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Sunday, 30 July 2017

Run Back to the Wild: Part 2

Part 1 of Run Back to the Wild provided a general overview of how modern civilization is divorcing itself from nature, and how this is deteriorating our health. Part 2 goes into a few basic aspects of human health, and how returning to our ancestral roots can help us recover our health where modern living has undermined it. I try to weave my own experiences, living in the woods, into the picture.

So, without further ado:

Better sleep - since moving in to the cabin, my sleep has improved dramatically. And since listening to a podcast about sleep, I am learning about the multi-faceted reasons why I am sleeping better, and the magical driver behind it all, melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland, in cadence with our circadian rhythms. It is classified as an antioxidant with surprising health effects. And research shows that regular exposure to the daily cycle of light (particularly sunlight) and dark, as well as fluctuations in temperature, stimulate healthy production of melatonin, which enables sleep.
Sleeping in nature puts us closer to our natural sleeping rhythms
Our modern lifestyle has interfered with melatonin production in several ways. During the day, we spend too much time indoors exposed to artificial light, not bright enough to tell our bodies it's day time. And at night, we spend too much time in front of screens, which emit a blue light, which is too bright to tell our bodies it's dark. In addition, temperature regulated houses remain too constant throughout the day, and too hot at night, given that our bodies prefer sleeping in colder than room temperature.

You may be surprised to know that our hunter-gatherer ancestors actually slept about the same amount of hours as modern humans. But they stayed up with the campfires, moon and the stars, which emit a different colour on the light spectrum, which still let their bodies know it's dark out, stimulating the melatonin production they need for better quality sleep and health.

There are so many unbelievable benefits to melatonin as well as sleep, so I'm really happy to be sleeping well in an environment exposing me to natural daily fluctuations of ambient light and temperature, and without screen based distractions.

Eat natural "eat what your grandparents ate", as my favourite food author, Michael Pollan, says. This is much more achievable than, say, eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. They ate a wild diet of foraged flora and large mammals, rich in high quality fats and nutrients, sufficient in calories. By contrast, modern humans eat a calorie excessive diet low in quality, causing illnesses such as cancer, to explode in the modern era.

Our bodies evolved over millions of years to eat wild, undomesticated foods. They are not evolved to handle the chemicals and preservatives in today's processed foods, or genetically modified foods for that matter. Studies are exposing the long term effects of accumulation of such chemicals in our bodies, as a direct result of our diet.
Wild strawberries on my boss's property - so sweet!
Another useful comparison to make between our ancestors' eating habits versus modern humans, is the quantity and frequency of food consumption. We eat much more, and more frequently today, which puts a lot of stress on our metabolic engine. Imagine revving the engine of your car constantly - eventually, the engine will burn out. Modern dietitians are promoting eating 5 times a day, but I say eat less.

On the other end of the spectrum is fasting. This habit is present in many religions and traditional cultures. Science shows that fasting actually helps our brains build connective tissue, like a hermetic stressor, in the same way that exercising tears our muscle fibres, allowing them to rebuild stronger than before. The hypothesis is that, when our ancestors got hungry, they needed to think about where to hunt or gather their next meal. As long as such habits do not become chronic, they remain acute or hermetic stresses, which stimulates the body in positive ways.

If you're not ready to try fasting, say one day, or even one meal a week, simply take snacking out of the scenario. I've fasted on a few occasions to varying degrees, and feel much more mindful and alive whenever I do it. Plus, I'm no longer a slave to my hunger.
A modest breakfast by my pond
Most of us really overthink and complicate what we eat, which is understandable because what we put into our bodies is probably the most important factor affecting our health. But the focus is misplaced on getting certain nutrients and avoiding others, when it should be on eating organic, unprocessed foods. The processing of foods takes on many variations, but essentially, if it's boxed or packaged, it's undergone some form of processing.

Eating what your grandparents ate, and eating just enough, is advice that is so simple and sensible, and erases the complexity of arranging our lives around fad diets, and focusing on, or off, specific nutrients. 

Looking back to our grandparents, and further back to our wild ancestors, it's time to turn the tables, and the clock, back on this food paradigm.

