In the summer of 2000, two friends and I embarked on an epic cross-country drive. In preparation for the journey, we rented a Dodge Caravan, stocked up on peanut butter, and debated where to go. Using a Rand McNally map book, I laid out our path in pen, drawing lines from campsite icon to campsite icon across America and back. We planned to leave from Delaware, where I was a senior in college, in late June, and return in mid-August — in all, six weeks of whiskey-addled, open-skied adventure. For the quiet moments — of which there turned out to be few — I brought along a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath. Like the Joads, we were also striving for California — but with more Led Zeppelin CDs in tow.
That month and a half became one of the fullest periods of my life, with one exhilarating escapade after another: outracing tornadoes in Kansas, nearly freezing to death in Yosemite, close calls with bears in both Sequoia and Glacier National Parks. We hiked and camped and ate our peanut butter. With cheap snapshot cameras, we ran through dozens of rolls of film. From Seattle to Pittsburgh, we forswore bathing, a foul contest of wills. It was all very stupid and perfectly glorious. It was, as they say, a formative experience.
Afterwards, we made a pact to do a similar expedition every year, but outside of a few days in West Virginia in 2001, our oath died on the vine. As I progressed through my 20s, though, I still thought of myself as the same daring moron who once pushed a minivan to 110 on a Montana interstate. My girlfriend and I would go on long drives just to see what we could see; we hiked with the same questing spirit I’d carried on my trip. Once, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, we became covered in deer ticks — and as we scraped them from our shins, laughing in horror beside our car, I had the feeling that, uncomfortable as I was, I remained on the proper track. You can’t get covered in bugs if you don’t enter the woods.
As time went on, I began to read about people who, I flattered myself to think, had a similarly — if more pronounced — searching spirit. There was Percy Fawcett of The Lost City of Z, who rambled through the Amazon as if it were Central Park. And Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless, whose fatal Alaskan trek was equally noble and misguided. I became a sucker for such narratives, subscribing to Outside magazine for its pieces on doomed hikers and wayward canoeists. Most know Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run for the creepy 10-toe running shoes it helped to popularize, but I was more taken by its description of Mexico’s Tarahumara and their daunting mountain races. To write Savage Harvest, about the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, Carl Hoffman traveled to New Guinea — just as I would have done, I thought as I read. After all, I was pretty intrepid myself.
Except that I wasn’t; not anymore. I was now married to that girlfriend, and had become both a father and an eternally fatigued commuter. Any journey I now took was occurring inside my skull: instead of going on spontaneous road trips, I was reading Charles Portis’s Norwood. Instead of hiking until my feet bled, I was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Instead of tearing across Montana, I was reading Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land. I had outsourced the work of outdoor experience to various authors, my risk limited to paper cuts and coffee spills. It had happened slowly, imperceptibly, until the transformation was all but complete. The version of myself who “got out there and did things” had been replaced by a softer, safer, far more boring person.
In short, I was spending too much time reading about interesting people and almost no time being one — an insight that recently hit me with depressing force. I’m not sure what spurred the revelation — perhaps it was the contrast between the solitude of reading and the chaos of what I read. Maybe it struck me that I’d just read two books about people surviving deadly cold (Crazy for the Storm, The Shining) and was, absurdly, preparing to read two more (The Revenant and Alone on the Ice). Whatever it was, I’d become unhealthily comfortable; to quote an old Radiohead song, I was now a pig in a cage on antibiotics — or, less dramatically, a guy in cozy slippers whose vitality had slipped away.
This suspicion was soon confirmed by a family hike — the first my wife and I had been on in years, despite the fact that the woods are a short drive from our house. Though we only walked for two hours or so, and the air was getting cold, the forest quietly filled a need that, in recent years, I had learned to ignore. We marveled at trees that intertwined like rope, gazed at a creek as if it were a national landmark. We inhaled, exhaled, looked for the paint blazes that marked our path. We were again away from everything, and it felt really fucking good.
That was a month and a half ago, and that feeling — the recognition of some innate inner need — hasn’t faded; it now seems to burn within me, steady as a pilot light. I’ve resolved to reclaim myself — my old self, tick-stippled and chased by bears, a person who’d do most anything for the sake of doing it. In a way, it’s already happened; we’ve since gone on another such hike, and we’re planning a what-the-hell-let’s-just-go trip to Tennessee in the spring. Reading is an incredible thing, but it’s a poor substitute for life. I’m amazed, and embarrassed, that I’ve had to learn such an obvious lesson. Yes, adulthood is tiring, children will suck you dry, and it’s easy to stay inside. But I remember now: though I packed The Grapes of Wrath on that long-ago, six-week drive, I read almost none of it. And I didn’t miss it at all.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Part Into the Wild, part Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Howard Axelrod’s The Point of Vanishing is the story of his two years spent in profound solitude in the Vermont wilderness. Called “torture” by prison rights activists and “a threat to mental stability” by psychologists, Axelrod’s decision to sequester himself from society was nothing if not extreme. Alexander Supertramp would be proud.
