Forks in the Road
From about the age of eight, I spent the vast majority of my time in the woods behind our house. I was a freak when it came to wilderness survival. I believe I read every book that Tom Brown Jr. ever wrote; about how to live in the wilderness, track animals, and forage food. I drank up the stories about his Apache teacher, Stalking Wolf.
Even at that early age, I strongly rejected the rules of society. That we must go to school, get jobs, and raise families. That everyone must be dictated to and accept a life of limited control. A synthetic world separate from the natural one. That man’s place is not in the woods but in the cities.I remember clearly one night, sitting around with my two older brothers. We were making plans to all live together, move away from modern society, and live in the woods. Screw money and conventional life. We didn’t want any part of it. We’d live off the land and take care of one another.
My father had been casually listening to our discussion and felt compelled to break in with some of his own wisdom. I remember this discussion not because of the logic of his argument, but because of the sincerity of his voice. He told us that life doesn’t work the way we want it. That we can’t live without money. That people simply can’t do what we wanted to do anymore. I could tell from the way he talked that this was truly what he believed and that he had our best interest at heart in telling us these things.
I didn’t know it then, but I think that conversation was a major fork in the road of my life. It was the first time that I really considered that my ideas of living close to nature may be childish. That a subsistence culture in America was simply not possible.Although this fork in the road – to pursue a subsistence lifestyle or one of modern life – was revealed at an early age, I wouldn’t have to seriously confront it until age 20. I continued to pursue my personal education into nature skills as I got older, but I also honed my technical skills with computers and electronics. This continued all the way into my sophomore year of college.
It wasn’t until that time that I really looked around at the types of jobs that engineers have. Most engineers spend their work life in a cubical, crunching numbers for middle managers. This data is then passed up the chain of command where it is ultimately misinterpret and poor choices are made. I was afraid of my life becoming a running Dilbert comic strip or becoming the main character in Office Space.
This was the type of lifestyle I could look forward to after college. Was that really what I was working so hard for? Of course it wasn’t. I love electronics as a personal passion, a hobby. But the reality of making a living means living in a cube for my profession.
As a lethargy of inaction crept over me, my grades began to drop. I decided to take some time off school and do some soul searching. I worked on a cruise ship for six months, saved some money, and seriously contemplated how I wanted to spend my 20’s. I could embrace the lifestyle of an engineer – make good money, but probably be very unsatisfied with my life or…. What was the alternative? Living in the woods? That’s just crazy. At least, I knew everyone else would tell me that.
Finally, on New Years Eve of my 20th year, I committed to embracing a conventional life. To quote first Corinthians, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” I would finish college, make as much money as I could, and retire as early as I could. If modern life is inescapable, best to get it over as quickly as possible; like pulling off a band-aid… only this would be a pain that would last for ten to twenty years. Still, if I could retire early, I could use the money to live a quiet retirement somewhere in the San Juan Islands.
Now, as I look back and wonder where my twenties have gone, I am embittered. I bought into an American dream, a dream that was not mine. I have squandered my twenties in the pursuit of money in order to scratch an itch that money can’t reach. If someone had just come to me at 20 and said, “Buy a boat. Take care of that boat and that boat will take care of you. It will give you a place to live, it will be a vehicle for travel and exploration, and a means to feed yourself on all the bounty of the sea”, I think I would have taken the advice. But no such voice of inspiration existed for me at the time. I had to discover it for myself.
The wisdom I had as a child was an insecure wisdom. I felt it in my heart, but did not have the words to identify it or the experience to justify it. Now though, I can feel confident in telling those ghosts of past authority that they are wrong. That I can and will live my life on my own terms. That the wisdom of my childhood is the wisdom of permaculture, of sustainability, of living close to the earth. I seek not to live better, but to live well.
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