My son gave me a book for Christmas, The Comfort Crisis – Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self, by Michael Easter, published in 2021. This is essentially a hunting story. The author, a complete novice, embarks on a 33 day, caribou hunt in Alaska’s Arctic with two very experienced backcountry hunters and filmmakers without whom he would probably not have survived.
But it is much more than just another hunting story, albeit a detailed and fascinating one far removed from those 1 200 word, “I came, I saw, I killed, look at me” accounts that are infrequently interspersed among the adverts in many hunting magazines today – and then they wonder why their circulation is in a terminal nose dive. The story is interwoven with fascinating insights into subjects like the psychological effects of wilderness on anxiety and depression, boredom, creativity and death to mention but a few of the substantial topics explored in depth during the course of this uber strenuous but, ultimately, successful hunt.
I started in on Part One entitled, “Rule 1: Make it really hard. Rule 2: Don’t die”. About a third of the way through the part I read:
“These diseases of despair caused the US life expectancy to fall in 2016, 2017 and 2018. There hasn’t been a life span drop like this since the period from 1915 to 1918, when World War 1 and the Spanish Flu epidemic united in a symphony of death.
So, yes, we don’t have to deal with discomfort like working for our food, moving hard and heavy each day, feeling deep hunger and being exposed to the elements. But we do have to deal with the side effects of our comfort: long term physical and mental health problems.
We lack physical struggles, like having to work hard for our livelihoods. We have too many ways to numb out, like comfort food, cigarettes, alcohol, pills, smartphones, and TV. We’re detached from the things that make us happy and alive, like connection, being in the natural world, effort, and perseverance.”
It was the last sentence that made me sit up in my comfortable work chair and start paying more than a little attention. I remembered those bad times at work when it would feel as if my head was about to burst. It overflowed with new facts, problems to solve, worries that I could not, would not be able to do anything about. I would feel this overpowering need to escape, to get away and, when things really became too much, would drive down alone to our family game ranch on the eastern edge of the Great Karoo, a sparsely inhabited, semi-arid, rural plateau region in the middle of South Africa. The ranch comprised nearly 8 000 acres of plains, riverine, hills and mountains. The nearest town was 65 kilometres away, the first 12 of which comprised a dirt track.
And in case you are wondering, I would go with my wonderful wife’s blessing. She would even buy the groceries for the trip and hand me the menus for my meals.
I would usually leave in the early hours of a Friday morning, arrive at the ranch some six hours later and spend the next two and a half days wandering through the mountains and hills on my own with only a rifle over my shoulder and a rucksack on my back for company, although I can’t remember ever shooting anything on one of these trips. I would return in the dark, dog tired, shower, change, barely manage to eat the food I had and fall into bed and a deep, dreamless sleep before the alarm woke me well before dawn for an action replay. I would drive home on Monday morning reinvigorated and refreshed, feeling as if I had been away for much longer than the weekend, with my mind clear and subconscious having sorted out a number of the problems.
None of this was making it as hard as Michael Easter, the author of the book, advocated and there was little risk of dying even though, I confess, I did not stick strictly to the speed limits on the way there or back. Easter goes on to say that, “…trying hard shit is purifying and life enhancing.” But surprisingly, although my weekend escapes might not have qualified, they still had some of the benefits he claimed. I also noticed the differences when I returned from longer hunting trips, especially those to remote African regions where the physical challenges were tougher, if only because they extended for far longer than the trips to our ranch and there was also the odd encounter with big game, some of which could have ended badly. My initial feelings on my return were usually ones of surprise at all the noise, hustle and bustle, which disturbed the peace within me.
Many of the new African regions I visited required learning new skills. For example, learning basic French in the West African countries of Chad, Cameroon and CAR, rock climbing in the Ennedi Mountains in the Sahara Desert, long distance shooting in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia, developing stamina for the longer and longer trips I began to make, studying the game I was after. I can go on and on and, inadvertently, I learned from this book that, “Learning new skills is also one of the best ways to enhance awareness of the present moment, with no burning incense, Buddhist mantras, or meditation apps involved.” And later, that “… stepping outside your comfort zone to learn new skills that require both mind and body alters your brain’s wiring on a deep level. This can increase your productivity and resilience against some diseases. Learning improves myelination, a process that essentially gives your nervous system a V-8 engine, creating stronger more effective nerve signals throughout your brain and body. Brains with more myelin are linked to improvements across the board.” All this I obtained for free from hunting, without my knowing it and I was only a quarter of the way through this fascinating book!
On page 87 I read this, “The notion that cities depress us is backed up by numbers. People who live in cities are 21% more likely to suffer from anxiety and 39% more likely to suffer from depression than people who live in rural areas.” It made me wonder if this was because urban people hunted far less than rural ones.
