The Wild, Wild North

Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

Into the Wild

In Sean Penn’s 2007 film Into The Wild, we follow the true story of Christopher McCandless’s escape from the suffocating dysfunctionality of normality in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating, he gives his savings away to Oxfam, and takes to the road in a passionate, but ultimately fatally naive quest for freedom.

‘It should not be denied that being footloose has always exhilarated us,’ he notes as we see him driving across the desert. Is this the seductive but deceptive harking back to our pre-civilised nomadic past? It seems not — McCandless is at least somewhat aware of how this exhilaration is entwined with the restraints of civilisation. ‘It is associated in our minds with escape — from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations — and with absolute freedom.’ And as is only too well-known, this unending desire for escape is specifically oriented in the American psyche. ‘The road,’ says McCandless, ‘has always led west.’

The movement of the frontier westwards towards the Pacific coast embedded a deep association between this direction and freedom. And this movement was itself merely an extension of the initial European push into the New World across the Atlantic, escaping from religious hierarchies and corruption, and seeking new natural resources. But wrapped up in this association are all the contradictions and ambivalence of agricultural society. The West offered freedom from the accumulations of history, but the movement west carried with it and enacted the dynamics behind those accumulations. The West was ‘wild’ because of the diminished power of the State. But in the stamping out of indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures, and the entrenchment of ranching and farming, the frontier was as much the place where civilisation did its forceful work of taming the wild, as it was the place where one made contact with the wild. In the mythology of the West, this paradox threw up the figure of the lone cowboy, the outsider whose violence sided with civilisation and against ‘the savages’ and nature itself, but whose entanglement with savagery ultimately excluded him from domesticity.

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in the final shot of The Searchers (1956)

But the West was won long ago now, a somewhat Pyrrhic victory which left the American psyche uncertainly straddling the San Andreas Fault, the lone hero torn apart by pathology. The westward push was always a fraught struggle between the desire for escape from oppression, and the tragic perpetuation of European neurosis. What remains of a symbolic geographic interface between American civilisation and the wild is now at right angles to the general march across the continent. McCandless’s final orientation in his quest for freedom is north, into the Alaskan subarctic: ‘I wanna be all the way out there, all the way fuckin’ out there, just… on my own. No fuckin’ watch, no map, no axe, no nuthin’! No nuthin’, just be out there, just be out there in it, y’know? Big mountains, rivers, sky, game, be out there in it, y’know? In the wild.’

The resonance of the North in America (and Canada) is complex. For slaves in the southern states before the Civil War, north symbolised freedom in the sense of escape from the barbarity of slavery, and respite in the more liberal civilised State. As Glenn Gould documented in his 1967 radio piece The Idea of North, for those whose professional lives bring them to the far north, this direction evokes mystery, an austere romance tinged with melancholy.

The North which McCandless aspired to is a kind of hardcore Thoureauvian shedding of the trappings of civilisation. But rather than truly escaping civilisation, McCandless’s ideals left him bound to it through his too-radical opposition to it. The fantasy of complete, solitary isolation, ‘absolute freedom’, is for the most part an artefact of civilised life.

No doubt the indigenous tradition of the ‘vision quest’ plays its part in the nurturing of this fantasy. But the vision quest is a rite of passage, a clearly demarcated liminal zone between childhood and fully adult participation in society, closely supervised before and after by an elder. Indigenous cultures are — as the true-enough cliché goes — closer to nature, and their social fabric is interwoven with ‘wilderness’. So the solitary immersion is no ‘escape from society’ — it’s an authentic step to becoming more fully embedded in both society and nature.

