top of page
this land-1.jpg

Author | Journalist | Speaker

  • Ken Ilgunas

“You’re boring!” In high school, a fellow student said this to me. “You never have anything to say!” he added. Some girls in the class leapt to my defense, but I was unmoved by the insult. (Insults only hurt when someone points out what you’re not ready to admit.) I already knew I was boring. I’m reminded of my insulter because I feel like I’ve been at my “peak boring” — my Mount Dull — for these past few years. Nothing dulls you quicker than being a parent. Having a child is like injecting anesthesia into your personality. For the past three years, I’ve been groggily pushing my child on swings, endlessly tidying the kitchen, and resentfully mending the shoddy house we bought. Last month, I spent a whole week sanding three interior doors and ripping moldy drywall out of my kitchen—it was seven days of toil that could be summarized with a grunt. I used to be able to skim through tons of books, soak up lots of movies, and keep up with the news. For a few years, I was perched somewhere among the top 5 percent of people abreast of developments in culture and thought. Such is the fortune of someone who has neither debt, a job, nor children. This consumption of content always gave me something to say. But, since then, I’ve become a conversational stonewall. In conversations with my wife, I offer little more than pre-language throat noises: “mmm hmm,” “mmm,” or “mmff!,” which, when typed out, look like interesting porn categories, but are responses that make conversations crash and die. I agree with my high school insulter: I am fundamentally boring. And it’s not just the parenting that makes me boring. I am slow-witted. I have no gift for oral storytelling. I have a poor memory of facts. I’m too much of a loner to gather good gossip. I rarely offer an anecdote. Never a joke. When I’m invited to brunch, I leave thinking that my hosts will never invite the quiet guy back. I’ll say this in my defense, though. As a rule, I think being quiet is more polite than subjecting listeners to dull anecdotes. And sometimes I do have something interesting to say, but not a receptive audience for the highly-specialized miscellanea that interest me: the interpersonal dynamics between players on my rec league sports teams; the Buffalo Bills’ not-so-bad off-season; Ulysses S. Grant’s astonishing life-journey; the growing prevalence of UFO stories in mainstream media; or the triumph of Succession’s fourth season and the misfires in Black Mirror’s sixth. It takes two to make one dull. My parent-friends who have two kids — a toddler and an infant — are in an even worse position. When we all get together, we have little to talk about other than our kids—development milestones, potty updates, nursery appraisals, our regrets for renouncing contraception. Mostly, we just spend two hours either being interrupted by our kids or yelling at them from afar to not do something. The consequences of our dulldom aren’t dire. Eventually, we’ll go back to our interesting jobs, take up old hobbies, pursue new dreams, and consume films and books worthy of discussion. But there was once a time in my life when I felt like my boringness was a serious matter that needed addressing. During my college years, I was what you might call a pre-social media “involuntary celibate” (couldn’t get laid and also couldn’t complain about it on the Internet). The problem wasn’t my smarts or my looks. (I was a good student, free from all date-ending deformities or asymmetries.) The problem was that I was boring. Like many young men, I enjoyed trying to master skills, compete against friends, and achieve goals in videogames. I liked watching hockey on TV. I liked getting obscenely drunk playing beer pong with friends. I couldn’t have been more ordinary. And going to the gym to pump up biceps didn’t compensate for my boringness. I mostly didn’t mind being boring. But when love and physical attention continued to elude my grasp throughout the first half of my twenties (inconveniently at the peak of my desires), I, in quick order, quit all videogames, stopped watching sports, and passed a temperance amendment to my personal constitution. I embarked on a journey of self-transformation — to make myself interesting — by throwing myself into my coursework, embarking on risky adventures, and consuming good art. Here’s a rare anecdote from me: Once an old man, who picked me up hitchhiking, said, “Sounds like your pecker is taking ya across the world.” I'd told him that I was traveling thousands of miles to see my then-girlfriend. You could also say that my pecker also played a role in compelling me to open up Middlemarch, to watch The Passion of Joan of Arc, or to write my first book. In time, I went from being invisible to visible. From incel to enticing. From self-abuse to, well, you get the idea. But, at bottom, I was and, to some extent, still am my boring high school self—a guy who’d derive plenty of pleasure from a tray of greasy pizza and an all-night Civ VI marathon. Anthony Bourdain once said, “I understand there's a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.” Bourdain and I have one thing in common: we’re aware and critical of our dullness. The only thing left to do is carefully draw up and adhere to a syllabus of self-enrichment. Some sort of artificial mechanism, requiring sacrifice and discipline, is probably too much for most people, so I’m tempted to end this by saying that it’s okay to be dull. But the truth is that I can’t stand dull people. When I’m stranded with dull people at a social event I begin to fantasize about overturning a table laden with silverware, cheerfully exposing myself, or taking some ridiculous political position just to keep myself stimulated. The weight of some people’s dullness is so heavy that you become a mere comet fixed in an inescapable orbit around an unimaginable mass of worthless anecdotes and tedious monologues. But I can’t stand the dull mostly because they remind me of the worst of myself—and because they haven’t put in the work to become aware of their dullness or develop their own syllabus of enrichment. Being dull is a killer to your existential life the same way greasy pizza is a killer to your cardiovascular system. It’s the wastefulness that’s repulsive. Let me proclaim into the cosmic void — to those who have the fortune of leisure — that we should all climb down from our Mount Dulls as best we can. Think of it as socio-cultural hygiene. For the same reason we roll deodorant into our armpits, we should consume that which enriches, makes us think and feel, and that gives us something meaningful to say. Chuck the Big Mac and eat your veggies; quit your true-crime podcast and chow down on some Ken Burns. Eat your cold tofu and go cold turkey on Marvel. Follow your pecker to George Eliot but always use contraception. It’s as much for others, as it is for ourselves.

