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Freedom, Possessions, and Materialism, As Perceived By A Modern Urban Hunter-Gatherer

I’m proud to have a diverse and erudite collection of fans and regular commenters. This essay (and the discussion it spawned) was originally posted in the Talk forum. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the life and thoughts of someone who’s lived a foraging existence in the modern urban world.

Shedding And Rejecting Material In A Material(istic) World

Rob Fusco
SimpleIronTruth.com
@Luminancestry, RobFusco@gmail.com

A strong point of commonality between my way of thinking and the way of the Gnoll is outlined flawlessly by “If you can’t eat it, wear it, wield it or carry it, leave it behind.” This phrase caught my eye upon reading the teaser online. The idea strongly resonated with me. It echoed the way I had lived my life, and continue to live it even to this day.

From my sixteenth year well into my thirties, I lived out of a bag.

I toured the world incessantly. My tongue has tried to speak every language. I gazed with awe at Mt. Fuji, marveled at the summertime thunderstorms in northern Italy, held clumps of black volcanic ash sand in my young hands in New Zealand, stared into the eyes of a white rhino in South Africa, felt Moscow’s snow chill my face, walked the streets of São Paulo during Carnaval, spent hours playing speed chess in Germany, hugged drowsy koala in Australia, got snowed in on the Swiss Alps, watched countless desert sunrises and mountain sunsets and swam in the waters of almost every ocean. The winds from every direction pressed against my body on every continent…

I found peace in freedom from material concerns, and also developed a very clear idea of what a person “needs” versus what a person wants. Nothing was a worry because I owned nothing and thus didn’t fear for its loss. My focus was on finding food and shelter, making connections with others of like mind and like pack, and recording the lessons I learned along the way. I punched no clock. I answered to no man. I was lean, often hungry, sometimes miserable but always, always my own person and free to do as I would at any time. If I was tired, I slept. If I was hungry, I “hunted.” I found mates where they were to be found. I thought freely, wrote consistently, collected nothing, held on to nothing and gave just about everything that my hands could hold away to others. What was worth hanging on to was already in my head anyway.

I can honestly say that I lived “in freedom” and “in beauty.” How rare. Not a day goes by where I don’t appreciate my good fortune to be bold enough to reject what all others around me were quick to digest and become—common life for common thinkers. I compare my life now with the life of my “peers” who elected the way of comfort and certainty and I haven’t seen one person who I’d rather be than myself. What contrast! I’m still lean, still sharp, still hungry. I stand proud with fire in my eyes, strength in my spine and springs in my legs. Most everyone else who chose the submissive life are now weak, fattened, gray, miserable, without desire, without drive and absolutely devoid of the spirit of the hunt. They’ve submitted.

They’ve laden themselves with countless items of useless trash in a “home” too big for their budget but far too small for their ego and their want of appearances. They collect keepsakes for the memories they trigger because they’ve forgotten how to remember things on their own—or their experiences are so shallow and insignificant that they’re hardly worth remembering at all. They pack their refrigerator and cupboard with colorful, odd-colored boxes full of what can only be called food in the academic sense—material that poisons their heavy bodies rather than nourishing them. They buy things they can’t afford on a whim because they’ve been fooled into believing they’ll will make them happy, fill the void in their lives. They buy books not for the love of the printed word, but because they think they’re buying the time to read them. The keepsakes crowd the dusty surfaces, the boxes of poison pack the shelves, books cramp each other in the study, yet their owners are none the richer for having collected them and remain lonely, frustrated and confused as they persistently stare at a computer screen for hours on end, oblivious to the beautiful daylight burning away outside.

They’ve fallen prey to their own materialism, imprisoned by their possessions—slow, easy targets.

Better them than me.

Sounds callous and harsh, but from a simplistic perspective, so is nature itself. Are we, bipedal animals, really that divorced from it? Perhaps some more so than others.

Nowadays I’m slightly more settled, outposted in one city or the next in the Northeast United States, working for myself in an instructional capacity. I still punch no clock. I make my own hours. I still travel often, and when I do it’s light and fast. For me, it’s the only way. Have I tried doing the standard 9 to 5 “normal” routine? Sure. I’m open to all things. Was it for me? Decidedly not.

I suppose I owe J.S. a debt of gratitude for translating into succinct text the lessons Gryka* and her pack have to teach us—even the ones who live a lot like Gnolls to begin with.