“Canadian writers as a whole do not trust Nature. They are always suspecting some dirty trick.” – Margaret Atwood, Survival
Susanna Moodie’s 1852 Roughing it in the Bush was less an emigrant’s guide than a cautionary tale, and much early Canadian literature wrestled with the realities of that experience. Beautiful Losers (Leonard Cohen, 1966) finally freed Canadian writers from writing about the pioneer life and the implacable menace of the wilderness, but our anxiety about it never really went away (Elle, Solomon Gursky Was Here, The Orenda, and Indian Horse, to name a few). The land continues to demand our respect and attention.
The Bear, set in the early 1990s, rehearses that anxiety in a visceral way. Five-year-old Anna and her two-year-old brother Alex (Stick), survive a bear attack that kills their parents and then face the wilds of Algonquin Park on their own. “I need you to get your brother off the island,” her mortally injured mother whispers, when Anna and Stick emerge from the safety of the cooler. “It’s not safe.” With these words, Claire Cameron reminds us how tenuous is our mastery of the natural world.
I interviewed Cameron on a morning in early March. It was still too cold for a canoe trip, so we walked through the curated wilderness of High Park in Toronto instead. There was still snow on the ground but the cold snap had finally lifted and the birds were singing.
The Millions: In her study of Canadian literature, Survival, Margaret Atwood wrote that in the books she read as a child, “The main thing was to avoid dying, and only by a mixture of cunning, experience, and narrow escapes could the animal — or the human relying on its own resources — manage that.” Five-year-old Anna narrates your novel, and part of the tension in The Bear is the reader’s awareness of the killing indifference of the Canadian wilderness: we know the kids are not all right.
Claire Cameron: The real start was in the voice. It started to whisper to me. My son was five years old at the time and nattering incessantly. At five there’s that moment when their vocabulary catches up with their inner life. In the background was my ongoing interest in bears. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness. I started to write with that voice and the wilderness stuff wrapped itself around that voice. A bear came to mind. I’m so well acquainted with the attack that happened in 1991 in Algonquin Park, where I’d worked as a camp counselor the year before and the year after it happened. It was a couple who were experienced campers and it was around Thanksgiving. As far as bears go, that timing is crucial. No one else was there to witness it, but in reconstructing the scene they think it was a predatory attack, and they think the bear attacked the woman first. There are signs that the man put up a fight. It was a young male bear, which is another important point. Young males get kicked out by their mums and they don’t have their own territory. They are the ones that are more experimental and willing to take a chance.
What took me years to come to terms with was that the couple didn’t do anything wrong, and the bear was just being a bear. The summer after, I and a lot of people who worked at the camp were searching for a reason, we were hoping that the campers had done something wrong, that the campers had done something to bring this on to themselves. There wasn’t much detail available. It wasn’t until years later that I came to terms with the idea that they’d done nothing wrong. It was quite chilling.
TM: You say the bear was just being a bear, but bears don’t attack people often.
CC: No. Some people call it a rogue bear, and I use that language sometimes, just to communicate that it’s very unusual for a black bear to do that. But there are biologists who say that if a bear, especially this young male bear, has made a successful kill of a young moose calf, that a human isn’t such a leap. It’s not a matter of them having taste for human flesh. It’s that it’s October and they need to hibernate and they need calories. A lone male is going to be struggling.
TM: When Anna and Stick reach the mainland and eat some of the “dangle berries” they forage, my mind went to the recent news about the neurotoxins in the wild yam seeds that Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) ate. If an adult, equipped with guides to edible plants, couldn’t figure out what might kill him, how could children be safe? Putting your characters directly in harm’s way meant simply letting them run out of food.
CC: Because I’ve taught Outward Bound courses, which were 30 day stretches in the wilderness with young kids who didn’t have much experience, I’m acutely aware of the boundaries, which are first and foremost hydration. And adults can really only go for three days. A lot of people worry about food but that’s just a distraction.
I love the wilderness for all sorts of reasons but my fundamental reason for being out there is what you learn about the people you’re with, especially when they come under stress. That section I was very much playing with those things, seeing how they’d react and what they’d do. What their priorities would be. A child is often stomach-led. I had this instinct that they would be wanting to put something in their mouth.
TM: Did you think of them getting hold of something poisonous?
CC: My son and I go hiking enough and one of the things we’re always talking about is, “Doesn’t that look tempting to eat? But you don’t eat that.” He can drone on about how he shouldn’t eat things. It’s one of my hobby horses. My intention was that her mother had been similarly on Anna about that kind of thing. I did feel that to be realistic and not fall into a heap, Anna needed some kind of prior structure.
