Book Review: Unlearn, Rewild

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Unlearn, RewildBy Miles Olson
Published in 2012 and available through New Society Publishers

If you could rewrite the ending to Where the Wild Things Are, would you? In the beloved children’s book, Max–sent to his room for acting wild–imagines his escape to the world of Wild Things. When he becomes king of this new land, everyone celebrates with a wild rumpus. Such fun! In the end, though, Max realizes he does not belong with the Wild Things and returns home to his family (which happens to be sitting down to a civilized dinner). Its fun to be wild, the story tells us, but not our destiny.

Miles Olson, author of Unlearn, Rewild, is living out a tale parallel to Max, though it’s one that will likely end differently. There are no wild monsters in Olson’s story. Rather, every creature is wild. We must learn to live with the wild things, he suggests. We must remember that we are wild things.

From the book’s start, Olson outlines a framework for sustainability far more radical than any notion I’ve dared to entertain seriously–namely, that we should reorient our collective dream of the future and begin moving toward a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Not that such a change would happen in a lifetime, he notes, but over the course of several generations. “My thought is that most developed cultures are those that have the most seamless relationships with their land base,” Olson writes. “They are so good at tending their gardens that you can’t even see them.”

Living in such a society does sound idyllic, but getting there from five-lane highways, megamalls, and the American dream seems daunting. Somehow, at the point in my thought process when a little voice says, “That’s impossible, stop thinking about it,” Olson’s apparently says, “That’s a great plan, make it happen.” And it seems to be working. He’s been squatting for about a decade in the woods with friends, in cabins built from scavenged materials. He gardens and forages and doesn’t, apparently, need coffee to formulate sentences in the morning or whiskey to take the edge off at night. This experiment has lasted the whole of his adult life, so far.

The book’s back cover claims that Unlearn, Rewild is “part meditation, part ethical investigation, part hard-core survival guide” and it’s true. Olson’s ideas are well-considered, his solutions grounded. If you’re looking for a different ending to the story of civilization, the book is not to be missed.

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