You’d think that after two months of writing nothing more than a tongue twister, I’d be spilling over with things I wanted to tell about. But it’s actually been sort of hard to pick out any one thing that I’d like to write on. Lately, for the blog, I’ve felt less interested in writing the narrative details of my life, and more interested in laying out a few of the cool directions I’ve been thinking in recently. That’s probably because, as long as I’m spending most of the days of my life occupied with a full-time desk job, there doesn’t seem to really be much narrative-of-my-life to get into; meanwhile, I’ve been reading such interesting books and putting together some of the puzzle pieces of the world.
But I’ll get into those things later, and hopefully they’ll actually be interesting to you. Over these two months when I didn’t write, there actually has been some narrative building up. I haven’t been behind the computer over at the office nearly as much as usual, because I’ve been out and about, and one of the places I’ve been is somewhere I remember a lot of people asking questions about.
This year is the second year I’ve gone out to Colorado to meet the summer solstice from up on a mountain at Wild Roots Feral Futures. Misty, Currant, and I got up at four in the morning one day in the middle of June and spent the entire day and some of the night burning through Iowa and Nebraska on the old US Routes. Though it’s not strictly part of the event, I think there’s something to be said for the ride out there. There is a highway, US-30, that parallels Interstate 80 a few miles to its north. It’s slower, dustier, and more pockmarked than its four-lane little brother, but traveling on US-30 is much better for the soul. It allows you to discover that Nebraska actually has towns, and people, and character. Driving on I-80, you could be forgiven for thinking that the built environment of Nebraska consists entirely of Kwik-Trips, McDonald’ses, and Burger Kings. On US-30 grain elevators reach over the road to make each town a gateway deeper into real Nebraska, and you’re required to slow down for broad-streeted downtowns and ramshackle family restaurants and grocery stores.
We ended that day sleeping in a park a few dozen miles outside Denver, and the next morning we funneled ourselves into the city, where Currant had to stay a couple days for a cousin’s wedding. Misty and I weren’t invited to the wedding, so after some food and a nap and a ride out to an onramp, we continued on our own. That’s right, we did our first couples hitchhiking, and I’m happy to report that it went fantastically. We waited less than five minutes for our first ride, which came from a big-wheel pickup driven by a guy our age who grows weed. Our second ride took less than a minute: at a stop light, we got picked up in a huge camper truck plastered with cow decals—the Moothership. The guy behind the wheel, RT, somewhere in his 30s or 40s, explained that he sells farmers what’s more or less a vibrator for mother cows. After cows calve, they get listless and stop eating and get health problems. but a little bit of vibration to the base of the tail triggers them to get up and do something, which usually ends up as going out to graze. Rides came pretty easy all day, and everyone liked us and we liked them.
So, from my limited experience, I have to conclude that couples hitchhiking is awesome. Misty likes it too, and we might do a bunch more. After a few more rides and a night sleeping next to a river in a town park, we got driven directly to the trailhead for 2016’s Feral Futures, at the end of a gravel road that took us through a long, green, winding valley at least 8,000 feet above sea level.
You have to walk to Feral Futures. Each year it’s in a different place, closer to or farther from the trailhead, always somewhere in the National Forest in southwest Colorado. Down out of the mountains, this corner of the state is a hot, shadeless land. But up here, cold brooks crash down from the snowcaps, and the walls of the valleys are carpeted with aspens, pines, willows, and meadows full of cinquefoil and dandelion and yarrow. The air is thin and dry, and fallen trees don’t rot as often as they desiccate into kindling, but there’s life and green. We walked a mile and a half or so along the side of the valley, and emerged into a long, broad meadow, where a painted sheet hung up in some trees welcomed us to Wild Roots Feral Futures.
This year was the eighth Feral since the beginning. Currant has been to three of them and says each year has a noticeably different vibe to it. There’s a core in common to all of them, though—a sort of ethic or philosophy that brings people out here in the first place. You come to Feral if you’ve been raised in the good old Western civilized way but somehow it just never took. You may have been given all the philosophical and material furnishings of a middle-class US life, or maybe you haven’t and you’ve spent some of your life working to get them, but in any case, once surrounded by them, you took to knocking on them one by one, and discovered to your dismay that they were all completely hollow. And you couldn’t just grin and bear it and live with them. You have realized something that only a minority ever really grasps: that though a lot of people believe in such large, floating abstractions as “The United States of America” and “the global economy”, and though that belief gives those abstractions some power of their own, they are, at the root, made out of nothing but what nature gives us, and the more abstractions you put between yourself and nature, the more problems arise (whether the problems bite you or faraway strangers).
In the US, where we have a culture farther removed from nature than perhaps any other in the history of the world, such a realization leaves you simultaneously unmoored and grounded. Unmoored from all the people and systems you probably grew up with, who are content to ignore the fragility and disjointedness of that kind of life—but grounded in nature, which continues to be the source from which all our sustenance, symbols, and world come.
