The Woman Who Lives 200,000 Years in the Past
As we confront the reality of COVID-19, the idea of living self-sufficiently in the woods, far from crowds and grocery stores, doesn't sound so bad. Lynx Vilden has been doing just that for decades, while teaching others how to live primitively, too.
There is no easy way to reach Twisp, a blink of a town in north-central Washington’s Methow Valley. You could fly into Spokane and cut northwest for 175 miles. Or you could take a turboprop from Seattle over the mountains to the world’s apple capital, Wenatchee, and then get in a car and follow the Columbia River north for two hours. Or you could drive, as I’m doing, from Seattle through the electric moss of the North Cascades, slowing to a crawl through the ice-menaced range.
It’s November 2019, and I’m on my way to meet Lynx Vilden, a 54-year-old British expat who, for most of her adult life, has lived wholly off the grid. The slick roads don’t help my apprehension about what lies ahead: a three-day, one-on-one experience of “living wild.” The details are hazy. I’ve been advised to prepare for bracing climes and arduous excursions. “Wear sturdy shoes,” Lynx told me. “Bring meat.”
I’m four months pregnant and prone to sudden bouts of drowsiness, so after a roadside nap turns a one-hour delay into two, I send a text message to Lynx telling her I’ll be late. Only later do I realize how presumptive this is: she doesn’t have cell service or WiFi.
Until about ten years ago, Lynx also possessed no credit card, nor fixed address; her previous abodes—a tepee in Arizona, yurts in Montana and New Mexico, a snow shelter on the Lappish tundra—had neither electricity nor running water. This all changed when she received a modest inheritance from her mother’s estate in Britain that allowed her to purchase a remote five-acre plot some 12 miles outside Twisp. Now modernity, in the form of power outlets and a sink, is within easy reach, thanks to solar panels and a well that former occupants had installed on the land.
That doesn’t mean Lynx embraces it. When I finally arrive at the property in the early afternoon, she welcomes me to her wooded outpost wearing hand-stitched leathers. She heats her 900-square-foot log cabin—also the handiwork of the prior owners—by tending a wood-burning stove. For illumination she prefers the flicker of a tallow lamp, in much the same way that she favors water collected from the river to that which flows readily from her faucet. There’s a futon on the floor, but it’s mostly used by her 26-year-old daughter, who leaves the urban hustle to visit from time to time. Lynx prefers sleeping on the ground in a shelter she’s built deeper in the woods.
Lynx (who doesn’t share her legal name) is not your typical back-to-the-lander. The lithe, blonde former teen punk, who grew up in the “concrete and dismal gray” environs of London, has become an unlikely torchbearer of humanity’s wild heritage. Her overarching aim is not to simply survive out here in nature but “to live as wild people lived” and to show others how to do so as well.
For two decades, Lynx has been running immersive programs that she calls Stone Age projects. After signing up, a group of fifteen or so students make their way to Twisp or to other farther-flung locales, like White Clouds, Idaho; Jokkmokk, Sweden; or the Rhodope Mountains in Greece, to learn skills from Lynx such as fire starting, shelter construction, bow making, and footwear fabrication. Once equipped with this knowledge, and having sewn their own buckskins and exchanged their toothbrushes for twigs, students have the option of heading out with Lynx into a nearby forest for as long as 30 unbroken days. They make camp, hunt and forage, and pass long hours in the intimacy of this tight tribal band.
Her approach to pedagogy can be ad hoc. Essentially, she says, she considers where in the world she feels most called (Mongolia was a desired near term destination before the COVID-19 outbreak) and what skills are relevant to living primitively in that place (this summer’s offerings include kayak building in Washington’s San Juan Islands). She then creates a class by going to a library or community center in Twisp, emailing her network, and seeing if there’s sufficient interest. While other survival schools can charge thousands of dollars for similar curricula delivered over one or two weeks, Lynx’s courses are priced for inclusivity rather than profit—her weeklong introductions cost $600, while her three-month immersions cost $2,500. She lowers or altogether eliminates her prices for friends, returning students, and those willing to barter.
What she’s offering is a tool kit for complete self-sufficiency, as both an antidote and a radical alternative to the frenzied pace and digital solipsism that so many of us rail against—and yet so few of us successfully resist.
