A tiger removed from the savanna and confined to a cage bites at the bars and paces relentlessly. Taken out of his natural habitat he becomes angry, anxious and depressed.
When taken out of our natural habitat, like the tiger in the cage, we too may become angry, anxious, and depressed.
But, what is our natural habitat?
Who are we?
And, how can we reconnect?
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Searching for Answers in Parker Hollow
Let’s pay a visit to Susie Nichols, an Ozarkian widow living down in Parker Hollow, Dent County, Missouri.
Susie chose to keep “the old ways” for her entire life.
She may have the answer.
Leaving the pavement we follow a narrow, winding road through the forest. It descends several miles into the hollow.
At the bottom of the hollow cool waters flow. There we ford the small stream that begins at Schafer Spring, just a mile upstream, and empties into the Current River nearby.
Just a stone’s throw up the hill from the crossing we find the trail to Susie’s cabin.
There is only one parking place provided and it is empty. Susie’s place is a half-mile walk up the “holler” from here.
The Clearing in the Forest
The path shows us the way through the forest. There is healing in the orderly tangle of leafy plants beneath the trees, and if the trees themselves could talk they would tell us of the old ways.
The forest is alive with the songs of the Ozarks. The rich, earthy smell of the forest floor speaks of the circle of life.
As we walk and explore we feel a refreshing sense of discovery. A small spring sends a rivulet of pristine water across our path. Just up the trail from the spring, there is an opening of the forest’s canopy. While the forest holds mystery and intrigue entering the clearing feels liberating.
On the other side of the clearing, we see Susie’s cabin shrouded by trees at the edge of the woods.
We have arrived.
Though we have never been here at this place before we feel like we are coming home.
This is our natural habitat!
Susie Nichol’s Cabin Site
When people build houses on the prairie, or on an empty city lot, they tend to plant trees. When they build houses in the forest they tend to cut the trees down.
We are edge dwellers. We feel most at home at the edge of a woods, or in a clearing in the forest (like this one.)
Properties featuring trees, open spaces, and natural bodies of water are highly prized and sought after.
We have a built-in affinity for trees, open spaces, and water.
Susie moved to this 40-acre Ozark farm in 1894 along with her husband John. They likely chose this location to build their cabin because of it’s proximity to the flowing spring. No doubt they worked very hard pushing back the forest and tilling the ground. They would have fully engaged their minds and their muscles in this work.
Susie and John built a board-and-batten style saw-mill cabin rather than a log one. Small, water-powered sawmills had begun to pop up throughout the Ozarks by this time making rough-cut lumber available.
Their cabin had two screened front doors. This was typical of earlier Ozark architecture that often consisted of two log cabins built side by side to make a larger home. A single “pen” cabin was built when settlers arrived. A second cabin was built later when time allowed, or need arose. Each room had its own exterior door and fireplace. The porch provided a connection between the cabins. This outdoor living space gave welcome relief from the heat in the summer and a dry spot for firewood in the winter.
Suzie and John’s house was elevated off the ground with stacked rock piers and their open-air porch would have been a comfortable place to rest after a days toil.
Seasons of Life in Our Natural Habitat
Here in this clearing, they raised their three children. They also raised cows, sheep, hogs, guineas, and horses.
Susie preserved her own fruits and vegetables from their garden. She was known for her natural remedies. These natural remedies may have been gathered from the forest along with fruits, nuts, and berries.
Wild game and fish were likely taken from the surrounding hills and streams.
Nearly all of their nutritional needs would have been met from within a quarter-mile of their kitchen door.
A corncrib within the barn suggests that they wrested a corn crop from this hardscrabble Missouri soil.
In 1932, in the heart of The Great Depression, Susie’s husband died. She continued to live on the farm. She occasionally rode her horse to a small settlement called Cedar Grove where she got her mail.
Suzie never did get electricity at the farm. She relied on the flowing spring for water. The brick chimney attests to a wood stove for cooking and home heating. This was a modern departure from the traditional fireplaces. The luxury of the screen doors provided protection from insects and snakes. Candles or lamps would have provided light on winter evenings.
In a quote on the interpretive Ozark National Scenic Riverways sign at the edge of the clearing, Susie said,
“The wind comes asighin’ through the pines, and it’s such a nice comfortin’ sound. Mixed with hard work and once in a while a neighborly visit, I reckon it’s the best medicine of all.”
In her lifetime Suzie almost certainly would have known hardship, struggle, and loss. However, she clung to the old ways longer than most, and she found solace and healing in her close connection to the natural world. She died in 1959.
A Built Environment Is Not Our Natural Habitat
The Suzie Nichols Cabin Site shows us we need not go back thousands-and-thousands of years to discover that the majority of our ancestors were much more connected to the rhythms and the patterns of the natural world than we are today. The weather, the changing of the seasons, and the rising and setting of the sun would have been palpable and meaningful to them. They were hunters and gatherers and subsistence farming people. The forests and the fields were their natural habitats.
Many of us are only a few generations removed from them.
It is not surprising that we carry an affinity for the natural world in our genes.
We spend much of our time confined — like tigers in cages — almost entirely within buildings and automobiles; hermetically sealed from our natural habitat, cocooned within our offices, classrooms, cars, trucks, tractors, clinics, and factories.
