Lifestyle Journalist

M. Astella Saw writes about travel, food, retail, design and trends in the lifestyle sectors. Contact me at m.astella.saw (at)

Into the Wild

In the face of iPhones, mobile apps, augmented reality and 3D TV, a growing number of people are giving new meaning to the notion of getting away from it all. Proponents of a trend we’re calling Into the Wild, they embrace elements of primitive lifestyles as they aim to disconnect from the comforts and trappings of modern consumerist society, and enter a realm where the wild things are.

The penny-pinching pressures of the recent recession gave the do-it-yourself, make-it-yourself and grow-it-yourself movements new life. While general discretionary spending decreased, expenditure on gardening products, for instance, rose 10% to £4bn in 2009, according to retail research firm Verdict. At DIY chain B&Q, 78% of all seed packets sold today are for plants – a complete reversal of the situation a decade ago, when some 70% of all the seeds sold at the store were for flowers.

First principles

For some people, however, even the great green life in gardens and urban allotments, with their private beehives, city-centre chicken coops and backyard pigsties, is one step too close to civilisation as we know it. Into the Wild living takes a leap into the feral, fantastical world of untamed nature, and all the allegories that come with it.

‘It has more to do with a deep-seated desire to escape the rat race, to step back from the pressures that technology and consumerism impose, to get back to first principles,’ says Richard Cannon, the blogger behind the pioneering website, The Downshifter. ‘We’re searching for an identity that isn’t just about spending more and more of the cash we have to work harder and harder to get.’

Fuelled by a desire for self-reliance and a super-sustainable lifestyle, these consumers are heading off the radar to reconnect with nature and the basic state of humanity.

Scientist and environmental activist Erin McKittrick and her husband recently embarked on a year-long, physically challenging expedition, trekking from Seattle through British Columbia, and on to the Aleutian Islands off the very western tip of Alaska. Her book, A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski, is an adventure diary documenting the journey. ‘We first had to escape civilisation,’ McKittrick writes, as she recounts the ‘web of human rules and restrictions that we’d been alternately weaving our way around or running headlong into’. Trip successfully completed, McKittrick now lives with her husband and infant son in Seldovia, Alaska, a 300-person village just beyond the reach of the road system. Home is a 452-square-foot yurt without running water or a toilet.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, the New York Times reported on a number of people who choose to live without heat. Among the many characters profiled for the piece was Winifred Gallagher, a Manhattan writer who makes regular wintertime trips to a century-old former schoolhouse in upstate New York, where the sole source of heat is a wood-burning stove. ‘The main reason why I do these winter trips is that when your house is 15 degrees, the only problem you have is getting warm,’ Gallagher said. ‘Focusing on survival is right up there with a Zen retreat when it comes to clearing the mind.’

Gallagher’s comment is particularly pertinent in an era of stuffocation and information overload, as consumers increasingly take a Leanomic approach to filtering the daily onslaught of media and empty messages. It’s an approach that led the Adbusters Media Foundation to launch its annual Digital Detox Week, during which participants are encouraged to cut back on ‘digital stimulation’ and ‘reconnect with reality’.

Wild as folk

In their search for the primitive, the unrefined and the strongly tangible, enthusiasts of Into the Wild living express their desire to opt out of a failing system, where banks, government and the global energy supply are increasingly on shaky ground.

‘This might well be to do with a need to feel a part of something in a time of crisis – a part of a real community,’ says British set designer and art director Simon Costin, who is in the process of setting up the Museum of British Folklore to celebrate the strong sense of community and raw human element that folk culture calls upon. The institution, Costin hopes, will draw greater attention to folk culture as a rich and vital component of the country’s social and cultural identity. The museum will eventually be home to a collection of artefacts, ephemera, costumes and images that document not only the history but the living tradition of Britain’s annual and seasonal customs in all their archaic glory. More than 700 annual customs are still in practice across the country, according to Costin.

Alongside a revival of folk customs, we note a renewed interest in rural crafts such as milling and willow weaving, which have evolved from servicing agriculture and the rural community to fulfilling the lifestyle needs of green consumers and a new generation of country dwellers, according to Crafts in the English Countryside, a report by agricultural historian E.J.T. Collins for the Countryside Agency.