Do I keep anything at all? Sure. The memory of those I love, the places I’ve been, the feelings I got from the lessons I’ve learned along the way so far…I keep them in the head and in the heart where they belong. To try to trap these moments with photography and frame them for display betrays their beauty.

Some of the greatest moments of my life cannot be proven to have existed.

Does it matter? Decidedly not.

Hazrah nachti.**

*: Gryka is the protagonist of The Gnoll Credo.
**: “Hazrah nachti” is a Gnollish phrase which is difficult to translate succinctly. I’ve done my best in the book.

As these are not my words, I hope Rob will choose to answer your questions about them!

Yes, I’m still on hiatus. I’m working on other projects and enjoying the time off. Meanwhile, I tip my hat to Asclepius (of Natural Messiah) for his excellent review of The Gnoll Credo. (Many more reviews here.)

Live in freedom, live in beauty.

JS

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33 comments

Permalink: Freedom, Possessions, and Materialism, As Perceived By A Modern Urban Hunter-Gatherer
  • neal matheson

    Lots of this seems very familiar, thanks for sharing.
    Neal

  • brynnsweet

    I wouldn’t be honest if I said I wasn’t jealous of Rob’s experience, and the path his life has taken. It seems that so many people are bogged down by the reality we’ve made for ourselves, that a tale of adventure and lifestyle, such as Rob has described, is almost ficticious, a dream through which one can experience vicariously. In more ways than one, I have been lucky enough to learn, change, and grow under Rob as my mentor…my Alpha, if you will. If one is shown, even just a simple glimpse, into something as uniquely exceptional as this path of his, it unconsciously forces you to reflect on your own life, your choices, and your goals. I have been doing much of this as of late; learning, changing, adapting, and growing. As a business owner, I have unshakable roots and a place I’ll always call home, but, the beauty of my business is that I CAN travel anywhere, all over the globe if I so choose, and be able to carry on my trade and support myself. It’s inspiring, this article, for me to step back and re-think the way I’ve thought about travel, or possessions (or lack thereof), and more importantly, what all these have to do with how I want to really live. Treasure your experiences through life, be good to yourself, and make the most of what the world has to offer, one day at a time.

    Thank you for writing this, Rob, and J. for sharing it again. The inspiration I feel from these musings is limitless.

  • Richard Chartrand

    I own lots of stuff, that I’ve worked for, treasure and enjoy tremendously.

    To each his own.

  • Richard Chartrand

    Worthwhile possessions are simply the physical manifestation of good ideas (spiritual)

  • Pieter D

    Inspiring story. I would say it is not so much how many things you own, but how much those things own you. And I definitely agree that stuff can own you and decrease your freedom.

  • Nick

    As soon as I saw Rob’s name attached to this I knew it was going to be thought provoking. If you haven’t had a chance to check out his blog or his music you should do it. Nice work Rob!

  • Lisa

    AS one who has purged all of her possessions and took to the road of freedom as well I still sat here smiling with what so deeply resonates. Interesting that if you attempt to go ‘normal’ again and gather ‘stuff’ it just does not feel right and causes a heaviness, depression. Thank you for sharing your experiences and reminder to keep it light:-)

  • Dave Sill

    Richard, of course you feel that way–it’s the lifestyle you were raised with and the lifestyle you continue to live.

    Me too.

    I lack the guts at this point in my life to give everything up–and by that I mean a lifestyle with which I’m comfortable, as well as my prized possessions–and try a whole new way of living. But I do see some of the downsides of my current lifestyle and advantages to the one Rob and the gnolls have.

    I do feel like my stuff owns me, rather than vice versa. My house, cars, computers, etc., all require constant attention and a constant stream of cash that forces me work a regular job, which forces me own a house and car… (Not mention the burden of “owning” the wife and kids.)

    My dream is to achieve true freedom, if only briefly, before I die.

  • Thank you to all honest responders.

    Though a prevalent theme in my essay is “material,” it’s not the main idea. With that writing I sought to give a snapshot of my life and how I took benefit and achieved growth through (instinctive) limitation of material collection. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not averse to ownership of things, per se, just as long as those things have at least some degree of usefulness. This is subject to individual definition.

    I’m happy to see that J’s vision for a place through which individuals can share ideas and experiences, engage in discourse and debate, and ultimately come away with useful catalysts for growth, is coming to fruition.