It’s hard to be a hunter-gatherer these days. Never mind the struggle to meet Maslow’s tenets of survival: being wild verges on illegal.
It’s getting late, so Lynx and I abandon the cozy cabin for the lodge in the forest. “I like to sleep touching the earth,” she says, speaking in the drawn-out syllables of the Queen’s English. Through the thin light of my headlamp, I try to chase her sure-footed steps down an invisible trail through conifers and broad-leaved trees. I worry that I’ve lost Lynx to the night. But then I catch sight of an earthen dome rising five or six feet from the needled floor. I cast my light around, and see a tiny wooden door leading into the shelter, and crouch to enter a warm womb carved from the soil. Inside, Lynx coaxes embers to a roar before we settle into our matching hide and pine-bough beds.
The appeal of the “Stone Age thing,” Lynx explains as we sprawl before the fire, is that all you have are the materials available in the immediate environment. “It liberates something in the mind when you realize you’re not constrained by having to go buy some kind of tool that’s going to make your life easier.” This direct dependence on the elements cultivates “a depth of connection with all the nuances of nature around us,” she says. “You might see a shriveled-up stalk of grass. What I know is that, below the earth, there’s an edible root that tastes nutty. You just keep on learning.” Living wild, she elaborates, is an act of bearing witness, one that frequently requires relearning how to see and hear. Our senses have been numbed by the unrelenting light and noise of urban life. It deadens us, she says. “If we get so tame, so domesticated, we lose something that is very human.”
The prospect of Stone Age self-reliance and a well-stocked sanctuary in the woods seems especially appealing as the COVID-19 pandemic lays bare the vulnerability of our hyperconnected and deeply inequitable world. For much of the 20th century, though, the accomplishments of our nomadic forebears were viewed with dim regard.
Homo sapiens—that is, anatomically modern humans—have been around for 200,000 years. But it wasn’t until the advent of farming during the Neolithic revolution about 12,000 years ago that history became interesting and human lives became more prosperous and safe. Or at least that was the widely accepted narrative, before scholars began marshaling new evidence to suggest that the Stone Age wasn’t actually so bad. Pulitzer Prize–winning geographer Jared Diamond has called the adoption of agriculture and mankind’s resulting sedentism “a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.” Yuval Noah Harari, in his bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, snubs the shift to large-scale cultivation as “history’s biggest fraud.” He argues that hunter-gatherers, far from trudging through a state of Hobbesian misery, likely enjoyed easier, longer, and more egalitarian lives than their domesticated descendants.
This shift in scholarly attention has accompanied a growing interest in our wild past, recast as a welcome corrective to deskbound hours and fraying social ties. As we all know so well, ours is a period of unprecedented, if unequally allotted, abundance. And yet the market’s bounty fails to satiate our appetites. The public—overfed, overmedicated, malnourished, socially isolated, and sleep-deprived—sifts restlessly for meaning.
If indeed our lives were better back when we lived in roving bands, would it be wise to consider how we might revive aspects of our deep past? That question tantalizes the motley group of modern-day hunter-gatherer celebrants. At conventions across the country, which have names like Echoes in Time and The Sharpening Stone, wild-food harvesters hobnob with mountain men and ancestral-arts buffs. There are more future-oriented primitive-skills practitioners, who overlap with doomsday and disaster preppers in their shared concern with survival in the inevitable absence of the System. Then there are those hoping to detox from our increasingly digital world, who advocate the virtues of forest bathing and extended smartphone sabbaticals. Even in popular culture, glorification of the Paleolithic abounds. YouTube channels like Primitive Technology draw millions of subscribers to demos of huts and spears, while a bumper crop of reality shows, like Naked and Afraid and The Great Human Race, subject brawny stars to purportedly aboriginal conditions.
But for all the scrutiny of the archeological record, the quotidian details of the Stone Age are largely speculative. “We’re trying to emulate this culture, but we have no idea how it works,” Alexander Heathen, Lynx’s friend and former student, told me. “We don’t have elders telling us how to do it.” As a result, the exercise of rewilding demands fluency in both skill and fantasy and a certain amount of romantic aspiration. It contains hopes for close-banded communalism, as well as the conviction that proximity to risk—to fire, to beasts, to heat, and to broken bones—is a boon to both the soul and the senses. There can also be a fair amount of wistful thinking, in looking to the deep past for a universal heritage. Our wild history is presented as a time before the world was scarred by borders, before politics, before race, before even the concept of identity carved out its demarcations of who belongs and where.
