When former Silicon Valley marketer Jessica Carew Kraft picked up a smelly dead fox from the side of U.S. 101, she knew she was on her way to the new life that beckoned from thousands of years in the past.
She was returning to the Bay Area from Santa Barbara after a weekend workshop that taught survival and subsistence skills such as making food, clothing and tools out of animals — including roadkill.
“When it materialized on the roadside, I had no plan,” Kraft writes in her new book “Why We Need to Be Wild.” “It was more like the fox grabbed me, offering the opportunity to transform myself, which I desperately wanted to do.”
Arriving home with her daughters, she stashed the critter’s corpse in the garage after swearing the girls, 7 and 9, to secrecy. Her husband, a lawyer, supported her initial explorations into a more primitive, nature-connected life, but only to a point.
In order to skin the fox, she snuck into the garage on a pretext, she recounts in her book: “On a lovely Sunday morning in the spring of 2018, I was perspiring over a carcass in the prosperous hills of Berkeley,” she wrote, “lying about my whereabouts and trying to devise a good location to bury a stolen, dead animal so that I could later retrieve its skull for my children’s education.”
In the end, she buried the fox under a tree with purple vinca blossoms on its eyes. Its slow return to the earth provided periodic lessons for her daughters, and much later, she retrieved the skull she sought.
By then, Kraft had put the technology industry behind her, along with her lengthy commute, dry-cleaned clothing, and sleep deprivation, and had embarked on a journey that would take her out of her comfort zone, out of her marriage, and, more or less, out of the Bay Area.
“We were not creating a better world through technology,” Kraft said on a recent afternoon at Remillard Park in Berkeley, where she still spends time after moving to a home in the Sierra foothills in 2021. “It wasn’t actually creating the healthy, happy future, but rather people on screens getting sicker, which was where I found myself.”
Today Kraft, who works as a writer and editor, keeps expenses down by growing and gathering food, and making life’s most of necessities herself or buying them used, saying, “We’re all living a little too high on the hog and taking up too many resources.”
About six years ago, the rewards Kraft felt from forays into the outdoors led her to study nature in earnest, starting with a UC Berkeley course and frequenting Tilden Regional Park behind the school, where she rediscovered “the wonder and delight of being in nature.” Her next step, attending a primitive-skills gathering, prompted her to look back to hundreds of thousands of years ago when people lived nomadically, hunting and gathering, instead of through convenient consumption. “Learning to survive in nature gave me so much more confidence that whatever happens, I can face it,” she said.
Jessica Carew Kraft strips the stem of a Himalayan blackberry plant on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, in Berkeley, Calif. Kraft is an author and forager of wild edibles. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Substantial scientific research supports the idea that spending time in nature, and deepening connections to the natural world, improves health and wellbeing and reduces stress, said Lisa Nisbet, a psychology professor at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, who studies nature’s effects on physical and mental health. “When people walk in those places, they tend to have more positive emotions as opposed to negative emotions, more sense of vitality,” Nisbet said. Benefits can be significant for those whose immersion in nature is far shallower than Kraft’s, Nisbet said. “For some people it may be just they want to enjoy their local park or green space,” she said.
Kraft knows her lifestyle is uncommon, but believes connections to nature, even small ones, provide an antidote to the hectic pace and overconsumption of modern life. As she speaks, Kraft is peeling a blackberry bramble, which she rubs, twists and loops, transforming it into a length of crude cord a few inches long in the space of a few minutes. “This is a really ancient skill, like 130,000 years,” she said. “In almost every ecological zone there is a plant that is sturdy enough and has the right consistency to make string. I could make a really nice length of cord in a few hours. When you’re done with it, it’s not trash, it’s biodegradable.”
Nature’s bounty, she has learned, does not always require wilderness. When Kraft looks at a residential area now, she sees the houses, but she studies what’s in between. “There are so many interstitial spaces and wild places just in this neighborhood,” she says, walking up a path in the Berkeley hills, pointing out edible plants. “We could really be feeding a lot of people from stuff that’s just weeds.”
Wild lettuce on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, in Berkeley, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Or lying dead by the roadside.
About four years ago, on a trip to Gold Country, Kraft spotted a young freshly dead buck beside Highway 108. She rose the next day at dawn, packed a knife into her old Toyota Corolla, then tried unsuccessfully to cram the deer into the trunk. Instead, she used a daughter’s swimsuit and a handkerchief to hoist the beast into her back seat. Hordes of flies appeared as she deployed her budding skills to butcher some 60 pounds of meat. “I looked up at the pine tree above me, perfectly bisecting the blasting sunshine on a seventy-five-degree day,” she wrote in her book, “and shouted out, ‘This is my life!’ I knew I could rely on myself.”
Kraft acknowledged what state department of Fish and Wildlife’s Ken Paglia confirmed: Harvesting roadkill is illegal in California. And she also admitted that some foraging practices violate other laws, but harbors no shame. “Because wild skills are everyone’s birthright, we all should feel welcome and included in access to abundant natural spaces, especially for subsistence,” she wrote.”
In pursuing her lifestyle, cops and game wardens have not been Kraft’s only concern. The first night she and her daughters made fire in their Berkeley backyard using friction, her husband watched from the hot tub. “I knew better than to tell him that I’d been experimenting with roadkill squirrel in our kitchen and stretching a goat hide on our back deck stairs,” she wrote.
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He had not joined her and the girls for skills workshops, camping trips and wilderness treks. Kraft takes responsibility for the “growing divide” that saw him turn up his nose at her foraged greens and instead “chow down on pre-washed spinach from Trader Joe’s.” After 12 years of marriage, they divorced in 2020, amicably, she said.
Today’s ways of life make many of us weak and soft, with some people in their 40s or 50s unable to even hike, Kraft said.
Nisbet, to some extent, agreed. “I’m stuck on my computer a lot,” she said. “Whenever I go outside, even if it’s freezing and raining … I never come back in and say, ‘Gee, I wish I hadn’t gone for a walk outside.’ Even if your feet are wet or cold you sort of feel energized because you’ve been in the real world.
“Sometimes the most rewarding and beneficial experiences are the ones that are not easy and comfortable.”