Reading through Tim Voor’s new book The Great Alone, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), brings to mind the words of the poet TS Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Though you think you are going in a straight line, you might actually be tracing out a big circle. Voors, a Dutch advertising type, undertook the hike, 2,650 miles (4,300 km) from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, through desert, mountain, and forest, for now almost-standard reasons: to learn self-reliance, to get in touch with himself, to get in touch with unsullied nature, to give his marriage time to breathe. As I began to read, I felt a big, sceptical scowl coming on. But his exuberance is infectious and he demonstrates self-awareness – and the ‘journey’ seems to have changed him in a real sense. He wasn’t exactly ‘lost’ before, though he did wonder about it, and actually felt it at moments in the dense woods of the High Sierra. And he isn’t exactly ‘found’ at the end, though he seems to have made progress of some kind in knowing himself and the world. He has deepened his knowledge of the place where he started.
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Cheryl Strayed mounted a similar expedition along the PCT in 1995, which she recounted in her celebrated book Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found (2012). In 2014 it was turned into a film starring Reese Witherspoon, called Wild. (Both are useful correctives to prevailing masculine archetypes about the ‘wilderness’.) An orphan and a recovering heroin addict, she relates this encounter while she is on the trail trying to find herself: “An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world.” At this point she has managed to lose her hiking boots and is walking the trail barefoot – like a medieval penitent. Maybe things need to be made worse before they can get better? Maybe she had nothing more to lose, so to speak.
Losing yourself to find yourself is an age-old topos of writing. It involves accepting the risk that you might remain forever lost. In Buddhism, losing oneself, becoming one with the natural world, is the highest objective. As it happens there is a direct link (via Ralph Waldo Emerson) between Buddhist philosophy and John Muir, who is often called the father of the American National Parks system. Muir was a ‘wild man’ in a good sense: somewhat monomaniacal about preserving the nation’s natural beauty and the transcendence it promised; forever seeking the isolation of the wild. “We are now in the mountains and they are in us,” he wrote. The PCT passes through no fewer than six national parks, most of it mountainous terrain. Part of the trail itself is named after him.
There’s a famous ink-wash painting by the Japanese master Hasegawa Tohaku, traditionally called Pine Trees (1595). Tohaku painted in the Zen ink-wash tradition, with an economy and effortlessness of style which implies an unsettling concern with essences. Are the trees really there, or are they just ghosts? The composition suggests both the painful immanence and melancholy transience of natural beauty, and perhaps of life itself. Muir was fascinated with these qualities, and their bearing on the human spirit. So too were the pioneering photographers Eadweard Muybridge and Ansel Adams, both of whom made their names taking haunting photos of Yosemite, through which the PCT passes; often mysterious images which are precisely reminiscent of Japanese ink landscape paintings. Adams was directly influenced by Muir’s evangelical outdoor zeal.
In any event, the lost/found motif, or its plot points, have a far-reaching genealogy – stretching back to Greek and Roman pastoral poetry in the era before Christ. Virgil’s Eclogues imagine the countryside as a place of charming solitude and simplicity, where a shepherd-poet can return to innocence and glimpse the Golden Age – before the decline of Man. The idea recurs again in the Christian myth of a couple who are thrown out of a garden and sentenced to wander the wilds of Earth until they can find their way back to innocence and paradise. After being baptised by John the Baptist, Christ exiles himself to the wilderness for 40 days of contemplation, during which he undergoes spiritual and psychological struggle. Such losing and finding, ‘falling’ down and struggling back up, trajectories recur in the myths and religions of many cultures around the world.
The noble savage
At the beginning of the modern age, the 18th-Century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that savagery, our elemental state, had a certain nobility which civil society threatened to stifle. He said: “Everything that is not in the course of nature has its disadvantages, civil society most of all.”
The intimations we think we feel when looking at beautiful lakes or mountains, in the West at least, have a direct precursor in Romanticism
Rousseau influenced the poets and writers of the Romantic movement, including William Wordsworth, who made a philosophy of worshipping the natural world and of fine-tuning his responses to it. The poet grew up in the Lake District – a picturesque, mountainous, and at the time unspoiled part of England, where he spent most of his life. He believed our relationship to the natural world was divine, a marvellous unity threatened by civilisation, writing in his poem Intimations of Immortality:
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy
Our current attitudes to nature, the romantic (small ‘r’) ideology of escaping from civilisation back into the authenticity of nature, the intimations we think we feel when looking at beautiful lakes or mountains, in the West at least, have a direct precursor in such Romanticism (big ‘R’).
In this period, the English artist JMW Turner painted landscapes of the Lake District. Many of his paintings, even when they are not of storms, look like storms. Lakes and mountains and clouds roil and merge together, materialise and dematerialise. Buttermere Lake (1798) is a painting of a storm. Everything seems to be trailing clouds of glory, murky and radiant. We might be viewing the interior of the Romantic mind. There is certainly ‘wildness’ aplenty here.
The road less travelled
Many of these people were outsiders; the Romantics in particular cherished, and often were themselves, crazy loners, free spirits, wanderers, and visionaries. The title of Strayed’s book plays on the two meanings of the word ‘wild’.
