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‘When I first got here, a friend taught me what the different night-time rustles and noises meant – how to work out whether it’s a snake or a rat.’ Over a crackling 4G WhatsApp call, author Stephanie Theobald is talking about the realities of living in a cave on the edge of California’s Mojave Desert, which she’s done since June 2020.
‘I sleep on a board, which I’ve raised off the floor with stones because of the scorpions,’ she tells me. Within eco circles, ‘rewilding’ as a term has been long used to describe a type of hands-off, nature-first conservation that attempts to restore natural processes and wildlife to landscapes decimated by human intervention. But now the concept has been appropriated by those who have chosen to live in symbiosis with nature in an effort to ‘rewild’ themselves, their desires and expectations of modern life.
The drive to ‘rewild’ is often a result of burnout or the realisation that success, money and the trappings of an affluent city life still leave a gaping hole that no amount of expensive clothes, small-plate restaurants or career accolades can fill. Over periods of lockdown, many Type A people had come to notice that life is missing something. And perhaps that ‘something’ is a more connected relationship with the natural world.
It goes way beyond the ‘cottage-core’ appeal of well-tended gardens and quiet country escapes that are nonetheless still within 20 minutes of a gastropub, a deli and a train that will whisk you straight back to the city whenever you like. It means placing yourself in a landscape where you are tiny, insignificant and overwhelmed. It’s not for everyone, but it’s for more and more people – and once they ‘go wild’, they don’t want to come back.
Stephanie Theobald lived in London for more than 20 years and was a hugely successful author and journalist before she abandoned the literarti to rewild herself in the desert. As a society editor for Harper’s Bazaar, her job had kept her deeply enmeshed within urban life and that, she tells me, had its upsides. From trips to the Maldives with Vivienne Westwood and Christian Louboutin to parties in Cannes with Elton John and Sharon Stone, ‘just innumerable red carpets, innumerable parties… But to be honest, I wouldn’t swap what I have now for that. There’s no penthouse in the world that would top the experience of living in a 20 million-year-old cave,’ she laughs.
Her cave is on a secluded square mile of land just outside California’s Joshua Tree National Park. A small community of people (currently there are 12) have occupied the open-air caves since the mid-1970s. ‘I discovered it 10 years ago when I was doing a story in Palm Springs and I’d come to visit whenever I was working in California,’ she explains. Theobald loved the basic way of life and the connection that the people living there had with the land. She was in LA at the beginning of 2020 and, seeing the fear wrought by the pandemic, she felt a yearning to be in closer proximity to something ‘ancient and wild’ and moved in.
Lydia Pang similarly left behind a high-flying career to live in nature. She says, ‘To me, rewilding yourself is about undomesticating; situating yourself in a landscape. It is about being connected to that landscape, rather than being transient, and understanding what that landscape can provide for you – and what you can provide for it.’
Like Theobald, for Pang, the past year has been one of renegotiation. Speaking to me from her home deep in rural Wales, dressed in a plain black sweater, with her hair pulled into a low bun, she looks effortlessly chic. She has the lit-from-the-inside skin of a well-rested woman (I later find out that she doesn’t drink). When she left Wales (where she’d grown-up) to attend university in London, aged 19, she assumed she would never go back. Her rapid ascent through the ranks of some of the world’s biggest advertising agencies seemed to validate that belief. She became global creative director of Refinery29 in New York aged just 27, and was later poached by Nike to work as global editorial design director in Portland, Oregon.
‘And then the pandemic hit,’ she sighs. ‘I think, like for many people, it brought a lot of things into focus. I had spent years chasing that big, shiny, corporate title, but without the glossy workplace or the trips to shoots across the world, without all of that delicious, capitalist distraction, I was faced with just myself. I was working way too much and doing very little else. I felt like I was becoming a one-dimensional human being. And I felt very far away from any kind of truth.’
The search for ‘truth’ in life has preoccupied philosophers for centuries. In the 1700s, Edmund Burke explored the idea of the sublime and where it could be found; his thinking gave rise to the Romantic movement in art and literature, which expressed the idea that greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic or spiritual, resides in the power of nature. And we perhaps all still share a sense that it is only when faced with such power, when we confront a terrifying cliff edge, a violent waterfall or a deep forest lit by nothing but the stars, that we can see our own problems in any kind of perspective.
From the 20th century onwards, the cause of our ongoing existential malaise has been sought elsewhere – from our diet to the collapse of the nuclear family to the rise of social media. Only now are we coming back to the idea that the secret to happiness could lie tangled in the rampant wilds of our world. Recently, a raft of studies have implied that urban modernity itself – the fact that we live so far outside of our ecosystem – is a key factor driving our mental health crisis. And for people like Pang and Theobald, reconnecting with wilderness – experiencing a truly untamed nature – is the obvious balm to soothe our ailing souls.