It all started in 2021 when I got a strange email from a survival show called "Alone," inviting me to apply to be one of ten contestants who'd compete to survive somewhere in the Canadian wilderness I declined, but the moment I finished watching my first "Alone" episode, I wanted to be on it—both for the escape (living alone in the wild for 2-3 months), but also for the pot of gold that goes to the winner ($500K). I had none of the tangible skills to succeed, so I enrolled in a year-long bushcraft course in which I acquainted myself with shelter-building, bow-making, tanning, and doing other bushcrafty things. The final stage of my bushcraft education was learning how to shoot a bow, which I did this past winter by enrolling in a beginner’s course taught by members of a local archery club. For six weeks, I fired arrows alongside fellow students —mostly nine-year-old boys and girls — in a church hall. The whole time I knew that this "Alone" thing was a low-probability venture. (Thousands apply to be on the show each year, and if I got on, I’d only have a one-in-ten chance at making any money.) To get on the show, I knew I’d need to be, in my embellishments, shamelessly reckless. When I applied, I told them I was a "hunter"—of white-tailed deer, hare, and ptarmigan. All of that was technically true, but I neglected to mention that I never actually killed (or had seen) any of those animals. I also called myself a “fisherman” (in that I am a “man” who has “fished”) and an “outdoorsman” (following that same logic). I had to make an impression with my skillset because I don’t exactly have a TV personality. With neither the charm of a Bear Grylls nor the effervescence of a Steve Irwin, I’d be the Calvin Coolidge of the outdoor community—taciturn, averse to ostentation, with a face that often conveys no emotion, apart from pensiveness and cluelessness. Plus, I am another middle-aged white loner trying to get on a show (full of white loners) that is working hard to diversify its cast. But I applied anyway. I got a phone interview within a day, which went well until they started asking questions. How would you skin a rabbit? Describe two deadfalls traps. How would you gut a trout? What are the best rocks for flint-knapping? What are the uses of yarrow or plantain? The specificity of these questions made it impossible for me to outwit my interviewer using my usual powers of bullshitting. I changed tack to frank honesty — answering “I don’t know” to some of these — with the hope that they’d prefer my refreshing candor to someone who could actually acquire food in the wild or heal themselves using medicinal plants. I went to bed that night feeling pretty certain I’d never hear from the "Alone" people again. My "Alone" goal has been in the back of my mind for two years, but it only took me eight hours to get over it. In the morning, I felt relieved. I could move on and think about other projects. Plus, I recognized how unprepared I was. When I got a text that morning that read, “Hi Ken, can we talk about next steps,” I felt doomed. And so began the month of March (“the most invigorating month of my life”). The “next steps” involved compiling hours of video footage of me doing all the things I didn’t know how to do, whether it was coastal fishing, finding wild meat, or starting a friction fire. I spent days on rocky Scottish shorelines, whittling a hobo reel, casting hooks lined with limpet flesh into an angry and not-exactly-plentiful sea. From salty boulders, I cut raw kelp, took a skeptical look at it, and then couldn’t stop myself from stuffing salads of it into my mouth. (Seaweed may look slimy, but it's actually crispy and it has the salt content of a potato chip, making it a wonderful wild snack.) It had been years since I fished. I realized that the process of filming myself was providing me with necessary practice for "Alone." At night, I’d prepare my hooks and lines while watching YouTube videos of professional fishermen. I met up with a local forager who’d help me identify edible mushrooms. A fellow bushcraft student came over and gave me an education in igniting a friction fire using a bow drill. (When I ignited my first friction fire, I was so pleased with myself. It felt like I’d reclaimed an ancient skill.) I didn’t read my bushcraft books casually; I read them with urgency, seeking out key nuggets of information that might give me an edge, such as how to call in a moose or build a chimney using earthen cement. I told my wife that I wished life was always like this—full of nature, urgent learning, novelty. Maybe it was just the novelty — sewing up my deer-skin sami pouch, brewing nettles, hacking down bullrush shoots for their oniony insides — but maybe it was something more. I wished I could spend a season of every year as a hunter-gatherer, applying all his cunning and craft, living moment to moment in a still forest or on an abundant sea; striving to achieve his simple, but also complicated, daily tasks. As