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Monday, November 12, 2007

"North" Means "Up," Right?

So I'm re-reading this book Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. It's really fascinating, actually: stories of people who get into life-and-death situations and why some people freak out and die of hypothermia 20 minutes after wandering too far from the cocktail tent on a beach in Kauai while other people are found 168 days later in an ice cave in the Himalayas under a tent constructed of braided yak hair and coconut fibers, happily gnawing on the shinbone of the pilot.

The thing about reading this book is it's incredibly humbling. Much as I like to think I'm clever enough to survive in the wilds on my own, and as much as I come from a heritage of jerry-rigging (my father once went out to get rid of a break-away bee hive wearing a pie pan on his head and a full-length cheesecloth sari. not one sting), I am a wimp. I freak out when the toilet backs up and I have to pee in the park for three days. Fifteen minutes after sauntering off the path and no more than a holler away from rescue, I'd likely walk through a spider web and, batting furiously at the imagined spider in my hair, blunder over a cliff. My survival skills are limited to knowing how to curl up and cry.

For one thing, I have no sense of direction. As I sit in my apartment now, I know that, sitting at my desk, I am facing roughly south. I know this only because I know that the street outside my window runs north-south, and since Mt. Rainier is that way and not that way, then that way must be south. I require 14,400+ foot-tall landmarks, and they'd better be distinctive. Stand-alone mountains like Rainier work best.

So I can just imagine myself lost in the wilderness, wandering in circles, wondering how long it will be before I have to start brushing my teeth with a twig and learning to like mushrooms and vomiting. And, as those familiar with this blog will know, I'm a wee bit afraid of the dark. At the first sight of lengthening shadows, my mind would automatically start running through every single Stephen King book I've ever read, testing out the scariest scenarios. My brain hates me and would gleefully use every tiny noise of the forest settling in for the night to convince me that I was in the sequel to the Blair Witch Project.

According to Mr. Gonzales, the Australian aborigines have a technique for not getting lost when in unfamiliar territory: they create songlines. They basically make a song out of the directions they take and the landmarks they come across, and in this way, they can go back the same way they came and pass along the directions to others. Singing the forest (or outback or whatever) forces you to be hyper-aware of the world around you. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, a song about "turn left at the Douglas fir and head straight on til the madrona -- the one with the peeling bark" probably isn't going to prove terribly helpful.

In fact, in an environment that grows and changes as quickly as this one, I'm not entirely sure how this sort of mapping would work. "Turn left at the unfurling maidenhair ferns that are growing on the dead log" is only helpful if you make it back while they are still unfurled. And if you don't confuse it with the exactly identical bunches of unfurled maidenhair ferns all over the bleedin' forest. Let's face it. Mother Nature wants you to return what Gonzales calls your "borrowed materials" to the soil ASAP so she can build something new out of you. Preferably something that doesn't drive a car and use a new Ziploc storage bag for each sandwich. So, no help there.

One guy survived 76 days at sea on a rubber raft. When finally "rescued" by a fishing boat, he had fresh water and plenty of strips of dried fish and insisted that the fishing boat go ahead and fish and take him to the hospital at their leisure. Another guy in a similar situation was desperate for water, drank a fair portion of the ocean, went a little nuts and decided to go buy cigarettes at the 7-11. He was understandably surprised when the trip to the corner store ended in his getting eaten by sharks.

I know enough to know that Hansel and Gretel's bread crumbs were a stupid idea. Beyond that, I'll be the one trying to make a fire by focusing sunlight through my glasses and onto a small pile of kindling and wood fibers and promptly burning the forest down.

7 comments:

NuclearToast said...

I think your survival instincts are just fine. You've made it =this= far...

weebat said...

Just don't ever read "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" while you are camping... it can really mess you up... especially when something eats your puke!

stag62 said...

In addition to that great book, we also have the Bear at our disposal. I'm guessing you've seen at least a couple of his titillating episodes?

http://dsc.discovery.com/fansites/manvswild/bio/bio.html

Ash said...

I used to like Bear until I found out that he was staying in hotels and drinking at the pub while he was supposed to be "surviving" in the middle of BFE. I would like to suggest Les Stroud's “SurvivorMan” instead. Les doesn't even have a camera crew with him. He films it all by himself. Also, the show "I Shouldn't Be Alive" is awesome - I frequently find myself holding my breath while watching it.

Lynn Sinclair said...

My idea of roughing it is turning up at Starbucks at 6:30 a.m. and having to wait for the mild coffee to brew.

Tony Easton said...

I was going to say something, but I'm not going to say it now...

Tony Easton said...

Have you seen Jeremiah Johnson?