Sunday, November 13, 2011

Nature and Human Instinct

But all this – the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, 
the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness 
and weirdness of it all – made no impression on the man.   
It was not because he was long used to it.   
He was a newcomer to the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter.   
The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.
 -Jack London in To Build a Fire

Shawnee State Forest in early May

I found myself peering over an eight-foot ledge into the glassy mirror-like East Shade River.  Really, it is thought of as a creek but geological features give it the title of a river.  The spruce trees on the opposite embankment give the water a dull earthen green tint and provide the floating leaves with much contrast.  Karhu had already plunged into the river – the excitement of a quick swim and drink was too tempting to keep the adventure-seeking dog from making the jump.  The problem of being unable to climb out of the water was quickly realized by the black lab after several failed attempts.  A defeating fall back into the 40 degree water lessened her spirits and she began to whimper and give up. 

That is why I was leaning over the edge – I was trying to coax her downstream and hopefully find a better point of exit.  Without notice, my running shoes lost grip in the mud and I headed feet-first into the frigid water – coming up to my neck – and I was short of breath due to the initial shock.  Karhu swam toward me and scattered what seemed impossibly to dry ground.  “Are you kidding me?  You had to wait until I fell in to do that?”  I swam downstream and climbed up a natural root-ladder to my cheerful dog waiting for me at the top.

The first thought I made was that I needed warmth… it was in the high thirties and a slight breeze hit my soaked clothes.  I ran the remaining four miles with slushy feet and tingly quads, but for the most part the constant blood flow warmed me enough to be comfortable and ultimately reach the comforts of a warm shower.

At the end of Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire, the man let coldness take his life, dying on the side of the trail after failing to warm himself.  This was shortly after the man considered killing his dog, which had been his only companion on his tedious journey, to warm himself.  When the man was dead, the dog “crept close to the man and caught the scent of death.”  The story ends by saying the dog “turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.”

What To Build a Fire teaches, and my experience today, is that nature is this intense variable that human beings are constantly engulfed in, and too often not mindful enough of.  Even if we are completely aware and mindful of our movements and actions nature can be debilitating.  In an instance, we can be put in an awkward, frightening situation that we have no control of.  The man in Jack London’s story kept a constant eye out for signs of a stream hidden beneath the snow as to not get wet.  But, it happened anyway and when he made fire to dry his socks and warm his feet, snow from the spruce tree fell and muffled the flames.

Ultra-runners especially have to keep a keen eye on nature, during training and racing.  Different weather and terrain dictate what we eat and drink during running, what we wear, or how fast we go.  A lapse of focus could result in an array of health problems or acute running related injuries.  This is a lot of the reason many people participate in ultra-running – it forms a parallel between human and nature, some sort of primal accomplishment to be able to defeat the land but then a revering sense of modesty when the land masters human. 

This short story, my experience, and ultra-running also teaches me that we have an instinct and will to survive.  The dog in To Build a Fire is talked about as having an instinct, “its instinct told it a truer tale than to the man by the man’s judgment.”  The dog knew it was too cold to be traveling in 70 below zero temperatures.  The man though went against his instinct, for whatever reason, and travelled.  Even after his mishap, he instinctively knew, whether known innately or learned from lived experiences or teachings that he needed to build a fire in order to survive.  Even when the fire went out he tried to run, to warm his body, but ultimately nature won.  The dog, though saddened by the loss of his master, continued instinctively up the trail and eventually found “other food-providers and fire-providers.”

Today, when I fell in 40 degree water, my first thought was that I needed to get warmer, without even consciously thinking about it, I knew that was what my next step needed to be.  Luckily for me I was not in a winter blizzard or a long way from my house.  Nonetheless I probably would have gotten sick if I walked the four miles back to my house instead of running.  Any person that would have been in my situation would most likely have figured out they needed to do something rather than walk four miles, with wet clothe, in 38 degree weather… take off running, build a fire if they had supplies, knock on a strangers door, etc… 

We can also look at the story of Aron Ralston, who had his right hand and wrist smashed between a rock and a canyon wall while hiking in Utah.  He spent six days with little food, water, or warm clothing but inspiringly found a way to survive.  His determination, instinct and will to survive helped him find a way to escape his challenge.

Nature is a daunting force and needs to be respected (and especially conserved).  Sometimes though, even the most respect and awareness will not overcome the power of nature.  That is why we should pay attention to our instincts and our innate feelings but no matter what in any situation, don’t give up.  Keep going, but be smart about it and know what is right.  Even if we have already treaded past our instinct into a dangerous situation, the first key step is to stay calm… rushing while panicking is never a good mix.  Instinct will show the right way.


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