What To Read: Caroline McCarthy is exploring the outdoors

This week, we interviewed Caroline McCarthy, who writes The Firewood, a newsletter about our relationship to the outdoors. This interview has been lightly edited for length.

What's your Substack about in one sentence?

Musings on all kinds of wilderness, and our relationship to it in the 21st century.

Your Substack feels like an escape somehow – from the day-to-day of tech, media, and all the other things you normally post about. Why did you decide to write about the wilderness?

The straightforward version: I needed an escape myself. Long-form writing had always been something I’ve done just for fun, with no intention of anybody else ever reading it.

But once I started writing professionally, first as a journalist and then in content marketing, I stopped writing for myself. I started to feel like I was losing my senses of curiosity and creativity, and I was getting more reactive the more time I spent on short-form social media. So this was a personal project first and foremost.

The more winding version: A couple of years ago I went to a talk by a neurobiologist named Andrew Huberman that was, I think, broadly about mindfulness. But he said something as kind of a casual aside that’s stuck with me ever since: Humans, like predatory mammals, have eyes on the fronts of their heads in order to be able to focus on a single point (prey while hunting). That focus raises stress hormones like cortisol in the brain, and that’s why predators need to spend so much time recharging. It’s why if you go on a safari and drive past a pride of lions they’re probably all asleep, and it’s why my cat is currently taking her second nap of the day after spending an hour staring at the hall closet.

Huberman [said that] you can imagine how much those stress hormones get ratcheted up when we’re spending so much time focusing on tiny devices in our hands. We’re literally hunting for information. And we still have a lot of “wild” in our brains. I think that when we talk about “wilderness” and how it’s being lost in our modern era, we have to look inward as well as outward.

What was your first exposure to spending time outdoors?

Oh my God, I was the weirdest little backyard explorer. I’d walk out the back door with some volume of the Peterson’s Field Guides for Kids series and taught myself how to get so good at bird calls that the birds would respond to me. I had a neon orange fishing rod that I would use to catch (and release) fish at a local pond using leftover pizza crust as bait. My parents were the kinds of people for whom outdoors pursuits were gardening or maybe a bike ride around the neighborhood, so I’m amazed they put up with me.

Anyway, when I was 17 I went hiking for the first time as part of a college freshman orientation trip in central Pennsylvania. It’s a long story, but I ended up getting completely lost in the woods and the trip leaders had to use the satellite phone to alert the program managers that there’d been an emergency. Not the most glamorous start to a lifelong pursuit.

Humans have been trying to rediscover themselves in nature for generations. What's missing from that genre today, and how do you hope to contribute to it?

Yeah. I wavered for a while on even launching a newsletter about the outdoors because it’s like, what the hell else can I really offer? And maybe the answer is “nothing.”

I nevertheless rarely find outdoors writing that I truly love. A relationship with the outdoors is usually pitched either as something that requires deep attention to a meditative practice, or it’s a one-time quest to “find yourself,” and often the excursions into the outdoors are inaccessible to the average person as a result of cost or geography. Most of my writing is about trips that involve getting into a rental car and driving two hours north of New York City and nothing particularly edgy or dangerous is involved.

I suppose I want to drive home the point that the wilderness is everywhere within and around us, and our relationship to the natural world is something to maintain and cultivate for life, even if we live in the middle of cities and even if we have no desire to put on a pair of hiking boots.

Is it possible for people to re-ground themselves without physically removing themselves from their environment?

Absolutely. I think this is really important for everyone, to be honest. It’s tough to escape the culture of information overload we live in, and for some people (myself included, considering I work in digital media) it’s unrealistic. I’m just not sold on the idea that technology is ruining our lives, or fundamentally creates a disconnect to the natural world. In many ways it can expand that relationship: If I didn’t have access to GPS, for example, I’d be far less comfortable solo hiking.

But nevertheless we do need ways to re-ground and give our overloaded brains a rest. I’ve gotten very into embodiment work, which is a form of really active, breath-based meditation that can release both stress and physical pain – Radical Awakenings is the program I’m part of. And that’s something you can do at home with a Spotify playlist or with an instructor over Zoom. I’ve also loved getting into indoor gardening and houseplant ownership since COVID hit. Having just the tiniest bit of green around can make a difference (and now my spoiled cat has catnip grown and dried at home just for her).

Is going back to nature a fundamentally anti-social act for you, or does it help you reconnect to others?

It’s both, honestly? And I think most of us need both. Some of my fondest memories in the outdoors have been with groups of friends, and some have been totally solo. You can also tell a lot about a person by how they relate to the natural world; if they’re respectful or wasteful, or if they complain about mud or whatever.

Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?

Zeynep Tufekci’s Insight is really good. Her Twitter feed has been a must-follow for a while, but you can really see the inherent limitations of the 280-character format as she uses it to explain some pretty complex concepts. So I’m glad she’s doing longer-form writing.

Subscribe to Caroline’s newsletter, The Firewood, or find her on Instagram @caro.

Photo credit: Molly Aaker