I tried to master each skill and capture it on camera, I felt like I was in the middle of a Rocky-style survivalist montage video. I had wind in my hair, sun on my skin, sand in my socks, and road-kill in the boot of my car. I picked up a run-over hare when driving my daughter to nursery. I needed the hare to show the producers I was capable of acquiring food, and this being Britain (where hunting is only practiced by gamekeepers and the well-to-do), I had to take anything I could find. I pinned up its two hind legs behind my compost bin, cut off its head, and peeled the fur off. I was able to remain pretty detached throughout the process, even when I rolled out all the lumpy guts. I cooked half the rabbit in a backyard stove, mixing in some wild garlic, jelly ear mushrooms, and bullrush shoots. It was delicious. Within five minutes after consumption, I begin to feel disoriented and confused, as if I was drunk or experiencing a bad high. I wondered if it was from the vapors of the fire, the mushrooms, or the rabbit. (Probably the mushrooms.) Before, I’d cheekily texted my vegetarian wife a picture of the dead hare. But two hours later she got another text that read, “definately not feeling well…” The only advantage I had against some of my competition was my ability to edit videos, so I cleverly edited out the 48-hour gastrointestinal horror movie that followed my woodland feast. My wife came home to see me laying on the couch at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. She walked into the bathroom and said, “That’s your bathroom now.” I told myself, in my semi-delirious state, that I don’t belong or even want to be on this show. But the human mind has an incredible capacity to forget. I was back in my movie montage the next day. If I was going to have a chance at winning this thing against superior opponents, I knew I needed to start preparing — not when I got a spot on the show — but now, before anyone else started preparing. If I couldn’t out-hunt my opponents, I figured I might be able to preemptively out-eat them. I figured if I could increase my weight by about 25% (175 pounds to 220), then I might be able to out-starve everybody. So I started spooning pints of Ben and Jerry’s Dulce De-lish into my mouth, drinking a nightly Guinness, and eating cereal at unforgivable hours of the day. In two weeks, I was startled (and a bit disturbed) to learn that I’d gained an astonishing ten pounds. Alas, it was all for naught. I got a pro forma email thanking me for my submissions and assuring me that my survival skills must have been top-notch to have reached the video submission stage. Now, I’m left with an archery hobby I probably don’t have time for, an expensive row of bushcraft books that would have taught me things (such as tying 101 knots or making cordage from nettles) that I probably no longer have use for, not to mention the ten pounds of inconvenient flab. That night my wife scolded me for letting my daughter play with a fire lighter and warned me not to let her handle dog food. She excitedly brought up the prospect of falling asleep as early as “10:30 p.m.” I was shaken from my hunter-gatherer daydream and I had to reorient myself to the fact that I live in the land of the barely living. Here, I gather my food in cloth bags at the local grocery store, not from my local river. Here, I work on my computer in the corner of my bedroom, not outdoors. When failing at something, it's possible to feel disappointment and relief at the same time. So I felt those things, and I also felt like there was something pathetic about depending on a reality TV show to provide me with the escape and chance at fortune that elude me in my normal life. Sadly, due to all the usual financial obligations, most of us don’t have the liberty to live the "Alone" dream, or a life anything like our hunter-gatherer forebears. I was lucky to have had the freedom to live a bit of that life for a month. The next day, I could have started shedding all of my extra weight, but I took my daughter to McDonald's, where I got her a Happy Meal and where I raided their Saver Menu. My daughter — now three-and-a-half — smiled eagerly as she waited for her food and I was happy that I wouldn’t be away from her for months while she’s at her peak cuteness. It remains to be seen if my bushcraft education will be of any use to me in the future, or if it was just a waste of time (probably) and a huge distraction from writing (definitely). It’s our 21st-century task to find the sublime in the spoilt and extract invigoration from the imperfect. I may not be able to live my hunter-gatherer dream on the show or in my local environs, but I at least got this out of my project: I know there are trout in the river behind my house; that there are, just a short drive away, cliffs and crags where kelp clings, seabirds caw, and mackerel are hungry for a hook; and the odd forest where, if I choose to, I might reclaim an ancient skill.

bottom of page