Saturday, July 09, 2011

Don't go alone into the wild

Last night, I watched Into the Wild, a movie about a young man who ditches his worldly possessions and opts for utter freedom by hitchhiking around the country and eventually settling into an abandoned bus on a hilltop in Alaska. He intends to subsist off the land entirely by foraging for plants and killing his own meat (assisted by a bag of rice he could cook when nothing else was available).  He leaves home and ditches his family because of his emotional pain from his rough (yet socially advantaged) upbringing, and he wants to just be alone. He tells someone that experiencing nature in all its glory is the ultimate way to live, and that being with other people is unimportant. And yet, the bulk of the movie is about the bonds he formed with other people while hitchhiking around the country - people he came to think of as family.

The movie is based on a true story, originally written by Jon Krakauer. Christopher McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) really did this, and he eventually starved to death in his Magic Bus in Alaska, dreaming of returning to the family he tried to escape. This reminded me of the National Geographic series I blogged about here, in which a man attempted to live on his own in the Yukon Territory for 90 days. He made it to day 50 before calling for a plane to come get him and bring him home. He wasn't able to subsist by hunting or foraging because, just like in McCandless' experience in Alaska, there were fewer animals to eat than expected, and it was pretty difficult to figure out what plants were edible based on a guidebook or notes taken from an expert. He also really missed his friends and family, in a way he just couldn't shake.

The moral of the story here is that we are not capable of living on our skills and wits alone in the wild. It may be incredibly tempting to get away, to test yourself to see if you can survive in a situation in which you are utterly alone, to experience the full extent of what nature has to offer without the intrusion of civilization, and to just be on your own for a while to escape the stresses of interpersonal interactions. But don't do it. Even if you're a skilled hunter, trapper, fisher, or wild plant expert, it will be harder than you expect to feed yourself. Even if you figure out how to provide food and shelter for yourself in some blindingly beautiful location, one in which you gasp for breath each morning when you awaken, you will realize that no matter how much you struggle to deal with other people, you will discover crippling loneliness at some point. You will yearn for company to share the beautiful views with, and you will ache to tell someone every time you triumph or fail in your survival endeavors. Being alone sounds great until you are actually alone, and then you will hope for even the company of strangers. Don't be inspired by these fools who take to the wild alone. The only reasons that native societies ever survived are because they had ancient survival knowledge passed down to them and because they had other people to share the joys and burdens of said survival.