What that means in more concrete terms is that Feral is populated by a lot of thoughtful anarchists. Which is not a contradiction in terms. There are a lot of different kinds of anarchists in the world, and it’s to anarchists’ enduring frustration that so many people insist on believing that the only kind is high-school anarchists. You know: the kind who skateboard everywhere, wear black hoodies, and resent everyone who has any kind of power over them, especially school administration. Theirs is a rebellion with no direction; if you sat down with one of them and asked how exactly society should be arranged, the most coherent thing they might be able to tell you is that there should be no school principals, or that everyone is trying to brainwash us.
Most of them grow out of it eventually, but not always into upstanding valedictorians or, later, business-casual patriots. There’s far more diversity of the human soul than that. Some of them grow from impetuous high-school anarchists into mature, engaged, adult anarchists. There’s a whole greenhouse of different kinds of anarchism, most of them coherent, logically consistent worldviews that can take your average naive knee-jerk rebuttal—“But there will always be people who are better at some things, and become leaders, and then the whole system starts over again!”—and turn it to sorry soggy shreds, then keep going and build entire new, exciting worlds.
These are the kinds of people who end up at Feral. Perhaps some of them wouldn’t call themselves anarchists. It might be because they don’t like to be classified as anything-ists, or because they’re early in the journey and that word feels loaded still, or because they disagree with the is of identity that says you can describe a human with a word, or because they favor something a little different from anarchy, but that something is almost certainly not modern-style nation-states. All of them share the principle of insisting on determining their own lives.
When Misty and I arrived at the shady edge of the meadow where the main fire ring was built this year, there weren’t very many people yet. The main organizer was there, and a few people we didn’t know. We spent the afternoon and evening getting our camp set up and then sitting where we could see what was around us so we could let it soak in. We had come a long way and left a lot of city noise and grime behind, and we still needed to really arrive. That requires sitting and allowing the outside to come inside you. After dusk the forest’s warmth all bled off through the thin air and cloudless sky right into space, and we were surrounded, at long last, by real quiet. Not silence; the quiet is inhabited by wind and mice, toads and water. But quiet: the absence of the thrumming, arrhythmic, inescapable pulse that pervades the city.
The next morning we helped get the rest of the camp set up. At Feral, of course, there is no real leader who directs everything. There’s a core group of organizers, but what they mainly do is decide where the camp should be and offer suggestions based on their years of experience with successful gatherings. They won’t tell you to do stuff; they’ll write the stuff that needs to be done on a list on some cardboard and stick it on a tree, and then let everyone know at morning circle that there’s a list of things that need to be done. And everyone in camp will pitch in and do them, from people who are here for the first time up to the organizers. I went out into the forest and collected some firewood. Misty set up water to purify, or maybe helped cook a meal.
Eventually, morning circle began. When the time is right each day, morning circle coalesces almost on its own: some people confer, then all call out “CIRCLE!” And everyone comes and forms a big circle in the main area.
First everyone goes around introducing themselves with name and pronoun. I’d say a minority of us used our birth names, and at least a quarter of everyone asked to be mentioned using pronouns that don’t match their sex assigned at birth. (Most were they, she, and he, but another one popped up that was new to me: fey–fem–feir, which apparently comes from the Radical Faeries movement—something I’d never heard of. A few people gave it as an option but allowed they too.) Currant decided to take a trial run of changing their name to Willow, so we used that name all week, and it stuck, so now that’s their name.
Next there’s an orientation. Someone explains how to filter water. Someone else explains the use of the shitter, which is a trench dug in an out-of-the-way place and managed well for odor using wood ash. Another person asks for volunteers for cooking and dishes.
Finally we get around to people telling what workshops or conversations they’d like to facilitate that day. These could be as formal as a several-hour-long workshop on felting, or as freeform as a single question followed by some brainstorming and conversation from everyone around. Last year there were a lot of hard-skills workshops: tanning a hide, practicing archery, learning the names and uses of the plants around the area (like osha and potentilla).
This year we tended more toward the conversations. The first event on the schedule all week was someone who came in to speak: Danny Blackgoat, a Diné (Navaho) elder who’s been spending a lot of time at Black Mesa. Black Mesa is a place in the Diné Nation where the government has been trying, for many years, to evict all the local inhabitants so they can allow a coal mining company to start digging there. For just as many years, the Diné have been resisting. They’ve had to fight on all fronts at once: public awareness, politics, legal challenges, and perhaps most importantly direct resistance—which is to say, people staying right there on Black Mesa herding their sheep and refusing to leave when the strongarms come and say they have to. And if they get pulled off, then they go right back as soon as it’s possible.