TM: Earle Birney coined the term “bushed” in his iconic poem by that name to describe the way the wilderness does a number on our mental health. As the weather turned and the bush became something he knew he might not survive, Richard Wagamese’s young Ojibway character (in Indian Horse) put it this way: “The land around us was like a great being hunched in the darkness.” You give fresh meaning to being bushed when Anna imagines the darkness as a flesh-eating monster. Were you consciously working from that literary tradition? It’s hard to imagine in an urban park, but have you ever been bushed yourself?
CC: I’ve been bushed lots. I was working more from an experiential tradition than a literary one, probably, though I’m very attracted to all of those writers. I’ve done a lot of time outdoors. Some of the most interesting times, in retrospect, are when you get bushed, up against the edge. It reminds you of your place in the world, how small and insignificant you are. We love to put sentiment on nature, we love to give it human emotions, but it’s really about realizing your place, and how precarious your place is.
TM: Nick Cutter (aka Craig Davidson, the worst-kept secret in Canadian literature) recently published a horror novel about young people in the wilderness, The Troop. In an interview about it, he said, “I think for the boys in my book, they keep going because, simple as it seems, it’s impossible for them to believe that they won’t survive.” This childlike trust that the universe is benign is very much a thematic concern in The Bear, too. It makes it possible for Anna to endure.
CC: I loved The Troop for that point, that the young mind is flexible and can snap back. I feel like we had that observation in common. I picked up on that in conversations with my son, when I noticed he’d be so sad about something that he’d feel that his life was over and it was all ruined and then in the next minute be laughing hysterically. I was amazed at watching that, noticing how much protection there was in that, to be able to switch and be in a moment like that. I think it is a survival tactic.
TM: Writing from the perspective of a five-year-old also means childish self-absorption. She laughs at her brother’s nakedness, notices the way her skin turns white from so much water, and worries about being in trouble with her parents. Meanwhile, she’s lost in the wilderness. Does her tunnel vision protect her from the larger terror an adult with greater knowledge of the world would feel?
CC: I think it does. That ability to be in the moment helps you keep relaxed. In a survival situation, being relaxed is one of the key things. I think it stops her from overloading with stress, which an adult might do. It’s a survival mechanism of its own.
TM: You’ve said that you were very much aware of Lord of the Flies while you were writing this book, and that you were consciously writing against it. Tell me more about that.
CC: I reread it sometime in the year before I started writing. When I’ve been working leading wilderness courses, there’s been a longstanding joke when things start to break down, everyone says, “Oh, Lord of the Flies!” So I reread it. I’d known it wasn’t exactly a kind take on human nature, but having two boys I was really struck by how it gave them no benefit of the doubt. It was quite a mean take on human nature. I saw so much kindness in my boys that I got angry that I’d let Lord of the Flies define so much. Why is that the reference point? That really frustrated me. So I started writing against that.
TM: So you said you were listening to your son’s voice, and yet you drew the character as a girl.
CC: The book was originally two boys. I was listening to my son’s voice and the character was a boy, and I had a much longer section when they were grown up and returning to the island at first. I was really struggling with that and my agent said, Well, maybe it’s a girl. I went into a three-day snit. Absolutely not! It was so foundational that I was writing against Lord of the Flies. I calmed down and I read through, and the older character was going on about popsicles and Band-Aids. I realized that she and I shared a lot of interests. I started to leave Lord of the Flies behind. Maybe that was a reason for starting, but why would that matter to the reader? I knew I’d write about a strong little girl really well.
TM: In your review of The Troop for The Globe and Mail you wrote about how the female character is always the one being eaten, and how that irritates you. Was that part of that character decision as well?
CC: It became a big part of that. Especially in wilderness and survival writing, there’s been, similar to horror, a damsel in distress role for women. My grandmother’s sister was a climber in the 1950s who was in the Kootenays (south-east British Columbia), a back-country skier, and I don’t see her story. There were quite a few Victorian rock-climbers, they went in skirts, but it’s not really established in the wilderness writing canon. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. I was so glad that Craig Davidson didn’t have anyone skinny dipping at the beginning!
TM: Releasing children to their own recognizance is a common fairy tale trope. When she was small, I’d hear my daughter announce “we were orphans” during imaginary play. Like in fairy tales, that was always the start of everything: get the parents out of the way so something interesting can happen. There are clear narrative constraints when you limit yourself to the perspective of a five-year-old, but I think there are freedoms, too. Did you ever attempt this story from the adult perspective?
