Wilderness and the search for Authenticity

I’d been discussing some English reading assignments with a student yesterday, and he’d asked me if I knew anything about the book “Into The Wild” – I thought it sounded vaguely Jack London-ish but hadn’t actually heard of it before. Then today Althouse posted an entry about the story – new information has come to light that suggests that McCandless, already suffering from starvation, was hastened to his death by a plant component that doesn’t affect healthy people, but does cause paralysis, especially in starving young men.

The book sounds like it’s an interesting story, one that I may have to read. I’ve read a few of Jack London’s works – I recall a short story in which a man goes out into the Alaskan wild during a severe cold snap and dies of hypothermia when all his attempts to save himself fail – and I’ve also read the YA book “My Side of the Mountain” which also deals with a boy who goes out to live on his own in the wild (and survives to return). I think there must be something in the nature of young men that needs the challenge, a rite of passage, that our society just doesn’t fulfill in the normal course of events. The feeling of conquering nature, or something like that.

Now, as a woman, I enjoy camping. For a weekend. Where there are modern toilets. In a group. When it’s cold so there are fewer bugs. So I must confess that the urge to abandon civilization and go live alone in the wild, living or dying by your own wit, resources, and luck, isn’t one that I’ve personally felt. And in this specific instance, I’m afraid that the way McCandless did it – abandoning his family – seems quite selfish to me. He pursued his dream, yes – but he did so in a fundamentally self-centered and destructive way that needlessly hurt others.

Not only that… but then he failed. He starved to death in a matter of months. Now, to last that long does say that he had more wilderness-knowledge than the average civilized person: but in order for your challenge-by-wilderness to be a success, I think you have to prove that you can set out, live an entire year (through winter), and come back both alive and not starving. If you starve, you prove yourself a failure, and illustrate why humanity has always been a social species. Or, you know, go out for a limited time and come back before you can’t make it out on your own.

And perhaps McCandless might have lived – if he hadn’t been injured, if he’d had a map showing how to cross the river, if- if- if- any number of things. But the fragility of human life outside the tribe is why we HAVE tribes in the first place. Even the hermit that goes off alone into the wilderness to live in acetic devotion to religion is probably close enough to the nearest village that he gets the occasional person bringing food in exchange for advice. And he’s probably homesteading, not wandering aimlessly through the wilderness. That’s the thing – if you want to survive alone out there, you really have three choices: pick a place that is abundant in easy-to-acquire food all year round (NOT ALASKA), homestead in one spot and use agriculture to stockpile enough food for the lean times, or be nomadic in the style of herdsmen, with livestock. (And even homesteaders and herdsmen have communities.) Wandering about the wilderness refusing backup from others until you’re literally dying from starvation isn’t “authentic,” it’s just plain stupid.

Consider the lone man of the wilderness in literature: Aragorn, known in the local communities as “Strider.” He’s not cut off from others; he’s well known in several communities where he can acquire supplies or aid. He himself is part of a group of men who, while spending a great deal of time alone, no doubt meet up from time to time to share knowledge and aid. The wilderness explorers in history traveled in groups; a lone trapper might go out into the wild for a time, but he carries provisions and returns to civilization bearing things of value to others. Nomadic tribes are just that – tribes. You at least have your family to help you out there.

And here’s the pathos: for all that this young man “lived life on his own terms” – he died horribly, leaving behind a note begging for help that didn’t come, because he had turned his back on the people most likely to move heaven and earth to find him. When a person who enjoys “extreme” sports dies in an accident, or even hikers that get mauled by a bear or that poor girl who slipped off the trail and fell to her death in front of her hiking partner – it’s sad, but it’s not a failure that renders their purpose meaningless. If you throw yourself alone into the wild, searching for a challenge, authenticity, whatever – if you starve, you fail. It’s not like getting mauled by a bear or having a tree fall on you. Starvation takes a long time; he had to have known as his clothes grew looser and looser that he had less and less margin of error, that his own efforts to survive were manifestly coming up short. There seems to have been multiple times when McCandless had refused help from others that may well have aided in his survival: but by the time he asked for help, in a note left in the wilderness, it was far too late.

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About pancakeloach

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