“You know, the time is coming when you’re going to need to get a job.” “Have you been thinking about when you’ll get a job?” “You know you’re going to need to get a job one day.” “So, where does getting a job come into all this travel?” “I think you should start thinking about getting a job soon.” “So when are you going to get a job?”
Yes, I know I’ll need to get a job. But please, continue to be patient. There’s more of North America that I haven’t visited yet. And this is the one part of my life where I can do this. I specifically cultivated these circumstances. I saved up a cushion of money during a whole year in Korea (during which, incidentally, I had a job). I learned how to live out of my backpack. I mentally adjusted myself to long weeks spent far away from familiar things. I have no idea when I’ll be able again to create this confluence of circumstances and give myself the opportunity to experience all the things there are to experience out there in the world. So I’m not keen to give up before I’ve done everything I want to do.
The way I get harried, you can tell that the old idea of the Protestant work ethic is still alive and well. There’s one thing I can think of that will make a job necessary for me, and that’s my eventual running out of money. I’m not particularly close to that. My Korean cushion (augmented with a bit of money I’ve made selling Walleye—the font, I mean) is still fluffy. And I travel on practically nothing. I am the raccoon. I sleep in the woods and I eat the garbage. I live wherever there’s a spare bit of resources that I can put to good use, and wherever there’s something that a curious animal needs to explore. My idea of an absolutely reckless splurge is to spend $50 in a day, in a continent where most travel guidebooks will tell you that you probably need to allot about $120 a day for your budget. While I was in Europe I got by on an average of maybe three or four dollars a day. The way I travel, I could probably stay on the road for years before I finally ran out of money—and by then, I’d have been doing it long enough that I could probably use newly gained knowledge to transition to traveling for absolutely free.
But I get jabs from all sides that imply, subtly or strongly, that I somehow need to get a job. I’ve heard you can survive for three seconds without blood, three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. It’s as if everyone is nervous because, at profound risk to my life, I’m breaking the natural law that you can only survive three seasons without a job.
I know the technicalities of it. I know that someday I might need to show someone a résumé, and they might think it’s odd that I traveled the world for a year and a half without an income. I know that I’ll be more appealing to landlords or on mortgage applications if I show that I have a history of working a steady job. It’s just that I think overcoming those obstacles will be easier than it would be to live with the indissoluble dissatisfaction of knowing that I cut my travels short while there were still things in easy reach that I really wanted to do. I can show the employers and the landlords my college transcripts and my year of working in Korea, and eventually I’ll have other things to put on my résumé to show off too. In fact I’ll have years to put more things on that magical list. But right now is possibly the last big gap I’ll have for traveling freely for years or decades to come. And I’m young and being a raccoon doesn’t bother me. So by all logic, I need to seize this time while I can.
And anyhow, compared to what I’m doing right now, getting a job doesn’t seem particularly exciting. Or philosophically fulfilling. Here’s where I get philosophical. Nature is the ideal I think humanity should be aiming to live up to, and a job seems unnatural to me in every way.
I’ve thought for a long time that the concept of a job is a bit dirty on every side. What does it imply? Well, first it implies participating in the money economy. Money is a deeply unnatural thing. You don’t see beavers getting paid per tree they chew down (according to diameter of course), or ants bringing scrip to the queen’s representatives for rations. The amount of money you have is the number of shares you own in the destructive system of civilization. Let me explain that. Civilization destroys the planet—you can see that by looking around you, or if you really need it hammered home, visit Seymour, Indiana, on bike like I did. Okay, given that, why does it destroy the planet? Not just for the rush. It’s because destroying the planet is profitable. All the companies that destroy the planet are doing it with money that came from consumers or taxpayers, and they’re making a killing doing it, very literally. If you spend money, chances are very good that it’s going to a destructive corporation. If you spend it at the gas station, the route is extremely direct. If you spend it at a family diner, it takes a little longer, but a lot of your dollar is probably going to a megalithic food distributor that pays pesticide companies so they can make third-world small farming families dependent on their genetically engineered crops and so on.
You have to be extremely careful with money to keep it from being used to destroy everything that matters to humanity. No one usually is. Normally money gets used for things like these:
Paying the rent—which validates the landlord’s right to own land. Owning land is a disturbing concept, and it’s only been around for a few hundred years. In indigenous cultures the concept of selling land would have seemed as bizarre as selling your own name. You didn’t have the land, the land had you. An Indian said in a song, “I long for the days when the world had four corners… when you would ride to the horizon line with wind in your hair, and would never hit a fence.” Get your horse into the fields now and count how many fences you can jump before a farmer calls the cops on you. But this land-owning thing has swept the entire globe and now you have to go to Mongolia to find that much land that’s allowed to own itself like it always has.