The great American ‘transcendentalist’ philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson admired both Romanticism and Buddhism. He saw a continuity between Man, God, and Nature; he came from a Protestant background and transformed that Christianity into an idealistic naturalism. He espoused self-reliance, non-conformism, and the primacy of individual experience as ways of returning to our authentic selves: “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” The Buddhism in his thinking is apparent in passages such as this, from the 1836 essay Nature: “The waving of the boughs in a storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.”
One of Emerson’s disciples, Henry David Thoreau, was so taken with his philosophy that he built a tiny cabin by a rural pond on Emerson’s land, and lived there like a hermit for two years, thinking, writing, and communing with the ‘oversoul’ (Emerson’s word for the natural world). From that experience he wrote the book Walden, Or a Life in the Woods (1854), which has become a sort of American counter-cultural Bible of frugality, self-reliance, wilful eccentricity, civil disobedience, and back-to-the-land fundamentalism. If this sounds monastic, it is. Although he got married, Thoreau seems to have died a virgin. “All nature is my bride,” he wrote.
Throughout the history of writers, artists and thinkers contemplating nature, there is a sense that you have to lose your mind (your self, your way) to truly find it. Strayed actually carried with her a book called Staying Found, a guide to using maps and compasses (which she should have mastered before she left, but didn’t).
Nature as threat
This raises the thorny issue of what happens when you get lost and stay lost. Nature was tamed a long time ago in Europe, for example, though cultural memory preserves images of the ‘Big Bad Wolf’, bears and sinister forests from which people never return in fairytales. Wordsworth’s Lake District was ‘wild’ in a sense, but it was never threatening. The New World, on the other hand, was colonised by men who regarded its wilderness as a colossal enemy, to be brought to heel or destroyed.
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), often called the greatest novel in US literature, is a prototypical tale of the conflict between man and nature. Ahab, the captain of a whaling ship, loses his leg to, becomes obsessed with capturing and killing, a white whale, which is a sort of supernatural object and a symbol for the natural world. Ahab gives chase through the wastes of the ocean, until in a final confrontation his ship is destroyed and he and his crew are drowned. The ship is sucked down and disappears, Melville writes, “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago”.
Melville’s natural world is less cooperative than Emerson’s: it may still be a majestic immanence, but it is also deadly
Melville and Emerson were friends. It is often said that Emerson was such a towering figure in 19th-Century America that one either had to be for him or against him. It is possible to read Moby Dick as a reaction against Emersonian self-reliance, as a story of romantic hubris taken to the limit. In addition, Melville’s natural world is less cooperative than Emerson’s: it may still be a majestic immanence, but it is also deadly.
US writers after Melville had no lack of narratives about Man’s precarious vendetta against Nature. To pluck a few classics out of the tradition, one could choose the fantasies of Jack London, such as White Fang (1906 – a dog fights for survival in the savagery of the natural world and makes it to civilisation); Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952 – an old fisherman battles against the sea and its creatures); or William Faulkner’s The Bear (1942-55 – a hunter kills a legendary bear and then descends into disillusionment). In all of these books, the showdown with Nature has ambiguous results.
The rise of the anti-hero
All of this hits a crescendo in the work of Cormac McCarthy, whose writing picks obsessively at the myths of the Wild West and at the US male self-image. The characters in his books end up on anti-heroic odysseys through the hostile modern wilderness, a universe of precarious meaning consisting blurrily of nature, mankind, and one’s own soul. What is often called his most important book, Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West (1985), is a gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring fantasia on, and relentless deconstruction of, Wild West themes, in which human savagery, egotism, and cruelty run rampant. Surviving the elements and avoiding being bitten by rattlesnakes are the least of men’s worries, for the biggest monsters here are other men.
The ideology of man against wilderness stands revealed: without doubt, the real wilderness is inside us
These themes are even more explicit in nightmarish fable The Road (2006; also a film). A man and his son wander a post-apocalyptic US wilderness, struggling to survive. The greatest threat now is being bitten by other people, who have turned to cannibalism. The ideology of man against wilderness stands revealed: without doubt, the real wilderness is inside us.
As a final counterpoint to this, John Krakauer’s Into the Wild (1998; and a film) is the true account of a middle-class American boy whose head was full of Thoreau and Jack London, who in 1992 divested himself of all his possessions and walked into the Alaskan wilderness to experience the great adventure of oneness with the land and surviving on his wits. Four months later he was found dead. The book anatomises the boy’s fantasies, aspirations, and motivations. In the end the question is left hanging: is this story an indictment of the false American back-to-nature dream, or an affirmation of its holiness? Is the important scenery around us, or in our heads?
The lessons Voors draws from his trail experience include living life more adventurously and more frugally. Back at home, when he goes out for dinner with friends he orders soup and bread, never wanting to forget the humility of surviving on very little. Already before he finishes his PCT odyssey he is dreaming of new adventures: a hike across the whole of Canada; the Te Araroa Trail, that covers 1,875 miles (3,000 km) of New Zealand. His forays into outward immensities open up fresh expanses in the most private parts of his mind. As Melville put it in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851: “Lord, when shall we be done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish; – I have heard of Krakens.”
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