Back to Nature — and Back

Disenchanted by the modern world, Michael Lees ’15 moved to the forests of his eastern Caribbean homeland of Dominica with some basic survival gear, religious texts and a camera, intending to document his experience. He lived in a hut he built with palm leaves and bamboo. (Photo courtesy of Michael Lees ’15)

Michael Lees ’15 long wondered why humans abandoned the simplicity of nature.

“Maybe there was a time, in our prehistory, where we had everything we needed. But we just couldn’t see it.”

Did we once know the secret to a good life, he asks, but discard it “for dead cities and concrete cages?”

Lees determined to seek the answer — by spending six months in a rainforest in his mountainous Caribbean homeland, Dominica, in the Lesser Antilles north of Martinique, and making a film of the experience.

The result, Uncivilized, was released this year. It includes a plot turn that surprised even its maker.

COMMONWEALTH OF DOMINICA • Size: 29 miles long, 16 miles wide; 289.5 square miles. • Rainy season: June to October; annual rainfall ranges 60–145 inches in coastal areas, up to 250 inches in the mountains. • People: Mainly African descendants; also some of European and Indian subcontinent origin and Carib Indians, descendants of the inhabitants before European colonization. • Economy: Heavily agricultural; main crops are bananas, citrus fruits and coconuts; some cocoa, coffee and vegetable production.

After earning a communications degree, Lees was living in New York — “in the empire, in the height of development,” he says — but realized “there’s a lot of things missing.” So he flew back to his island home in 2017.

Suddenly this gregarious filmmaker is alone in a forest with only a camera, basic survival gear and religious texts. He’s arranging bamboo into a shelter. Struggling to keep firewood dry. Snaring crabs and fish, foraging for taro root. Going days without protein and weeks without human contact or some old vices — cigarettes and alcohol.

Twelve weeks pass, and Lees doesn’t quite have his answer. But he’s finding something.

“One of the best things was having these total moments of clarity, and perfect presence,” he recalls. “One moment I’ll always remember is just having done a lot of manual work in the morning, and then I had a papaya … and I just remember sitting on a log over the river and eating this thing.

“And you know, so many times when we eat in our regular life, you’ve got to hurry to go and do something else. So you’re not thinking about it. But I was perfectly there with it. … And it was just like: ‘Ah, this is it. This is what it’s all about.’ ”

Then comes the plot twist. It’s Day 81 — Sept. 18 — and a friend comes to Lees’ shelter to warn him that Maria is coming — Maria being a Category 3 hurricane.

Lees never considers leaving.

“Part of my whole idea behind this project was what it’s like to live with nature,” he recalls. “So, I felt like it would be kind of ridiculous, you know?”

Instead, he gets ready as best he can. While he’s fortifying his hut with palm fronds, Maria is also getting stronger. It’s now a Category 5.

Night falls. The wind roars. Lees hunkers down — his face, lit by a flashlight, filling the screen with growing fear; his voice suddenly aware of his folly.

“I don’t want to die in such a stupid way,” he tells the camera.

“I want to say I love you all, but I don’t want to jinx myself.”

“Oh, my God. What am I DOOOOINNNGGG?”

“It’s too late, too late … it’s too late.”

“I love you all so much.”

Lees said that during his stay he developed “perfect presence” to enjoy simple pleasures, such as eating a piece of fruit. “So many times when we eat in our regular life, you’ve got to hurry. … And it was just like: ‘Ah, this is it. This is what it’s all about.’ ” (Photo courtesy of Michael Lees ’15)

Morning arrives, and Lees wriggles his head, and his camera, out of the debris. “There’s no forest!” he yells. A lush hillside is now a landscape of sticks.

Now his quest, in a single night of horror, has been reversed. He has to get back to civilization.

But his dayslong trek to his parents’ coastal home encounters little of modern life. A nation of 73,000 people has lost all power, thousands of homes and all outside contact.

What he does see, though, starts to feel like his answer. And it’s between the extremes he had contemplated.

“You saw people kind of reverting back to a way of life that either they knew as kids or their parents or grandparents, which was carrying water, washing clothes in the river with your family or neighbors” — in ancient ways, but as a community, he says.

So civilization really was “mankind’s destiny,” he says. Nature is too harsh, too unpredictable. He sees virtues in modernity — medicine, unlimited human contact. “And I think shoes are great.”

But Maria reminded Dominicans of something important — what his mother, Cecily, calls “the simple, sustainable life.”

“Everyone kind of understood,” Lees recalls, “that everything that we have on Earth is temporary,” that life and community, and taking care of them, are what matter. “Everything else can be gotten back.”

Lees still lives in Dominica, making music videos, editing a UNICEF film and writing a screenplay. But the lesson stays.

“The answer doesn’t lie in some future endpoint or some forgotten beginning,” he says in the film. “It’s ending up right where you started, and laughing. Laughing that you ever thought you had somewhere to go in the first place.”

— Eric Frederick ’81


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