Alone and Foresaken

Images of Man at the Mercy of Nature in Gerry, Grizzly Man, Survivorman, and Man Vs. Wild

When I was a young teenager, I went through some of the more intensive wilderness survival offerings that the Boy Scouts of southwestern Alabama could conceive. I survived on my own in the wild for a couple of days. I built shelters, collected and purified rainwater, got very lost in the woods (and found my way out by climbing down a ravine and following a river), wiped my behind with leaves, and lived on berries and small critters I could catch. These skills have not been too useful in my life. They did, however, help to achieve what I assume was their goal: fostered a relationship between capital-n Nature and me. The feeling I get when surrounded by deep woods is ineffable. Every sound, from the rustle of the wind through leaves to the crunch of underbrush, is as moving as the music of a true believer. It’s all Mahalia Jackson singing about Jesus to my ears.

Nature, sadly, is just not that into me.

I mean, it’s not just me. It’s all of us. Nature — and I mean the untamed wildness of the world here — is indifferent to us, regardless of love or hate or any other human emotions. Even if we believed in a consciousness guiding Nature (and I do not), people would be meaningless to Nature, naked little monkeys who live and die in a microsecond. Blurs and blips, barely containing information.

That’s a little awe-inspiring, actually. Nature actually offers us far more than we can offer it: perspective.

I recently saw Gus Van Sant’s 2002 movie Gerry, about two young men who get lost in the desert and wander around for days looking for a way out. Long stretches of the movie are filled with the camera slowly panning about the landscape, which is godlike in its inhospitable enormity. Many shots appear to be static images of desert mountains until you realize that the two boys are the tiny moving things in the corner. Blips.

They search for the highway, which eludes them, as it would, until the very end. We do not see them take stock of their direction until three days in, when they are dying of exposure and dehydration. Early on, the one played by Casey Affleck becomes stranded on a rock, wholly dependent on the other to help him get down without breaking his ankles. The other, played by Matt Damon, looks around at the rocks and dirt, and wonders what, exactly, he is supposed to do.

Those two boys, alone in the unforgiving desert, ill-equipped to survive, uncertain where they’ve been or which way to go: sounds like a metaphor, right? Even better, “gerry” is their personal slang word, meaning “screw-up.” They call each other “Gerry” constantly, but they also use it as a verb. Looking back at their path, they think they’ve gerried here and there, not realizing that the whole excursion was a gerry. In fact, their attitude towards the excursion was the original gerry. They clowned around in the desert, setting off on a full-bore running chase when they should have been watching the poorly-delineated path. The only people we see in the first 100-odd minutes of the movie are a small family returning from whatever the path lead to. They could find their way there and back with small children, but these two boys didn’t take their circumstances seriously enough to realize that the family made it there and back by following the rules. They were lost from the moment they stepped off the path, like children in a fairy tale.

Another child who walked into the fairy tale world was Timothy Treadwell, the man documented in Werner Herzog’s brilliant 2005 film Grizzly Man. Treadwell believed that he was an environmentalist protecting grizzlies from poachers. The evidence in Herzog’s movie of any protection Treadwell offered to the grizzlies was scant, at best. Instead, Herzog sees Treadwell as something of a holy fool. Treadwell traveled to Alaska each summer for 13 years to camp among the grizzlies, despite advice from experts and park rangers that he was going to kill himself and inure some of the bears to human presence, which could lead to their deaths. Treadwell filmed countless hours of bears and foxes in their natural habitat, capturing scenes shocking and, yes, awe-inspiring in their beauty and savagery. He also filmed himself touching and swimming with adult grizzlies and playing with the foxes, which seems foolish in many ways. And yet, he didn’t die for 13 years until he broke his own rules and returned to camp after the bears who knew him had left. Herzog interrupts Treadwell at one point, after Treadwell spoke about the harmony of nature, to point out that Nature doesn’t care about him, and that while Treadwell anthropomorphizes the bears as his friends, all Herzog sees is the empty dark eyes of wild animals.

It’s notable that Herzog sees how Treadwell’s Elmo-like on-screen persona is at odds with his sharpness as a cameraman. Also at odds with Treadwell’s on-screen persona are his apparent wilderness survival skills. The man who lives for months in the wild with minimal contact to the outside world is not a man easily compared to Elmo. It is amazing that Treadwell went 13 years without being attacked by the grizzlies, but more amazing is that suggestion that he could have continued his treks to Alaska if he hadn’t broken his own safety rules. We can’t chalk his fortune to Nature, although we can certain credit Nature with his ultimate fate, so we must give the man credit for knowing how to survive in the tabula rasa of the dark emptiness of unforgiving Nature.

