“Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.” -Theodore Roosevelt
For all of its manifest wonders — such as communicating with you all across the world via the Internet — there’s a nagging suspicion that the hyper-civilized modern age has stolen something important from the soul of man. And from men, specifically.
Made to contend with Nature, to hunt, to count coup upon our enemies and talk story around the fire, we are, instead, regulated in countless petty ways, in word, thought and deed, subjected to constraints created to serve a society of nattering, pettifogging pearl-clutchers. For many, days are filled with work with no soul or meaning and evenings are devoted to numbing the spirit with mainlined entertainment.
There is a movement to push back against civilization and its discontents, to reclaim manhood from the emasculating influence of a decaying society. Rewilding.
Throughout the U.S., a small but seemingly growing segment of like-minded people are choosing to opt out of civilized comfort and the conventional economy. Adherents of “Rewilding”, as the movement is called, instead live in rural areas where they seek to subsist off the land, hunting and fishing and gathering wild plants for food, and build their own dwellings from materials they find there. To varying degrees, they eschew manufactured products and modern technology as well, preferring instead to rely upon the sort of tools that they can make themselves…
…At the heart of Rewilding is a belief that a modern culture, in exchange for comfort and security, inflicts an unsustainable psychological and physical toll upon humans … and harms the environment in the process.
OK, we’ll leave aside the irony in the fact that National Geographic Channel is broadcasting a reality TV show on Rewilders. Rewilding seems to me an intriguing realization of the instinct virtually every man I know has felt on occasion: To say “fuck it” and go feral.
Portland author and neo-barbarian Jack Donovan has written a lot about the tension between masculinity and civilization, particularly in his treatise “The Way of Men.” Donovan is an interesting radical-right counter-cultural figure. He lines out a very clear understanding of what the primary masculine virtues are, and under what circumstances men who adhere to them can thrive.
Those virtues, as he defines them, are strength, courage, mastery (competence) and honor. He notes that these are not necessarily “moral” virtues. A man can be “good at being a man” and not be “a good man.” For Donovan, the basic unit of male society is the “gang,” which is borne out in prisons everywhere — and in the history of the Frontier Partisans.
Donovan, who is homosexual (and rejects “gay” culture), exalts what is essentially a violent bachelor society. I say this not to dismiss or disparage — it makes a certain kind of Spartan sense. However, it’s a Romantic construct with significant limits — and a dark side.
Donovan himself has sort of acknowledged this, and in a way that resonates with me for obvious reasons.
“A lot of people accuse me of always wanting this kind of Mad Max world where everybody’s always in complete conflict,” Jack says. “And while I think that’s a good corrective place, that would never last. Because people would band together and create societies again, because that’s what people do. I think there’s a sweet spot between how much you trade away the job of being a man and how much you keep it.
“Frontiersmen who still had wives and families and communities and law still had to protect their own land; they were involved in a lot of physical activity; they still went down to the bar and had a fight every once in a while. I think those kind of things represent that kind of sweet spot — where you have society and you do have civilization and you do have some stability, but you still [give] men…the opportunity to do what they evolved to do: to play the role of defending the perimeter.”
Now your talkin’, Jack!
There are, of course “protecting the perimeter” jobs in modern society — cops, firemen, soldiers. But not every man wants or needs to pursue one of those careers in order to tap his individual masculine virtues. For one thing, each of those careers is civil service and very bureaucratic, which doesn’t suit everyone’s temperament. Donovan argues, I think correctly, that we have outsourced too much of our individual role in establishing and defending our clan and territory. So, we seek alternatives…
Donovan’s own “sweet spot” is, apparently, neo-tribal heathenry (and fight club action) that hearkens back to Iron Age Europe. That’s a pretty direct way to retain the barbarian virtues. My sweet spot is in a different time and place — but the principal adheres, perhaps to different degree.
When I was young, I was obsessed with the Long Hunters of the Appalachian chain and the Mountain Men of the Rocky Mountains. The idea of emulating that lifestyle had a lot of appeal. You bet I dreamed of going full-Jeremiah Johnson. Those men and their stories still form an important part of my personal mythology, obviously. And I still feel the pull when I see “Rewilders” going after a mountain man lifeway.
However… I have too much of the scholar in me and — strange as it may sound — too much appreciation for the urban, to immerse myself that completely in such an alternative lifestyle. For me, the x-ring was hit plumb center by the Frontier Partisans of the turn of the 20th Century. They kept the job of being a man, in Donovan’s parlance, but they also enjoyed what is for my money the apogee of material culture — with fine firearms, steam trains, steamships, a world-wide horizon, and, not least, a timeless aesthetic. They experienced the joy and wonder — and peril — of exploring wild lands, but many among them were also bookish scholars and writers, as perfectly comfortable at a museum symposium in London or a White House dinner as they were in the back-of-beyond.
It is worth noting that thoughtful, active wilderness men of this era were every bit as anxious about the pernicious “de-wilding” effects of industrial civilization as anyone is today — as evidenced by that quote from T.R. above. That’s where the conservation movement came from, and it was the genesis of the Boy Scouts. The exemplary Frontier Partisans of the era were ambivalent outriders of empire. They played a key role in bringing industrial Western civilization to the wild lands of the world from the American West to Australia to Rhodesia. They reveled in the work, but wearied quickly of the results. They had a “sweet spot” of their own: the transition period between “savagery” and civilization. Once that transition was made, they got bored and restless — and “lit out for the territory” to seek new frontiers to conquer.
The great African hunter Frederick Courteney Selous is an exemplar of the gentleman-adventurer of that era. That same barbarian-virtues-expounding Theodore Roosevelt nailed it in a eulogy for Selous, who was felled by a sniper’s bullet in World War I:
“He led a singularly adventurous and fascinating life, with just the right alternations between the wilderness and civilization. He helped spread the borders of his people’s land. He added much to the sum of human knowledge and interest. He closed his life exactly as such a life ought to be closed, by dying in battle for his country while rendering her valiant and effective service. Who could wish a better life or a better death, or desire to leave a more honourable heritage to his family and his nation?”
Selous, the Boer Deneys Reitz, the American scout Frederick Russell Burnham — in my estimation those guys hit the mark. Just the right alternations between wilderness and civilization. These are the men I most closely identify with.
I am fortunate in that I can run the woods and mountains, shoot-and-scoot, hoist my kettlebells, practice my martial arts, chop the wood. That all keeps me centered, in touch with what man is built to do. And yet I can still hunker down with a stack of books and lose myself in the study of history — or take my lady out for an evening on the town. My “sweet spot” is surely way too civilized for Jack Donovan and his fellow tribesmen, and it is a far cry from rewilding. I offer no manifesto. I make no claims for staking out a counter-cultural alternative to the ills of modernity and decadent civilization. But I do find a way every day, to tap the reservoir of the barbarian virtues, while also cultivating the civilized arts. I like to think T.R. would approve.