For a while there it’s been a standoff, thanks to determined Diné as well as help they’re getting from non-Native folks like the ones at Feral. Feral-type people will go down to Black Mesa, stay with a shepherd, and help them herd sheep. They’ll just listen and do what the elder says. It’s one small way you can give back if you and your ancestors have been party to the massive land theft and genocide that’s still playing out on this continent. And it’s a way to be connected to a tradition that actually makes sense and is a part of its land—to learn from elders who have something deep to teach in a time when far too few people are there to hear. Danny told us about what it’s like at Black Mesa, and about his life history, in a series of interconnected, rambling stories that, perhaps, didn’t explicitly make a point, but still somehow told us just what we needed to know.
A lot of other conversations through the week centered around this same kind of direct action. Things like going to a proposed fracking site and occupying it with tents so the company can’t drill. One person revealed that there’s a rule on fracking sites that no operations can take place if there are non-employees around—which activists exploited by running around in there, whooping it up, shutting down operations, and forcing the police to come in and arrest them. Some people came to Feral who had been on the road doing direct action for years. There was a lot of advice, and the underlying theme that if you call yourself an environmental activist but you don’t go out and help stop the land from being exploited directly, your activism is pretty cheap indeed. (Mine has been pretty cheap. Eventually I intend to correct that.)
A conversation might look like this. Monsoon mentioned around morning circle that she’d like to talk about Hoop rewilding. In the afternoon, when it looks like the last activity has wound down, she gets a few people who’ve been waiting nearby to all yell together: “HOOP REWILDING!” A few more people straggle over, and Monsoon starts talking.
She tells us that the Hoop is a name for the old nomadic circle that used to be traced out unfailingly, year after year, by the Native nations of the Great Basin. They would stay for a while in an area where a good edible root, like coush, was growing. They’d collect a bunch, eat some, and bring some along with them to the next place, where they’d collect a different plant and plant the coush—and so on through the year and the land until they ended up back where they started. They ate, the plants spread, and they all lived happily. But now, the hoop is broken; the nations that used to live there have been fragmented too much to walk the hoop. Now a new subculture, with roots in transgender communities and a catalyst who calls herself Tranny Granny, has been taking on some of the duties of the Hoop—using cars and titanium digging sticks while these things are available, but trying as hard as possible to keep the old traditions alive through the planet’s current turmoil.
There were a few workshops on harder skills, too; for example, a quiet but intense and knowledgeable person named Tomlyn led the felting workshop I mentioned, where Misty and I both made really cool hats, and got our hands cleaner than they’d been all week, because felting involves a lot of soap. There was also a workshop on how to resist riot police, which featured a series of exhilarating role-plays where some people were the activists and others were the cops trying to separate us as we linked arms.
But above all, besides all the “formal” workshops and conversations, there was a kind of community: an ability to chat and just be with other people who could see the world as we did. We could have the conversations we’ve been craving all year. During the rest of the year, each of us has ideas that simmer below the surface. We’d love to talk about these ideas with someone, because one of the ways ideas mature best is through talking, through putting together different viewpoints. But the kind of ideas we have are born from a way of seeing the world that most people we know don’t share. If I were to try to have a chat with someone in my family, or even someone in Sprout House, about a question like “What kind of ancestor do you want to be remembered as?” the conversation would be likely to get hung up on first axioms. I think the future and its people will look one way—energy-scarce, full of people slowly building up a culture that knows how to live with the Earth on the Earth’s terms—and the other person thinks, perhaps, that the future will look a lot like today, only with slimmer iPhones and legalized gay marriage worldwide.
That kind of community may sound like a small thing, but it’s not. It’s a force strong enough to draw us in from all the way on the other side of Nebraska’s grain elevators and the car-vanquishing mountains of Colorado, year after year. It’s not just community and friendship, it’s freedom. A freedom of the mind and spirit both, the kind of freedom to roam far and wide with your favorite ideas that’s otherwise only available, dimly, in dreams.
During Feral I gave tattoos to three different people. I ate food around a fire three times a day. I learned about places and events that I always hoped existed. I took meditating hikes out on the trails, and personally thanked an aspen for being an aspen. I got reacquainted with an old college friend who lives near Denver and loves to write constantly and make pancakes. I talked with an anthropology Ph.D. student about many different ways of returning to something like a natural way of living. I received encouragement from Danny Blackgoat to learn a Native language. (Misty asked: “What do you think about non-Native people learning a Native language?” Danny said: “The more the better!”) I spent time with people utterly unlike me in many ways—transgender, nomadic, repeatedly in trouble with the law, desert-dwelling—yet with the same core values.
At nights, we kept the dinner fire burning, and usually ended up with some people playing guitars or games. On the night of the solstice there was a huge fire in the field where they could make it burn bright and tall, and most of the camp celebrated the shortest night of the year with music and revelry (some of us slept—I did). We looked up at the stars and took walks, and we listened to the world around us in a way we usually either can’t or just forget to. Being able to do that, and being around so many other people who are doing it too, is what—far beyond any simple workshops or speakers—makes Feral such an irreplaceable week of the year. We’re working on making our entire world like Feral, but that’s a long project; for the time being, we’ll have to make sure we get out there whenever we can.