Much later, Easter went on to quote the famous American conservationist, mountaineer and outdoorsman, John Muir, who in 1901, wrote, “Nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
Or, as the famous biologist, E.O. Wilson wrote, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”
Five years ago I published the book, Creativity Explained by the gifted, super smart academic, David Priilaid, after working with him on it over a period of some six years. On the front book flap, he wrote, “Creativity and imagination are key catalysts to unlocking potential in the 21st century. While those in business and civil society are generally aware of the challenges of the modern age, few seem able to apply the creativity necessary to meet them.”
Imagine then how surprised I was to read about the Torrance Test for Creative Thinking, the “gold standard” for gauging creativity, at page 105 of Part Two of The Comfort Crisis entitled, “Rediscover boredom. Ideally outside. For minutes, hours and days”. And further on to read about a creativity crisis in America blamed by scientists on “our hurried, overscheduled lives” and “ever increasing amounts of [time] interacting with electronic entertainment devices”.
Easter then quoted Steve Jobs saying, “I’m a big believer in boredom …. All the (technology) stuff is wonderful but having nothing to do can be wonderful too.” And this is some of what we believed when producing Creativity Explained. That, yes, there were the momentous, eureka moments but there were far more minor creative moments that, if we were listening, open to them and had the skills to put them into practice, would have creative significance. Too often, however, we were too busy to notice, the phone rang, the car behind hooted, we rolled over, went back to sleep and the moment was gone never to return. Whereas if we were quiet, still, bored even when the creative thought popped into our imagination, we would have been able to hear it, grab it and respond positively to it.
And this, after all, is what hunting so often allowed. A time to be quiet, alone with your thoughts as you followed behind the trackers, your mind focused on anything but work and the usual mundane matters that cluttered your brain. Hunting reminded me at times of the army – long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror, or maybe not terror in the case of hunting but certainly major excitement.
The last quarter of the book, began with Part Four and was headed, “Think about your death every day”. Quite a sobering title but, by now, I was well engaged with the book and started into it as Easter explored the death of us human beings and, quite naturally, the death of the caribou he had just killed.
Much of what followed is well known to hunters but, nevertheless, interesting to read, even though possibly written by Easter more as a justification for his first killing than to educate those of who have hunted more than once. For example, he quoted Charles List, a professor of philosophy at the University of New York, saying, “Our ancestors hunted because they absolutely had to: Modern hunting is a reenactment of that, but man evolved in a climate and culture of hunting and gathering. Because of this, hunting can change and move us in ways we wouldn’t expect.”
He referred to a conversation with his hunting companion, Donnie, who explained that caribou bulls, like the one he killed, died from a variety of causes such as predators, starvation, drowning, freezing and, finally, as a result of competition with other bulls.
He included a quote by Theodore Roosevelt, who put it this way, “Death by violence, death by cold, death by starvation – these are the normal endings of the stately and beautiful creatures of the wilderness. The sentimentalists who prattle about the peaceful life of nature do not realize its utter mercilessness; … life is hard and cruel for all the lower creatures, and for man also in what the sentimentalists call a ‘state of nature.’ The state humans lived in for all but the most recent fragment of time.”
Easter went on to add, “Disney movies have led people to believe that nature is this harmonious place. It’s not. Nature can be brutal. Philosophers call this flawed-but-common thinking the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy. It’s the belief or argument that anything ‘natural’ is good, harmonious and morally correct”. Quite simply, it isn’t.
On his return home, he wrote:
“I surely felt different since my return…Most obviously, I felt more aware. At a skin-deep level, this showed itself as a newfound appreciation for the incredible comforts of the modern world…But on a deeper level I felt awareness of time, how little of it we have, and what that can tell us about how we should use it…The difficulty and new challenges in Alaska left me with a massive file of new memories to relive and stories to tell. I’d experienced firsthand the phenomenon first theorized by William James and proven by recent studies, which shows that new events decelerate our perception of time…I found myself applying those two lessons to my everyday life. I was thinking less and noticing more. I sought more connection, silence, and solitude both at home and in nature…I spent less time in front of screens and was more of an active listener…I could see that many of my modern “problems” weren’t real problems and so was harder to rattle. Chasing that which makes humans harder to kill was, it seemed, making it easier for me to live… it was a rare break from the predictable. A moment for reflection, re-prioritization, and maybe change.
Easter’s reflections spoke to me and the abiding memories I have of returning from a long hunt to a remote area, was how everyone seemed in such a rush to go somewhere, to be somewhere and how, because this was so important, it entitled them to disregard the rules of the road, be rude, hoot, elbow in. And I was reminded of how seldom urgent things were important and how really important things, like hunting, were hardly ever urgent.
The Comfort Crisis was a revelation. An important book. A wonderfully thought provoking book and one that I cannot recommend strongly enough. It is the best book involving hunting that I have read in many a year.