Unplug your Phone, Plug into Nature - worry less and de-stress! Studies show that being in nature lowers our cortisol (stress) levels. On the technology side, studies show that social media makes us less empathic and more self centred. School children are getting addicted to screens, which is reducing their attention spans and sleep hours. I've already mentioned the screen's effects on melatonin production and sleep.
I live here!
Some say there is literally something in the air in the forests, a mixture of microbes created by the trees and plants, that relaxes us. Whether that is true or not, we don't need science to tell us that. We know it just by doing it - just by being in the forest.

Or perhaps some of us don't know it right away, but once we start doing it, or once some of us get over the initial fears and discomforts of being in wild settings, we start to realize the differences between being in the forest versus the city.

Forests are tranquil, beautiful, calming, healing... the list goes on.

Forests are virtually void of any stresses, save the nagging discomfort of walking on uneven ground or, good heavens, getting dirty! The air is clean, the noises are musical, and the stimulation is intoxicatingly pleasant. In sharp contrast with social media, being in forests fosters humility through a feeling of awe, surrender to beauty, and interconnectedness with our natural surroundings. Being in forests slows life down, brings us back to the present, lets us forget about our worries, and dissolves our consumer attachments.
Meditating in the middle of my pond
Come slackline with me!
Again, this is not a black and white concept, and I'm not saying that screens are bad. But as the human race is gravitating towards urban environments, it is becoming further disconnected from green and natural spaces, and more and more hooked to screens. A better balance needs to be restored.

As for me, I get my screen time on weekends, but I try to keep that a second priority to my awesome life in the woods (by the way, friends in Ontario, why haven't you visited me yet?).

Walk barefoot - anyone who has spent significant time with me would know that I'm a huge advocate of going barefoot. Barefoot shoes have improved my physical health and changed my life.
Bare foot at a little concert
The human skeleton is evolved to strike any surface - whether textured like the ground, or flat like sidewalks,  flat-footed, without cushioning. The modern shoe contorts our feet into unnatural positions, changing our gait and altering how our bodies absorb the upward forces from walking and running. Cushioning in shoes (including arch support) has not eliminated these upward forces, merely dulled the pain. Over time, these upward forces act as chronic stress on our bodies, creating chronic pains and injuries that are difficult to reverse.

The episode of Nature of Things - The Perfect Runner wonderfully describes how humans evolved out of trees to become bipedal and run long distance in order to hunt animals. It describes the physics of running, and how modern cushioned shoes have altered those physics, atrophied the muscles in our feet and cramped our posture. I would also recommend the amazing and inspiring book Born to Run.

I'm not suggesting that everyone should try this, but that most of us overlook the potential of our bodies to rebuild its form around a more natural way of walking and running that aligns with our evolved physiology.


Some of these solutions for minimizing chronic stress and living healthier are startlingly simple. They are simple because they are rooted in our ancient culture and our ancestral DNA. Our hunter-gatherer lifestyle may be in the past, but in the grand perspective, it really wasn't that long ago, and many of the lessons from that lifestyle still hold true today.

Much of the information in this blog is inspired by the amazing podcast Rewild Yourself. Everybody needs a little more wild in them.

Run Back to the Wild

The name of my blog are lyrics from the song To The Wild by the band Mother Mother. Although it's obviously a very extreme statement akin to giving up everything we know to be true and returning to cave dwellings, it feels strangely appropriate given how swallowed up some of us are in modern living, and how our modern culture is contributing to many of today's pressing issues.

I have now been at my job for two months, building an off grid house with timber framing construction. I have spent those two months in a cozy cabin at the opposite end of my boss's property, nestled in cozy isolation by a small pond and the cedar forest.
That's one hell of a big saw
Trying archery for the first time!
In those two months, I have gained wisdom and insights, both experientially and intellectually, towards living more wild. Living in the woods and working with wood, learning carpentry under the tutelage of an inspiring and gentle human being has been incredibly rewarding. In the midst of the work days, my boss Simon and I share intellectual and philosophical conversations and listen to tons of educational podcasts, which adds some texture to the work day.

I want to share some very basic insights I've learned with you. That which I share reflects my personal beliefs and philosophies, and are not stated as truth or dogma. My simple hope is that, if you are willing to read, you are open to what I have to share, which I do for the pureness of sharing, and without evangelism or condescension.