    Here’s to the speed, strength and cunning of our pack. Long may we hunt.

    Rob

  • Andrew

    Richard’s comments nicely demonstrate human loss aversion bias (the low-grade version of human motivation for the show Hoarders). To my mind, that’s one of the primary maladaptive drivers of materialist/consumerist culture. We’re predisposed to choose paths which are deleterious to our psychological well-being.

    Then, after making bad choices, we backwards rationalize. The paradox of the irrational human mind having developed to believe it is rational. It’s kinda depressing in that it’s hard to override even when you know the bias is there.

  • People can’t know what they don’t know, and can be shown the way only to a certain point – a line which they alone must cross and lead their own way into uncharted territories. This is where real self-discovery takes place: on the precipice of the unknown.

    I’ve found that it’s most encouraging to those curious about exploring different, albeit terrifying courses to take cues from people who have gone their own way and are still alive – who strangely seem MORE alive than others who opted for a safer, more sterile life.

    Those who tread the simpler (often less comfortable) path have emerged all the richer and more free from their choice – though not unscathed! They’re instead adorned with the scars their experience leave behind, much like the nicks and scratches on the blade of a feudal Samurai, so full of character and form, each mark carrying its own story, its own lesson.

    Being marked by one’s experiences shouldn’t be avoided, but instead embraced.

    I implore others to do nothing but search for their own way, one step at a time onto unfamiliar ground. It will become evident what things are of worth (and what things are worthless) when all is simplified into either assets or liabilities. Sure, a person’s life will invariably leave indeleble blemishes on them, but this is part and parcel of LIVING, and is, in a way, a method of keeping record of one’s steps over each inch of the recondite landscape across which we ALL must tread. Fear nothing, least of all the very things which make us who and what we are.

    Draw your sword often on your journey, and may it be beautifully marked along the way.

  • Elenor

    I’m not sure it’s as all-or-nothing as Rob makes it sound. In my 30s, I spent a month living across the country in a apartment-hotel (working on a project for a big aerospace co.). Getting used to living without my “stuff” meant I had to find other diversions in the local area. When I finally returned home — my first reaction was: “OMG! I am SO encumbered!! I own — and am owned by — so much stuff!!” So I started thinking about what I could get rid of: obviously not my computer, and thus not my desk and chair and maybe a small bookcase for its gear and manuals.

    My sewing machine? Hell no! Quilting was a major creative pleasure, and that meant my sewing table, my boxes of threads and fabric (maybe NOT all 40 boxes of fabric — but as a quilter, I was using ‘all those colors.’) The TV? Diversion as I sewed or used the computer. My bookcases full of books that I read and reread? Why would I want to have to drive to the library every time I wanted to read or reread on a different topic or type of book? Pots and pans — and a stove and fridge and then a cabinet for foodstuffs, and some plates and forks and knives? Absolutely!

    And while I certainly had stuff I didn’t need to have and I did, in fact, get rid of some stuff — my PLEASURES dictated having a certain amount of stuff. I am NOT going to go ‘live rough’ as if that were the only successful way to live. If that suits you, go enjoy! For me, living *comfortably*, with my stuff at hand IS my chosen life! And if that requires working to pay a mortgage and electric bill — fine! My JOY in owning my stuff, my sense of warmth and pleasure in being in my own ‘nest’ with my prized (or ‘necessary’) possessions around me? Priceless!

    I’m not sure I don’t see some ‘noble savage’ envy in this essay, some of the: ‘it’s so much easier if you have nothing, to avoid the pitfalls of owning anything.’ Yes, Gryka (or Grok) only had what s/he could carry. And there is some attraction to that idea (maybe moreso to young folks) — but not when it means sleeping bare and hungry in the rain or snow!!

  • Samantha Moore

    “Some of the greatest moments of my life cannot be proven to have existed.”

    Yup.

  • Honora Renwick

    Thought-provoking. Went out threw out half my paper bags I’d kept for ‘just in case’. Sure could relate to the Human Loss Aversion Bias!

  • Duff Watkins

    not sure why that post was included in this site but it sure failed to instruct or uplift me in any way. let’s stick to the diet shall we?

  • Pieter D

    JS, may I respectfully disagree with Mr. Duff Watkins? Let’s *not* stick to the diet. These sort of things are very valuable! Thanks

  • Duff,

    How about you treat this site like a salad bar: take what you want, leave the rest for others.