In the 10 years to 2008, participation in craft courses at the undergraduate level in the UK increased a stunning 785%, from 144 to 1275 students, according to the most recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Authority. Outside academic institutions, the great number of independent organisations that run craft classes around the country mean precise statistics are hard to come by, says Jill Read, press officer at the UK Crafts Council. However, she notes, anecdotal evidence does suggest that there has been a resurgence in interest, and the popularity of the BBC2 series Victorian Farm and Mastercrafts seems to confirm this.

Elsewhere, traditional cookery skills are coming to the fore as well. Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking, published in December 2009, reconnects readers with the cooking skills of previous generations, with tips and instructions for smoking mackerel, curing bacon, making butter and eating food from the wild.

Nature and nowness

Crafts’ strong connection with the natural environment has not gone unnoticed. ‘As we’ve become conscious of the interlocking nature of the world that we live in, and we realise that species are disappearing, that environments are getting damaged, so we realise the vulnerability of our own human cultural heritage and of the intangible cultural assets that we carry as communities,’ said Professor Ewan Clayton, visiting professor in art, design, media and culture at the University of Sunderland, at a Heritage Crafts Association forum at London’s V&A Museum in March.

Furthermore, in today’s pixellated, continually upgrading digital and virtual world – one in which internet addiction has been identified as a public health problem by the South Korean and Chinese governments – traditional crafts offer comfort, respite and a chance to savour ‘nowness’.

‘Researchers are looking to people like craftspeople to balance this state of affairs,’ Prof. Clayton said. ‘Because if we are about anything, what we are about is embodied engagement with material things, the cultivation of focused attention, the ability to be present now, in this place, at this time, responding to these conditions coming through to us in all our senses.’

Rugged earth, raw nature

Rough and betwigged is the visual landscape of Into the Wild, where textured, primitive structures evoke a sense of rural community, and nature basks in raw glory. As we explore in our design trend Primitivism, a simple earthiness stands as a bold counterpoint to the digital world, and visitors seeking to reset and reflect find ample space to do so.

Three hours out of Stockholm and Malmö, the UrNatur wood hermitage in Sweden’s Holaved forest brings together a simple collection of hand-crafted shelters for guests looking to retreat into ancient nature. The main cabin is a timber-framed house based on the design of a small 17th-century cabin, while a charcoaler’s hut with a moss roof blends seamlessly into the green forest. Small peat-roofed cots are inspired by traditional timber cabins of the Sami people. A one-person treehouse with uninsulated plank walls and a tar-paper roof sways with the wind.

French architect Édouard François, a major figure in green building, has long explored interventions between architecture and landscape in his work. His rural gîtes in Jupilles, in the Loire region of France, seem to disappear into the surrounding landscape, barely marking the transition from habitation to vegetation. More recently, his proposed designs for a Club Med resort in Senegal are ethereal creations of woven straw and wood – marvellous bird’s nests for human settlers.

In the UK last month, Alastair Sawday, founder of the Special Places to Stay series of guide books, launched Canopy & Stars, a curated catalogue of luxury outdoor holidays in treehouses, yurts, caravans and shepherd’s tents.

‘There’s a big drive towards people wanting holidays where they can escape and get back to nature,’ says Tom Dixon, managing director of Canopy & Stars. ‘It’s something we all yearn back to – people get quite excited about it.’

The Canopy & Stars collection includes a thatched-roof granite roundhouse on Bodrifty Farm in Cornwall; a mountainside yurt in the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland; and a safari tent sitting on six acres of woodland in Devon. Each property is run by a dedicated local host, who might prepare a breakfast hamper or organise a course on foraging in the wild. Several of the locations are already booked through spring and summer.

‘People really search for that, especially if they’re living in a city, where life is hectic and crowded,’ Dixon says. ‘The opportunity to escape is something people really treasure. Even the way you get there – whether it’s by horse or car or hot air balloon – it’s all part of the journey.’

Shared humanity

From its back-to-the-land motivations and its search for wellbeing to its real eco-movement aesthetic, Into the Wild is a yearning for the sensorial – for the visceral experience. Subscribers to this lifestyle search that which is simultaneously brutal and poetic, raw and calming, immediate and rooted in the primeval.

Austere vestiges of an early-era wonderland, Into the Wild calls to the very origins of our humanity.

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19 April 2010