I recently read One Man's Wilderness, an edited collection of Richard Proenneke's diaries from his first year living alone in the Alaskan backcountry. I really liked the book – Proenneke shares much of what I admire about modern wilderness seekers like Christopher McCandless and Timothy Treadwell, while not sharing their angry reactivity against human society, nor their hubris. Proenneke has definite criticisms of human society (at least Proenneke filtered through Sam Keith, the compilation's author, does), but they are framed as gentle wonderings, not diatribes.
Here is an excerpt that I really, really liked:
I was proud of my cabin, my woodshed, and my cache. The actual cash layout had been just a shade over forty dollars, and that figure included the glass window Babe had flown in but which was still in storage. The Mylar thermopane had been better for my needs.
Needs? I guess that is what bothers so many folks. They keep expanding their needs until they are dependent on too many things and too many other people. I don't understand economics, and I suppose the country would be in a real mess if people suddenly cut out a lot of things they don't need. I wonder how many things in the average American home could be eliminated if the question were asked, "Must I really have this?" I guess most of the extras are chalked up to comfort or saving time.
Funny thing about comfort – one man's comfort is another man's misery. Most people don't work hard enough physically anymore, and comfort is not easy to find. It is surprising how comfortable a hard bunk can be after you come down off a mountain.
I've seen grown men pick at food. They can't be hungry in the first place. Or maybe their food has been too fancy and with all the choices they've had, they don't really know what they enjoy anymore.
What a man never has, he never misses. I learned something from the big game animals. Their food is pretty much the same from day to day. I don't vary my fare too much either, and I've never felt better in my life. I don't confuse my digestive system, I just season simple food with hunger. Food is fuel, and the best fuel I have found is oatmeal and all the stuff you can mix with it, like raisins and honey and brown sugar; meat and gravy and sourdough biscuits to sop up the juices with; a kettle of beans you can dip into every day; rice or spuds with fish, and some fresh greens now and then.
I enjoy working for my heat. I don't just press a button or twist a thermostat dial. I use the big crosscut saw and the axe, and while I'm getting my heat supply I'm working up an appetite that makes simple food just as appealing as anything a French chef could create. I've never found anything I like better to drink than Hope Creek water. The good feeling I get out of lungfuls of mountain air and draughts of sweet water from the snows is probably as good as any "high" I would get out of a bottle or a pill. But of course not many have a chance to live in unspoiled country.
I have learned patience, learned to take my time and try to do a job right by first figuring it out. No sense to rushing and going off half cocked; there's plenty of time out here. No sense complaining if the weather turns sour – make your job fit the day. Grandmother Nature is in control, and you better just wait until she sees fit to give you the weather that is right for another job you have to do.
Distance is relative. You learn that in time. A trip for me down to the lower end of the lower lakes takes three hours by canoe if I don't have the wind to fight. That's a distance of about eight and a half miles. With a motor on the canoe I could make the trip in under an hour, but a motor's noise stills the sounds of the wilderness.
Eight and a half miles can be covered in minutes with a car on an expressway, but what does a man see? What he gains in time he loses in benefit to his body and his mind. At my pace I can notice things. A bubble on the water, an arctic tern's breast tinged with the blue reflection of the lake. The landscape is not just a monotonous blur on either side. The stroke of a paddle moves you forward about eleven feet. Sometimes I get lost in the rhythm of the paddling. I even count the strokes it takes to get me to a point of land. The play of muscles in one's arms and shoulders, and the feel of palm against worn wood, are preferable to glancing at a speedometer.
I have surprised myself with what I could make with simple tools when a definite need arose. I made a tap out of a nail and cut a thread for a homemade screw that my tripod needed. I made a spring for the automatic timer on the camera, and countless other times repaired the camera, the gas lantern, and other accessories. I made a crimping tool to scallop the edges of some tin trays I fashioned from gas cans. I have made all kinds of things from gas cans. I don't think a man knows what he actually can do until he is challenged.
