Monday, April 20, 2009
Into the Wild
"There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy...", so began a song written in the wartorn 40s, which tells a fantasy of a boy who "wandered very far, over lands and seas" only to learn that "the greatest thing... was just to love and be loved in return". The song could very well have been about Christopher McCandless, whose story has haunted me ever since I caught the movie Into the Wild.
Uneven at times and beautiful in parts, it tells the tale of a boy who hails from middle-class America, but found himself in spiritual discord with the excesses of modern times. To him, a career is a 20th century invention--smart suits, sharp ties, empty souls--and he didn't want anything to do with them.
Paraphrasing Henry Thoreau, he said, "Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness, give me truth." After fulfilling the tedious and absurd duty of graduating from college, he set off on a journey to seek his truth. Starting from Atlanta, he crossed the great American plains, worked his way to Nevada, and into Mexico via the Gulf of Mexico, and crossed the desert back to the US. Having gained an intimacy with the North American continent, his wanderlust now took him to the ultimate wilderness frontier: Alaska. Trekking alone into the Great White North, the wilderness finally caught up with him and, remorselessly, claimed his life. He got himself killed all because he refused simple navigational tools like maps and compass. The tragedy was not that he seemed so lacking in basic sense that he somehow threw away a life like that. Thousands of nutcases get themselves bumped off the gene pool all the time. The tragedy was he was otherwise a very competent and intelligent guy, fleet of foot and quick of reflexes, and he should never have died under the circumstances.
The director was rather heavy-handed in trying to explain the inner soul of Christopher McCandless, alluding often to his overbearing father and the dysfunctional element which ran in his family. While no doubt he had to escape his life because his family embodies all that he hates about society, I think the director is missing the point. It is simply the call of the wild. The same siren song which led Columbus to the Americas, Marco Polo to the far east, and Dr Livingstone to the heart of Africa. The wild promises adventures that enrich your life, a spiritual reunion with the earth, and a peace that simply cannot be gotten from our modern-day jungle. It stirs you alive. All I know is when the siren song of the wild beckons, I have to go.
Barry Lopez, a landscape photographer who writes for National Geographic, and who too had found his calling in wilderness attributed it to a sense of loneliness. He writes, "The cure for loneliness, I have come to understand, is not more socialising. It's achieving and maintaining close friendships. The trust that characterises that kind of friendship allows one to be vulnerable, to discuss problems that resist a solution, for example, without having to risk being judged or dismissed. I bring this up because the desire I experience most keenly, when I travel in landscapes like the ones made so evocative here, is for intimacy. I have learned that I will not experience the exhilaration intimacy brings unless I become vulnerable to the place, unless I come to a landscape without judgements, unless I trust that the place is indifferent to me. The practice I strive for when I travel is to meet the land as if it were a person. To encounter it as if it were as deep in its meaning as human personality. I wait for it to speak. And wait. And wait."