Thursday, September 20, 2007


Tim says place is obsolete: there is no “here there.” (He’s living in Gertrude Stein’s old town.) He means if you’re on the Internet. One of my favorite “places” is the discussion list for the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, which I consider a highly religious enterprise for a humanist. I’ve been hanging out there for about ten years. I’ll share some redacted conversation. (You can go to the raw material at

The thread began with an inquiry from ad7062 (the name has a history which I won’t go into here -- he ranks high on my list of good people) about teaching “Into the Wild” by Krakauer, which will be released as a movie by now. I haven’t read it but know it’s about a guy with romantic notions who went off to Alaska and died there. The REAL topic is “what should we do to be saved?” and this exchange is among some of the most longterm and interesting people on the list, favorite personalities of mine though I’ve never met them in the flesh.

I obviously have no idea what they do in the film, but the basic problem with filming such "idea" books is that they conflate the literal wilderness with the ideological and spiritual wilderness. Chris McCandless is looking for freedom, fredom from the corruption of the world, from his father, from politics, from him"self," from the whole mess. So was Abbey. So were Thelma and Louise. So were the Puritans. But the literal wilderness took over, the type overpowering the antitype, the symbol becoming everything and the actual principles it symbolizes lost, sort of like people who worship the flag but have no idea what "Freedom" is all about.. It is hard to picture "freedom" but easy to show emotional images of Old GLory blowing proudly in the breeze. The camera does this by making everything in front of the lens a "thing." For that reason, books are better for ideas.”
-- Preacher Dave (Dave Williams, expert on Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan preacher who said we were all “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Longtime friend.)

I teach London's "To Build a Fire" and then teach McCandless. It works well. We also try to understand the book in terms of Cronon's notions of urban masculine malaise (which he touches on briefly in "Trouble with the Wilderness."
--Jeanne Hamming (a newer personality whom I don’t know)

I've not seen the film, but I did discuss the trailer in a section of "American Literature of the Open Road" I taught this past summer. Krakauer's book is the last one we read; I see it as being something of a corrective to the other texts we discuss, which typically get students "pumped" about road trips. Beginning as it does with death, *Into the Wild* serves as a kind of reality check, and my students automatically relate to McCandless even though had he lived, he'd be closer to my age than theirs. “What I found interesting about the trailer (available via is the way it does not mention McCandless's death; instead, it depicts his journey as being the triumph of the human spirit. This plays nicely into our class discussion since we talk about the two kinds of reader mail Krakauer received after writing his original article for *Outside* magazine: one pile praised McCandless for living his dream & the other pile condemned him for being underprepared. The film trailer, at least, seems to favor the pro-McCandless perspective, which is the stance Krakauer himself takes in the book. The trailer says the film is "inspired by true events," which suggests they took liberties with the story. One thing I'd be curious to see is how Walt McCandless is portrayed. Krakauer's book plays up the tension Chris/Alex feels toward his dad, but my students are often surprised when they learn that "all" Walt McCandless did to evoke his son's rage was have an extended affair with his first wife. Because the first half of Krakauer's book depicts the elder McCandless as being a "bad guy," students typically assume that the younger McCandless was abused: only *that*, they feel, would explain why McCandless hated his father enough to leave & sever contact with his family.
-- Lorianne DiSabato

Dave, the next thing I'm going to hear from you is that there really isn't a literal Garden of Eden. Damn.

