Recently my brother sent me a copy of Deep Survival (website), by Laurence Gonzales, telling me it was one of the best books he’d read recently. Since I respect his opinion, I put it on the mental pile of “books I intend to get around to sometime in the foreseeable future” and went back to Tolstoy. But then during a phone call he asked me if I’d started it yet, assuring me that I’d really like it, and I said “OK, I’ll read it, I’ll read it,” and with a dutiful sigh I picked it up… and found it (with apologies for the cliche) impossible to put down. It’s not at all the kind of macho “I’m tougher than you can possibly imagine, and if you follow my training program you too can kill alligators with your bare hands” kind of book I took it for; he tells a lot of hair-raising stories (a seventeen-year-old girl fell out of an airplane into the Peruvian rain forest… and survived!) and passes on fascinating facts (did you know that one of the demographic groups most likely to survive in the wilderness is children six and under?), but his focus is always on the habits of mind necessary for survival in tough circumstances, and even this bookworm who avoids anything more strenuous and perilous than hiking and cross-country skiing in well-marked areas, finds it riveting and educational.
But what I wanted to pass along was a particular passage on pp. 189-90, where he’s describing a survival course he took in Vermont:
As we hiked through trailless forest, Morey stopped every 20 or 30 yards to point out something, and we’d examine and discuss what we found. After we’d followed him deep into the woods, he asked us to close our eyes and point the way home. It is a humbling experience to find that you can’t. I’d been following him, which is never a good idea. I had not walked my own walk, and as a result, I was lost.
Morey directed our attention to the last place we’d stopped to talk. We could still see it from where we stood. “Remember, we talked about the bittersweet vine there?” We’d taken a sample from a vine that’s good for making cordage. So we hiked back to that spot. Then he pointed to another spot, where he’d shown me ways of seeing and walking that were used by Native American trackers and other Aboriginal peoples. He called it “Owl Eyes and the Fox Walk,” that full-body alertness I’d seen when he listened to the birds. It can put you in an altered state of perception, he said. We returned to that spot. From there, we could see the place where we thought we’d found the hoof print of a deer, but it turned out to be the entrance to a vole tunnel. We had squatted there to discuss the difference between voles, moles, and mice.
Thus, hopping from one conversation to the next, we were able to retrace our steps exactly and to remember in great detail not only where we’d been but what we’d said and done at each spot. In what seemed to be a featureless and homogenous forest, Morey had given us tangible cues, like road signs, which we could easily follow home. He had discovered an effortless way to embed a reliable mental map in our brains.
At this point I was thinking “songlines!” The very next paragraph read:
“It’s called song lines,” he said. “And it’s an ancient navigational technique used by Australian Aboriginals.”
Somehow it never occurred to me that you could apply songline techniques in another part of the world, but of course you can. It’s just a matter of being attentive to your surroundings.