Some suggest that the primitive-skills community can run the risk of appropriating indigenousness. Practitioners of bushcraft draw liberally from the world’s traditions but are themselves typically white people, often endowed with at least some degree of privilege. “There is an inherent colonialism built into the primitive-skills idea,” says Kiliii Yüyan, a photographer, survival expert, and one of Lynx’s occasional collaborators, who is a Chinese-American descendent of the Nanai people of Siberia. “Part of the idea is that you can be air-dropped into anywhere and survive off the land. Indigenous literally means ‘of a place’—survival is almost the exact opposite of that.”
There are grouse about, Lynx observes on our second day together. She proposes that we go for a hike so she can shoot one for our supper. Barring that, we could aim to dine on wild turkey, which she’s also spotted strutting around the creek banks and the woods. We ready ourselves in the fading afternoon. The sun is quick to slide behind the mountain slopes, and the surrounding forest throws shadows through the growing chill. Lynx takes an appraising look at the rifle she’s been cleaning and then glances at my camera. “Better to take the bow?” she asks. We agree it’s certainly the more primitive option. And besides, the swift hush of an arrow is less likely to scare off the flocks we’d like to eat.
We walk to the river that marks the limit of her land. There are no birds in sight, but Lynx beams as she gestures up and down the length of the shallow waterway. “Isn’t it beautiful,” she says. Deep in winter, she tells me, she’ll sometimes wake to a sudden silence. Slowly, she’ll realize: the river has frozen.
Abruptly, she turns and marches up a steep incline. Huffing behind her, I remember her offhand remark that it’s hard to find proper hiking companions because most can’t keep up. She points out another spot where the grouse have been congregating. “They’re everywhere until you want to go hunting,” she says peevishly, and lets loose an arrow through the birdless clearing.
It’s hard to be a hunter-gatherer these days. Never mind the struggle to meet Maslow’s tenets of survival: being wild verges on illegal. There are limits to how long you can spend on public land. Fires are frequently prohibited, and hunting is closely circumscribed. Lynx came up against the law in 2008, when a government officer attended one of her classes undercover. She was unaware of his identity until two years later, when she was charged for running a course on public land without a permit and for cutting down a freestanding dead tree. She was barred from the national forests of eastern Washington for a year. “Sometimes the laws of man and the laws of nature differ,” she says. “I choose the laws of nature.”
Lynx envisions a group with whom to share the toil and splendor of the days. This imagined band of 10 to 15 wild souls is utterly perfect, perhaps because it remains unrealized, suspended in the unbroken chrysalis of ideals. Indeed, even when groups come deliberately together, as they do for Lynx’s projects, it’s hard to stop attrition. “It’s easy to find exuberant, young, starry-eyed students who think they want to live on the land,” says Lynx. “But after that little honeymoon phase is over, they’re all like, ‘This is too hard.’” Thoughts of loved ones pull mightily, hunger pulls at the belly, ennui engulfs the mind.
Former participants I spoke with did mention the challenges of finding food and the fatigue of caloric insufficiency. “There was a lot of starving involved” is how Yüyan described the first project he completed nearly 20 years ago. But Lynx’s students also report that her expertise has deepened over the years. Steven Dirven, a former student, says his 2016 group enjoyed “delicious meals” of butchered bison, acorn flour, and roots and bulbs and bear fat, and he insisted, without a trace of irony, “Not many restaurants can compete with what we were eating.”
Many of Lynx’s Stone Age students have become more expert as well, continuing to come back for more of her projects. For this summer’s two-month-long course in the San Juan Islands, the prerequisite gear list includes 100 feet of plant-fiber cordage, a bone awl and needle, rawhide sandals, bark-tanned clothing, and a sap glue stick, along with one pound each of dried wild plants, dried wild meat, and rendered animal fat. A sizable number of mentees turned friends now live nearby in the Methow Valley, where they spin yarn and raise fowl and experiment with shifting forms of communal living.
