I have just seen the film, Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s account of her 1700 km hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada. As someone who has trained over 500 people for backpacking and camping activities, I cringed watching the scenes showing how unprepared Cheryl was for the venture and the initial difficulties she had as a result. I had to remind myself that her grieving and despairing state of mind left little room for thoughtful and thorough preparation and planning.
In the film, the part of Cheryl Strayed is played by Reese Witherspoon. In a Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum article about the role, Reese explains that the director insisted that she came to the making of the film as much a novice about extended wilderness hiking as was Cheryl Strayed in the early days of the actual walk. This meant that Reese actually experienced some of the mental and physical hardships that Cheryl endured.
It also meant that she had the opportunity to experience the special joy and satisfaction that comes from meeting challenges in the natural world. This is how she recalls one particular challenge, that of starting a fire without matches or a lighter:
One day, when I set up camp off the trail, I rubbed sticks, made fire and started screaming. (There is no scene of her actually doing this in the film)
I was in the middle of the woods screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” at the top of my lungs. I was jumping up and down for joy. If you saw me in that moment, you would have thought that I’d lost my mind”.
Why did this sophisticated young woman find lighting a fire without modern aids so exhilarating? The exuberance of her reaction suggests her success meant more to her than simply getting a fire started.
There is also an element of mental challenge about it, especially for people like us who are beneficiaries of the conveniences and comforts of living in WIERD societies (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic). It requires us to do something that is totally or largely unaffected by civilisation – something that is “primitive” in other words.
Lighting a fire with materials and “tools” gathered from the forest brings the fire-lighter and nature very close together. Success depends on being able to collaborate with nature on nature’s terms. You have to have suitable materials, appropriate sticks and the “right” technique. If you don’t meet nature’s terms and conditions, you don’t have a fire.
Fire-lighting and other primitive activities require an intimate connection with nature. For many of us making such a connection is novel and inherently challenging. It requires us to venture into an unfamiliar and uncertain space, but making that journey successfully can be very satisfying. I believe that a large part of Reese Witherspoon’s elation was an expression of just this kind of satisfaction.
Making Wild, gave her many other opportunities to undertake “primitive” activities, including wading streams, scrambling rocks, and plodding through knee deep snow. Even some of the hiking she had to do on location would have involved some degree of primitiveness, especially as she was carrying a massive backpack, sometimes over steep and rough terrain.
I do not find it at all surprising that Reese found the challenges and hardships of filming Wild “transformative”.
It was so liberating, so freeing, she said. It was all about, “Yes, I can survive this, so maybe I can survive anything”.
Reese was not actually in real-life survival situations in the way that Cheryl Strayed often was. Nevertheless, she was genuinely challenged at times and genuinely immersed in primitive activities. As a result, nature was able to place positive and healthy demands on her.
That is how it is with most nature activities. To varying degrees, they extend us physically and/or mentally and provide us with opportunities to enter more fully into conversation with the wild outside and the wild within, as Claire Dunn (author of My Year Without Matches) so aptly puts it.
The conversation with “the wild outside” does not have to be in the context of high adventure or radical withdrawal from everyday life. Cheryl Strayed’s example is not one that we need or should necessarily aspire to follow.
There are many simple and accessible nature activities that can spark the conversation. Some examples are:
- taking a short walk (mindfully) along a bush track or beach
- wading a shallow stream,
- walking barefoot over grass, moss, leaf litter or sand,
- scrambling up a gently sloping rock face
- making a campfire (with or without matches)
- climbing a tree (part way will do)
- stepping across a creek on stones
- building a cubby (kids) or a shelter (adults)
- gazing at the night sky from a wilderness vantage point
- sitting in a rock overhang
These are all activities I have done alone and with others. I never cease to tire of them and they never cease to be satisfying and “re-creating”. They all help me to maintain an intimate relationship with the natural world. Through them I experience nature not as a distant cousin (to borrow again the words of Claire Dunn) but a good friend whose presence is palpable.