The Year of the Sasquatch

The Six Million Dollar Man SasquatchTomorrow, my first book, a work of narrative non-fiction, entitled In The Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch is being published in by Grove Atlantic in the U.S. In the run-up, I’ve posted a couple of Bigfoot related interviews on my other web blog, The Planisphere, that will be of interest to wildman aficionados.

The first is with Daniel Taylor, an American conservationist who spent over 60 years searching for the Yeti of Nepal. I question him on his findings and conclusion that the Yeti is in fact nothing more than a species of Asian bear. Taylor recently published a book about his more than half-century journey in search for an answer. In the interview, he explains how and why he came to that conclusion.

I also speak with Canadian adventurer, “Survivorman” Les Stroud. Sasquatch enthusiasts will know Stroud from his popular Survivorman Bigfoot TV series that ran a few years ago. He shares his thoughts about working on the documentary program and what he’s learned from his years navigating Sasquatch subculture.

The Psychology of Survival

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and WhyI’ve recently become interested in true stories of survival in extreme, life-threatening, situations. I got hooked after reading the better known mountaineering classics like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void – jolting, fast-paced reads about the unrelenting power of the natural world and our frailty when faced with it. Since finishing those titles I’ve devoured virtually everything found on the topic from Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, about the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820, to Erik Bjarnason’s Surviving Logan about an ill-fated climbing expedition on Canada’s highest mountain in 2005.

As a travel and adventure writer, I was bound to become entangled in this subject sooner or later. Not only have I met lots of people who’ve had close brushes with death, but as an avid hiker I’ve found myself increasingly cognizant of the dangers of travel in the backcountry. Those of us who are active outdoors are more acutely aware of stories about wilderness mishaps and people becoming lost, or simply vanishing without a trace. These incidents are far from rare. I’ve been disoriented in the mountains myself, and have had a few close calls with bears, so I know how quickly and unexpectedly one’s fortunes may turn for the worse.

I’ve just read a superb book that conveys the essence of why people tend to get into trouble in the outdoors – and how they either pull through, or succumb to, their difficulties. Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why is a book about the psychology of survival. His work examines case studies of tragedy – and near tragedy – in the outdoors to explain how those situations came to pass. Gonzales weaves in cognitive psychology, philosophical perspectives on human behaviour and his own do’s and dont’s in dangerous scenarios to create a sort of tao of survival.  The book argues that our mental attitudes, habits, perceptions and the state of our awareness play a huge role in our ability to avoid, and survive, life-threatening situations.

For Gonzales, self-awareness is the fundamental ingredient. “To survive, you must find yourself,” he writes. “Then it won’t matter where you are.”

Deep Survival is not just applicable to extreme sports and the outdoors. It is a guide to surviving life. Below are just a few of the many ideas running through this rich and thought-provoking book.

The ability to manage high emotion arousal is an important survival skill.

The reason we are constantly adjured not to panic in an emergency is because we become mentally handicapped as result. We flee or freeze and become obtuse, unable to see and find potential solutions to our dilemma. High stress, excessive emotion, and panic narrows our perception. Gonzales writes, “Cortisol and other hormones released under stress interfere with the working of the prefrontal cortex. That is where perceptions are processed and decisions are made. You see less, hear less, miss more cues from the environment, and make mistakes. Under extreme stress, the visual field actually narrows.”

Mental flexibility increases our survivability by allowing us to adapt to changing circumstances.

Humans have a notoriously hard time changing their minds about something, even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Too many people get into trouble in the outdoors because they are attached to their plans, even when the conditions or circumstances on which the successful execution of those plans are based, change.

“Survival is adaptation, and adaptation is change,” writes Gonzales, “but change is based on a true reading of the environment.”

Humility can save your life. Arrogance and boldness can forfeit it.

This is related to the point above. There is no dishonor in turning back or forfeiting an outing or expedition if the conditions or circumstances appear untenable beyond reason. Desire and ambition result in a rigid ego that drive blind, willful execution of goals. For that kind of mindset, nothing but the objective, matters. Sometimes not even survival. And that has often lead to tragedy.

The right information will increase your chances of survival.

This not only applies to knowing what to do in various emergency scenarios, but in how to avoid trouble in the first place. For instance, novice hikers tend to get into accidents because they don’t do sufficient research on their hike. Specifically they sometimes don’t ask themselves whether they are fit enough for the hike, or how long they require to complete it. The result can be injury and/or getting stranded on a mountain after dark.