This community is drawn to Lynx’s carefully crafted world, which, as Yüyan described to me, is deliberately stripped of jabbering distractions, surrounded instead by skins and bows and hand-carved vessels and the infinite permutations of the seasons. “Lynx really loves the aesthetics of Stone Age living, and I think that calms her down,” he says. “Everything in the modern world screams for our attention, and then you look at the natural world, and by and large, it’s a symphony of things trying to hide.”
Back in the woods, dark is falling. Lynx releases a last desultory arrow before leading us home. Her mood brightens when I remind her that we have the meat she’d asked me to bring, at the cabin. She’s gracious when I furnish the best steaks I could procure from Hank’s Market in Twisp: two dubiously gray slabs swaddled in cellophane. Lynx eats hers contentedly, plucking the pieces with her fingers and patiently gnawing the hide-tough meat.
Lynx never imagined that her days would play out in the woods. Growing up in London with her mother, a patternmaker, and her stepfather, a painter, she had wanted to be, among other things, an artist. Her adolescence coincided with the height of the British punk scene, and Lynx dyed her hair different colors and was christened “Loo,” as in toilet. “I could have been good at school, but I wasn’t very motivated,” she says. “I’m sure if I had been born ten years later, they would have stuffed me full of Ritalin.”
She left secondary school at 16, and, after a brief stint at the Chelsea School of Art and a period of drifting around in Amsterdam, she ended up in her mother’s homeland in rural Sweden, where she started developing a love of nature that would come to define her adult life.
A boyfriend convinced Lynx to travel to the United States when she was 21, taking her to Wenatchee, Washington, two hours south of her current home. She’d never seen real wilderness before. It was in the U.S. that she changed her name to Lynx and took the surname Vilden, meaning “savage” or “wild” in Swedish. She began hiking, awestruck, through the Cascades, but she says she was “lazy” and didn’t like carrying a backpack. “How did people used to do it? We didn’t have backpacks,” she says scornfully. “How did we make fire? What did we used to eat? At that age, I was going through a lot of, What did we do before?”
Lynx began learning to identify plants so that she could graze and gather on her hikes. She happened to stumble across famed tracker Tom Brown Jr.’s field guide to wild edibles and signed up for a weeklong class at his Tracker School, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. On the final day, she says, “I came out of the sweat lodge and just lay down on the ground and was like, I found it. This is what I want to do. I want to learn to connect with the earth and then share that with people. It was the beginning of my journey.”
Drawn to the healing properties of plants, Lynx pursued herbalism and wild medicine and wound up at the Reevis Mountain School, in Arizona’s Superstition Wilderness. One day, she told me, a guy rode up on a mustang stallion. “He’s got long braids and a big beard, which I’m a bit partial to, and I remember thinking, I’m going to marry that guy. And sure enough, I did.” Together, they drove around the country in an old school bus, hauling the mustang behind it in a horse trailer. Within the year, Lynx was pregnant.
By the time her daughter, Klara, was two, the romance had deteriorated, and Lynx and Klara decamped for Montana. There she spent the next decade living in a yurt and homeschooling her child. She tanned hides and made crafts, and in the summers she taught at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School in southern Utah. Lynx and Klara scraped by. When Klara turned 12, she opted to go live with her father in Washington State so that, she says, “I could learn in a more structured way and hang out with people my own age.” For her part, Klara told me that while her mom supported her in her interest in school and socializing, Lynx was not willing to compromise her own lifestyle. “I never resented her,” Klara says. “Even if I want different things, I feel really supported in whatever my path is.” The decision to let her daughter go was difficult for Lynx, though. The desire to close the distance between them led her back to Washington and, eventually, to Twisp.
Lynx is dogged by melancholy from time to time, and despite friends who are dispersed around the Methow Valley, she casts about for connection. Nights, especially, can be “pretty tough.” When no friends with trucks or other forms of transportation have been at her disposal, she’s walked out to Twisp River Road and waited for a passing car to take her into town to use the library or go to the store. If none came, she’d turn around and trek back home.
One night I drive us to neighboring Winthrop, a former gold-mining town that looks like a storybook version of the Old West. One of the local bars is having an off-grid evening, promising live music and no electricity. Lynx thinks this sounds fun and has brought along a fat lamp. But her enthusiasm dips when we arrive to find the lights above the bar alive with currents. Patrons were having too much trouble ordering in the dark, the waitress explains. On the way home, Lynx tells me her most recent paramour has spurned her, and she wonders aloud whether she is simply bad at relationships. But upon reflection, she concludes that, no, it’s that her love is too much, too fierce, too big, and more than most men can take.
