What is it about wilderness and the seeker? Exhausted from all the possibility of our way of life, the empty consumption and lie of career, many turn their gaze to the foothills and the horizon wondering if the answer is to be found in a simpler way of life. Others simply yearn for authenticity and the uncomplicated yet stern hand of nature’s hand. The three books below capture the stories of those that have found it impossible to ignore an irresistible call.
The wild Muir
If you’re going to write anything about the spirit of adventure, the great outdoors, communion with nature and tenacity of spirit you have to start with John Muir. Rambling the wild woods of the west, mountain climbing in winter ranges with pockets stuffed only with hard tack and tea, Muir was a man seldom seen, or indeed made, in our current age or perhaps any age. The product of a strict Presbyterian parents and a ludicrously harsh upbringing, Muir was normalised against a background of incessant toil and service.
Although this hardship was not unique in nineteenth century terms (and still is now for many), Muir’s writing, and indeed entire spirit appears to transcend the typically masculine and common evocations peculiar to such earlier times that proclaimed ‘man as master over nature’ (I love Jack London but his work is full of misguided proclaim) preferring instead to celebrate his adoration of the morning birdsong, the blissful moonlight in the hills and each gift, no matter how small that each day in the wilderness bought him. Romantic? Sure, but perhaps it is his abundant humility and enthusiasm that keeps his prose so fresh and accessible to the modern reader.
I discovered ‘The Wild Muir’ in a store within the confines of Muir’s own ‘earthly paradise’: Yosemite national park. Whilst you don’t necessarily need to have seen first-hand what he so vividly portrays in its pages, to have had its vast granite ranges, majestic rivers and endless forest etched into your retinas certainly does provide an epic accompaniment to these absorbing tales. Nevertheless the words fully stand by themselves and even a casual read puts your right there on some lonely precipice or fast rushing river at his brusque shoulder. His writing manages to not only communicate the tiniest of details of his environment but fully immerses the reader in the emotional impact of it too; the lasting effect is of real experience rather than second hand report.
Therefore, I’ve chosen to attempt to relate the flavour of this book rather than give you an overview of the numerous events, occurrences and sometime disasters that keep you turning pages. In it you’ll discover as much of Muir character as you will the resplendent Californian landscape.
Call of the Wild
Mr Guy Grieve sat at his desk year after year in the marketing department of the Scottish Herald and lamented for his lost liberty; at the peak of his physique and mental abilities his power was ebbing away under the pressure and grind of tedious office life, daily commutes and ever ballooning debt. Unlike the rest of us he decided to do something about it.
Taking the hard decision to leave his family to survive in the wilderness, Grieve took his cue (and of course the title of the book) from a former obsession with Jack London and chose Alaska, one of the least populous places on the planet, as the backdrop to his challenge; the land, no stranger to those seeking similar liberation from the strangle of modern society. After opening a dialogue with a native Alaskan family – who’s patriarch Don, would prove to be absolutely vital to the success of the entire scheme - and cannily convincing his boss, the Editor, to allow him to write a weekly column about his adventures, everything was set. Or so it seemed then. For it was only upon entering the sub Arctic domain that his wild fantasies and deepest illusions about existing their day-to-day were ground up, knocked down, washed away and buried knee deep by the prevailing environment. Harsh lessons needed to be quickly learnt.
The book then follows his steep learning curve from ‘tenderfoot’ to capable and self sufficient (more or less) back woodsman. Perhaps indicative of the wilderness’ power to speak instruction only to those who have ears to listen, Grieve quickly adopts a position of utmost humility reminiscent of Muir. Recognising that his own life is just one of many in the grand scheme and that it could, and would, be forfeit if he became nonchalant he quickly moulds himself to the pattern of the land; an animal like any other who must do what he can with what is available.
Managing to build a cabin, hunt food, chop trees and feed himself from meagre provision, Grieve sees through a long winter virtually alone but supported by Don and his family, their knowledge proving more effective than anything a manual could divulge.
Equal parts confessional, travelogue and manual, Call of the Wild is an entertaining and insightful look at how there really are no easy escapes. In the world outside of our ‘civilised’ bubble natural laws are non-negotiable. Acceptance of our real place in this world is the only true liberation.
Into the Wild
Another wanderer and seeker searching for his place out there was Chris McCandless. A young man from Virginia, he decided early that the usual route from college grad to wage slave wasn’t his path and so set out across the vast lands of the US to discover what life could hold for him.
Krakauer charts his course from disaffected youth to farm hand in the Dakota’s, ‘leather’ (as in on foot) tramp in the arid South west all the way across the continent to his final adventure in the Alaskan interior, peppering the tale with autobiographical details of his own exploits and those of others who chose to turn their backs on established ‘norm’ (Everett True being an interesting example).
What differs McCandless from others with the same ideas is that he seems to have been extremely ill prepared to survive by himself in such a place. He took little provision, no compass, inadequate clothing and did little research into the area within which he found himself existing. His naivety and lack of experience seem to have led him to an unfortunate turn of events.
He fended for himself for three months living in an old bus that had been left by a former mining company as a shelter but by July decided to leave. However, as he attempted to cross the Teklanika River that he’d crossed earlier in the year (before the thaw had increased its flow), he found it impassable. Again, his lack of knowledge worked against him as there was a hand operated tram to cross the river just a quarter mile along.
The book is a sympathetic look at McCandless’ life that manages to describe his motivations and background whilst juxtaposing it with startling images of the land that he came up against. Others give MacCandless short shrift for the seeming stupidity of his demise but the book, whilst covering a potentially bleak subject matter, manages to be as inspiring as it is eye opening. A cautionary tale but one which thankfully manages to avoid condemnation of its subject.