The idea of putting ourselves in a nature so overwhelming that it allows us to transcend our individual woes is increasingly appealing. As Burke’s contemporary, Immanuel Kant, wrote, ‘We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without.’
‘I got my first taste of it when I was in Portland,’ says Pang. ‘I’d go out of the city, to the coast or wild camping. Phones didn’t work. I was just surrounded by these huge expanses of nature. It felt wild and feral, not like something I could ever control. It just was. And that was really freeing; sitting by the fire, cooking… seeing the massive sky, no light pollution, just stars. I finally felt like I could just be.’
When she realised that her life in the US was no longer working for her, she considered moving back to London but worried it would be much of the same. ‘Obviously, when I decided on Wales I was worried I’d lose myself if I stepped away from the culture and pace of a big city. But that just hasn’t happened. Now I live in the middle of a forest and I’ve never felt more connected and creative.’
For her, rewilding is a rejection of the ‘parasitical nature of modern living’ and the construction of a new and more integrated way of life – ‘a psychological and tactical shift in the way we engage with our landscapes’.
‘I think people the world over are waking up to how profoundly it affects us to live so far outside nature,’ says Theobald. For Pang, this realisation was enough for her to give up a job she’d worked towards her whole life. For Theobald, it was enough to give up civilisation altogether.
‘A fascination with the wilderness has been growing for some years,’ says Megan Hine. As a survival consultant and wilderness guide, she has built a career helping clients – most often film crews and presenters (including Bear Grylls) – to survive the most inhospitable landscapes on Earth.
‘Many people, certainly within Western urban societies, seem to feel instinctively that something is missing for them. That they’re disconnected, anxious or that something just feels off, but they can’t pinpoint what it is. It’s amazing to see people transform when they spend some time in the wild.’
Alongside her consulting for film and TV, Hine works with private clients – celebrities, CEOs and royals among them – who want to reconnect with nature in an extreme way. Clients can pay anything up to £100,000 for a few weeks completely off-the-grid. With one client – the CEO of a major company – she was airdropped into the middle of the Alaskan wilds and they foraged, fished and slept outdoors for a week. Over the past few years, Hine has seen a marked shift: nowadays most clients have a diagnosis for anxiety or depression.
Currently, more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas with little or no access to green spaces or natural environments (by 2050 it is projected that this figure will increase to two-thirds).
‘It’s not surprising that we’ve got a rise in [mental illness],’ says Hine, who argues that urban living often fails to meet some of our most basic needs. ‘Warmth, food, shelter, water and sleep [are there] – but our nutrition is really poor, the water we drink is chemically treated and lacks minerals, and we’ve created screens and lighting to stop us sleeping. Even those simple things… the way we live has disrupted them profoundly.’
Despite the fact that her career allows her to get off-the-grid regularly, Hine herself has experienced the overwhelm of an always-on society.
‘I was close to burning out a couple of years ago and it was horrible,’ she says. ‘It takes the body a long time to recover.’ She used wild camping as a way to reset. ‘Even just a few nights in a wilder environment, away from people, sleeping under the stars, without access to screens and artificial light, it can help our circadian rhythm to get back in sync – you just feel more peaceful.’
The impact that reintegrating into wilderness has on mental and physical wellbeing is being explored more and more.
In Australia, a study on ‘Wilderness Adventure Therapy’ found that teens with diagnosable depression or other mood disorders ‘reported large to very large, statistically significant improvements’ after 10 weeks of wilderness training. Another study showed that just seeing pictures of wilderness was enough to trigger increases in activity in the mu (opioid) receptors in our brain’s visual cortex – meaning that seeing these images was a highly pleasurable experience.
Hine has experienced it firsthand: ‘It’s amazing how people open up in a wilderness context – especially if I’m with a small group. You’re sitting around the fire in the evenings and people just start talking about their personal lives – things that you wouldn’t normally tell strangers, or tell anyone. I don’t know exactly how to describe it… people just unfurl.’
Back to the desert, where Joshua trees and cacti dot the arid lunar-like landscape, which undulates with heat in the summer, when temperatures can regularly reach 38˚C. (Last year, the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was logged during an August heatwave, when the Death Valley – part of the Mojave Desert – hit 54˚C.)
‘But it’s tougher in the winters because of the cold,’ says Theobald. ‘We’d have blizzards – I remember looking up one day and seeing these huge black clouds rolling in. And it was kind of terrifying because you don’t get clouds like that in Europe. The skies just don’t seem as big.’ Though the bad weather never lasts long in her part of the desert – ‘just a few days at a time’ – it is enough to kill a person, if they’re not careful.
‘I’d be trying to make food but my camp stove would go out because of the blizzard; I ended up just huddling down under seven layers of clothes and sleeping bags, waiting for it to pass.’