"The Kingdom of God is within you" not in that pile of rubble called Jerusalem, not in the literal woods or deserts, not on the football field....... The confusion of the literal and the spiritual is what gets us into trouble every time. I have a nutty ex-Jewish Christian friend who keeps sending me "proof" that the literal Armageddon is about to explode upon the planet. She believes it, so does Bush I fear. So in his own way did Chris. Same old mistake.
--So Sayeth Preacher Dave

That particular confusion seems a lot less evident among many rural authors who were brought up within the wild regions McCandless toured--- instead of at a geographic and cultural distance great enough to allow the loading of romantic and redemptive notions onto the woods north of Healy. I'm reminded of the scene in the film Black Robe where a panicked missionary finds himself suddenly lost in a threatening forest, until his Native guides reappear from among the trees and laugh at him for being afraid of the environment they call home.
-- Will Elliott (Am just getting to recognizing this name)

When Into the Wild came out, I was working year round in a remote mountain area, collecting atmospheric data. My brother-in-law sent me the book, to which I responded with brief fascination and an enduring disgust. I'd been living and working in wilderness for many years, and had organised rescues and body evacs, to deal with the mishaps (and mortal remains) of adventurers such as McCandless. I thought it was pretty safe up there, given a bit of knowledge and preparation. Into the Wild seemed to me thoroughly commercial, casting the heedlessness and morbidity of McCandless' death in a lurid manner. My one-word review: creepy.
-- yrs, Chip (C.L. Rawlins, a crackerjack poet and writer)

Nicely put, but isn’t this more the question than a reason for dismissal? We all have our illusions, except for those few who have been touched by "the truth," George Bush being the one who first comes to mind. We are all victims of conditioning, or the constructions of society, of the world. Objective reality is hard to see through our subjective eyes. Chris McCandless comes across at times as a future member of ASLE, infatuated by books and lost in a romantic vision. Did literature kill him? I think that it is a good possibility. Would he have done all that if not for Jack London and Herman Melville and Thoreau and Tolstoy? Our social constructions are perceived by us as "heroic twists" which we, of course call "objective reality." One of the constructions of our culture, coming all the way out of the Old Testament, is the conceit that somehow "wilderness" is the very place to go to escape from social constructions and find the truth, the objective reality outside the text. So a social construction gives us the illusion that we can escape social constructions. Is there any way out of this maze? Or is the world outside the Matrix but another matrix ad infinitum? Are there only higher "stratums of illusion"? We who want to believe that nature or wilderness is an antidote to civilization, a place outside the text, a true objective reality, can't help but see some of ourselves in Chris, and tremble.

-- Preacher Dave

As often, I much admire Preacher Dave's rhetoric but feel he has overlooked a fundamental point. McCandless died because he misidentified a species of wild potato, isn't that right? That's what Krakauer identifies as the most likely explanation anyway. There is nothing in the idea of wilderness, in Moby Dick, Thoreau or Tolstoy that can be held responsible for this mistake. It's a mistake directly comparable to fatal mistakes one might make in a normal urban setting - a mistake causing a road accident for example, or an accident at work. In all other respects McCandless seems to have been perfectly competent, and there was no reason to think he wouldn't survive.
-- Richard Kerridge (a professor in England, another of my favs)

I believe, actually, that Krakauer argues that McCandless correctly identified the particular species of wild potato, but he didn't know that a plant with edible *tubers* might very well have toxic *seeds.* So although McCandless was good at plant identification, he didn't completely understand the basics of plant toxicology. It's an honest mistake. I make honest mistakes all the time, and so far, none of them has killed me. McCandless's mistake was undeniably exacerbated by his gung-ho interpretation of literary texts...but who among us, in all honesty, hasn't occasionally been guilty of *that*?
-- Lorianne DiSabato

I think McCandless's biggest mistake was making the trip without a map. Thoreau didn't go to Maine alone, without a guide or a map. Being a surveyor, he was rather fond of maps. Had McCandless brought a map, he would have figured out how to cross the swollen river. It's the rejection of the map, and what the map signifies about cultural inheritance and accumulated knowledge, that gets him in so much trouble.
--Tom Lynch (also the “father” of the Westlit listserv)

Much has been made of the map, and the fact that if Chris had seen the gaging station, he could have crossed the river. For Chris, hiking into what he believed was the undeveloped Alaska wilderness (minus the trail, bus, etc.), there would have been little reason to suspect that there would be any handy gaging stations nearby for the map to reveal. In most of the state, a map may not have helped him-- help would be far off the map. Neither would a cell phone-- there isn't coverage. Neither would a flare gun-- no one would see it.
-- Will Elliott

