How do you make peace with living in civilization?

I live in Scotland, but I grew up in New England surrounded by forests. Looking at the bare hills here and endless fields, and being aware of the lost wildlife long ago such as wolves and moose, and forests, makes me feel so sad.

This has become home and I don’t think we’ll be moving soon, but I can’t seem to get over this sadness in the back of my mind.

How do you make peace with living in such a human altered world? After growing up surrounded by so much wilderness, I feel like I live in a graveyard now.

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Hi Karen. Your message speaks to me strongly and your words convey strong feelings of grief. Sorry to hear how you hurt inside. How to make peace with these feelings? A big question. Let me ask you a few smaller ones…

Can you describe more specifically what factors bring up these feelings? I see so many possible aspects, like “missing certain species around you”, “the (perceived) cause of these changes”, “homesickness for New England”, and many more. From your words it sounds as if the human factor brings up the strongest feelings for you; here too, feel out who you feel played a part in this most. Have you tried looking at the world from their perspective? Can you sense why they lived that way? Any of your ancestors among them?

Also, what do you do when these feelings come up? Do you swallow them and continue with whatever you were doing, or perhaps say a little prayer and touch the earth?

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I am reminded of a post many years ago on this forum that talked about how, even in tribal contexts, community was important for survival, and that no logical human would leave their community, even if their community destroyed their landbase. I meet with members of Native people in my area, despite living in Civilization, who feel that way. As destructive as civilization might be, people have their communities within it, and depend on them there.

My entire community worships civilization, yet I depend on them for my survival. I can’t even speak about rewilding because they oppose it so much, and have never even brought it up, knowing that it would threaten my survival in many communities I am a part of. I have had to make peace with the fact that I cannot leave civilization, since humans need communities to survive, and that although my family and community has decided as a whole that they will not leave civilization or rewild, at the same time, these are the people that are important to me in my life, and I rely on to survive.

One comforting song in our era that can also be shared is the Billy Joel classic, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I love that song since it describes so many bad things that have happened in our world, yet shows that individuals themselves are not responsible for what’s going on. Yet as community-dependent individuals, communities must form to rewild and cause change, and if communities refuse to do so (just as society has refused to do even the most basic things to help the Earth), then individuals are helpless to do much. But then, the individual can make peace knowing that he or she tried his best.

As Billy Joel sings in “We Didn’t Start The Fire”:

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it

Hi Karen, you might get something from this piece by Guy Hand: ‘The Forest of Forgetting’ (pdf). He grew up in Idaho and married a scots lady who, it turned out, had ‘a secret dread of wooded land’ as a result of growing up in the deforested scottish highlands, a place he initially thought of as ‘the saddest place on earth’. I won’t spoil it for you by copying out his conclusion but here’s a relevant section:

On the Hebridian island of Barra, west of the mainland, Mairi once led me through a mile of heather to a comfortably rounded block of stone she often sat on as a child. Gone from the island some fifteen years, she negotiated that sea of sameness without hesitation. She bore down on her rock with the steadfast assurance of a ship to home port, and once reunited, traced a patch of yellow and green lichen that clung to her rock’s surface and told me how she had sat in that spot, immersed in solitude and forever views for whole afternoons. Mairi’s eyes grew moist, and again they reminded me of how deeply the Scottish landscape had imprinted itself on her. Nine years away from Scotland, she still clings to the memory of that land as tightly as lichen.

Yet if there is such a thing as an ancestral memory of aboriginal land, Mairi’s had been lost, cut away with the trees. At first I saw her reaction to Idaho forest as a surprising, yet simple response to unfamiliar ground. Now I’ve come to see it as a kind of cultural forgetting, a way she and her clan severed themselves from a too-painful past–as a wolf chews through its own leg to escape a trap–a way of making the present bearable, a way of devaluing loss and finding solace in what is left. In my Idaho forest she may have needed to see menace, to see claws and talons in the guise of pine boughs, to pad the reality of the land she loves. I’ve since found many Scots with the same unsettled attitude toward trees.

Good luck! I can say that even growing up in the comparatively wooded SE of England I still get the gnawing grief of knowing that the land has been brutalised and that things are not as they should be. However I’m thankful for what persists, and the trees & associated wildlife generally seem pretty happy about things too, even with missing keystone species and heavy-handed management. You gotta work with what you got, I suppose. Sounds like things might be improving in Scotland at last, though. Getting involved with groups like Trees For Life or associated rewilding/restoration projects might help your mental/spiritual health while you’re there:

best wishes,

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I suppose part of the root of the problem is that I used to use the forest as a place to rejuvenate and feel whole again. Without that escape it feels a bit claustrophobic.

I understand that people changed their surroundings for practical reasons in the past; farming etc. but it doesn’t feel right to me that they took it all without exception. Land is not for humans only. Other wildlife has a right too. Why does every inch of ground have to be manicured to people’s wishes? I guess back in New England I felt like to some degree people lived along side nature, whereas here they live instead of it.

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Yes James, I totally understand what you’re talking about. Part of me would love to go back to proper tribal days, but something like that is impossible considering my tribe, my loved ones, are immersed in civilization.

It’s a hard middle ground to sit on when so few get what was lost.

Thank you Ian. That’s an interesting passage. And I’ll have to check out those links.

I think I need to find somewhere properly forested and go camping. Maybe that would help me feel less distanced from it all. The question is, how far do I need to go to get there?

I almost wish I didn’t know what was lost so I could live in ignorance like the people who grew up here.

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Thanks for your comment. I’m back on the road, so I’m off to work. I’ll probably reply again sometime next week after my next commitment. I spend my time on the road working, then I get a few days off after working intensively for 2-5 days at once (sometimes a week). When I get those days off, I write here. This time, my work shall continue until at least Sunday.

No problem :slight_smile: Really recommend the ‘Forest of Forgetting’ piece if you’ve got a bit of spare time.

Might be quite a distance unfortunately, depending on where you are. I’ve heard good things about Glen Affric near Loch Ness. Otherwise maybe check out one of the 35 pockets of ancient pinewoods that still remain:

I know what you mean, however I think on balance I feel better knowing about this stuff. People still get negatively affected by deforestation even if they remain ignorant about it intellectually. At least if you know where your grief is coming from you know where to put your energies to try and remedy the situation. Better than feeling awful all the time and not knowing why!


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Wow, Glen Affric looks beautiful. And it’s nice hearing about the Caledonian Forest. Thanks again for the info!