by Martin Murie
(Swans - January 29, 2007) If Uncas and Chingachgook could speak, what might they reveal about Deer Slayer, aka Hawkeye, their white companion? What secrets have Pontiac and Tecumseh and Geronimo and other peoples of the wild kept from us? What unspoken views about us lurk in minds of Panthers, Wolves, Coyotes, Jaguars, slinky Shrews, and Ringtail Cats seldom seen?
In July of 1992 Walt McLaughlin, philosopher, outdoorsman, writer and expert rod-and-reel fisherman, found himself alone on a gravelly landing strip in south east Alaska. The bush pilot had agreed to pick him up two weeks later. Walt was there because his wife knew it was something he had to do and he'd better get on with it.
He set up base camp. A tent with a fly to keep out no-see-ums and mosquitoes, grub hoisted ten feet into a tree (safety from bears), a campfire circle and a little stove. He was in bear country, and it wasn't long before his first encounter; a big one, a Kodiak grizzly. He survived that, but felt that the pistol and bear repellent slung on his belt had been of doubtful comfort. In the preface to his book we are told of a different but challenging encounter with a literary agent who advised him to concentrate more on bears, less on exotic prose. Fortunately, Walt decided on less bear, more "exotic," because that was the heart of his quest, his reason for scraping up savings and heading for Alaska, to be alone in the wild, to confront it, "to meet my maker." (1)
His base camp is in a lively place. Eagles and ravens and gulls soar, there are ducks in the channels, a grouse with her chicks hanging around camp, steelhead and salmon in the river, steller's jays, moose and bears, tracks and howls of wolves, and a loon calling. There is fear too, times when Walt feels naked in the face of the wild, literally when he takes a bath in cold water, spiritually when he reacts to the overwhelming presence of...what? He realizes soon that he is one mammal among many animals, one lone creature whose existence depends on paying attention. Attempting to wade across the river his legs go numb, he is about to get into big trouble, turns back in time. Other little incidents tell him in no uncertain terms that survival is top priority. An equality is taking place in that spot hemmed in by rank vegetative growth that hosts so much life, creatures seen and unseen, all struggling to live.
And the wind, always there, sometimes as a low, distant buzzing; sometimes bringing gentle drizzle or howling rain; sometimes bright blue skies. One evening Walt writes, "A light breeze pelts the tent walls with tiny droplets of rain. It's a desolate yet soothing sound."
He finds a couple of eagle feathers. Later, meditating, he looks into the forested mountain, senses the spirit of the wild, comes close to seeing God as immanent in Nature rather than lurking behind it. Are Nature and God identical? That question rises like a hungry trout throughout this narrative, and is never answered. In fact, a fine virtue of this narrative is that no single abstract statement is given the status of certainty. Let's stay with this crucial meditation.
I'll need help from the spirit of the wild itself, from some kind of totemic power. I found two eagle feathers at that chokepoint. Mere coincidence? I don't think so. But I gathered up raven feathers the day before. Perhaps there is more to those dark birds than meets the eye. Eagle or raven -- which is my totem?
The meditation continues, focusing on the mythology of ravens and eagles. Raven the highly intelligent, black trickster and scavenger; Eagle the powerful, graceful predator.
Eagles are the lords of the wild when they spread their great wings and soar through the air high overhead. I am drawn to them. Their power is universally acclaimed. Eagles are greatly revered by native peoples scattered across the North American continent. But there's a problem here. I am not one of those people. I am not an Indian. In a split second of self-consciousness, I become acutely aware of who/what I am: a white, middle-class Euro-American sitting cross-legged on open ground in the Alaskan bush, co-opting the spiritual traditions of another people and trying to use them to my own advantage. By doing so, I desecrate not only those traditions but the spirit of the wild itself. Spiritual pretension -- that's all it is. Has my twenty-odd years of soul-searching come to this? What traditions haven't I desecrated during my long pilgrimage? All the rites and rituals I've built into my meditations over the years are borrowed, arbitrary. The core of my being isn't invested in them. That makes them as hollow and meaningless as the worst kind of New Age hocus-pocus.
He kicks aside the moccasins bought at some rez. He gets to his feet, drops the pistol belt.
To hell with that too. Barefoot now, with two eagle feathers in hand, I walk straight across the open ground. I wade the side stream and traverse a small island until one of the river's main channels lies directly in front of me. I wade thigh deep into it. The river's icy fingers jab at my legs but I don't care. I have a job to do.
The job is to drop the eagle feathers into the river. He watches them float away.
The eagle isn't my totem, it's my brother. It's only a fellow creature on this planet, a fellow traveler through the cosmos. I feel the truth of this as surely as I feel my own heart beating. Perhaps this will translate into free passage upstream tomorrow, perhaps not. I don't care. One way or the other, I trust that God knows my true intentions now. And with that thought, the meditation ends.
More adventures follow, more thoughts, the nature of Nature and God triangulated from many an encounter place, meetings with fellow creatures and their tracks and signals, and with winds and weathers in their infinite guises.