Entertainment—which, if you can buy it, is probably either the product of a brewery and not good for you, or the product of Hollywood, which is a whole sordid cultural story that I don’t want to get into, and is also not good for you (or anyone).
Buying groceries—which makes you go on thinking of food as something that gets bought, instead of something that grows. Buying food at Walmart finances the desolation of farmers and land everywhere and is among the most disastrous things you can do with money. But even if you buy your food only at farmers’ markets, you’re still falling short of what nature wants. Even the best farming involves telling nature it had better do what you say, not what it wants to do. Living off the land without forcing it to bow to you is possible. Scientists have found that areas of the Amazon where humans have lived have much denser populations of human-edible species than you’d expect from random chance. The rainforest is like a farm for these people, one that gives more per acre than any wheat farm could hope to, but a farm that’s intelligent and complex and doesn’t go against the grain of nature. The changed balance of plants there is just the effect on the forest of having humans in the area, the same way that widely dispersed berry seeds are the effect of having berry-eating birds in an area. Nowadays we call that “permaculture”, although at one point it was just called “life”. It’s what it looks like when humans live with nature, and it’s been done before and it’s being done currently.
As an aside, here’s what Ran Prieur, one of my favorite thinkers, says about money.
What we call the economy is only one particular economy, characterized by: 1) command by corporations, artificial superhumans defined as having no compassion, only the drive to increase their own ability to dominate. 2) growth, or the escalating transformation of the life of the Earth into dead artifacts and the tokens of ability-to-dominate, or “wealth.” 3) employment, a disempowering social arrangement in which humans do commanded hyper-specialized labor all day in exchange for tokens which they trade for necessities and entertainment, neither of which they know how to provide for themselves, but which are provided by other commanded laborers who they don’t even know.
It’s hard to imagine a more satanic system, and in its absence we would build different economies, almost any of which would be better. Also, when you understand what the tokens of wealth are based on, the whole system looks like a bunch of kids making play money with which they buy and sell back, at higher and higher prices, a bar of chocolate that they’re almost done eating, and that was stolen in the first place. Instead of trying to save that system, or even trying to destroy it, we should just get the hell out.
Getting a job also generally implies getting a boss. A boss is a human who, by virtue of having the power to fire other humans, can command respect even if unworthy and can make demands that must be obeyed. Not all bosses are bad or abuse their power, though some do. But more importantly, you can’t have a normal human relationship with your boss, because of the hierarchy. The boss can punish you and you can’t punish the boss. There’s an asymmetry that can’t be gotten rid of. And I say any system that makes it impossible for two people to act as equals to each other is a system worth deep suspicion. Nature works horizontally, so the relationship between creatures is a web, not a pyramid. In nature, India’s caste system would be impossible, and so would a military that makes soldiers kill people who’ve never harmed them and never met them.
And finally, unless I’m self-employed with a whole lot of room for choosiness in my customers and schedule, getting a job also implies doing a lot of things I don’t want to do. In a very-good-case scenario, I could get a job teaching wilderness skills to, for example, troubled kids. But even then there would probably be paperwork, and I might have to teach “company retreats” now and then, and hearing stories of ruined childhoods would probably get me burned out sometimes so I’d need to recoup my senses but I wouldn’t have the time. Not that I would complain if I had such an incredible job, and not that life is made up of only things you want to do. The things that you don’t want to do often make you a better person once you’ve powered through and done them. On the other hand, “no pain, no gain” doesn’t imply “pain always means gain”. Sometimes you do something you didn’t want to do and, looking back on it, you didn’t grow as a person and you’d still rather you hadn’t done that. Just ask this guy. What I’m saying here is that it’s a trick to find a job where the good outweighs the bad, rather than a McJob where you’re a cog and miserable, and if you can’t tell the difference at the interview desk, your mental wellbeing for the next months or years might well depend on sheer luck.
Those are the ideas bouncing around my head when someone tells me to get a job. I constantly size up “having a job” against “living off the land”, in the purest sense of the phrase. That means living in community, and living as a part of intact nature. To any human familiar with that and not with our warped, economic way of life, it would take a very long explanation to acquaint them with what a “job” means, and if you told them, “Doesn’t this ‘job’ thing sound great? Want one?” they’d probably think you’d just told some kind of weird joke.