Patience is often a pillar of survival.

We don’t realize that our goals always take longer to accomplish than we estimate and want. Because faster is considered better and more efficient in our “time is money” culture, we tend to push to do things quicker than we should. This heightens the risk of accidents.

When people become lost in the woods, or mountains, they often try to make their surroundings fit their mental map of it (a behaviour known as ‘bending the map’). They constantly seek out the landmarks they know, but instead tend to become more lost and expend precious time and energy in the process, increasing their chances of death.

People who are lost in the wilderness should aim to recreate their mental map to reflect the new surroundings, which makes you at home in a place, relaxes you somewhat, assists you in seeing and thinking better, and helps you survive long enough for someone to possibly come to your aid.

By helping others In a survival situation, we also help ourselves.

Helping another person survive – whether it means attending to an injured friend, or trying staying alive for the benefit of a loved one back home – offers an increased chance of living because it gives you the deeper purpose and drive that runs contrary to the mentality to simply give up. “When Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was lost in the Lybian Desert, it was the thought of his wife’s suffering that kept him going,” Gonzales writes.

The Great Attention Heist

Tim Wu's book, The Attention MerchantsThe L.A. Review of Books is running a piece co-written with colleague John Bell on Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants.

To give and receive attention is a fundamental human need. Some have pointed out that attention exchange is often the main, underlying motive for any human interaction, regardless of the actors’ overt intention.

Wu shows us how technologists, profiteers and politicians take advantage of this deep human preponderance for their own advantage. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed.

“According to Wu, the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi is to engage us with “apparently free stuff” and then resell our attention to others. In this regard, smartphones and tablets — and the applications that support them — represent a quantum leap in the industry’s efforts to win and hold our attention. They are the frontline harvesting machines. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed. Furthermore, there is no harvest “season” for this industry. It is happening all the time and around the clock: in our homes, on the street, in our workplaces, during vacations. It is a symphony of mental entrancement on a global scale.”

Review: Is Travel Writing Dead?

is travel writing dead?This is a question that’s bantered about a lot these days.

It’s not just political correctness, identity politics and the growing intolerance towards the legacy of colonialism that are causing some to charge – and others to fear – the relevance of non-fiction travel narratives. In this digital age everything seems to have been photographed, written about, or blogged to death. Humanity appears to have visited every conceivable niche. What could be left to describe? And how many of us truly, seriously, want to read another account of someone crossing the steppes of Central Asia on a segue as they search for the lost goat stew recipe of Genghis Khan?

The Winter 2017 issue of Granta, entitled “Journeys,” includes short essays by a dozen well-known writers that tackle the above question.

The consensus among them is that travel writing is not dead – and in a sense could never die as all our journeys through life are a form of travel, each unique, and each filtered through the writer’s individual personality and perspective. Most of them acknowledge that travel literature is changing, and should change, to encompass a wider variety of voices, perspectives and experiences to become more original and democratic – and no longer western-centric.

Below are a few quotes from the essays. If you’re interested, pick up the back-issue and read the complete essays which are seriously thought provoking.

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“Travel writing isn’t dead; it can no more die than curiosity or humanity or the strangeness of the world can die. If anything, it’s broken out of its self-created shell, as more and more women give us half their world, and Paris is ever more crowded with visitors from Chengdu.”

– Pico Iyer

“Some of the most important kinds of travel writing now are stories of flight, written by people who belong to the millions of asylum seekers in the world. These are the stories that are almost too hard to tell, but which, once read, will never be forgotten.”

– Alexis Wright

“It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world, by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironized, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way. Travel writing isn’t dead. It just isn’t what it was.”

– Ian Jack

“The literature of travel describes the world as it is – but only as it is in its instant, as it appears to the particular sensibility of the passing witness. For that is the other aspect of travel writing that has begun frequently to be overlooked – that it has much to do with the beholder as the beheld. The writer filters her surroundings through her temperament, distilling something richer and more meaningful in the process… As long as there are writers, and as long as they stir occasionally out of their houses, there will be travel writing worth reading.”

– Samanth Subramanian

“There is a supposition, too, that travel writing is a postcolonial presumption: a notion that reduces all contact between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ cultures to a patronizing act of acquisition. No mention here of travel as an avenue of understanding, of self-education or of empathy. Any meeting between unequal worlds is seen in terms of dominance – a notion that threatens to turn all human contact into paranoia… Whatever the current state of travel writing (which reached its popular peak in the 1980s) its continuance over the centuries belies its death sentence.”

– Colin Thubron

“Instead of finding a Western angle of experience in countries like Vietnam – motorbiking from Hanoi to Saigon, boating in the southern delta, snapping up fabric arts from the Hmong, eating their way down the Mekong, seeking redemption from war experiences or war protests, romanticizing French colonialism, or tracing the ghost of writer Marguerite Duras – maybe writers should stick closer to home. What would it look like to travel to a mall, a local wood, a suburban tract – to deeply study and visit one’s own locale?”

– Hoa Nguyen

“Travel literature will always be with us. But the centre of experience also shifts in the world. Stupendous traditions end accordingly, and spring up again from new, improbably sources.”

– Rana Dasgupta

Chasing Alaska

Chasing Alaska by C.B. Bernard“Alaska makes everything ordinary impossible to bear.”

Here is another great travelogue. In Chasing Alaska, author C.B. Bernard chronicles his travels across ‘The Last Frontier’ while gathering and piecing together clues about the life of a distant relative, who, like him – but decades earlier – travelled to Alaska from the East Coast and became a bona fide Arctic explorer.

Bernard’s writing is sharp, insightful and leisurely paced. The book isn’t exceedingly long, but it covers a lot of spatial and temporal ground, giving it an epic quality. It’s a ‘journey of self-discovery’ book – in my opinion the best kind – with lots of grit and character.

It’s redirected my attention to a part of the world that I’ve put off visiting for way too long.

Icelandic Manners

A cover of the books, Names for the Sea, by Sarah Moss, a book about IcelandI’ve just finished reading Names for the Sea, a travelogue by writer Sarah Moss. The book chronicles her difficulties living and working as a teacher in Iceland, with her husband and kids in tow.

Although it’s less action-packed than I like my travel literature to be, the book contains more than a few brilliant gems of cross-cultural observation. Moss, who’s British, has a very hard time assimilating into Icelandic culture, which, as it turns out, is sometimes hugely at odds with her own – but in extraordinarily subtle ways.

I’ve written on this blog before that one of the boons of travel to places far removed from one’s own culture is that it can provide deep insight into other norms and ways of being, which, ultimately, comes full circle and provides insight into one’s own. Struggling to move through other cultures challenges our assumptions, which become mechanized and set according to our more predictable norms. Moss, explores this dynamic more than a few times in her book:

“Iceland has complexities so subtle that their existence is invisible to the inattentive foreigner. One of the Icelandic clichés about Icelanders is that, by foreign standards (as if ‘foreigners’ had one standard), they are rude. There is no word for ‘please’ in Icelandic. ‘Thank you’ and ‘sorry’ are used much less than in British and American English. Nevertheless, it has been clear to me from the beginning that Iceland is a place where the most intricate and important things are unarticulated, partly because intricacy doesn’t need to be spelt out in a place where everyone has always known how things are done, and partly because it is un-Icelandic to explain yourself. Self-explanation suggests some entitlement on the part of your audience to know your interior life. Icelandic drivers don’t indicate, Pétur once old me, because they don’t see why anyone else needs to know where they’re going.”

Sarah’s friend Pétur, who, decades earlier, moved to Iceland from the U.K., goes on to tell her about his experiences among Icelanders during his first few years there:

“There were manners of course, but the manners were sometimes not to say anything. So I’d say, ‘Excuse me, but please would you pass the potatoes.’ They’d pass them and I’d say, ‘Thank you.’ And they’d look at me, because you don’t say thank you when someone gives you a potato. That’s why you’re there, and why the potatoes are there, so you can eat them, and you know that and they know that you know that so why would you say thank you? There’s not very much of that kind of thing in Icelandic, it’s at a lower level in the same way that the flowers in the fields and the trees on the hills are at a lower level. They’re smaller and more subtle and they make more sense.”

Opening Lines in CanLit

While at the Toronto Reference Library recently, I took a break from my work to poke around the Canadian Literature (CanLit) section.

For a bit of fun I came up with the idea of pulling books at random from the shelves and reading just the opening line of the titles. At first I approached the idea as a kind of game. But then I realized that examining how novelists kick off their books might reveal something about Canada’s literary culture – and its culture in general.

So, I decided to pick just 12 books.

Here are the first lines of each of those novels:

1. Early morning sunlight warm against the thin, smooth contour of one cheek, Karen sat in the breakfast-room and thought about suicide.

2. God and whiskey have got me where I am. Too little of the one, too much of the other.

3. In a small room off a banquet hall in Montreal, Lily Kramer sat in silence with her new husband.

4. It was bad enough working in the kitchen of a doughnut shop for minimum wage, but having to wear a hairnet was even worse.

5. Home is never home anymore.

6. George Bullay finished his soft-boiled egg and one slice of buttered wholewheat toast.

7. By the time we left Calais, I thought perhaps I hated Dottie Forsyth.

8. My mother died on the same day as Marilyn Monroe, August 4th 1963, and just like the movie star her body would not be discovered until the following day.

9. It’s a funny thing, to know the exact date of your death.

10. There’s a condition called Tinnitus where you hear a ringing that isn’t there.

11. I’m tired of the end of the world.

12. She’s thirty-five minutes late and for the past hour I’ve been pacing the fifteen feet between my bathroom and the window, repeating like a mantra: ‘This place is so pathetic, this place is so pathetic.’

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The above is obviously just a small sample – a thin slice. Any other combination of books would have yielded different results. But looking at these opening lines, I’m struck by a singular tone that runs through them all – a sense of banal melodrama and sentimentality.

We’ve all heard that old refrain about how Canadian literature can often be ‘dull’ or ‘boring.’ You’ll sometimes come across the same complaint levelled at Canadian films and TV shows. Just the other day someone quipped to me that trying to read the works of certain Canadian authors is like “reading elevator music.” To apply that stereotype across the board would obviously be unjust – there are lots of excellent Canadian writers.

Though it’s very subjective, I wonder if there still isn’t something to the claim. It does seem that the themes and conflicts at the centre of our stories, more often than not tend to focus on social ill and dysfunction in interpersonal relationships. A kind of controlled, polite, existential angst and rumination that comes at the expense of action in our writing. This is probably the source of that complaint that CanLit is ‘boring.’

Could it be that we are preoccupied with these sorts of themes in our stories because, to some degree, they are the only significant life experiences that many of us can draw from?

We’re a more or less stable and prosperous country. The majority of us live relatively easy lives compared with people in the rest of the world (the down-and-out and First Nations people notwithstanding). Canada is still largely free of the earth-shattering conflicts and daily life-and-death struggles that have embroiled other regions of the globe for centuries. As a result, our greatest, most epic struggles seem to be with our own neuroses. So more than a few of our stories tend to centre around those themes – told in the measured, polite and parochial way commensurate with our temperament as Canadians.

I wonder if big exciting plots, characters, ideas and insights – a kind of universalism in literature – tends to be forged by the kind of deeper struggles that most of us haven’t been exposed to in this culture.

How Trees Make Rain

If you’ve taken high school geography you probably remember learning the basics of weather. For instance, that coastal regions tend to bear the brunt of rain blowing in from the ocean. And that those systems gradually dissipate as they move further inland until the clouds get rained out. That’s why a lot of interior landlocked regions of continents tend to be drier, seeing far less precipitation.

I’ve been reading Peter Wohllben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. The book is an exposé of the little-known, and even less seen, living processes of trees. The “hows” and the “whys” of all things tree-related. One remarkable nugget of information in the book (which I never learned in school) is that trees and forests are additionally important because they help extend the reach of rainfall coming off the sea into the interior. I’ll let him explain how this works, below:

“Of all the plants, trees have the largest surface area covered in leaves. For every square yard of forest, 27 square yards of leaves and needles blanket the crowns. Part of every rainfall is intercepted in the canopy and immediately evaporates again. In addition, each summer, trees use up to 8,500 cubic yards of water per square mile, which they release into the air through transpiration. This water vapour creates new clouds that travel farther inland and release their rain. As the cycle continues, water reaches even the most remote areas. This water pump works so well that the downpours in some large areas of the world, such as the Amazon Basin, are almost as heavy thousands of miles inland as they are on the coast.”

transpiration evapotranspiration trees forests British Columbia deforestation
Photo © John Zada

Wohllben goes on to say that in order for this water transference phenomenon, this hopscotching of rain, to take place there needs to be a forest – including a coastal forest to kick off the process. If coastal forests are cut down by humans the chain reaction collapses.

With this knowledge one can start to see how large-scale deforestation, such as that happening on Canada’s West Coast, should not just be the concern of environmentalists and activists – but perhaps everyone. Including those with no vested interest in ecology or wilderness protection. People living in the landlocked outer edge of forest ecosystems, especially farmers, and those who eat their food, even if they don’t identify with such issues, are inextricably bound to them.