Mossback’s Northwest: Before Woodstock, there were the ‘Nature Men’

Mossback's Northwest: Before Woodstock, there were the 'Nature Men'


His biography sounds familiar. His actual name was Ernest Darling, though he was known more widely as Nature Man. He lived in Portland, where his father was a prominent physician. In the 1890s he went to California to attend Stanford, but dropped out due to ill health — he was scrawny and struggling. Traditional medicine — including his father’s ministrations — failed to work.

So, at 90 pounds of skin and bones, we went off to the Oregon woods. He shed his shoes and clothes — most of them anyway. He advocated eating only uncooked fruits and vegetables, nuts and berries. He shifted to warmer climes like California and wandered around near-naked there too. He became one of those Bay Area weirdos of which there have been so many. He met the famous author Jack London, who first saw him on the streets of San Francisco and later scampering in the hills outside Oakland.

“He was all sunburn,” London later wrote; “… he was a tawny man … all glowing and radiant with the sun. Another prophet, thought I, come up to town with a message that will save the world.”

And it’s true. Darling wanted a world in which people could be wild and natural, naked and healthy. In the late 19th century, gadding about barely clothed was enough to turn more than heads: It could get you arrested. So Darling decided to find more welcoming environs. In 1904 he tried Hawaii, but they were ready for him. The Hawaiian Star reprinted a San Francisco newspaper report about Darling, warning of his nakedness and strange lifestyle. In it, the 30-something young man tried to explain himself:

“I am not a religious crank, nor out to attract cheap attention to myself. I am an earnest student of good health and right conditions of living. I wish to discard clothing as rapidly as society becomes pure enough to stand it.”

After six months he learned that Hawaii wasn’t interested in what he was selling, which included near-nude pictures of himself. The sheriff charged him with obscenity and being a vagrant. So, facing jail time, he took a steamer for Tahiti.

He made himself at home in the French colony, where he lived on bananas, honey, oranges and pineapples and had a grass hut and a small farm to tend. A travel writer who visited the islands described his conversation as “socialistic; his ideas of men living like monkeys was interesting, if queer.”

It was here that Darling became more famous because his old acquaintance from California, Jack London, came sailing into Pape’ete in his boat the Snark, a stop on his tour of the South Pacific with his wife in a custom-built boat.

Darling greeted London in an outrigger flying the red flag of socialism — and London sympathized. Darling shared his theories about levitation (it was possible) and how he would not need to sleep at age 100 and would be able to live on air alone.

London moved on, and Darling eventually did too. Nature Man left Tahiti and traveled in Asia and the South Pacific. Despite his health regimen, there was one affliction he couldn’t outrun: In late 1918, the influenza pandemic swept Fiji. Fresh air, fruit and sunshine were no vaccine for the Spanish flu.

Nature put an end to Nature Man.