The traffic, the noise, the smog, the twat in the office who says ‘anyone fuck-coffee’ every morning. Who wouldn’t want to flee this suppurating mass of flesh and filth and live in peaceful isolation, alone with nature? I often fantasise about throwing off the oppressive shackles of Western civilisation and escaping into the faceless wild. I sometimes even subject friends, family members and random acquaintances to long and baffling tirades about how I will actually accomplish such a task.
In actual fact I’ve come close to total solitude on a few occasions. This may seem like a strange claim – we all know solitude don’t we? Well no, not really. As small overpopulated island dwellers we make do with a notion of solitude, but it is only a notion; there is always a street light glinting in the distance, a plane passing overhead, a dog barking; everything retains a sense of tangibility and closeness and, in that sense, the isolation is spoilt. But when you experience true solitude, you realise that your preconceived ideas of what it might be like, just don’t do it justice. Real solitude has a strange and indefinable quality – most notably, the absence of sound. It’s silence, but more complete – like the air has been sucked out from your ears. Because there is no background – no distant traffic drone, no humming refrigerator, no ticking clock – to process and lump into the category of ‘white noise’, the brain instantly recognises it, and the feeling it engenders, as something new, rare and unfamiliar. It is this stillness, combined with distance from civilisation that, in my mind, defines pure solitude.
I can remember well two instances when I attained this pure solitude. The first was driving towards the very bottom of New Zealand’s South Island; sheltered between two mountain peaks with long lonely fields to each side of us, I pulled over and cut the engine. I walked off into the fields and I became immediately aware of my breathing and the sound of my feet, because there was nothing else, absolutely nothing – no birds, no insects, no breeze, absolutely no sound whatsoever. The second time was in Bolivia, near the border with Chile, where the Atacama desert spreads to the West and the Uyuni salt flats to the East. Again I wandered off alone over rocky crags into the vast, desolate, tufted scrub of the Andean Plateau, and again, it was complete unadulterated silence.
In both these situations, however, I wasn’t actually ‘alone in the wild’, as I’m sure you can discern. Yeah I wandered off to appreciate the isolation, but in both instances I was within touching distance of civilisation – via a camper van with a tank full of diesel in New Zealand and a questionable 4X4 with a driver and guide in Bolivia. To have been in those situations with nothing and nobody anywhere near me would have been an unimaginable nightmare – stripped of all the peace and serenity following the blood freezing realisation that the silence implied thirst, hunger, cold, crying and shrieking at the abyss in manic despair before, ultimately, death. Nature is a cruel holiday rep.
Unperturbed by the stark reality of these 6 stages of desperation, however, is ‘adventurer’ Ed Wardle, who has decided to confront a potentially rapid and undignified death by living alone in the remote Yukon territory of Canada. Ed has some provisions, including a tarpaulin, some pots and pans, basic rations, a gun and, judging by his well constructed shelter and snares, a rudimentary knowledge of how to live like Grizzly Adams. Oh, and a handheld camera with which he films his exploits. Unfortunately though, in spite of this thoroughly civilised array of equipment with which to catch, kill and cook his dinner, he has had almost zero success. As of last week, he’d been out in the vast swath of nothingness for about a month and the only sentient beings he’d managed to murder and devour were three fish, each one approximately the size of my little finger (I’m actually not exaggerating). The remainder of the time he has had to make do eating his measly rations, which he supplements with great handfuls of vegetation that he boils down to impalpable green mulch.
Ed’s failure to catch any high quality protein has left him a guant Gore-Tex clad Gollum – perpetually miserable and emotionally unstable. As far as I can tell, he goes from 1-5 of the 6 stages of desperation on a daily basis. He wakes up thirsty, so he goes to the river to drink. On the way back he checks his snares, which, predictably, are empty, so now he’s hungry. Hungry and listless he sits around and gets cold. The cold makes Ed sad, so he has a bit of a cry about it all. Finally he pulls himself together enough to bound off into the forest as a blizzard of screaming, heckling madman, being whipped in the face by branches and twigs. Once he’s thoroughly worn out he heads back to his shelter, exhausted and in need of some sleep to recharge before beginning another day in the relentless pursuit of living.
It’s not enjoyable watching. I tuned in to witness the dream of the intrepid adventurer being lived out in front of my very eyes – Real life Castaway, Dr. Livingstone 2009, Ray Mears live! – which is what I’m sure Ed Wardle wanted to depict. But instead, all he managed to convey was a lunatic shouting at an indifferent forest while slowly starving to death. No, there isn’t much to like about the programme – the occasional bit of scenery, the odd pithy aphorism perhaps. Generally though, it is dull, pointless and boring, which is, in actuality, the reality of nature. Nature without the well worn trails, the information boards, the packed lunch, thermos of tea, and a hearty meal and comfy bed at the end of it all, is incredibly harsh and unforgiving, and we humans are simply unable to cope with it anymore. For instance, try to imagine being marooned on a desert island with just the clothes on your back and the shoes on your feet. What would you drink? A coconut? How would you open it? What would you eat? A fish? How would you catch it? Literally everything would be impossible! If society imploded today then we’d all be scrounging through bins and drinking our own urine by Monday.
Attesting the virtue of Western civilisation was probably the antithesis of what Ed Wardle set out to achieve, but that’s what he’s unwittingly done and, to be perfectly honest, despite it being incredibly boring TV, it’s one of the most truthful programmes I have ever seen. Unlike Blue Planet, Nature’s Great Events, Yellowstone, South Pacific and the plethora of other nature shows that drift on and off our screens, Alone in the Wild doesn’t eulogise nature and place it on a pedestal, while denouncing our vacuous ideals and crumbling society. Ed’s shaky hand held camera work not only captures, in brazen candour, his grim battle with nature – the treacherous impassable terrain, the biting insects, the poisonous berries, the rain, the cold – it also shows his anger and frustration, his fear and loneliness, his hope and disappointment; even when he occasionally gets a small win among the relentless losses – a beautiful sunset over the lake perhaps – we can see through his veneer of elation. “This has got to be what it’s all about isn’t it?” he postulates towards the unmanned camera. The question, addressed to the unwavering lens rooted in the grass, seems rhetorical and we know that at that moment he’d trade all the sunsets in the world for an evening with his wife and children, or a few drinks with a group of close friends. Because despite our longing to get away from it all, we are essentially social creatures and Ed has been reminded of this in the most brutal way possible. As he gazes out at the setting sun, the rays colour his face pink and, all of a sudden, his smile seems abashed and disingenuous – jaded by the realisation that he hasn’t found it and that he is alone, and his dream is not as he imagined, and the civilisation he hoped to better is, sadly, as good as it gets.
How then must I live to be happy, and why was I not happy before?’ And he began to recall his former life and he felt disgusted with himself. He appeared to himself to have been terribly exacting and selfish, though he now saw that all the while he really needed nothing for himself. And he looked round at the foliage with the light shining through it, at the setting sun and the clear sky, and he felt just as happy as before. ‘Why am I happy, and what used I to live for?’ thought he. ‘How much I exacted for myself; how I schemed and did not manage to gain anything but shame and sorrow! and, there now, I require nothing to be happy;’ and suddenly a new light seemed to reveal itself to him. ‘Happiness is this!’ he said to himself. ‘Happiness lies in living for others’.