But for civilised societies there is a profound ideological conflict with nature. Engendered by agricultural imperatives, which immediately create ‘vermin’ and ‘weeds’ in opposition to its domestication and exploitation of certain animals and plants, this conflict has only been deepened by industrial intensification of the polarity between human needs and ecological balance. For all the passionate romance of McCandless-style rejection of this schizoid trajectory, the simple arc away from this trajectory is suicidal, almost nihilistic. The people who have made the northern landscape truly their home — Eskimos and related foragers and herders — are profoundly social, relying on each other as much as on nature. We are profoundly social — being social is a basic part of our animal nature. McCandless’s desire to be alone out there harbours echoes of the solitary heroic cowboy, not to mention the isolated Cartesian ego and the atomised self of capitalist economies.

In any case, it is a desire born of civilised frustration, and thus it carries the shadow of civilisation into the ‘pristine’ wilderness. It seems grimly fitting, in this sense, that McCandless’s final days were spent in a remnant of the society he wanted to leave behind: the rusting, abandoned shell of an old bus.

The bus where Christopher McCandless died in 1992, in the film Into The Wild

Grizzly Man

Perhaps a little more unbalanced than McCandless, but equally civilised in his naive opposition to civilisation, was Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man. Treadwell dedicated his life to championing grizzly bears, spending a lot of time studying and filming them in a wilderness preserve in the Alaskan peninsula. He frequently approached them, at one point even touching one. Eventually, in 2003, he was killed and eaten by one.

As Herzog generously shows, there are things to admire and wonder at in Treadwell’s often confused and misguided life. But again we can put his ideas into perspective through contrast with indigenous beliefs. An Alutiiq man interviewed in the film says, commenting on Treadwell’s penchant for physically approaching bears, ‘Where I grew up, bears avoid us and we avoid them.’

Timothy Treadwell

I think there’s a distinction to be drawn here between animism and anthropomorphism.1 I would see the former as the belief that personhood and sentience aren’t unique to humans — but within this, there is awareness that each type of being has its own type of personhood, its own type of sentience. Anthropomorphism — attributing human characteristics to non-human animals or things, trying to embrace them within the human realm — is what the modern mindset narrows animism down to. Once religion and science decided that only humans are authentic persons, or only humans are sentient, our long-evolved animistic instincts can only work by projecting humanity outwards. The only kind of sentience left to attribute to anything is the human type. Thus, the sophistication of indigenous animists — who hold the bear sacred, but wouldn’t dream of trying to approach it as if it’s a human outcast in need of love — is squeezed out. We’re left with a dismal choice between cold-hearted materialism and the sentimental Disneyfication of nature.2

Treadwell’s efforts to embrace wilderness in the North, like McCandless’s quest for freedom, simultaneously reveals the deep symbolic significance of this end of the map of the New World, and lays bare the extent to which simplistic rejections of civilisation are fatally bound up with civilisation’s internal dynamics. ‘Nature has boundaries’ is Grizzly Man’s astute tagline, reminding us that our image of nature as a field of complete freedom (or, negatively, chaos) is a civilised fantasy. Whether projected forwards into the fantasy of technological mastery and total release from natural restraints, or projected backwards into a romanticised past of natural liberty, civilisation constantly generates potentially dangerous delusions out of the depth of the frustrations it creates.

Twin Peaks

David Lynch and Mark Frost’s series Twin Peaks presents more complexities in the vision of the North as America’s abiding wild frontier. The eponymous fictional town is located in the northwest, close to the border with Canada in Washington State. The series was originally to be titled Northwest Passage — presumably a play on the idea of portals to other worlds dwelling in the local wilderness.

The use of the national border in the drama’s geographical symbolism is perhaps a little odd. The key Canadian location is One-Eyed Jack’s, a brothel, which figures as an emblem of seediness and vice in contrast to the wholesome appearance of the town — a reversal of cross-border stereotypes.3 The cocaine which fuelled Laura Palmer’s descent into hell was smuggled into town south across the border, too — a conception which obviously contradicts the usual direction in which this drug flows.4 But the brothel is run by the town’s most powerful businessman — and of course, the wholesome appearance of the town belies the often terrible moral corruption beneath the surface. Here, the Canadian border acts in a simplistic way to embody the sense of a frontier between civilised decency and unruly ‘wildness’ — but this simplicity is deceptive.