During the winters she sleeps more because it gets darker earlier. ‘Asleep by 8pm and up at 7am,’ she says. And in the summer, when the animals return to the desert, she sleeps relatively little. ‘I’m often woken by owls or ravens; I had a gopher living in the cave at one point – it’s like a mad mole with super-powered teeth. I keep all my food in plastic boxes but it managed to chew through those.’
Despite the challenges, there are moments of spectacular beauty, which confer a profound sense of perspective.
‘The mice and the spiders are still scary but there are ample rewards – the incredible light, the coyote sightings and going back to basics. Having just a couple of T-shirts and pairs of shorts, eating simply… learning how to build things, tend land and prune trees. I guess this is the life I’d wanted to live when I was a kid.’ And every so often, she continues, she’ll ‘climb up onto a rock and look out onto a landscape completely devoid of human life and it is such a beautiful and meditative experience’.
Natasha Lythgoe is a coach and the founder of The Art of ReWilding. For the past seven years she has run immersive wilding courses (a type of ecotherapy), which help people to refocus if they’re feeling overwhelmed, or to navigate big life transitions by spending intensive periods in nature (for some of the more advanced courses, participants spend four days in the wilds of southern Crete with nothing but a bottle of water and a tarpaulin – as she explains: ‘It’s not about sun salutations and eating sourdough bread. People come for meaningful personal transformation in nature. To spend time away from the distractions of daily life and to find ways to navigate the complexity of these present times.’
Having worked in this field for almost as long as the concept of ‘rewilding’ has been in the wider public consciousness, she can attest to the fact that more people than ever seem to be yearning for wilderness. ‘I’ve never been busier than during the pandemic,’ says Lythgoe.
She points out that successive lockdowns have prompted a renewed appreciation of the natural world.
‘Those that could get into nature found that it really helped them; you’d often hear people saying ‘it saved my mental health’. So now I think there’s more respect for it. People are genuinely interested in the science behind how it affects us.’
Like Pang, she found her way to rewilding after achieving a long-held dream that left her feeling, somehow, empty. For years she worked as a photographer. But when she finally got a solo show in Paris – ‘the epitome of everything I’d been longing for’ – she found herself sipping wine on the pavement outside her exhibition launch and feeling ‘numbed by the experience. And I thought, That’s a bit confusing, because I’ve been working towards this for a long time. But I just had this real longing to be outside. So I pretty much gave up working in photography at that point.’
In the following years she decamped, first to Sussex, then to a forest in western Germany for two years to live completely off-grid.
‘It sounds more romantic than it actually was,’ she laughs. ‘The winters could get as cold as -17˚C, and we had no central heating. It was a brutal experience but it taught me a lot. You’re so close to the reality of nature; to the life and death cycles. It can feel harsh – to watch things die. In Crete, where I live now, I watched the geese give birth to goslings, which were subsequently eaten by ravens. Every day there are lessons on the nature of impermanence and interconnectedness, which is also our nature.’
Pang, too, is centring herself in a ‘continuum’, living as much as possible off the land or foraging. Over the next year, in Wales, alongside nurturing @morning.fyi – the creative agency she recently launched – she and her husband will be working on a project aimed at providing opportunities for people to rewild both the land and themselves, from connecting with their creative roots to fostering a more reciprocal relationship with the natural world: ‘Our goal is to reset and create a new model for living.’
‘What’s funny,’ says Theobald towards the end of our hour-long conversation, ‘is that people keep coming here from LA and they’ll stay for a night or two. During the pandemic it suddenly became very cool to take time out in the desert.’
Every few weeks she’d find herself deep in conversation with a burnt-out tech executive or some cannabis billionaire looking to decompress.
‘And I was like this celebrity to them, because I’d done the thing, I’d left society, I’d taken the plunge… everyone seems to want out of the gilded cage [of privileged modern life], but I’m not sure they understand exactly why they want it.’
Most of us feel a sense of disquiet and yearning from time to time and yet would find it difficult to articulate what, exactly, is missing. The sense of peace and oneness that people report experiencing after a stint in the wild could come down to any number of factors. Perhaps it’s the absence of the artifices that are doing us harm or the ability to put our problems into the context of a vast universe. Perhaps it’s the feeling of being part of an unfolding, unending cycle – of belonging to one landscape and being an integral part of the life, death and rebirth of that landscape. Most likely it is all of these things.
What seems unimpeachably true, though, is that as both our longing for nature and the threats to its existence reach a crescendo, the idea of the natural as something separate to us is slowly ending. As Sir David Attenborough said in September 2020, when speaking about the perilous future facing our wildernesses and, by extension, ourselves: ‘The only way out is to rewild the world…’
This article appears in the 2021 October issue of ELLE UK.
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