Do we really learn anything from ‘reality’ shows that claim to lay bare human nature, asks Lori Anderson
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
The wooden cabin built in 1845 by Henry David Thoreau in the woods by Walden pond, was ten feet by fifteen feet “tightly shingled and plastered” and no longer stands, though small stone pillars now mark the spot near Concord in Massachusetts. He moved in on 4 July and lived there for two years, two months and two days during which time he extolled self-reliance and wished to demonstrate that “money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul”. This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great transcendentalist and author of the celebrated memoir Walden: or Life in the Woods, and while Thoreau continues to inspire each new generation of rugged, back to nature environmentalists, I think it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to go far to find yourself. Thoreau’s cabin was barely two miles from the nearest town and his mother would frequently collect and return his laundry.
During his time in the cabin by Walden pond, Thoreau advocated “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” and set about discovering his abilities as a writer. He wrote two works. The first was ‘A Week on the Merrimack and Concord Rivers’ an account of a journey with his brother John, who had recently died of lockjaw. As it was self-published and sold poorly, Thoreau was left the proud owner of over 600 copies. The second work was 18 personal essays on his dissatisfaction with the modern world and the industrial revolution as well as his belief in the healing power of nature. He would spend almost three times as long re-writing this material into what would become ‘Walden’ as he did living the simple, good life in his little cabin. During his time by Walden pond Thoreau sought to better understand human nature as each of the four seasons rolled by and explained: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life...if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.”
This particular quote seemed apt when considering a project of which Henry David Thoreau may well have initially approved. Last March, 23 individuals left behind a world in which President Obama was in the White House, David Cameron was in Number 10 and the UK was in Europe, to enter a 600-acre slice of wilderness on the Ardnamurchan Estate in Argyll with a view to creating a new Eden. Under the watchful eye of hundreds of rigged cameras, this community of strangers was asked to consider the question: what if you could start again? Operating in splendid isolation over a 12 month period, the result of their utopian experiment is broadcast every night this week and Channel 4 have followed Thoreau’s advice and decided to “publish its meanness to the world.”
Ian Dunkley, Channel 4’s commissioning editor explained: “Eden was a gamble. We genuinely didn’t know what we were going to get, but it’s paid off as fascinating telly that says something about human nature and society. We thought it would be much more about how they interacted with their environment, but they mastered that quite quickly. More interesting was how the characters interacted. The participants went in with a rose-tinted view of how society would evolve when you started from scratch, but things went in a different direction. People reverted to their base instincts.”
Seventeen years after the BBC turned the island of Taransay in the Outer Hebrides into a social experiment and gave us Castaway 2000, the Scottish highlands are once again the backdrop to an updated version of Lord of the Flies. Castaway bequeathed us the blandly pleasant Ben Fogle, who arrived as a picture editor for Tatler magazine and departed a handsomely remunerated television presenter. Judging by the first episode of Eden: Paradise Lost, broadcast on Monday night, I’m not quite sure which of this motley crew is most likely to transform their 15 minutes of fame into a sustainable television career. Anton, the boatman, has piercing eyes, a Rasputin-style beard and the same mesmerising ability to sow discord. No sooner had this group of strangers made camp collectively on the shoreline, than Anton, like a latter-day Thoreau, had “went to the woods” to live deliberately on his own.
He’s being set up as the ‘anti-hero’, a new ‘Nasty Nick’, though according to the preview publicity and recent press reports, there are plenty of other contenders. In ‘Eden: Paradise Lost’ the participants are being driven by ‘hanger’, a cross between hunger and anger, as rationing is tightened and they fail to initially catch adequate fish or bag a stag. The community quickly breaks down along lines of sex with the dominant males controlling the food and questioning the women’s right to equal rations. As Katie, one of the participants said: “They said we were lazy, and these weird social words like ‘efficiency’ and ‘cull’ were used. Eventually, if the group thinks something’s okay, it becomes okay.” We will have to wait and see who becomes the ‘Piggy’ in this new Lord of the Flies but we do know that of the original 23 who first arrived only ten stayed until the bitter end.
I always wonder what we really learn from such ‘social experiments’. In Eden: Paradise Lost, the participants were largely in their telegenic 20s and 30s, perhaps a few sprightly pensioners may have cooled tempers and negotiated truces. Or perhaps Thoreau was right and we all need, not a collective camp, but our own cabin in the woods, in which to retreat. For the rural sage of New England was aware of “an essential fact of life” best summed up by the urban sage Jean Paul Sartre: “Hell is other people.”