In the beginning, there were twenty. Officially, these twenty were in the Wilderness State as part of an experiment to see how people interacted with nature, because, with all land now being used for resources – oil, gas, minerals, water, wood, food – or storage – trash, servers, toxic waste – such interactions had become lost to history.
But most of the twenty didn’t know much about science, and many of them didn’t even care about nature. These twenty had the same reasons people have always had for turning their backs on everything they’d known and venturing to an unfamiliar place. They went to the Wilderness State because there was no other place they could go.
They had wanted to flee the City, where the air was poison to children, the streets were crowded, filthy, where rows of high-rises sprawled to the horizon and beyond. And because all land that hadn’t been subsumed by the City was now being used to support the City, it seemed everyone now lived in the City. Whether they wanted to or not. So while a couple of those twenty had gone to the Wilderness for adventure, and a couple for knowledge, most fled there because they believed in some way their lives depended on it.
In the beginning, they had shoes, and army-issue sleeping bags, tents, lightweight titanium cookware, ergonomic backpacks, tarps, ropes, rifles, bullets, headlamps, salt, eggs, flour, and more. They walked into the Wilderness State, made camp, and on their first morning made pancakes. They sprinkled sugar on them. They flavored their early stews with bacon. None of that stuff lasted long, though. That first day felt like a vacation in a wondrous new place. That feeling didn’t last long either.
In the beginning, their skin coloring matched that of wood pulp, riverbed sand, wet tree roots, the rich underside of mosses. Their eyes were brown. Their hair was dark. They had all ten fingers and toes. Their skin was unscarred. The dangers of the City had never been from scrapes and cuts.
In the beginning, they were written about and reported on back in the City. A group of people who had forsaken civilization to live in the wild? Why would anyone do that? Op-eds wondered what would happen to them. Mainstream journalists wondered what they were running from. Alternative publications wondered if they knew something everyone else didn’t. Regular people sent them care packages of homemade cookies, coffee, hot dogs, generally inedible by the time they opened them. Batteries, toothbrushes, pens. Useless items for people attempting to live primitively. Someone sent them a forty-pound cast-iron pot. It was a family heirloom. It had been in his closet for years, he wrote on a card. He couldn’t bear to throw it out. He hoped they would have use for it. The Ranger took a picture of them pretending to struggle to lift it. They were smiling or making pained faces. They sent the picture as a thank-you of sorts. But also as a way to tell the sender what a ridiculous gift it was for people who walk every day and carry what they own. With little discussion they voted to leave it behind. It was an obvious decision. But that night they cooked in it. And they’d been carrying the Cast Iron ever since.
In the beginning, they acquiesced to finger pricks, cheek swabs, urine samples, blood pressure readings, filled out questionnaires each time they went to Post, to see how they were impacting nature and how nature was impacting them. Their days were data to someone, though they never believed the data could be all that important.
In the beginning, they followed all the rules in the Manual, the written rule of the Wilderness State, for fear they’d be sent home. They never camped in the same place twice. They picked up all their trash, and even trash they couldn’t imagine being theirs. They buried their bones. They measured out their pit toilets to the right depth, the right length from water. They restored their fire rings to look like virgin land. Where they walked, one would hardly know twenty people had passed through. They left no trace. They drank bad water because they couldn’t always find good water, and they paid the price for that.
But that was all in the beginning.
Over time, the guns and tents and sleeping bags were wrecked. So they learned to tan skins, sew with sinew, hunt with handmade bows, sleep comfortably on the ground and in the open. The salt was the thing that lasted the longest. And after it was gone they discovered that real food tastes like dirt, water, and exertion.
Over time, they became sunbaked, darkening the way anything darkens when it soaks up rain. Their dark hair bronzed. Their eyes were still brown, but they were dry, crusty, and sunburnt too.
Over time, they learned when to hide by listening to birds. They learned to be cautious by watching deer. They thought they learned to be bold by watching a wolf pack take down a healthy moose. But then they learned how to see the almost imperceptible limp that a healthy-seeming moose was hiding. They learned to know seasons not by their watches, broken in the first few months, or by the calendar they burned early when a cold snap threatened fingers, but by what hatched, what was small and how long it took to get bigger. They learned to tell age not by size, but by the color and sheen of an animal’s coat. They learned to head for the foothills when they heard the elk’s mating bugle. And when they saw a female looking as wide as it did long, even if the snow was still high, they knew it was spring and time to trudge back to the plains. They knew the different flavors of leaves depending on the season; knew the secret sweetness of the red-tipped grasses in the fall, and the bitterness of last season’s grass, buried in winter snow but somehow still green, like how poisonous mushrooms have alluring colors. Those colors only beckon the foolish. Colors are warnings. They learned that too. They learned what to eat by watching the animals eat.
