I am still being overtaken by thoughts from watching Into the Wild earlier this week. The film tells the true story of Chris McCandless who gives his $20k savings to Oxfam, then leaves home and drifts around America’s wild places with the ultimate plan of getting himself to the wilds of Alaska. He finds his way to the wilderness of Alaska eventually and walks off the end of the tarmac into the unknown. There, utterly alone, he survives for some months, living in an abandoned bus.
Beautifully shot by director Sean Penn, the film is a compassionately told story of a damaged young man trying to find meaning and find himself in contemporary America. But it is also a study of the yearning in us all for the wild and lonely places that are fast disappearing from our overdeveloped landscapes.
We cannot help but admire McCandless’ brazen opposition to the assumptions of job, car, house, career etc that seem inevitable to him as he emerges from college. His story seems to provide encouragement to the hunger is all of us to get off this mad treadmill of wages and mortgage and busyness and live something of a simpler life, closer to nature, closer to ourselves.
There is something of a movement of literature on this subject too. The new naturalist writings of Robert MacFarlane, Roger Deakin et al are gaining popularity, reconnecting us to old ways, ancient rural practices and landscapes that are fast disappearing. These writings, of which I am something of a fan too, connect deeply with me in my search for space, silence, stillness and beauty in the midst of 21st century life.
We seem to be living in a paradox, yearning for wilderness, nostalgic for a simpler life that has all but disappeared and yet, by and large, unable to break off from our crowded, materialistic, urban-dominated civilisation. MacFarlane’s own journey offers help though. After a series of journeys to some of the remotest places in the UK his journeys begin to explore a wilderness that is more about noticing and awareness than about purely geography. He explores the holloways of Dorset, hidden worlds that are lost to us unless we attend to them and begins to reflect on a perhaps more powerful wilderness that lies at the edges or even in the midst of our busy world. He quotes Deakin who said: ‘There is wildness everywhere, if we only stop in our tracks to look around us.’
The search for the wild is symptomatic of a deeper search, for meaning, for purpose, for ourselves and for who we are in the context of the universe. And to find it, we don’t have to break off from our lives and spend months in the wilderness – but we do have to do that on a small scale. We have to stop and we have to find something of that wilderness space wherever we are. Sadly that does take determination and something of the countercultural courage displayed by McCandless. Perhaps that is the thing that most drew me, and others to him. He had in spades the kind of single-mindedness we all need to resist the pernicious allure of modern life with all its false promises of happiness and satisfaction.