photo & text by nacrowe
INTO THE WILD (VILLARD, 1996) by JON KRAKAUER is the type of book that follows and gnaws at you long after you finished reading it. this nonfiction account of the forces, both personal and cultural, that led to the demise of CHRISTOPHER MCCANDLESS in the ALASKAN bush makes the reader consider what it means to live a fulfilled life.
MCCANDLESS is a complicated, controversial and deeply confounding figure who seemingly both taps into an ingrained exclusively AMERICAN pioneer spirit that celebrates personal freedom and self-reliance through communion with nature in the tradition of RALPH WALDO EMERSON, HENRY DAVID THOREAU and JOHN MUIR while also serving as a tragic symbol of incompetence that could only be derived from an entrenched sense of WHITE PRIVILEGE and EXCEPTIONALISM.
and that mystery regarding why MCCANDLESS, who for all accounts and purposes harbored a deep curiosity and a supremely astute and literate mind, entered that harsh terrain so unprepared is essentially the beauty of this book. was it ego-driven? was it to escape the pressures of adulthood and family?
moving past the particulars of his death, as a reader you are dealt with the broader implications surrounding the question of why people, especially young people, partake in risky behavior in general. as a social species are we predisposed to engage in risky activities as a means of proving something to ourselves? others?
as for myself i have taken jobs in countries of questionable security such as MYANMAR, VENEZUELA and ALBANIA and traveled to similarly sketchy places like BRASIL. i can honestly say that my main motivation was curiosity about the lives and cultures of others. if these efforts were later validated or questioned by others, i would ignore such just the same with equal vigor. for some reason, and this may be pure projection on my part, i see MCCANDLESS as someone seeking to test himself and push his boundaries. risking his personal health with no security net in itself was the point. he was all in and new the risks. emotionally i get it the romanticism of that ideal, but intellectually it is difficult to justify the suffering he inflicted on his loved ones, even those he was estranged from. it just seems needless, excessive and ultimately selfish.
but the more i think about him the more i am torn, which again is probably the point of the book. he is an ideal RORSCHACH TEST to project your own values and sense of what constitutes a well-lived life. for my part i see service to your community, however wide or narrowly you define such, as the optimal measure of the value of one's existence.
ultimately i feel like he was acting in service of his own ego. its impossible to justify his actions due to the suffering he inflicted, but then again he knew the risks and he paid them with his life. he paid the price of servicing his ego and not his community. but i dont know. its complicated. he lived the life he wanted and made his decisions without fear or influence. this was just an unfortunate outcome.
this is an interesting book that continues to confound me. well worth reading and i recommend it highly. wish i taught this book during my teaching career. i can only imagine the discussions.
photo & text by nacrowe
OCTOPUSES are cool. and yes, i said OCTOPUSES, not OCTOPI which is incorrect (as you can't add latin suffixes to greek-derived words for all you grammar nerds out there).
years ago when i was working in VENEZUELA i had the great privilege of scuba diving in the LOS ROQUES archipelago. not once but twice. saw lots of fish, sharks, eels, crabs and other sea-life, but sadly not one OCTOPUS. which was a bummer no doubt. been fascinated with them since childhood.
naturalist SY MONTGOMERY in her book THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS: A SURPRISING EXPLORATION IN THE WONDER OF CONSCIOUSNESS (ATRIA, 2016) goes about exploring the inner world of several captive OCTOPUSES at the NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM in BOSTON. while the book does give insight into the almost alien capabilities of these amazing cephalopods (i.e. tasting through skin, having appendages that are semi-autonomous from the brain, intelligence derived in evolutionary terms not from group relations but in isolation), what make MONTGOMERY's book compelling is her exploration of the emotional and spiritual ramifications of these abilities. what can an OCTOPUS discern about us via tasting our complex chemical signatures via its touch? what hidden knowledge do they possess about CONSCIOUSNESS and the nature of reality
this book questions the very idea of what constitutes intelligence. even the very nature of CONSCIOUSNESS. it feels that our own tools of discerning reality are limited in comparison. some might mock such consideration as merely uniformed conjecture at best and ANTHROPOMORPHISM at worst, but increasingly science is becoming more open to the possibility that the nature of CONSCIOUSNESS is more complex and less understood than we have defined such in the past. its incredibly interesting stuff.
and what is particularly mystifying about the evolution of said intelligence in OCTOPUSES is that 1) such came from an INVERTEBRATES unlike all other similar organisms (such as VERTEBRATES like horses, dogs, apes, dolphins and humans) and 2) such capacities were not promote and rewarded within a group context (as in all other cases) as OCTOPUSES are defiantly solitary creatures. MONTGOMERY gets into the THEORY OF MIND capacity of being able to mirror empathy an thought processes of other animals in nature and how the OCTOPUS developed such as a defense mechanism, unlike VERTEBRATES who do such to coordinate attacks and develop social relationships with their kin. OCTOPUSES are singular creatures of great intelligence with an entirely unique evolutionary path to the cognitive abilities. they are the closest thing we have to an alien species. just incredible and stimulating to consider.
i thoroughly enjoyed this book, not only for its informative deep dive into anatomy, behavior and rituals of these mysterious solitary, shapeshifting creatures, but for its deeper consideration of our own connection to the natural world. not just as stewards of nature, but as partners since it seems we have much to learn from these secretive and seemingly mystical invertebrates.