We are born into the world and know it from the most basic perspective: our own. But that perspective is very limited in time and consciousness. When we see people living differently from us, we wrongly apply what we know about our own life to their situations, and see their perspectives as different and somehow wrong. Similarly, we learn about people living from a different time in the past, and we see it as primitive and un-cultured.
What is normal in India is simply out of the question in western countries. But is it wrong? Would you do it?
But take a bigger perspective, one that reaches beyond our own consciousness or perception of time, and we see how short sighted the way we live is.

If the Earth's history was condensed into a 24 hour day, humans would have emerged with just over 1 minute remaining in the day. And the emergence of agriculture and our modern civilization? A matter of seconds remaining in the day. Nature has had millions upon millions of years to evolve and create a habitable environment for complex organisms such as mammals. Humans took millions of years to slowly evolve to that environment, culminating in the cultural lifestyle of hunter-gatherer. This culture lived generally in a harmonious way with its environment, existing for at least 1.8 millions of years in this way (genus homo erectus).

Fast forward to today, and now more than half of the human race is living in an environment of asphalt, concrete and virtual screens, shut out from the environment we are naturally adapted to. Technology is changing our habitats much faster than humans can biologically evolve to adapt to it, creating all sorts of health issues, while pushing the natural environment to its limits.

So what should we do about it? Run back to the wild?

Well, yes. And no.
Getting in touch with my wild side - northern BC

The answer is not so straightforward, but essentially we need to find a better balance. While science is pushing frontiers of what humans can accomplish, study after study is exposing the human body's limitations to certain advancements. Study after study is also showing how living closer to our hunter-gatherer ancestors will put us in better balance with our environment, improving our health.

The human body is an amazing creation, the product of millions of years of evolution. It has an array of natural defenses designed to fend off illness and disease. The human body uses these defenses to maintain homeostasis, which is the tendency to maintain internal stability, by responding to stimuli.

Technology is undermining homeostasis in two ways. It is exposing our bodies to pollutants and chronic stresses which our bodies are not evolved to fend off. And it is shielding us from natural stimuli which prevent our bodies from developing its natural defenses, weakening them in the process.
Green clearings are essential in our sprawling urban jungles - Vancouver, BC

It can be argued that technology has come up with countless ways of improving our health, and that humans are living longer as a result. But countless scientific studies are showing that modern technology may be providing us with only short term solutions that are instantly gratifying, minimizing symptoms and providing comfort. Over the long term, these technologies are deteriorating our health.

In Part 2 of the blog, I will go into detail into some of the aspects of human health, how living more like our wild ancestors can actually restore our homeostasis and our health, and how my own experience in the woods has validated these insights. Link here

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Confessions of a Dumpster Diver

I’ve been dumpster diving for almost the entire past half year in Ontario now. But I started dumpster diving about four years ago and have been doing it off and on since then. This has become more than just another hobby for me. I’ve gained a lot of insights about myself, and about society. I've occasionally dived for non-edibles, but I will be focusing my blog on edibles, as food waste is such a big issue.

Gees Louise! Kashi cereal, Kettle chips, granola bars, and more

Dumpster diving is a journey in itself. When one begins there is a feeling of fear and shame, quickly replaced by liberation. When I started doing it, I was afraid of being caught, afraid of people judging me, and feeling a bit like a bum. After awhile though, my shame gave way to freedom, and then enthusiasm.

The enthusiasm has multiple dimensions to it. Obviously, free stuff rocks! Then, every time I open a bin, I feel the thrill of never knowing what I'm going to get. Sort of like playing the lottery or, as Forrest Gump said, opening a box of chocolates. Some days I get nothing, some days I score big and I feel like I won the lottery!
Found these chocolates (not expired) shortly after Valentine's Day and Easter.

Then there's the realization that most of the food I find is actually in good shape. Packaged goods are typically thrown out due to exceeding the 'Best Before' date, although I've discovered a variety of other trivial reasons, such as torn or dirty packaging, or going out of season, such as holiday chocolates.

With produce, such as fruits and vegetables, a surprising amount of what I find looks completely fine, like something I would buy in the store. Some produce may have soft spots, or some surface imperfections, but are otherwise perfectly edible.
Apples. Lots of apples. And they're all perfectly fine.