CC: I didn’t, because it started with the voice. One of the first times I’ve thought clearly about this was when Mark Medley interviewed me for the National Post and he said, You have all these tools but you’ve chosen to throw them to the side and essentially tie one hand behind your back. Why would you do that? And I had no way to answer. I didn’t sit down and think, I’m going to write from the child’s perspective, I thought, I’m going to use this voice. In my first few drafts I had many more signposts for the reader, days of the week, some articles, a section from the rescuer’s perspective. I was not confident in my ability to pull it off. As I got more into the voice and attuned to what I was doing, I started to strip that back and the last step was taking it all out. I thought, Ok, I think I can stand up. I had to be brave.
It was incredibly freeing. I stopped worrying so much while I was writing, and I stopped using that analytical part of my brain and I let it go back to this instinctual brain. When I was writing Anna’s voice I let myself write fast and I didn’t read back. I just let it rip.
TM: Your bear is very different from Marian Engel’s bear, but both animals seem to stand in for our relationship with the natural world. We understand it as benevolent as well as destructive; we love it and we fear it. Has the writing of this novel changed your relationship with wilderness?
CC: The review in People magazine said something like, “This could do for camping what Jaws did for beaches.” I thought, Oh, good lord! I actually loved the novel Jaws and I’d been reading about how Peter Benchley has such great regret about what he did to great white sharks. They weren’t understood when he wrote that, and the novel portrays them as killing machines. If you read the blurb about my book, and you don’t actually read the book, there is potential for harm. It’s made me realize the extent of my conflict. Of course when I go outdoors I’m very conscious of them and I’m scared of them in a way, but all of my experiences say that I don’t need to be. I think that part of writing this book was trying to reconcile those two things.
Robert Boynton, a journalism professor at NYU, has taken a look at the journalism landscape and determined that the craft has moved an iteration beyond Thomas Wolfe’s anointing of a New Journalism in 1973. Boynton’s book, which he has titled The New New Journalism looks at the more recent crop of in depth journalists – well-known for their long pieces in magazines like the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and for their bestselling books. A review in the New York Times describes the destinction Boynton is making this way: “If literary experimentation and artistic ambition were the New Journalism’s calling cards, reportorial depth is the New New Journalism’s distinguishing mark, Boynton insists.” Though the boundaries of this “new new journalism” may be fuzzy, it’s exciting to me that someone is assessing these books critically as group. My feeling is that these days books of in depth journalism tend to be more readable than most new literary fiction, and, perhaps more importantly, this “new new journalism” is able to deliver more of an impact.Boynton’s book is a collection of interviews in which he encourages the writers to discuss their methods (The New York Times review likens them to the Paris Review “Art of…” interviews.) Included in the book are interviews with writers like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, William Langewiesche, Eric Schlosser and Michael Lewis. Here’s an excerpt of his interview with Ted Conover. The collection is also well-received in the Columbia Journalism Review, which, however, expresses a wish that the book had come with a companion anthology. I agree that this would be nice, but, failing that, I though it might be worthwhile to list some of the books that these journalists have written (if only because I would like to refer back to it myself next time I have a hankering for some of the “new new” stuff.) So, here are the interviewees from The New New Journalism and some of the books they have written:Gay TaleseThe Gay Talese Reader: Portraits & EncountersThe BridgeThy Neighbor’s WifeJane KramerLone Patriot: The Short Career of an American MilitiamanHonor to the BrideThe Last CowboyCalvin TrillinThe Tummy TrilogyFeeding a YenToo Soon to TellRichard Ben CramerWhat It Takes: The Way to the White HouseHow Israel Lost: The Four QuestionsTed ConoverNewjack: Guarding Sing SingCoyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal AliensRolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s HoboesAlex KotlowitzThere Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other AmericaThe Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s DilemmaNever a City So Real: A Walk in ChicagoRichard PrestonThe Hot ZoneThe Demon in the FreezerFirst Light: The Search for the Edge of the UniverseWilliam LangewiescheThe Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and CrimeAmerican Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade CenterSahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the DesertEric SchlosserFast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American MealReefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black MarketLeon DashRosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban AmericaWhen Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage ChildbearingWilliam FinneganCold New World: Growing Up in Harder CountryA Complicated War: The Harrowing of MozambiqueCrossing the Line: A Year in the Land of ApartheidJonathan HarrA Civil ActionThe Lost PaintingJon KrakauerInto Thin AirInto the WildUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithAdrian Nicole LeBlancRandom Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the BronxMichael LewisMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameThe New New Thing: A Silicon Valley StoryLiar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall StreetSusan OrleanThe Orchid ThiefThe Bullfighter Checks Her MakeupMy Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been EverywhereRon RosenbaumThe Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy EnthusiasmsTravels With Dr. Death and Other Unusual InvestigationsExplaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His EvilLawrence WeschlerMr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic TechnologySeeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert IrwinVermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political TragediesLawrence WrightRemembering SatanTwins: And What They Tell Us About Who We AreIn the New WorldUpdate: Jessa at Bookslut compiles a set of links to articles by the New New Journalists.