of native wild plants to attract beneficial insects and predators. Instead, this book combines philosophy, politics, and ethics with some survival skills. If you seek answers to questions around what “sustainability” really means, and what it is you want to sustain, then this book can provide some pointers. Skills such as foraging, trapping, and using what you have are included.
The author, Miles Olson, was part of a small community of feral homesteaders for ten years, ten years ago on Vancouver Island. While I enjoyed some of the essays in this book, I was disappointed to find so little about growing food, which is my own passion in life. The author sees all agriculture as intrinsically problematic. The food part of the book is very meat-focused. I believe a mostly vegetarian diet supplemented with meat is the more sustainable way to go.
I agree with the author that skills are pointless if not grounded in a cohesive context. Why tan hides? It’s not helpful to the planet to tan hides on Saturdays and water-ski all week. We cannot relax into philosophizing without making practical contributions.
Olson questions the word “sustainable”, which is the first word in the title of my book, Sustainable Market Farming. Currently the favored word for planet-inclusive agriculture is regenerative. I’m sure this word will also get greenwashed, as organic and ecological have already. We need to consider what we actually mean by the words we use. What is it we want to sustain? Destroying the rainforest to grow soybeans for animal and vegetarian food is not sustainable. Monocultures of any sort destroy diversity. Destroying peat bogs to plant trees (as carbon offsets for other unsustainable practices) is not sustainable. Destroying good agricultural land to make conifer plantations so that jet-setters can continue jetting about is not sustainable. The global population needs to be fed. And so will the people of the next century.
“To “rewild” is to return to a more natural or wild state; the process of undoing domestication. Synonyms: undomesticated, uncivilized.” This is where Miles Olson starts to set out his anti-farming table. Farm animals are dominated and controlled by farmers, with their wild spirits extinguished. Humans are also domesticated animals. Hence the need for us to unlearn some domestication. Cast off assumptions that you need to earn your keep, for instance. I found his analysis unsatisfactory. He throws all aspects of the modern world that he does not agree with, into the barrel of “civilization”, while keeping back ones he likes such as practical skills, intelligence, books, science.
While I found some of his thinking valuable, I did not like his gloominess, or the certainty that he professes. “Every day the world is ending. . . Our lifetimes, if we are not sedated, are going to be filled with loss and struggle. . .” He does continue with “. . . when we embrace that, we can move through it with more strength and determination.” But let’s also remember joy, humor, kindness.
In reading other reviews, I found that others say some of his facts are untrue. So, reader beware. Do not throw your critical thinking to the winds. “The back-to-the-land communities. . . a movement that was solid and strong in urban centers scattered into the countryside and gently faded away into dysfunctional utopian communities.” Now, that I know is not true! I live in a large community started in 1967. I’ve lived there 30 years. We’re not dysfunctional! We’re running our own businesses, producing quite a bit of our own food, raising around a dozen children at a time. Yes, I feel defensive!
He claims to be descended from nomadic reindeer hunter-herders in Scandinavia and acorn-gathering fisher people in the British Isles. I had not heard of Ancient Brits eating acorns. British acorns are considerably smaller than American acorns, and hazelnuts are tastier. This site: Old European Culture, says the writer has found no archaeological data on acorn consumption in the British Isles. https://oldeuropeanculture.blogspot.com/2014/11/acorns-in-archaeology.html.
When he was 17, Miles benefited from spending several summer months, living alone in a cabin in the woods on a small island in British Columbia. He was fortunate that it was not winter, or somewhere with a less benign climate, or the streets of Chicago. He was fortunate to be a physically healthy young white man. He grew a garden, foraged, trapped, and hunted. The solitude was life-changing for him. As he says “Everyone has different wounds to heal from, everyone has different ways of healing.”
In order to stop killing the planet, we need to realize that our own survival depends on the health of our land, with an understanding of our place on that land. Are tools neutral? “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” A part of the truth. People with guns kill more people than people without guns. We have to reduce the risk of gun deaths by making more gradual changes, and working on a plan towards our goal. Which technologies are ethical, appropriate, and which ones are inherently destructive? Good questions from the author.
I agree that technology can provide power and efficiency, while it can also take away understanding and connection. The internet allows us unprecedented ways to connect with others. But these are inferior to real-life connections, as we have become acutely aware during the Covid pandemic. It gives us access to massive troves of information, while seemingly destroying our ability to remember what we’ve read and sometimes even think for ourselves.