One aspect of Krakauer's exploration of the McCandless incident that I appreciated was how he showed that it was a series of small errors that compounded each other (also the case in the Everest disaster). He didn't have a map, but he was also too weak and despondent to do some exploring; wasn't there a ford a fairly short distance up- or down-river? I thought his weakness was due to eating the wrong plant or the wrong part of the plant, but didn't he resort to the plants after the moose meat spoiled? I thought the moose meat spoiled because he tried to smoke it instead of just drying it. While it is tempting to search for the one mistake that would have altered the outcome, I think it's more helpful to see how decisions led to one another, how a series of small mistakes that could have been minor all interacted to create a disaster.
-- Rob Brault, (A familiar name but haven’t corresponded with him.)

But Richard, that is like saying Ahab was killed by drowning, not by his fanatic determination to plumb the secrets of the universe and stand face to face with God. THe literal exists, but it is overshadowed by the symbolic. No? Yes, Chris was killed by the seeds, but his infatuation with literature and the wilderness tradition is what led him into the situation where eating the wrong seeds killed him. There are causes, and then there are the causes of the causes.
--Preacher Dave

Was there a causal connection between being there and eating the wrong seeds? He couldn't have eaten them if he hadn't been there, obviously, but he could easily have been there without eating them. Lots of people go there. Is this a common error among people who venture into the wilderness? Is it a common TYPE of error? Or is it a rare and, in a sense, technical error, on the part of someone who was otherwise competent and not in any particular danger? Aren't we both reading into this the narrative we want: yours apocalyptic, mine anti-apocalyptic, random and meaningless? There may not even be any irony to speak of, though Krakauer constructs one by suggesting that McCandless had just resolved his alienation and was showing signs of having learned a vital lesson from a therapeutic wilderness sojourn. Perhaps your tragedy is by Aeschylus; I'm not sure mine is even by Hardy (the one in the film sounds as if it could be by Ibsen). Perhaps we both get to the same place in the end, since the meaninglessness can be another version of the howling wilderness. But I'm not sure. Ahab isn't like McCandless, because Ahab was pursuing something with an obsession that had finally made him indifferent to all risk and all other goals, and I'm not sure there is any evidence that this was so of McCandless; he seems to have been rather careful. Perhaps it was just a very unlucky accident.
-- Richard Kerridge

And then there is the meaning of "maps." Michael Herr begins his wonderful book on Vietnam "Dispatches" by describing the ancient yellow map on his wall in Saigon which still had the names Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina. Maps, he tells us, are reflections of human constructions and do not often reflect accurately the objective reality out there. If Chris was trying to escape from his human constructed reality and find whatever truth lies outside the text, then his not using a map was part of his quest, not a stupid mistake. The whole quest may have been stupid, but such quests out of Egypt into the wilderness are a deeply imbedded part of our culture and hence ourselves. THus they cannot simply be dismissed. The children of Israel had to let go of all that connected them to the fleshpots of Egypt before they could enter Canaan. That included maps. Moses had to go defenseless up to Sinai. Ike McCaslin had to surrender his watch and his compass and lose himself in the wilderness before the bear would let itself be seen by him, if only his backside in passing. There are familiar patterns here, which is not to say that Chris wasn’t an idiot. But his idiocy, if that is what it was, is deeply ingrained in the American psyche.

--Preacher Dave

Perhaps "The Wild" is socially contructed, but what about gravity and thermodynamics? Social construction won't keep your hands from freezing. Mittens will. What's always been terribly interesting to me is that ecotone (if you will) between social construction and earthly process. In the interest of survival, one ought to have some vague idea which is which. Sad to say, I think our society fails that basic test.
-- yrs, Chip (C.L. Rawlins)

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