Various fruits and veggies

The bread basket. I simply avoid the products touching the sides of the bin

Most spots are free and clear. Occasionally though I run into other divers!

This realization triggers elation for my tummy, but disgust for the food industry. Every time I dumpster dive I lose a little more faith in our economic system.

Economics can be a cruel game, and for grocery stores, it means throwing out perfectly good food is better business than reducing prices or donating it. A lot of stores use just-in-time stocking to keep up with the competition. There is a constant flow of goods in the back and out the front, such that the shelves are bulging with no wiggle room. On top of that, strict government regulations combined with liability risks discourage most stores from donating food, even if they have good intentions.

After all, what staff feels good throwing unsold food in the dumpster? You can't blame them - business is business. It makes me wonder about that food waste statistic - 40%. How much of that waste occurs at the supermarket level?

Although I really try not to blame the staff for their complicity, it's hard to justify why they don't bother to recycle properly either. Usually half of the waste I see in the garbage bin is cardboard and paper products, waste that belongs in the adjacent blue bin. I suppose if I were closing up shop at the end of the day, I wouldn't want to linger around longer than I need to in order to properly separate the waste.

Coffee, pasta, random knick knacks, and lots of granola bars

I've reached a crossroads with dumpster diving, where I want others to know about it and benefit from it. I want to spread the word about it, however, this is risky business. How much do I tell?

Exposing the businesses won't force them to stop wasting. It will only cause them to lock their dumpster. I will only mention one store by name because they are easy to pick on. Sometime last year, Walmart was called out in a CBC investigation for food waste, where they sifted through their dumpster at a particular Toronto location. After that episode aired, that location started locking their dumpster. In fact, it was around the same time that episode aired, that the Walmart location I regularly dived at in Vancouver started locking theirs too, so it may have been a corporate wide response.

Thus, I hope you understand why I choose not to expose the names of the stores I dumpster dive at. However, if you are interested in trying it out for yourself, I'd be happy to tell you via private message.

I am thinking about taking a page out of activist Rob Greenfield's book, and displaying all my goods out in a public place, such as along a busy sidewalk, giving them away for free, and starting conversations about it.

Okay, so this is non food, but still worth showing - toothbrushes!

Sour patch kid heaven. I gave all of these away
In terms of my personal transformation through dumpster diving, I feel empowered by rescuing the food and reducing my own demand on the food system. But I also think I've developed a twisted form of entitlement. I feel entitled to free groceries, and try to dive in the back before going in the front, and sometimes I don't even go in the front of the store at all, and eat through my shady pickings.

I think this tactic has reduced the overall quality of my diet. I am generally a healthy eater, so will avoid candy such as the ones in the image above. But I still indulge myself now and then on processed and convenient foods, something I wouldn't have done if I bought food like everyone else.

I'm also still not quite sure what the nutritional quality of some of the food is. But I figure you can't go too wrong with fruits and vegetables. I do draw the line at mould though (for certain foods it is safe to scrape the mould off).

You might not know many dumpster divers but I do know a few. That's because I'm getting people into it! My sister and brother-in-law were all for it. And, though resistant at first, my parents and even my grandma support it and are willing to let me share certain items with them.
I've introduced diving to a few friends too
I still feel that what I am doing is a noble cause. Or maybe I'm foolishly justifying my actions as nobility, when really I'm just a cheap bastard. I'll let you decide that. At the very least, I'm not hiding it like a bad rash.

I've got some far off potential ideas for the future based on my dumpster diving experience. I'm seeing more and more food rescue programs and non-profit businesses pop up, and it inspires me to try something like this someday, perhaps a pay-what-you-can restaurant serving salvage cuisine. I read about a guy in the US who as a hobby dumpster dives electronics, refurbishes and resells them, making tens of thousands of dollars per year.

If there's a moral here, it's that looks can be deceiving - too easily people see something in a garbage can and make the connection that it's useless. Or if they think it might actually be useful, are too ashamed to be seen reaching into a garbage can. But the saying rings true that one man's trash is another man's treasure. Sometimes you gotta just reach in. Because you might just find a box of chocolates.