“There’s a guy upstream who lives in a tree fort. They call him Naked Ed. So bang on your canoe when you go around that bend so he knows you’re there,” advised the woman who was renting us a canoe.
It was February in north Florida, and we were about to paddle the Santa Fe River. We banged our canoe as instructed, but either Naked Ed saw us coming and withdrew first, or he was napping. I was disappointed. I wanted to meet Naked Ed, the man who lived in a remote tree fort on a river in north Florida.
I spend a lot of time gnawing on the question of what wilderness even means anymore, in our ever-shrinking world — far more time and energy than most reasonable people — and I’ve been thinking about Naked Ed lately. When it comes down to it, wilderness is not a single definition; it’s a continuum, a function of many variables, and Naked Ed resides at a certain point on that continuum. He’s remote enough to live mostly naked in a tree fort. But he’s not remote enough that he doesn’t have to retreat from the river occasionally when paddlers knock on their canoe. There is a kind of wilderness to that, if an uneasy one.
As I chew on the concept of the places I seem to be drawn to, and what the future holds for them, I see all around me an antipathy to wildness itself. Human control — of nature, of the risks of life, of everything — is the unquestioned order of the day, and like any unregulated human impulse, has veered into the extreme. I believe the effort to ban the carriage horses in New York City is of a piece with our increasingly white-knuckled, anti-wildness mode of living. It springs from the same source as Lawn Tyranny and our society’s growing insistence that children be protected from any risk whatsoever.
The world must be sterilized. Life must be managed, neutered, and brought within absolute control. We’ve gotten too good at it. Human control has gone viral.
I get it: it’s in the nature of life to protect itself where it can. I’m no anti-modernist; I wholly appreciate things like advanced medicine, international travel and the internet. But the irony is twofold: our insistence on the safety of affluence is killing our planet and endangering humanity as a whole. And the one place we could use a little less primitive, fearful wildness and more rational, conscious thought is in our approach to risk and safety.
Wilderness is too closely associated with the risk of death for many people to appreciate without effort. The Buddhists are onto something, I think, when they suggest that we all meditate on our own death. Going out among the wild things, among the alligators, the bison, and ungoverned weather, is another way of doing that. It can even be a kind of protest, a vote against the extremes of a sterilized world.