Over time, they all came to know of some hair elastic, fork tine, frayed rope, or lonesome earring that had fallen and not been recovered in a micro trash sweep. They dug pit toilets in the wrong places and not deep enough. They camped in the same places again and again because those places felt like home. And they discovered spigots that rose out of wells or aquifers below. Spigots the Rangers might have installed to fight fires. Spigots they were not supposed to use. They took their water from these whenever they could because it was clean and they didn’t have to worry like they had worried in the beginning.
Even the study seemed to stall over time. They began to miss their seasonal Post visits because of storms. And when they would finally arrive, the equipment wasn’t working. Or the nurse wasn’t there. The questionnaires hadn’t been updated. The scientists were unreachable. Maybe they were simply studying some other aspect that didn’t require blood work, they hoped. Or maybe the scientists had ended the study and forgotten to tell anyone. What would happen to them if it had? Would they have to leave? But always at the peak of their anxiety, a nurse would appear at Post with gloves and needles, and the questionnaires would be too invasive and personal again, and everything would return to normal. Or as normal as was possible.
Over time, the media and the people in the City turned on them. After the news of the first death (Tim to hypothermia) finally reached the City, the op-eds called them selfish, heathens, even murderers, and hoped they would perish. The Rangers told them, and were not pleased with the optics. They wanted the Community to do damage control. So Juan wrote a letter to the editor to explain what their life was like and what they had learned about death. In it he told a story about how one night, early in their first year, they’d stumbled upon a runty deer curled up tight under a cluster of trees, its slender head resting on its gleaming black hooves. By morning it was gone. Three different nights they encountered it. It never ran. It would only look up at them and then rest its head again. They assumed its mother had placed it there to wait for her to return, as deer do. But on the fourth night they saw it coming out of the grasses, wobbling on unsure legs, toward the trees. Alone.
A large herd of deer spent its evenings nearby in the grasses. And though this small, orphaned deer stayed close to them, it never joined them. It did not belong with the herd for reasons only they knew. But still, it stayed close, its instinct for preservation at odds with the one for social order.
That fourth night, the temperatures dipped, and in the morning the Community woke to the grasses sparkling with frost. Some rushed to the tree and were relieved to see the small deer was gone. But then they saw it in the first tall grasses beyond the tree. It lay frozen, its neck elongated as though straining to breathe, its front legs bent as though it had knelt first in exhaustion before it collapsed. Blood pooled in its graceful ear. The other deer, some just a few yards away from the dead fawn, licked the frost off the grass tips dumbly. The Community were enraged and sickened. They threw stones at the deer. ‘Why didn’t you take care of this one?’ some yelled. ‘It was a deer too.’
It wasn’t until they lost Tim to that bitter cold night that they understood. Of course, they were different from deer. But not as different as they had always imagined. That night, they knew he was suffering, but everyone was suffering. And in that moment something innate kicked in. It surprised them how easy it was to misunderstand a cry for help. Even to ignore one.
When the letter was published, people in the City were disgusted. And soon after, all the op-eds outlined the terrible deaths they wished upon the Community in the Wilderness State – burned to death in a forest fire, mauled by a cougar, wasted away from uncontrollable diarrhea. The Rangers told them about all these, gleefully it seemed. And actually, that is how a few of them died. Eventually, their numbers would dwindle to eleven. It’s not that those losses weren’t difficult. It’s just that loss was now a part of their daily life, as so many new things were.
That’s why it heartened them to see an elder animal, say, an elk, with gray in its muzzle and a slight limp, a limp that would be more pronounced if it hadn’t learned to hide it. It had survived. A good mother and herd had protected it when it was vulnerable. Hardships had been weathered by the herd. Fires flying across the plain. Floods and rock slides. Disease that jumped from elk to elk. Droughts or population explosions that meant a fight for all necessary food. Pleasures had been discovered. Bucking and kicking down a hill in its youth with other calves. The otherworldly buoyancy of its first swim. The first snows on its hooves would have been a miraculous new feeling. Only later would it have noticed the anxiety of the herd snuffling their noses beneath the soft powder, looking for food.
If the elk was male, battles had taken place. How many harems had he defended? How many bloody lashes became scars on its formidable body? If it was female, calves had been reared. Had she watched them amble off happy and healthy? Or did she have to witness the weakest succumb to a wolf pack, mewing for her plaintively? If she was the dominant, the matriarch, did she ever worry her decisions were wrong? Or feel ill-equipped to lead the herd?
And yet, each night, that animal bedded down beneath whispering trees, on dead leaves, or in grasses under the moon and stars, listening to the chatter of the owls, the cautious step of the night animals, a whole new world relatively unknown to it except in these still moments, no comfort but the comfort of the group and of having lived through one more day. No guarantees for tomorrow.
It wasn’t that different for the Community. They were living the same wild life. Of course, they could always outwit the animals. Well, almost always. The drive for survival is strong. Even the most brute creature can be clever if it means another morning under the cool light of the sun in the Wilderness State, which was the last wilderness.
Of course, now it’s gone. But let’s not talk about that yet.
Photograph © Warren Brown
This is an extract from Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, out 13 August with Oneworld and longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.