So when someone says I “need” to get a job, what they really should be telling me is that getting a job would be a simple and socially acceptable, though very possibly unsatisfying and probably destructive, way of getting some things I want. I suppose they could also add that, since we do have private property in this country, I actually will need to get a job if I want to live somewhere that isn’t a homeless shelter, or a very secretive structure isolated somewhere in a giant park, like that guy who lived in a park in Maine for 27 years and stole stuff to survive, or Mongolia. But luckily, the time that I settle down and get a job will be the same time that I start needing to pay rent, and I’ll have a job that I can use to pay the rent. In other words, I won’t need to get a job until I settle down and have the means to find one.
Now, despite all that philosophical stuff, actually what I’m usually thinking about more when I hear “get a job” is the more basic stuff I talked about before I got into all that about nature versus civilization and why money is evil and all that. If you remember back that far, what I said in that bit was that I don’t need one immediately because I’ve still got my cushion money and I still want to explore more.
But despite that, I’m actually not going to travel indefinitely, believe it or not. Being a perpetual rolling stone isn’t all that much more natural than having a job at a corporation and buying food at Walmart, and I’m aware of it. One of the biggest commonalities among indigenous people worldwide is a deep connection to the place they live in. A wanderer like me would be both impossible and scary, perhaps even spiritless, in a North America settled naturally. Let’s think of prehistoric North America. No hitchhiking, because there’s no such thing as cars. To get from Ohio to Vancouver, which I’m about to do, I’d need to know a continent’s worth of canoe routes and portages, or have months’ worth of walking endurance, and I’d need to know how to live off the land in a long series of changing ecosystems. It would probably be a fatal journey, unless I were the über-traveler and knew everything from an instinctual level.
But why would I want to do it anyhow? Certainly not to find the right place for myself, like I’m trying to do now. I would already have been raised and socialized into a naturally responsible, functional community full of people I loved. Or, if I had some social problems—maybe I slept with someone’s wife—I could relocate to some community nearby. It wouldn’t be necessary for me to run and re-run the continent finding a place where I could live approximately the way I wanted. Any community would have the lifestyle that I (I’m talking about me, Nathanael) am looking for, so all I’d need would be to find one that would accept me, ideally one with the same language, but if not I’d just learn like tribal people always have.
Even in the context of the real, industrial North America of today, though, endless wandering would be dysfunctional. While I’ve been a nomad, I’ve discovered a lot of things that nomadding stops me from doing. I can’t build up a group of really good friends and hang around with them a lot and get into deep, satisfying discussions; most of the conversations I have on the road are the exact same one about who I am and why I’m traveling the continent. I can’t eat healthy because it takes too long to pull out my camp stove and it’s limited in what it can do (I won’t be roasting a turkey with it), and anyhow I never know quite what food will be available in the next place I stop. For the same reasons, I can’t eat environmentally healthy either—sometimes it’s McDonald’s or starve, and I just have to face the factory-farmed beef and eggs and the pesticide-grown vegetables. And I can’t learn from the land very deeply. While I was in Korea I dreamt of coming back to the US and living in a forest in one part of the country for a couple weeks, then moving on to another bit of forest somewhere else, and in so doing, getting to know the forest like a friend. What I didn’t realize is that “the forest” is a lot of different kinds of forest, and I’m going to need to pick one place whose forest I can really focus on for years and years, and then I’ll gain some sort of expertise worth talking about. There’s a list of other can’ts, but those are some of the big ones, and I can’t think of the others right now.
So with all that I’m depriving myself from, why keep going? Well, because I’m still having fun, and I think when I’ve decided on the right place, that’ll put a tremendous reward at the end of the journey for me, enough to assuage all the discomfort and exasperation and can’ts. Although actually, I think of a certain amount of those things as what makes the journey an adventure. If you’ll let me define these two words as opposites for a moment (even though they aren’t really), there’s a line between an adventure and a vacation. If you’re sleeping in a hotel room, you’re having a vacation. If you’re sleeping under a bridge, or in a stealth camp in a forest, or on a kind stranger’s couch, you’re having an adventure. I prefer to have an adventure even if it’s not as comfortable sometimes. It makes a way better story later, and not just to tell to other people, but also to run through in my own memories.
And all of that is why you don’t need to remind me to get a job. I’ll get one myself when I need to, but for now I don’t, and I’m savoring my freedom to explore and adventure while I can.