This is something I find I hear a lot:
“Wow – you own a wood! Are you going to build a cabin?’
I own a wood. It is great. It is sunny, rainy or cloudy in the daytime, dark in the nighttime if there aren’t any moonbeams, cold in the winter. There are no walls; you can see and hear everything. There are stars and mushrooms and owls and rotting sticks, and I can sleep on the ground by the fire or in a hammock perhaps.
I own a house. It is great. The temperature is stable at 18-19 degrees, nothing can get in once it’s locked up and there are no animals crapping everywhere. Big bed. Nice and snug.
I feel no urge to build a cabin in my wood because then it would be like my house, and not much like a wood any more.
What’s with this urge to create cosy little wombs to crawl back into everywhere we go?
I’m sure there’s a dose of back-to-basics fairytale sentimentality in this cabin thing, but I think there’s much more. I think it points towards an issue of overdomestication, an unhealthy imbalance towards Comfort and away from Risk.
I quite like the idea of Risk and Comfort as healthy poles to integrate for a wholesome life. The words aren’t loaded with gender, which helps. I could try suggesting that we have an over-feminine imbalance, but I imagine that could invite a reply like “But hang on, we live in a frikkin’ patriarchy”. Both contain some truth probably, but it’s all very confusing and usually develops into some kind of unhelpful argument.
Nevertheless, there seems to be a lot of people at the moment asking what ‘masculine’ means and where a useful definition of masculinity has disappeared to. And although I do not like to conflate symbolic masculinity with literal maleness, this loss does appear to be impacting men pretty hard.
It strikes me that masculinity is being eliminated every time risk is eliminated. Masculinity is discovered at the edge of safety, not at home; a hard, sharp tool that can cut away obstacles, and that you might cut yourself with. If a protective barrier is built around the village, then masculinity will be left beyond the pale – blunted, shivering and alone in the forest.
The Risk end of the scale really does seem to have been compromised. I was on the phone to an insurance company recently, talking about Wolf Pack activities where the aim is to facilitate the experience of risk for young men, including an overnight trip up the wild unspoilt Dart Valley. I realised how far apart we were when they pressed me on where the flushing toilet facilities would be. Meanwhile OFSTED and other institutions seem to have turned safety into the very pinnacle of human values, with danger now a terrible sin – a natural polarity worryingly rotated into a moralised hierarchy.
There is nothing wrong with safety. Sensible measures are important, in busy places like schools or wild places like woodland. But if it is taken too far, and the doctrine is preached over-zealously, seeking to eliminate risk rather than complement it, then human beings will begin to wail in distress, and not even realise why.
Risky does not mean unsafe. Risky means the possibility of struggle, challenge, danger; it means I am at the cutting edge – the learning edge. Unsafe means that danger is, or feels, clear and present, and I am facing panic; it does not serve me. And comfort means I am warm and fluffy and not motivated to learn a thing. So comfort should not be mistaken for safety – to do that is dangerous! ‘Masculine’ energy (symbolic, not male) exists to allow a person to dance with risk, and come out the other side in one piece, taller and more graceful. It is a skill to be learned. But it must be courted – sought out and sung to in the hazardous places; it will not come knocking on the door with a nosegay of tulips.
A big mistake is to treat Risk and Comfort, masculine and feminine, the forest and the village, as mutually exclusive.
A young man of 12 years with me last year on that Dart Valley expedition thought it would be an “impossible task”. On the second morning, after a big day of hiking and a comfortable night in a hammock by the river, and with a tricky 3 hour walk ahead until breakfast, he was tired, hungry, had a stomach ache and his backpack felt heavy.
An hour into the walk he managed to tumble 5 metres down a steep riverbank (he missed the river fortunately). He sat with my arm around his shoulders while the shock abated and he recovered his composure, and meanwhile his buddies divided up his kit so he didn’t need to carry anything. With dignity and humour he fought the last two hours to the base camp fire, brekkie and a snooze. There’s masculine and feminine popping out everywhere there, comfort and risk in wonderful interplay. He smashed his edges and needed to find new ones, and he wants to lead his family on the same route so that he can ‘share the beauty’ of the journey.
Domesticating our wild-hearted young men and women will leave them fragile and vulnerable. There is good work being done in service of the feminine, but let’s not make the mistake of converting the woods into wombs.
– – – – –
In 2019 you’ll find me running two adventurous programmes for teenagers, one out of Sussex and one out of Devon. Bookings are open. They are both called Wolf Pack and they share common threads. Click the links for further details:
1. Wolf Pack in Sussex has been set up by me for 2019
2. Wolf Pack in Devon has been put on by Wildwise for a number of years and led by me since 2016, and will also run in 2019