Is it “common knowledge” that hunter-gatherer societies do not destroy their land bases? Many societies have collapsed. Possibly some groups out-hunted or out-gathered what their environment could continue providing? Several pages bemoan the terrible things that white people did when arriving in North America. I doubt his claim that the immigrants did not appreciate that they had found something beautiful, a better way of life. Or that they (all?) “worked as fast as possible to degrade what was here.” As Jared Diamond says in Collapse, no one decides to cut down the last tree, but rather people cut smaller and smaller trees until the weather takes what saplings remain and no more seedlings can appear.
I appreciate that Miles includes an essay “On Being White”. How does the blond, blue-eyed white male reconcile himself to his lineage of colonizers? He doesn’t accept that his destiny is to be an oppressor. The Earth didn’t produce the white male oppressor, the white male oppressor did. “When our goals, views and perception fall in line with the plans of those in power, we have been fully colonized.” We cannot ignore the privileges that come with our ancestry. Olson says that we should use these privileges to navigate our way towards a society that is completely intolerant of racism, empire and genocide.
The next hot topic is about diet – is veganism or radical sustainability best? Olson is an ex-vegan. He no longer believes veganism is good for humans or the planet. We have no evidence of a traditional society that sustained itself by being vegan. The very valid concerns and passions that drive vegans also drive the author. But their conclusions are different. Olson’s concept of radical sustainability includes nourishing and maintaining the planet. Traditional sustainable cultures are mostly omnivorous and they don’t farm. They hunt, fish, trap and forage. They don’t eat burgers from factory-farmed animals.
Veganism does not address domestication, over-population and the reduction of wild land. On the contrary it seems more urban, more detached from the roots of finding our own food. Veganism is efficient (cut out the cattle and eat the grain ourselves!). But hunter-gatherers worked fewer hours than farmers. Nowadays we cannot all become hunter-gatherers. Population density is too high where most of us live. Biologically, we are omnivores. Herbivorous animals have multi-chambered stomachs, regurgitate and chew the cud, and lack incisors. We are not like that. Cultures that eat mostly raw foods eat mostly meat. Those that eat mainly plants, mostly cook them (or ferment them). 92% of long-term vegans, 67% of vegetarians and 5% of meat-eaters suffer from B12 deficiency (WebMD). A place-based (locavore) diet involves us in noticing and supporting what foods can be produced on the land we live on. It can teach us humility and respect.
The next essay is about the succession of plant types that colonize bare soil. Invasive plants are not a cause of destruction but a first response of the environment. Scotch broom may be followed by Himalayan blackberries, then red alder and finally the climax species of hemlock and cedar. There is no point in pulling the Scotch broom, it’s only there temporarily anyway.
Following the essays is the section on endangered practical skills. It’s a motley collection, including how to truly determine if dead animals are safe to eat. (Lots of myth-busting.) Roadkill can be a source of meat, and here you can learn how to tell how fresh the meat is. Look at the eyes, pull the hair, bend the joints, look at the size of the maggots. I’m confidant not everyone will want to use this information. I’m not squeamish about food expiry dates. I like to have facts, rather than myths. I do hope he checked his facts. . . Once again we see that the focus of this book really is on meat.
Olson says that in 2012 Africa, at least one group of Pygmy people will kill an elephant and camp around it, feasting and drying some meat for later, until it was all used. No freezers or refrigerators in sight. It is easier to imagine Inuit caribou hunters keeping meat cached for a year or more, because of the cold.
Next comes a chapter on feral food preservation. Traditionally, before refrigeration, there were three main methods of food preservation: drying, cellaring and fermentation. Secondary methods include salting, smoking and packing in various liquids or finely divided solids like ashes and sand. At last! Vegetables and fruit! Anything that can be dried in a dehydrator can be dried by sun and air, indoors or out. I was especially intrigued by the recipe for Gundru, or Gundruk, one of the national foods of Nepal. Pickled greens, without any salt. Crush the leaves, preserving the juices, and pack tightly in a jar, tamping down the layers. Don’t let any juice escape. Put a lid on. Leave the jar on a tray or plate in a warm place for 1-3 weeks. When ready it will smell tangy and tasty. If not, don’t eat it (yet). It can be eaten fresh, or can be dried, but should be used within a few weeks of opening.