Nature provides so many things if one has the eye to notice them. It is a pleasure to see what you can use instead of buying it all packaged and ready-made. Several stumps with just the right flare gave me my wooden hinges. Burls and peculiar branch growths afforded me bowls and wooden spoons and clothes hangers. Driftwood provided me with a curtain rod and my spruce buck horns. I found spruce cones to be as effective as Brillo pads or steel wool to scour my pots. Stones of all colors and shapes were the raw material for my fireplace. When I did resort to manufactured products such as polyethylene, nails, and cement, I felt as though I had cheated. I was not being true to the philosophy I was trying to follow.
I do think a man has missed a very deep feeling of satisfaction if he has never created or at least completed something with his own two hands. We have grown accustomed to work on pieces of things instead of wholes. It is a way of life with us now. The emphasis is on teamwork. I believe this trend bears much of the blame for the loss of pride in one's work, the kind of pride the old craftsman felt when he started a job and finished it and stood back and admired it. How does a man on an assembly line feel any pride in the final product that rolls out at the other end?
I realize that men working together can perform miracles such as sending men to walk on the surface of the moon. There is definitely a need and a place for teamwork, but there is also a need for an individual sometime in his life to forget the world of parts and pieces and put something together on his own – complete something. He's got to create.
Man is dependent upon man. I would be the last to argue that point. Babe brought me things that other men made or produced. We need each other; but nevertheless, in a jam the best friend you have is yourself.
I have often thought about what I would do out here if I were stricken with a serious illness, if I broke a leg, cut myself badly, or had an attack of appendicitis. Almost as quickly as the thought came, I dismissed it. Why worry about something that isn't? Worrying about something that might happen is not a healthy pastime. A man's a fool to live his life under a shadow like that. Maybe that's how an ulcer begins.
I have thought briefly about getting caught in rock slides or falling from a rock face. If that happened, I would probably perish on the mountain in much the same way many of the big animals do. I would be long gone before anyone found me. My only wish would be that folks wouldn't spend a lot of time searching. When the time comes for a man to look his Maker in the eye, where better could the meeting be held than in the wilderness?
News never changes much. It's just the same things happening to different people. I would rather experience things happening to me than read about them happening to others. I am my own newspaper and my own radio. I honestly don't believe that man was meant to know everything going on in the world, all at the same time. A man turns on the TV and all those commentators bombard him with the local, the national, and international news. The newspapers do the same thing, and the poor guy with all the immediate problems of his own life is burdened with those of the whole world.
I don't know what the answer is. In time man gets used to almost anything, but the problem seems to be that technology is advancing faster than he can adjust to it. I think it's time we started applying the brakes, slowing down our greed and slowing down the world.
I have found that some of the simplest things have given me the most pleasure. They didn't cost me a lot of money either. They just worked on my senses. Did you ever pick very large blueberries after a summer rain? Walk through a grove of cottonwoods, open like a park, and see the blue sky beyond the shimmering gold of the leaves? Pull on dry woolen socks after you've peeled off the wet ones? Come in out of the subzero and shiver yourself warm in front of a wood fire? The world is full of such things.
I've watched many hunters come and go. I don't begrudge a hunter his Dall ram if he climbs to the crags to get one and packs it down the mountain. If he does this, he has earned those curved horns to put up on his wall. Yet there are so many who have not earned what they proudly exhibit. Even though the hunt may have cost them thousands of dollars, they did not pay the full price for it.
I have no doubt that to others I am an oddball in many ways. The Lord waited a little too long to put me on one of his worlds. I don't like the look of progress, if that is what it's called. I would have liked the beginnings better. That's why this place has taken hold of me. It's still in those early stages and man hasn't left too many marks on the land. Surely I have been places up and down these mountains where other men have never been. How long before all this will change as the other places have changed?
I've seen a lot of sights from this old spruce chunk, and have thought a lot of thoughts. The more I think about it, the better off I think I am. The crime rate up here is close to zero. I forget what it is like to be sick or have a cold. I don't have bills coming in every month to pay for things I don't really need. My legs and canoe provide my transportation. They take me as far as I care to go.
To see game you must move a little and look a lot. What first appears to be a branch turns into that big caribou bull up there on the benches – I wonder what he thinks about? Is his brain just a blank has 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?
[rereads: 1, edits: 0]