Not for the first time, I wonder what it takes to resist the impulse to simply flick on the power. Or why not, say, move closer to the edge of town? But while I see comfort beckoning in the warmly lit homes down the road, Lynx explains that the seductive path for her is one of further retreat. “Do I want to get more enmeshed in a system that enslaves me? Not really. Sometimes I want to say, ‘Fuck it all,’ and get further out of society. Just go and live in the mountains and not come down.”
So what’s stopping her? I ask. She responds flatly, “I won’t do it unless I have a clan.”
On our last afternoon, Lynx and I hike up to a nearby ridge. She plows ahead, cabled limbs swinging, seemingly oblivious to the branches that snap back behind her and hit me in the face. Her demeanor, like her way of life, contains elements of both pragmatism and poetry. During my time with her, she could be brusque, verging on impatient, clucking in disapproval as I offered the wrong sort of pine needles to feed the fire. On the peak, sweeping views unspool all around, and Lynx chews on jerky and drinks water from a hollow gourd before rising to pose for my benefit. She’s keenly aware of the cinematic beauty of her environment and the striking figure she cuts within it. “Hood or cap?” She postures with different headgear. “Rifle or bow?” she asks, nodding to my camera.
And yet she delights in detail and in the patient labor required of her lifestyle. Slowly, she scrapes wood with the broken edge of a rock to fashion arrows for her kit. She dresses hides with deer brains to produce a supple buckskin. Above all, she loves making fire. That night I squat on the ground as she enchants plumes of smoke from where the tip of her bow drill meets the notch of the hearth board. An orange ember appears, and Lynx scoops the coal baby into a nest of straw. As though her chapped fingers are impervious to flame, she holds the burning ball aloft, breathing it to life. “Fire is what makes us human,” she tells me.
But while Lynx does her best to maintain a primitive lifestyle, she is still a product of the 21st century in significant ways. After years of trying to commit to a single region, she now divides her time between the Cascades, northern Sweden, the Dordogne Valley of France, and occasional forays beyond. This breed of nomadism is a far cry from the migratory patterns of traditional hunter-gatherers, who followed the clement weather or their feeding herds. Indeed, if there is a major crack in Lynx’s Paleolithic persona, it is not that she sometimes uses a store-bought plastic toothbrush or indulges in the odd pizza. It’s not her penchant for reading classics by candlelight (when I visited her, it was Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles) or her use of the old computers at the Methow Valley Community Center to check her email, nor is it her competence with PowerPoint (she likes making slideshows to document her projects). It is that her fascination with the wide world—and her ability to hop on a plane in order to explore it—marks her as a thoroughly modern human.
What she’s offering is a tool kit for complete self-sufficiency, as both an antidote and a radical alternative to the frenzied pace and digital solipsism that so many of us rail against—and yet so few of us successfully resist.
Lynx is squeamish about the whole enterprise of travel, acknowledging the catastrophic carbon consequences of aviation and her extreme discomfort when moving through the surveillance theater of major airports. She prefers, she says, to travel with companions who can keep her anxieties at bay; she forgoes her buckskins when she flies. She chuckles ruefully at the irony that she soars around the globe to teach people how to elicit flames from rubbing sticks. But invariably, agitation bests her nesting instincts, and she heeds the call to roam.
Lynx considers her work to be on a multigenerational scale. Her great vision is to create a preserve for wild humans, in much the same way that pieces of the earth are protected for the benefit of native flora and fauna. The principles of conservation biology should extend to “the humans that want to rewild themselves,” she says. “We probably can’t become wild, but our children and our grandchildren could become wild if we had a place.”
It’s a fascinating proposition because, among other reasons, designating a place beyond the rule of law involves major legal intervention, requiring one to first subscribe to the very powers one wants to nullify. But Lynx’s reverie begins with something that looks very much like what she is operating today, with a school for learning primitive skills that abuts a pristine refuge. There, having amassed the knowledge one might need for surviving on wit and nature’s plenty, “You could walk naked out into the wild.”