I grew up spending a lot of time in the woods with my father. He also read me dozens of nineteenth and early twentieth century classic adventure stories. Going on adventures and being in wild places seemed natural to me as a child. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized most people didn’t grow up to be Robinson Crusoe!
I was determined to be an explorer and have an adventurous life, so I went to Africa at 18 and studied at the American University in Cairo. From there, I traveled all over Africa and South America as a photojournalist. In 2010, I won a National Geographic Young Explorer Grant and had the opportunity to work on a project in North Sudan about the Beja nomads in that region. Though I enjoyed journalism as a means of having adventures, I really wanted to be doing something more hands on. I also wanted to get back into wilderness skills and spending time in the woods.
So, in 2012, I moved to Aspen, Colorado and started making sculpture again; something that I had studied in college. I also rented a cabin in the wilderness that was totally rundown. I really wanted to create a project that was creative and playful but wild and focused on wild living. I find some survival skills schools to be a bit too dry or apocalyptic for my taste. I wanted do something that was more fun and laid back.
My vision was to bring people together in a truly wild place to discuss ideas about the future, about how we live and about what we need and don’t need to be happy. I wanted to make the project an informal meeting place where people could gather round a fire and a simple dinner and reclaim something that we’ve lost: the pleasure of feeling that one is part of the natural world and not separate from it. I also believe that creativity is important for people’s everyday happiness, which is why I try to make a playful, imaginative take on wilderness living a key component of the project.
I’ve always wanted to live in a tipi or a wall tent and I’ve wanted to create a wilderness community for a long time. For me, the desire to get away from modern life is the desire to have a close relationship with the natural world and to not have money dominate my life. Modern life in America is all about addiction to consumerism and voyeurism. Consumerism tells you that you never have enough, that it’s never good enough and that no one will love you if you don’t embark on a permanent self-improvement through constant buying project.
Voyeurism happens through tv, movies and the internet and is an affirmation of the consumerist mantra of permanent inadequacy. I was tired of participating in it. I find it really boring and empty. I get so much more from one night in the forest, alone, with no electricity in a tiny cabin. There you can hear your own inner voice, and you can feel that you are part of a natural system that is far greater than yourself.
From this project, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about what I need to be happy. It turns out it’s not much! At first, not having a fridge was really hard, but now I’m used to it and I have a bear-proof cooler that works well. Learning to stay warm in the winter was tough too. I finally started using vintage fur coats and that does the trick. I haven’t found anything synthetic that compares. I also have a huge goose down comforter that makes it so that the cold is tolerable when it’s minus 20 and the woodstove goes out.
When I first started living up here, I was scared all the time at night. Scared of bears, scared of some creepy person coming in the night, scared I would die of carbon monoxide poisoning in my sleep from the fire. But then, as the years passed, the fear faded and now I can walk in the woods in the dark and feel fine.
Creatively, the wilderness gives me so much, one of the most important things being the quiet to let ideas evolve. We are way too over-stimulated in modern society. Being away from the internet and phone makes it so much easier to find the time and calm for incubating ideas.
Psychologically, the hardest part is dealing with urban settings once you adjust to being in the woods. We were built to live in nature with not so many people around and once your body stops being over-stimulated, it develops a thirst for more calm. Returning to the modern world can feel stressful and excessive. Physically, some people who come to stay struggle with not having running water the first few days they are here. Hauling water is probably the most labour intensive thing we have to do. That and chopping wood. But that’s what I keep men around to help with!
I’ve had lots of EC people asking about coming, but not have yet actually made the leap. We only take visitors for a few months a year. I have had a lot of Wwoofers who are great and I have loved having them involved. I got involved with EC when the old site was still up, because I wanted to look for expedition partners to join trips I was planning. I decided to add my project to the site because I thought EC members might be interested in what I was doing in Aspen.
The benefits of adventure are a broadened world view, a sense of experience being more important than having lots of stuff, and the chance to fall in love over and over again with our strange, magical planet. Through my project, volunteers who are willing to come and help with work can join the Wild Experiment for free. I also hope to start getting young Latino kids involved with the project in the next year. I would support any other type of inclusive adventure I could be involved with as well!
This summer, we are collaborating with more artists. Some artists may be coming from Germany and some other artists from Anderson Ranch, an international art school will be joining us. Long term, I want to buy land to have a permanent project on and bring more artists and wilderness skills experts together to collaborate. My main goal with the Wild Experiment is to build a setting for creating a more imaginative, wild future. Together I hope we can create a new vision for a happier, greener world.
Words: Ajax Axe