    The “diet” is part and parcel of a bigger picture. If you isolate that aspect and focus on it to the exclusion of all other concepts with which its tied in, you might miss out on some (relatively) valuable things.

    The main idea of that essay wasn’t to instruct, nor uplift. I’m neither professor nor motivational speaker.
    In prior responses I’ve touched upon what I sought to convey.

    My best,

    Rob

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  • jesse

    Hey Rob,

    I’m sure it’s an interesting life that you have led. If you don’t mind me asking have you had any offspring? That is one thing that I think leaps to mind as being at odds with your lifestyle in a modern world. In an ancient world, of course, but in a modern one I’m curious if you were able to have a family while living in that ancient way….

    thanks in advance,
    jesse

  • Hey, Jesse! Thanks for the question and no, I don’t mind the inquiry in the least.

    The succinct answer is NO. No kids. No plans for kids, either. Though patient and good with children (perhaps due to some similarity of mental plane), I don’t consider myself the parenting type.

    Thanks again, and keep in touch.

    -Rob

  • Diane

    I lived out of a backpack for 6 months. Two 3-month chunks, actually. I was never so happy as when I had so little. Not only did I have all my posessions on my back (plus a few things riding the postal system), I spent all my time alone in the wilderness. Sometimes I went days without seeing another person. I took a lot of pictures, though. I like having tangible things for memories, even if they’re just electrons. I have not been able to purge my things at home afterward, not in the least. If anything, my pile of junk has grown. It is my fond hope to one day make this kind of life permanent. I’m doing the exact opposite to make it possible: working at a desk, saving up money, anchored down with long-living pets instead of children. If something goes wrong in the mean time, I’m going anyway.

  • Marilyn

    While I agree that most of us probably have more things than we need (and that’s for each of us to discover for ourselves), I pick up a certain disdain here for all those “lesser” folks who work day to day for a living. The reality is, however, that Rob was able to do what he did only because hundreds of others work steady jobs, and make a contribution to society in the process — police, road builders, farmers, airline pilots, carpenters, engineers, clothing and shoe manufacturers . . . the list is endless.

  • Hipparchia

    I know I will always own stuff, and having a child means I am not allowed to wander off. However, even with a child, this “no superfluous stuff” habit works well.

    Firstly, kids really need minimal toys. What they need is a story, attention and access to some supervised adult activities they are always curious to try.

    Secondly, it’s not productive to miss my “old life” and so I was ready, when needed, to quit habits and activities from the time before baby. Nothing wild, mind you, but it was easier to re-shift the priorities. Sadly, I quit playing the piano for a while, but now I resumed, with little loss of skill and much more emotion and character.

    But I was also forced to give up a lot of stuff. I decided to leave my husband and I had to leave a lot of stuff and money behind. Being much worse off financially, however, did not cramp my life so much, and I was not worried I was not drinking the 2-euro latte anymore. Initially, though, it was hard to accept having what you need as good enough- I was too used to having what I wanted on a whim.

    So, I had to learn to keep it simple.

    And please, if you ever have kids, don’t feed them the standard kid diet. You’ll save yourself the Horrible Twos. Mine’s a sweet angel when he’s had enough fatty meat or eggs and a fury if he gets hold of candy.

  • Hipparchia

    But the principle of eat it, wield it or carry it has been invaluable in doing social science research. Can I “eat”, or digest some texts? If it sounds silly, then it probably is silly and I can cautiously discard the info.

    Can I carry it, is it easy to remember and connect with other ideas?

    Can I wield it, or use the idea to illustrate and communicate my own understanding?

    I get a clearer view of what seems like bullshit, and then I explain to others why I think this or that is bullshit. Papers write themselves and I don’t sink into postmodernism.

    In the end, it gives me the confidence to be able to state a point of view in the academic environment and not just read and reproduce old arguments. I am not a hotshot academic, but I like the idea that I don’t have to be impersonal and dull, even at the master’s level.

  • Greg Willson

    when I was an idealistic young man in my twenties I read, The Razor’s Edge (1946)by Somerset Maugham while travelling thru Malaysia. its full of this wondering Zen theme but told poetically by one of the old masters of the English language. the protaganist deals with the challenge of living life as described above or following the normal path we all know.

  • jesse

    Marilyn makes an interesting point. However I think you could argue that the presence of all this infrastructure is what necessitates those 100s of people to work and contribute. If none of this was here than it would have been easier for Rob to walk the earth because there would be more natural resources available to the individual wanderer.