I don't need the eagle, the raven or any other spirit to help me fulfill my destiny. More to the point, I don't need a destiny in the first place. It's more important to simply be here in this harsh yet wonderful world. It's enough to be fully awake and alive. What's that intoxicating smell? Yes, of course, yarrow. Why hadn't I noticed it before? It grows thick between my tent and the alders. Right there under my nose.
The bush pilot picks him up at the appointed time, flies him aback to Juneau. The return to the bustle of man-made chaos is traumatic, but Walt comes to a realization that his confronting the wild is not the end, but the beginning. "There's no turning back now."
This book is an honest conversation, a most welcome going beyond the rote awe and complacency that infests so much nature writing. (2)
Another confronter of the wild is Richard Proenneke. Richard stayed in the wild north for more than thirty years, but he and McLaughlin have some traits in common: neither was born with a silver spoon in the mouth, both have clever hands and both long for intimate contact with wilderness and both succeed, abundantly.
Richard, a carpenter renowned as a diesel machine expert and heavy equipment operator, hired a bush pilot to drop him off at a site near Twin Lakes, Alaska, to cut spruce logs. Returning the next spring, he used the logs to build a cabin, and stayed, with brief sojourns to visit family back in Iowa, from 1968 to 1999. He furnished the cabin with hand-wrought chairs, table, bunk, and fireplace. The complete homestead looks like a typical Alaskan home in the wild, including the ubiquitous food cache on high stilts, but a closer look reveals some remarkable innovations, the most amazing being door hinges made of spruce roots. A photo of Richard roofing his cabin shows rafters set at very short intervals. That insures that, in spite of the low pitch of the roof, it will hold a considerable weight of snow, and that means that Richard didn't have to spend lots of frantic energy shoveling snow off the roof, though another photo shows what seems to be a snow scoop or shovel, wooden-handled, the scoop made of what looks like a part of a big metal can. Also a wooden rake, old style. These artifacts show that Richard, as befitted a master of tools, brought tools with him. A hand drill or brace and bit would have been required, for example, to make those exceedingly neat door hinge holes. It's obvious that Richard found great pleasure in making do, building things from available materials and without power other than from his own muscled cleverness, and with style! That kind of work requires intense concentration on the outer world, the here and now. Time passes, fewer openings for loneliness.
A word here, on "being alone in the wilderness." Walt McLaughlin freely confesses that once in a while he sees a distant boat on the river or a passing bush plane and is pleased. He's alone, but is not a recluse. The same can be said for many frontier solos, they have their own reasons for living alone, but that does not always mean they hate humanity or don't value other folks' presence. I well remember Frannie Cole, reputed to be a gunman from Texas (but who really knew?) who became caretaker of a wealthy eastern woman's ranch. She was known in Jackson's Hole as "the Countess." Frannie welcomed company. In spite of a speech impediment he waxed forth eloquently about happenings on the ranch: coyotes, dogs, mountain sheep, elk, bears, troubles with vehicles and other machinery, et cetera. He was probably happy being a local character in summer months when the Countess entertained her friends in that relatively remote ranch of hers at the head of Flat Creek, just below mountain sheep territory. He owned a rattletrap pickup and there was a rough road to town. Richard Proenneke was also in contact with his own species, well supplied by bush plane and one of the bush pilots was a valued friend. Richard went "outside" occasionally. As far as anyone knows he never married.
It's important to know that bush planes were, and are, an essential part of Alaska's freight, mail, passenger and emergency system. They link the loners, small hamlets and the few sizeable cities. An intact community, such as Athabascan or Inuit might, with communal effort, manage to live off the land, even today, but a loner can't possibly survive without participation in the bush pilot transport system.
In 1973, Sam Keith published a book about Richard's life. (3) A review of that book by Dan Schneider states, "He (Richard Proenneke) is a stylist in his non-style, but oh what a lack!" (4) There is also a CD about Richard's life, "Alone in the Wilderness." (5) Here is a line from Richard's journal.
I wonder what he (a big bull caribou) thinks about? Is his brain just a blank as he lies there blinking in the sun and chewing his cud? I wonder if he feels as I do, that this small part of the world is enough to think about?
That sort of thought strikes me as a binding similarity among people who spend a lot of time in wild country. The necessity to be alert, combined with mystery, grandeur, beauty, fills the senses and the mind.
1. Walt McLaughlin, Arguing with the Wind. A Spiritual Journey into the Alaskan Wilderness, Wood Thrush Books, 2003. (back)
2. McLaughlin has written many other books: poetry collections and non-fiction. Contact: Wood Thrush Books, 85 Aldis Street, St. Albans, VT, 05478. (back)
3. Sam Keith, One Man's Wilderness. An Alaskan Oddysey, 1973. (back)
4. Review published January 1, 2005. (back)
5. DickProenneke.com - Bob Swerer Productions 1-(800)-737-0239. (back)
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