I've always had a feeling, like many I'm sure, that by changing my extrinsic world I will somehow manage to have a more peaceful intrinsic world. There must be a reason why 'harmonious' people spend their time in zen gardens as opposed to molly fueled raves. I've come to think that it's not necessarily that harmonious people are naturally drawn to the peaceful life – it's that the peaceful life makes them harmonious. Basically, I think that the environment we spend our time in stains us whether we like it or not. It will smudge you with whatever essence it carries.
Sub-continuously I think I've always held the bustling cities and the modern fast-paced environments around us responsible for the existential worries and general anxiety we so often tend to feel. There's just too many things going on at the same time. There's a plethora of stimuli to try and absorb every single day. It's overbearing and at times unmanageable. So imagine living a life where you're free from all that. A life 'off the grid', where you live off the land itself, with little or no interaction with modern society. What would that do to a person? Would you become a joyful, harmonious version of Mowgli or would you go completely out of your mind from chewing tree bark all day? I wanted to find out.
I figured that the only one who could answer my questions about the possibility of nature being a natural Prozac should be someone who has actually lived in the wild for a prolonged period of time.
I reached out to an old friend of mine, Niklas Taliaferro who has spent long periods of his life alone in the wilderness. Even though he's only 27 years old, Niklas has an impressive resumé of living in the wild, hanging out in the deep forests of Wisconsin, the Savannas in Kenya and the birch-clad woods of Sweden. I wanted to know if the woods can cure us from our existential worries and if it's easier to "find yourself" if you're wearing a loincloth and eat branchlets all day.
VICE: Hi Niklas! So, you've lived in the wilderness for long periods of time. Did you find yourself?
Niklas: Yes, as I get closer to the natural world, I get closer to myself. But then it's not about "finding" oneself, because I'm already 100% me. Finding oneself is ultimately about leaving oneself. Leaving your own thoughts about what you think you are, and immersing yourself with the natural world. When I live and eat directly from nature, it gets clearer to me that I am a part of it.
So...I wont 'become myself' as much as 'becoming nature'? I'm confused. I just want to know if I'll still be anxious if I'm surrounded by pure leafy realness.
Spending time in the wilderness won't take your negative thoughts, worries, anxiety or problems away. What it will give you though is space to experience them. The troubling part is not the worries or anxiety in itself, it's the lack of contact we have with our emotions. Behind depression there is sadness, and it is the lack of contact with the sadness that is causing a chronic state of it, which is depression. If we're immersed in a safe and sound environment, we get a chance to process and experience all that is inside us to the fullest, and that's what we're really longing for. The point is not to get rid of destructive feelings, but to stop suppressing them and begin to experience them for what they are, and what they are showing us.
Do you have less time to feel anxious when you're busy hunting and gathering and just, you know, surviving?
The wilderness does not give you the same amount of options in your daily life as "normal" society gives you. My experience is that an excessive amount of options creates confusion and an ungrounded feeling. When I've lived in the forest with other people, I've done what I've needed to do for us as a group to stay warm, dry and comfortable. There's a simplicity to it that I enjoy. Life is not so complicated as we make it. In the end it's about taking care of each other and having a good time. So yes, engaging in activities that feel meaningful and that connect me with my surroundings, such as gathering food, firewood and water, it all has a great impact on my wellbeing.
If a person is prone to really bad anxiety, can a prolonged period in the wilderness cause more harm than good? As in, can you go completely off the rails-batshit-crazy being isolated and all?
Well it depends who you are but if you're a person that needs a lot of support on a daily basis, then it's probably best to be in situations where you feel that you get the support you need. Being in nature makes everyone feel good, but for some people, a simple stroll in the woods everyday might be enough. Many of us are scared to face reality, as it is. What is life without my iPhone, my chocolate and constant distraction from life? It might hurt at first to leave some comforts behind. But beyond your comfort zones lies the freedom and joy, waiting for you.
How can the woods help someone with their personal problems?
I read about some research that shows how our brain cells mirror our environment. In other words: we are literary becoming what we surround ourselves with. So immersing yourself into nature, with a warm group of people is great therapy. Right now I work as a wilderness guide in Sweden where I bring groups of people and nature together. I'm also building up more programs that aim to combine wilderness and therapy for troubled youth. I believe that our disconnection with nature is part of the disconnection we feel with ourselves.
I don't think animals feel anxiety like we do, they don't live in their heads, they live in their bodies
Did you suffer from any anxiety before you started spending most of your time in the wildlife?
Yeah, I did. As a young teenager I used to to experience a lot of anxiety, stress and sometimes I just didn't feel like being alive at all. After experiencing that as a young person, I began my search for another way of living. After having journeyed a lot both inside and outside of myself, I have come to a much greater understanding of what all these worries are about. I see it as a collective anxiety that we as a culture carry, and that's passed down from generations. Living the simple life has helped me in so many ways.
You spend a lot of time watching animals in the wild. Do you think animals can feel anxiety like humans do – as in just feel shitty about nothing?
Animals are like children, and a great source of inspiration. If an animal feels something, it feels that feeling to the fullest; no matter if it is fear or joy, they experience it to the max. The same thing goes with children. And when that feeling has served it purpose, it is gone. As adults, we experience feelings that aren't allowed to be expressed in our society. But all feelings inside of you are there for a purpose. But when we're not allowing ourselves to feel or express something, we end up in a chronic state of that feeling; fear, sadness, longing, anxiety or whatever it might be takes over. So no, I don't think animals feel anxiety like we do, they don't live in their heads, they live in their bodies and their surroundings, and if there are no apparent reasons to feel fear, they are experiencing the joy that is the natural state for all of us to be in.