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  • dana

    i too have lived a simple life. i did not get a car until i was 32. i moved every year or so, have been all over this part of the planet and financed myself designing drought-tolerant, no maintenance, no irrigation system gardens. after i purchased my 1964 bright yellow ford ranchero, if my possessions did not fit in the back below the bedline, it did not go with me. i always had my parent’s coleman stove from the 50’s, my sleeping bag, a wood and canvas cot from the 50’s,i moved around until i got married at age 50 and we are still going from place to place. i finally have some property, an acre in the woods in wa state and have upon it a tiny house 10 by 10, no neighbors, just state land surrounds us. just the right size, the house and the land. we have no electricity, a humanure toilet and will be digging a well ourselves. a garden and elk and deer that cross our land provide much of our food. we live close to the columbia, sturgeon and salmon,and and close to the beach where we acquire crabs and clams.i no longer have my ford. i had it for 18 years and gave it to another ford lover. he is now the third owner. i have this idea that if i have not used an item in 6 months, i do not need it. and out it goes to another person. the following comes from my parents)i am a big believer in not throwing anything into a landfill, so i recycle nearly everything into my compost or into the recycling bins. i think if a producer can make it, they can unmake it. that is their responsibility. i have acquired sometings from which i need to make others…lots of wool i need to spin and make sweaters, and lots of fabric from which i need to make some quilts and clothing. i have only ever had a treadle sewing machine so i can at least not have to wait until the electricity goes back on. that is one thing i have had since i bought my ranchero. it fit lying down in the back. my husband grew up in one of those families who had to have the next latest great thing. he was a bit of a hoarder when we met. no more. i have taught him that when you have too many things, they end up owning you. such a burden. even backpacking…jeez, he would take everything but the kitchen sink, while i just had my 1940’s austrian backpack, that carries no more than 30 pounds. before i had my car, all my necessities were in my pack. i have never understood the need for stuff. i did not own a tv until i was 50 and boy was i shocked! the swearing, the voyeurism, the drug ads. i do not go to doctors. i use plants for medicine. the side effects of those chemicals! wow. do people listen to those damaging side effects when they get those drugs. i see the acquisition of items connected to the acquisition of drugs. i just need this drug or that thing to make me feel “better”. i guess the brainwashing just did not take with me. i asked my mother once, how long i had had a mind of my own, she said since the day you were born. she encouraged this. i was born in 1954. i feel grateful that self-reliance was considered a virtue in my (scandinavian) culture.

  • John

    I disagree with one key point…no photos…for me, the last quarter of a century of amazing experiences can be relived when I see a random photo from that venture flash on my screen saver. I relive and am reminded of dozens of such wonderful experiences every day I spend any time with my computer. Regardless of your life or your memory, no one can truly recall every such event…and, there’s the thrill of being reminded randomly as your current life moves forward.

  • Llyn

    My family came to the country I live in ripped from their homeland mothers, fathers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts and some items they brought with them are priceless. Some things such as photos and letters document who you are and the lives of your now dead relatives. The good parts of these things should be kept. Old letters are priceless. It is so fun to read of my grandfather writing to his sister about the deaths from yellow fever in his regiment. ‘don’t tell mother’ haven’t we all said that.
    The rest can go. Collections for the sake of collecting don’t appeal to me at all. You won’t find any beanie babies at my house. Little fussy dust collectors are not my thing either.
    I love the idea that I really have nothing worth stealing. I also long for the day when I get to pass on my job as family archivist to the next generation. Digital doesn’t quite have the same meaning as paper but soon it will all be there.
    A few boxes of priceless letters at the back of a closet won’t sink my ship!

  • Teddy

    I have the same ideas. I’m 20, and I’ve discovered a few months ago that materials goods had no worth at all. I’ve never really felt any pleasure in buying things, but rather loved the experiences it gave me access to (like a console, alowing me to live awesome adventures, food, my computer wich allow me to have access to a lot of information, music, films etc.). Since I’m only looking for experiences, I feel the urge to travel as soon and as much as possible (once i’ve healed enough) since the day I knew I didn’t wan’t a boring office life, and as someone who wants to live a “travel lifestyle” while sticking to a paleo diet, wich I think will be quite challenging, this article really resonate in my mind. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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