the pure & the impure

by uzwi

Lots of responses like James Lasdun’s to Michael Finkel’s book on Christopher Knight, Stranger in the Woods.

The interesting thing about Finkel’s revision of Knight is not that it attempts to romanticise a thief but that it accidentally questions the idea of wilderness survival as an available form of self-authentication.

The space he went to ground in was already impure: full of weekend retreats and–presumably–used for outdoor recreation. Any attempt to “survive” authentically there was doomed by that. Its usage as a space was already domesticated, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to steal from holiday homes.

The same was true of Christopher McCandless and of John Krakeur’s book about him: the space in which McCandless tried to authenticate himself was not considered by local users of wilderness to be particularly wild. He wasn’t, as far as they were concerned, all that deep in. That was the tenor of the local reaction to the tragedy. With a little of the workaday understanding the local users had, their complaint went, he could easily have survived.

The problem with that position is that it describes the wilderness as already partly domesticated. The level of skill required might be specialised, but it is perfectly available. And the more people take up the skills, the more normalised the process of survival becomes. That begins an inevitable domestication of the space which will, eventually, lead to it becoming a leisure resource, an extension of the suburb.

So when you blame McCandless for being naive and failing to learn anything about the problems he would face in the “wild”; or when you blame Knight for living off the land the way a Yosemite bear or suburban racoon might (that is, as “the land” now presents itself), you are really, if unintentionally, mourning an already vanished concept of wildness. Penetration of that pure space as an equally pure self-authenticatory act has become a game. It can no longer be romanticised. It is no longer the scene of the rite of passage–or at least not that particular rite of passage. Our irritation at Knight for “cheating” is a tacit admission of that.

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