It is the town’s general location in the remote wooded northern landscape which does most of the work of connecting the story to a sense of wilderness. Lynch plays on ‘the woods’ as an archetypal other-than-human realm. The White and Black Lodges are presented as otherworldly locations, accessible deep in the forest, standing in a kind of transcendental Manichean opposition to each other. The lore of these Lodges is rooted — in the fictional world — in indigenous lore. Deputy Hawk, a Native American, tells Agent Cooper:

My people believe that the White Lodge is a place where the spirits that rule man and nature reside. There is also a legend of a place called the Black Lodge. The shadow self of the White Lodge. Legend says that every spirit must pass through there on the way to perfection. There, you will meet your own shadow self. My people call it The Dweller on the Threshold.

This idea of the Black Lodge of a transitional, almost purifying realm gives a little nuance to the overt dualism involved, reminding us of William Blake’s conception of Hell. We might also relate this idea, together with the Black Lodge’s entrance being in a remote natural location, to the vision quest, and the sense of a spiritual ordeal in the wilderness. However, the rooting of the lodges in indigenous lore is ultimately a shallow dramatic ploy, to give them resonant but spurious depth. The dualism — however nuanced — and the concern with ‘perfection’ are more reminiscent of civilised religious ideas (Western or Eastern) than they are with indigenous spirituality.

Still, while Lynch’s melodramatic instincts do some projecting onto the image of Native Americans, and make ample use of the civilised fear of wild nature, they are mixed up with a true artist’s taste for transformation and complexity. The dark woods are a source of fear, evil even; but they are also a place of living intensities. We sense a vibrant animism peering out from behind the veils of horror. ‘The sound the wind makes through the vines,’ enthuses Cooper. ‘The sentience of animals. What we fear in the dark and what lies beyond the darkness.’

Nearly contemporary with Christopher McCandless’s real-life suffering and death in the abandoned bus in Alaska, the site for the central horrific act in Twin Peaks is another civilised husk, a dilapidated old train car.

The abandoned train carriage where Laura Palmer and Ronette Pulaski were attacked

These scenes seem to cast nature in a kind of engulfing, villainous role: the cruel indifference of the wilderness which found McCandless starving (or poisoned) to death, and Leland Palmer’s possession by an evil spirit from deep in the woods. But the husks of civilisation which act as the actual stages for these scenes remind us that the dregs of the human world are deeply implicated. McCandless died of his own wilfulness and stupidity, which can only be understood in the context of how profoundly alienated from nature our society is. And Leland Palmer’s possession is surely just a melodramatic encryption (even denial) of the tangles of civilised repression and Father God patriarchy which lead to his raping and murdering his daughter.

An extension of the way in which the decaying vehicles locate modernity in the midst of the horrific ‘wilderness’ is the mysterious presence of the smell of ‘scorched engine oil’ in Twin Peaks. It seems to accompany Bob’s murderous rages, and the pool in the centre of a circle of trees, which is the entrance to the Black Lodge, is filled with oil. It’s too much of a leap to pin any kind of proto-eco-horror subtext to this association of terror with hydrocarbons. The scorched oil motif forms part of Lynch’s larger repertoire of creepy industrial atmospherics (such as faulty, flickering flourescent lights, and grinding, booming background noise). But if the freedom of the open road is the 20th-century continuation of the American myth of escape, associating the fuel for this escape with fear and the chaos of excessive freedom seems to be an obvious subversive move. It intuits the seductive dangers of apparent release from ecological constraints, and hints that the dangers of actual wilderness become secondary next to the perils of civilisation’s attempts to escape from itself.

Lynch manages to tap deeper into the mythical wellspring for his drama in his 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. One brief scene brings forth an astonishing and resonant image. Laura lounges around with her friend Donna, chatting about boys. Waxing lyrical thinking about James, Donna asks, ‘Do you think that if you were falling in space, that you would slow down after a while or that you’d go faster and faster?’ Laura swallows, and pauses, but she knows the answer immediately.

