The healing and corrosion of the wilderness

Both Cheryl Strayed and Helen Macdonald are writers who were subjected to similarly tragic circumstances. A parent had died (for Strayed, her mother; for Macdonald, her father) unexpectedly. Both were sent into a tailspin. Strayed, as depicted in her 2012 memoir, Wild, turned to infidelity and drugs. Macdonald, as shown in her 2014 memoir, H is for Hawk, became strange and distant, falling into depression.

While there are great parallels between their circumstances, their respective paths toward healing are very different. And I don’t quite know whose side I’m on.

wildFour years after the death of her mother, Strayed decides she is in need of intervention. Her life is going firmly in a scary direction and something drastic is requires to get back on track. This track is the Pacific Crest Trail. She embarks on a several month-long hike through disgusting heat and icy snow. It is not simply the length that poses enormous challenges. Her toe nails begin to fall off, and she seems to spend much of the time in some sort of pain.

It isn’t clear why walking the Trail appeals to Strayed particularly. She is not a seasoned hiker. In fact, she is frustratingly ill-prepared for the journey. She over-packs things of little use that are hard to haul (she muses, ‘why I had neglected to bring a trekking pole, while not failing to bring a foldable saw, I did not know’), she selects hiking boots that are too small (hence the toenail issue), and she is forced to learn rather too much along the way.

While she meets people throughout her walk, her adventure is independent. She is on her own. The trail provides her with obstacles toward wisdom, a sense of groundedness, and an acceptance of life and herself. She writes,

‘What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?’

H is for HawkH is for Hawk likewise depicts a woman looking to the wild for help. Obsessed by the figure of the goshawk, Macdonald decides to tame one, who she calls Mabel. Macdonald and Mabel share a house together for months along with a fridge full of dead animals. The goal is for Mabel to be able to fly free and hunt in the countryside, but to always fly back to Macdonald’s outstretched arm.

Unlike Strayed, Macdonald is prepared for her task. She has always been interested in falconry and is very well-read in the area. She has trained other birds in the past (though none quite as fierce as the goshawk) and is meticulous. When she reaches problems, she can talk to other falconers to help her.

But unlike Strayed, Macdonald finds her foray into the wilderness less of a healing exercise than a kind of un-taming of herself. For Macdonald, training a hawk is an attempt to become a hawk – fierce and strong and flying above human difficulties – but it is a failed attempt. She realises, ‘all I had done was turn the hawk into a mirror of me.’

Macdonald writes against Strayed’s narrative of the power of going wild. ‘I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did… Now I knew this for a beguiling but dangerous lie… Hands are for other human hands to hold…And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.’

Ultimately, it is an overseas holiday with others close to her which makes her feel like she is starting to heal. Being around people, rather than solitude in nature, is where the wisdom, groundedness, and acceptance lies.

To me, there is something appealing about what Strayed puts forth. At various points, I’ve flirted with the idea of hermitude, living in a cabin in the wilderness, relying on myself regardless of my shortcomings just because I can, and not having to deal with the influences and needs of other people. These influences and needs can be so exhausting, and demoralising, that time alone often seems desirable, maybe necessary.

But even my introversion has its limits. I remember those long summer holidays in high school when I lived far away from my friends and wasn’t yet licenced to drive. In the hours spent by myself I forgot how to communicate sensibly. I got so caught up in my own trains of thought that I didn’t notice when it gradually went from Regular Station and further into Bizarre-o-land.

This is something that Macdonald captures particularly well. There is a scene in the book in which she mentions her issues to a doctor who gets her to fill out a depression questionnaire. She worries that she is answering it incorrectly, feeling unsteady. She worries that the medication the doctor prescribes her will affect her ability to fly Mabel, ‘that whoever I’ll become under their chemical influence will be so strange and alien she won’t fly to me anymore.’ At this juncture in her life, she spends her evenings playing games with Mabel and her nights are filled with wintry dreams until she wakes at five o’clock in the morning. ‘My heart is salt,’ she writes. It doesn’t make sense, but I somehow understand what she means.

And so I’m caught in between these two narratives. I like Strayed’s insights more because they appeal to my desire to be alone, to be self-sufficient, to find myself in nature. The film adaptation of Wild uses Simon and Garfunkel’s song, “El Condor Pasa” heavily in the soundtrack, which adds to the both burdensome yet dignified feeling of taking each single step of an individual project. The pace is slow for walking, perfect for weary limbs weighed down by never-ending challenges. The lyrics relate the self to nature (‘I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail’) and places the question of agency within it (‘If I could, I surely would’). The tone is melancholy and lonely, yet steady and strong. This mix of ideas appeal to me. I feel most myself when I am alone, I am most embedded in the natural world, and I have trust that I can keep going when I can set the pace.

I fear that Macdonald’s counterpoint needs to be taken into account though. The loosening grip on reality that comes in the wilderness feels freeing but takes you even further away from the things to hold dear. I want those human hands, not the bottomless eyes that look right past you, not the vicarious flight you can never feel for yourself, not the claws that pierce the skin.

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