We are a getting the “long rains” early here in East Africa. No worries. In some of the spots in coastal Alaska that I’ve inhabited, this kind of rain never stops. It’s kind of soothing, actually. We have power tonight, so I’ve decided to spend my Valentine’s Day evening finishing up Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless, an adventurous, idealistic, and romantic young American guy in his early twenties who dies in the Alaskan wilderness back in 1992 while attempting to survive a summer on ten pounds of rice and whatever he could hunt and forage. I’ve been reading this book a little bit at a time over the span of about four months, having found it in our Food Water Shelter library, which, though exceedingly small in our number if books is nonetheless dense with intriguing reading material.
“Andy Horowitz, one of McCandless’s friends on the Woodson High cross-country team, had mused that Chris ‘was born into the wrong century. He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today’s society gives people.’ In coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned to wander unchartered country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map–not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.”
Most of us wouldn’t spend a summer in the Alaskan bush armed with only a gun, a bag of rice, and a few good books; but the notion of wild spaces is probably a romantic notion that intrigues most of us. Some of us more than others.
I am one of those who has felt a very deep connection both with nature and wilderness. Nature, yes, but also with the wild. And I’m very sad to see it disappear, to know it is all named and mapped. Still, I try to keep this in some sort of perspective: one reason that people sought to tame the wild was because the wild can be a harsh and unforgiving environment in which to try to fend for one’s daily bread. So, for people like Chris, for people like myself, idealizing the wild comes from a unique place of privilege: we have all the nice creature comforts of modernity. My cousins and I can swoop down onto our family farm in South Dakota for a few weeks in the summer to appreciate the serene lake and the quite of the plains; but for our grandfather, the farm was a way to survive and to try to make a living. He didn’t seem to have the luxury of such idyllic pastural pleasures.
With this perspective in mind, though, and with my youthful romanticism tempered by experience, I still think that we need more of the wild. There are too many of us who are house cats. Civilization has become the only matrix that any of us know, or care to know, and it has steadily been consuming not only the resources and habitats of the natural world and our ecosystems – it is also consuming our spiritual and political freedom. The freedom of the wild world awakens something significant in our souls.
To be a part of the greater greatness of the wild wilderness is to encounter an inner Copernican revolution. Suddenly, the I is not at the center, human beings are not the center. There is no center, no hierarchy of domination that lies at the heart if civilization. Instead, the I is part of a whole that is bigger than I. There is a greater harmony that invites fellowship and communion.
Well, perhaps there still remains a bit of youthful romanticism left in me. Or, maybe I’ll blame it on Valentine’s Day.