‘Faster and faster,’ she says. ‘For a long time you wouldn’t feel anything. Then you’d burst into fire, forever. And the angels wouldn’t help you, because they’ve all gone away.’

This moving allegory of her personal disintegration is deceptively simple. It works on a visceral poetic level; but there are deeper, cosmological dimensions at work, which need some careful unpacking.

As civilisation developed over the last handful of millennia, its religions more and more tended to syphon upwards the numinous energies which animist cultures saw in nature. Even as the human world became more clearly distinct from ‘the wild’, the autonomy and power of this wilderness was overshadowed by the burgeoning, ethereal realms of the gods above. Celestial upperworlds were seen to be dominant, ruling a cosmic hierarchy which reflected the social hierarchies of civilisation. The chthonic, beastly underworlds were demonised, and (with a little wishful thinking, I suspect) cast as lowly and subservient.

Peter Apian’s cosmology from Cosmographia, 1524

In the Greek geocentric vision of the cosmos, which dominated European and Middle Eastern cultures for two millennia, the elements were arranged according to their overt behaviour. Earth was at the bottom / centre, being the heaviest element. Water came above / around this, followed by the much lighter air, and finally by fire, which is always reaching upwards.

Hence, the very highest heaven, beyond the celestial spheres, was seen as essentially a fiery realm. Some label it ’empyreal’ (from the Greek for ‘fire’). We also find ‘ethereal’ to have ‘celestial’ and ‘heavenly’ among its synonyms. The word ‘aether’ derives from aithein, meaning ‘to burn’, which descended from an Indo-European root aidh, from which the Sanskrit inddhe (‘burst into flames’) derives.

Gustav Doré’s 1867 depiction of Dante and Beatrice contemplating the Empyrean

As Dante showed in his Divine Comedy, the approach to this fiery realm of pure divinity surrounding us is populated by masses of angelic beings.

However, the cosmological revolution initiated in the sixteenth century by Copernicus saw this vision of the world crumble and dissolve. The sense of Earth being the axial centre of everything, embraced by divinity on all sides, was shattered as we came to realise that our planet orbits the sun, which in turn is merely one star among the thousands we see in the night sky, and the countless trillions we can’t see. All these intense sources of radiance are scattered across an inky void so widely that states of mind vulnerable to a sense of insignificance and alienation can easily find the radiance to be trivial, and the void to be overwhelming. And the inhabitants of modernity — cut loose from roots in nature for many centuries now, mired in a hall of mirrors, and lost in a quest to destroy the wilderness we’ve distanced ourselves from — are highly susceptible to such states of mind. The horror of a purely material infinite blackness embodies our horror at being bereft of the animate bonds between our inner being and living nature without.

This infinite blackness, I would argue, is the space which Donna and Laura contemplate falling into. Perhaps Donna, in her doe-eyed infatuation with James, feels something of Dante’s ascent, her falling being the fall into love. But Laura is just falling, falling up into the now unbounded, uncontained cosmos, lacking the divine embrace, and cast out from the embrace of a living world, which the Father God was such a domineering, abusive substitute for. As in McCandless’s subtly nihilistic fantasy — ‘no nuthin’!‘, just solitary isolation — liberty is pushed to desolate extremes in this boundless void. Here, we realise that true wilderness is not a blank nothing, but a sophisticated field of relations.5 And the extreme freedom which desperate outcasts from civilisation are forced into through the collapse of their domestic sanctuary, or their need to abandon it, can be a darker desert than is ever found in nature.

For Laura, Cooper’s sense of something ‘beyond the darkness’ cannot be found. The angels have gone from the space she is cast into, and the remaining fire is caustic rather than cleansing. Instead of merging into the empyrean, she feels herself incinerated, alone in this abyss of absolute freedom.