Layers of sheetrock, sheet metal, window glass, iron, bricks, concrete, asphalt, and plastic separate us from the soil, the water, the sunshine, and the rain; from stars, moon, flickering firelight, and glowing embers; from natural breezes, neighbors, plants, wildlife, and livestock.
This insular world is not our natural habitat!
Living in a Zoo
Animals confined to zoos suffer from zoochosis. They display many aberrant behaviors not seen in the wild. Zookeepers attempt to alleviate this problem by providing plastic toys and various distractions. Zoo animals are medicated with tranquilizers and antidepressants not only to relieve their anxiety and depression but to make them appear placid and content.
Tossed an occasional chicken or beefsteak, the tiger is well fed but separated from his natural purpose. He continues to pace his cage, longing for the wild savannah he may never have known.
Perhaps many of us are like caged wild animals, in zoos of our own making.
Turn this tiger loose on Pinterest! Thanks! He will appreciate it.
By the Sweat of the Brow
The most intimate connection we can have with the land is “work.” This means engaging our five senses and our major muscles and brain together for the common purpose of either “taking” or “raising” what’s needed to support life.
The tiger sleeping in the shade of the tree, or perched contentedly on a rock with his belly full, is only satisfied in his heart after he has himself traversed the savanna and taken the game in the wild hunt. He has intensely focused his predatory instincts on the stalking and killing of the prey; every muscle and organ in his body fully engaged in the kill.
Simply throwing the tiger a chicken and putting his cage in the shade of a tree — or putting a rock in his cage — does not make the tiger happy.
After their labor in the clearing or their hunt in the woods, John and Susie Nichols would have enjoyed listening to the wind asighin’ through the trees while rocking in their chairs on the cabin’s porch.
Accompanied by a chorus of tree frogs and birdsong their sleep would have been sweet, and their mornings would have come quickly.
As our ancestors hunted and gathered and farmed their land, they expended their energy by engaging their five senses, muscles, and brains together. In so doing they bonded with the land.
It is our natural way.
Because of the poor soil and rough terrain, the work of the Ozarkian homesteader would have never been done. It would have required both hunting and gathering and subsistence farming skills.
Innate Affinity for Our Natural Habitat
Just as the tiger is born to hunt its prey on the expansive landscape of the savanna, I believe we have an innate affinity for eeking out a living at the edge of the woods, or in a clearing in the forest.
We may have both hunting-and-gathering and subsistence farming qualities within us. However, I have observed that people tend to be dominant either as hunters-and-gatherers or as subsistence farmers. We probably all have a mixture of both traits within us, but we may find one to be much stronger than the other.
We may be born that way — or simply have developed one trait more than another.
If we’ve been “born in captivity” these qualities may be unrecognized and underdeveloped. However, we may get that unexplainable urge to traverse the landscape in search of something, or we may feel a need to get our hands into the soil.
How we choose to reconnect with our natural habitat while living modern day lives in an industrial and technological world, will depend on whether our personal hunter-gatherer or our subsistence farmer tendencies are dominant.
Are You a Hunter-Gatherer or Subsistence Farmer?
Hunter-gatherers engage with their natural habitat by traversing the landscape and harvesting the natural bounty of it. These are the people who long for the wild places. They are the warriors. They get great satisfaction from traversing the hills and canoeing the rivers. They like to discover new things and explore new places. They are predators, the takers of game and fish. They pick the berries and search the forests for the wild herbs and the tasty mushrooms. If they have extra, they give it away. If they need more they take it. They gather their firewood and return to their camps. There they sit around the fire and tell stories. They are as carefree as a tiger in the wild.
Subsistence farmers engage with nature by altering their landscape, turning their soil, sowing seed and domesticating livestock. They are the planters, the breeders, and the builders. They plan, select, and improve their landscapes, livestock, and crops. They nurture every sprouted seed, hatched egg, or baby that is born. They are committed to caring for and protecting. They hoe, water, feed, tend and nurture. They are the land clearers and the fence builders. They harvest their crops and their livestock, preserving and storing for a rainy day. When their barns are full they take the extra to town and sell it. As busy as bees or ants they find little time to lollygag.
We have lost much of what John and Susie Nichols had down in Parker Hollow. In our modern industrial and technological world, the engagement of the five senses and our minds and our muscles, in a common purpose, within our natural habitat, has been largely eliminated.
In the process, like tigers in our cages, we have lost our primal connections with nature. Many of us have become angry, anxious and depressed.
Finding it neither possible nor desirable to return to our hunter-gathering or subsistence farming ways, we need to find new ways to connect with the natural world, and to quiet the tiger within.
Remember to Subscribe for These Upcoming Articles!
Reconnecting with Our Natural Habitat for Hunter-Gatherers
Reconnecting with Our Natural Habitat for Subsistence Farmers
Biophilia and Biophilic design
Nature Deficit Disorder and Children
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Do tigers really live in savannas?
Yes, sometimes, but not in Africa. Primarily forest dwellers, they are natives of Asia.
A savanna is a mixed woodland-grassland ecosystem.
Are you a hunter-gatherer or a subsistence farmer? Tell us in comments below.
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