There are interesting ideas such as storing apples in water (perhaps the origin of bobbing for apples), then it’s back to the meat. Olson explains the butterfly cut, a way to slice meat into long thin strips for drying, and discusses the hazards of smoking (carcinogenic creosote). He explains how to eat various less-likely parts of animals, and also the difference between the fat of herbivores and that of omnivores and carnivores, and explains how to render fat and store it. Next he gives directions for making pemmican, a staple food of Plains Native Americans. It is a mixture of powdered dried red meat with rendered fat, rolled into balls. The author has personally lived off pemmican as a staple for several months. If dried berries, seaweed or other dried plants are included, it is a complete food.
The next chapter brings in some plants as medicine. The author wisely encourages us to learn a few basic useful plants first, and really understand those, rather than overwhelm ourselves with hundreds of local medicinal plants. His list includes comfrey and yarrow for wounds; yarrow for influenza; Queen Anne’s Lace seed (beware of poisonous look-alikes) as a natural morning-after contraception; plantain for coughs, small injuries, stings and bites; high tannin plants for burns; goldenseal, Oregon grape and barberry against bacteria, viruses, fungi and other infections. I’m not advocating any of these, read up and make your own decisions.
Feral food cultivation is next, managing wild food plant sources to encourage more of what we want – pruning berry patches, weeding and tending camas plots. What appeared to incomers to be completely wild forests were sometimes forest gardens carefully tended by the native people. Clearing land to grow or raise culturally approved foods (domestication) puts us at war with what the land is naturally producing. Do you have a deer problem or a venison abundance? Miles favors learning how to support the land to feed us in sustainable, elegant and effective ways. This can include weeding, pruning and controlled burns.
The author advocates for trapping rather than hunting, as a means of efficiently and effectively obtaining meat (and skins), leaving lots of time in the day for other activities. (I almost wrote “other pursuits”, then realized that sounds like hunting!) This does require understanding the habits of our prey, and might require changing our outlook from being brave, sporty, manly, to being most effective. So “Hunter-Gatherer” might become “Trapper-Gatherer”. And with the considerations about managing the forests, “Trapper-Gardener” or “Gardener-Trapper” when you consider the relative proportions of each type of food.
The book includes details on traps for various animals, and tips on becoming a successful trapper. Coppicing of trees (cutting them down to a stump that can resprout) is a sustainable forestry method that provides poles. There is information on catching mice and how to eat them (cooked!) without contracting hantavirus. I hope never to need to eat mice, but I guess in a survival situation, I could do it. I just hope to be better prepared and not need that information!
The trapping chapter is naturally followed by information on skinning and gutting animals of various sizes, and later comes tanning. Sandwiched curiously in between those chapters is one on birth control in the boonies, for those that need it.
There is a chapter on gathering and curing nuts. Beat the squirrels to the harvest of still-green hazelnuts, and ripen them in a warm, dry rodent-proof place. (Black?) walnuts, apparently, are best soaked to remove the anti-nutrients. Acorns take a lot of attention: drying, shelling, toasting, removing the skins, grinding, leaching and then drying or immediate cooking as mush. I hope I never get that desperate. It’s a lot of work for the food they provide. Chestnuts we hope will make a comeback, thanks to hybridization. Horse-chestnuts (buckeyes) are toxic unless roasted, peeled, ground and leached for several weeks in a stream. Like acorns but bigger. What’s left is almost pure starch. Harvesting the squirrels first might be the way to harvest nuts.
Then we get to bugs, typically eaten whole, or with just the tickly legs and wings removed. Apparently there are over 1,700 known edible species in the world. Mind you, the earth is running out of bugs, and it takes a lot to make a meal, so I do question the sustainability of entomophagy (consuming arthropods as food). We need to hold back on killing everything that eats what we want to eat.
To close out the book there’s information on making fat lamps in the wild, using oils or fats from animal and plant sources. And finally there’s ideas on using human excretions safely and productively. The author’s conclusion is that we need to deal with our problems as they arise, to stop things becoming so miserable we cannot cope. We need to honestly evaluate ways of living sustainably, whether those ideas come form the past or the future. The “future primitive”
There is a 2014 Utne Reader interview here: