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April 23, 2012 / nethergrove

Into the Wild in the chicken coop

What began as an April shower soon settled into being something much more cold, wet and dreary than is strictly traditional. The sky wore the grey uniform of an immoveable nimbostratus. The wet light had an institutional quality, as if behind the clouds were rows of fluorescent strip-lights. It was a bureaucratic kind of weather, that would slowly and thoroughly turn the world into a sodden mire, and hear no arguments or appeals against its systematic logic. Maybe, somewhere up there rose the sublime tower of a cumulonimbus, reaching to the very top of the troposphere, where the air is thin and all the water is frozen into tiny crystals of ice that shine and glitter in the sunlight. From beneath, it is hard to tell the difference. I had a cold coming, and a bit of a sore throat. I wasn’t feeling up to adventuring, so I’d only gone as far as the chicken run to read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Gallus gallus domesticus is by definition not a wild animal, but my three welsummers and lone light sussex (called Jack) are a bit new. We’re still getting used to each other. They may not be wild, but they’re not tame either. Some quality time spent together, where I speak a lot and they get used to pecking at corn around my feet should sort us out soon enough. So I took a book to read.

Into the Wild, as the author’s note tells the reader on the first page, is about a young man called Christopher McCandless who, after graduating from Emory University, gave all his money to charity, left his family, abandoned his car, and ‘dropped out of sight’ (ix). ‘He invented a new life for himself, taking up residence at the ragged margin of our society, wandering across North America in search or raw, transcendent experience.’ This rather puts me to shame, a nature writer who couldn’t get further than the chicken run at the end of his garden. The hens eyed me suspiciously, one eye at a time as their anatomy dictates, pecking and scratching at corn a few feet away from where I was sat. We were under cover here, though the rain pattered on the plastic roof of the hen run and the wind whipped through the chicken wire walls, ruffling feathers.

As soon as page four, Krakauer (a journalist who couldn’t forget about the story he was given to cover) sets his cards on the table.

Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives. The bush is an unforgiving place, however, that cares nothing for hope or longing.

It occurred to me that the same could be said for chickens. No one’s aspirations of the good life could be complete without poultry, and whilst generally hens are easy to look after and a good source of eggs, they care nothing for your hope or longing. For instance, one of these four ate the first egg laid here, which, when you think about it, is even more disgusting than me eating it. And the ‘pecking order’ is a far from metaphorical phrase. My reading had already been interrupted more than once by fights breaking out, and by outright bullying, as the bigger hens try to pluck the feathers from the necks of those smaller than them. Now the biggest hen had taken residence in the warm, snug coop and was nosily attacking any other hen that dares to seek admittance. They’ll sort themselves out soon enough though. I read on. It’s a book I’ve read before and I’m just reading the chickens the best bits really.

Krakauer’s journalistic tone soon seems to get in the way of the story. And it is a story he’s telling. He’s researched Chris’ life thoroughly, but isn’t above filling in the blanks from his imagination, and, which is worse, adding his own analysis and moral judgement.

McCandless was thrilled to be on his way north, and he was relieved as well – relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it. (56)

Krakauer compounds this failing by quoting at length from books of popular psychology in an attempt to explain Chris in a way so explicit that no fictional author would stoop to. Chris’ desire to go off on his own was a case of ‘avoidance behaviour’ caused by problems in his family life. Indeed, it was because he did not get along with his father that he developed into a person whose ‘principal need was to find some kind of meaning and order in life which was not entirely, or even chiefly, dependent upon interpersonal relationships’ (62, quoting Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return To The Self). Or, failing this, perhaps ‘like not a few of those seduced by the wild, McCandless seems to have been driven by a variety of lust that supplanted sexual desire’ (67). Later, when relating a story of his own adventurous youth, Krakauer describes how when he got stuck half-way up a mountain ‘I caught sight of something in the glimpse, some forbidden and elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman’s sex’ (155). I’m sure Jack’s eye bulged a bit at this. If only he could have a good chat with his dad and then get laid, Krakauer seems to be suggesting, then all this wouldn’t have happened. And of course, and this is where Krakauer really doesn’t get it, Chris couldn’t possibly have really wanted it to happen. He must have been deranged.

Into The Wild is a book with an agenda. It wants to analyse and explain Chris, to make him conform to some kind of type. The rebellious teenager who accidentally got himself into trouble and should be pitied. Or perhaps it is just struggling too hard to find a meaning in Chris’ death, where death, like clouds and chickens, often as not has no meaning. Chris’ story was made into a film which seems to have the same agenda, but goes further than Krakauer. The last message Chris wrote, when he knew he was dying and had no hope of rescue, was ‘I have had a happy life and thank the lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!’ (198). In the film, this is changed to ‘Happiness is only real when shared’. Whatever desire or impulse the filmakers (and Chris’ family, who authorised the film) had in changed these words, it surely says more about them than about Chris.

Just as I was getting to the end of my skim-read, the chickens seemed to finally have had enough of my voice. All together, they started up a chorus of cawing and crowing enough to drive me away and leave them in peace. Hopefully they were all desperate to lay eggs but too modest to do it in my presence. My nose was running like a tap, my fingers, toes and backside were numb. Fat lot of good I’d be in the Alaskan wilderness.

I was reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, published in the UK by Pan Books in 1998. Apparently it’s a NO.1 INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER.

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