I couldn’t help but think that the boys in Gerry would have been better off if they’d been watching Les Stroud on the TV reality show Survivorman. Les is a wilderness survival guide who films himself getting into situations where people find themselves suddenly, scarily, well off of the beaten path. He commits to seven days in the wild with minimal provisions, and does all the filming himself. Some of his blocking is especially stunning when you remember that there is no cameraman filming him and that he’s going to have to return from that point several miles off to get the camera. In the episode that reminded me of Gerry, Stroud simulates being stranded in the desert in Utah. He builds a fire to ward off predators and stay warm at night and he spends most of his days searching for fresh water. He reminds the viewer that the safest tactic is to stay near the path and wait for help, but he wanders off because he wants to demonstrate what to do when you’ve made that particular gerry, I mean, mistake.

Other episodes that Stroud has filmed involve survival situations in the frozen tundra of northern Canada, a swamp in Georgia, a jungle in Costa Rica, in a raft at sea near Belize, and, among many other situations, in a lovely forest in Ontario. In every episode, Stroud’s utter isolation plays a heavy role throughout his week, but he typically remains calm and tries to marshal his resources to better his survival advantage. Nature, as usual, remains indifferent.

When I find myself watching Survivorman’s knockoff Man Vs. Wild, I wish Nature would stop being so damn impassive and smack that guy already. The host there is the excitable bullshit artist Bear Grylls, a man with wilderness survival advice that absolutely will get you killed if you try to follow it. In his "lost in the desert" episode, for instance, Grylls jumps into a box canyon (N.B. don’t do this, because you might break your ankle), swims into muddy brackish water (N.B. don’t do this, because you don’t know what’s underneath the water or where it is going), advises the viewer to swim under a large obstruction (N.B. REALLY DOn’t DO THIS, because drowning is both unfun and tends to impede your attempts to survive), climbs up and out of the box canyon at a tight point (N.B. don’t get into this situation by being an ass on a made-up reality show), and proceeds to eat the contents of several eggs he finds (N.B. don’t do this unless you are actually in a survival situation — and really, really don’t do this if you are a publicity-seeking jackass hosting a made-up reality show). A team of cameraman follow Grylls, ensuring that he is never truly alone. Apparently, big chunks of his program are staged. Look it up on Wikipedia and go to the Criticisms section.

Anyway, Grylls acts like Nature is a drinking buddy in on his joke. He’s gamed his show to make it appear that wilderness — wildness, even, if you consider the damn name of his show — is easily mastered. His very attitude betrays the entitlement of an overprivileged George W. Bush playing at being a tough guy. Nature is, unfortunately, as indifferent to assholes as it is to those respectful of it, and comeuppance is rarely in the works. Oh, but if it were.

In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus wrote about the prevalence of surviving as a subject of pop music in the 70s: “I Will Survive,” “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Stayin’ Alive” and so on. To Marcus, this was about apocalypse and fear.

Through the magic of ordinary language, “survival” and its twin, “survivor,” wrote the 1960s out of history as a mistake and translated the 1970s performance of any act of personal or professional stability (holding a job, remaining married, staying out of a mental hospital, or simply not dying) into heroism. First corrupted as a reference to those “survivors” of the “the sixties” who were now engaged in “real life,” the word contained an implacable equation: survival was real life. Soon enough, anyone whose material or physical existence was patently not in jeopardy could claim the title of survivor, and to be named a survivor was to receive the highest praise.

Survival, of course, isn’t heroism, even with the enormous impassivity of Nature refusing to help or hinder your path. Neither Damon nor Affleck in Gerry is a hero, especially after one kills the other — presumably an act of mercy. Treadwell in Grizzly Man isn’t any more a hero when alive and surviving for 13 years than he is in dying so pointlessly. Les Stroud of Survivorman isn’t a hero in any traditional sense, although I admit to more than a little hero-worship for the guy. And Bear Grylls of Man Vs. Wild attempts to make himself appear a hero by surviving, but in the process belittles those who do survive the awesome indifference of Nature, so fuck him.

Survival is meaningless to Nature, but everything to humanity. It is evidence of the one-sided nature of our relationship. We can love it or seek to destroy or tame it, and it will survive us. We are blurs and blips. We have very little to offer, but everything to gain.