Into the “Wild”

How a film and an essay reflect our changed ideas about nature.

Into the Wild. Click image to expand.
Emile Hirsch as Chris McCandless in Into the Wild

Tires crunch snow, molars crunch popcorn, and I think: Doesn’t look so wild to me.

The italics and teeth are mine; the tires belong to the pickup that drops off Chris McCandless at the end of the road at the start of Into the Wild.

Sean Penn’s powerful film is based on John Krakauer’s 1996 best seller of the same name, which brilliantly pieced together the puzzle of a young man who walked into the Alaskan wilderness and (no spoiler alert necessary, I think) never walked out. Harrowing in spots, the book nonetheless came as balm to a nation eager to believe that its newly revived interest in nature was overdone and it should probably just kick back with a six-pack and relax. Equally soothing, for some, was an essay by historian William Cronon published the year before in the New York Times Magazine. Titled “The Trouble With Wilderness,” it argued that wilderness is “a human creation,” and a recent one; in the wild, there is no such thing. Nearly every hectare of nature has a human history; to idealize untouched nature is to evade that history. “As we gaze into the mirror [wilderness] holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.”

Both Krakauer’s book and Cronon’s essay put a spike in the romantic notion of wilderness, but the spikes pointed in very different directions. Cronon said wilderness was not real. Krakauer said it was so real that it could kill you. The political upshot (with Newt Gingrich doing much of the shooting) was the same: Neither a mirage nor a monster needs protection. Neither is worth seeking out. Consign Muir, Thoreau, and Jack London if not to the flames then to the upper shelves, where they are less likely to lead environmentalists to foolish zeal or youngsters to a cold doom.

Close readings of Krakauer and Cronon would not yield such conclusions, but we are not a nation of close readers. We are a nation of watchers, which is why Penn’s take on Into the Wild requires scrutiny. (We’ll come back to Cronon later.) For Penn, the story is rich but fairly simple: a tale of heroic folly. Fleeing a bourgeois life that he feels (since learning of his father’s bigamy) is a lie, McCandless (Emile Hirsch) takes to the road, lives on the edge, and finally walks into the Alaskan wild, all in search of his “true” life. In the wild, he discovers that life is with people; but then, by a trick of fate and hydrology, it is too late.

With tight close-ups of well-cast faces, Penn’s film lets us feel both the disgust that drove McCandless away from society and (for a far longer span) the love that, belatedly, calls him back. Penn fares less well with landscape. We see the southwestern desert, the rapids of the Colorado, the foothills of Denali, places that enraptured McCandless; but in place of rapture we have establishing shots or travel footage of the sort that may beckon from the edge of this Web page. Even the Grand Canyon seems unremarkable until we meet a couple of backpackers from Copenhagen gleefully dispensing hot dogs. They are the scenic highlights, and not just because they’re nearly naked.

Facescapes, by contrast, are traced as lovingly as if by a blind man’s fingers. We walk out of the theater prepared to draw a topographical map of Hal Holbrook or Catherine Keener or even, God help us, Vince Vaughn. We walk out, strange to say, with our love of our neighbors restored. Borat, groping for America’s dark netherparts, instead revealed its open hand and patient heart. McCandless, fleeing his family, finds surrogate fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. He turns up saints under every rock, on every concrete slab.

Penn is reasonably faithful to his source but his few infidelities are telling. In the book, a 16-year-old gamine throws herself at McCandless but is mostly dodged. In the movie, the incident is inflated into a nascent romance, though a chaste one. This is done, I guess, partly for the obvious Hollywood reasons and partly to make the finish more conventionally tragic: not just a lost life (those are a dime a dozen) but a lost love. Penn also twists the knife by adopting the earliest, and first discarded, of Krakauer’s three theories of how the young man died: the one that makes him seem most like a chump.

Krakauer, from his own experience as a rock climber, knows that wilderness can offer an escape from oppressive family relations. But he doesn’t think that this makes the wilderness quest any less real. Transcendence is, by definition, transcendence of something; if that something happens to be tawdry, so much the better. McCandless embarked on a mythic quest in more or less the prescribed manner. He walked into the wild armed with gifts given him by mages encountered along the way. Of the many “uses” of wilderness, this is not the least. Theoutcome was tragic, but if that outcome had not been possible—had it not been possible for the dragon to slay him—the quest would have been a joke.

Penn knows this, too. In interviews, he speaks of the need for rites of passage, absent or gelded or debased in our day. (My own involved a battle with inked sheepskin before a crowd of hungry primates, just after my 13th birthday.) Yet in the film he tends to play up his hero’s folly. Oddly, this seems to be Penn’s way of romanticizing him (perhaps in Penn’s own image): making him both a tragic hero and a kind of holy fool.

Of course, the holy man, like the hero, must venture into the wilderness to find truth. Siddhartha, Zarathustra, Moses, Elijah, Mohammed, John the Baptist, Jesus: They all did it. But to extract truth from the wilderness, it helps to come out alive. Suppose Jesus had eaten some alkaloid-spiked seeds: A queasy crucifixion, that would have been, and not much of a subject for Cranach or Bach, especially as they would never have known who Jesus was. Yet, we know who McCandless was precisely because he didn’t make it out alive.

“You’re not Jesus, are you?” McCandless is asked—half-seriously in the book, half-jokingly in the film. Penn himself is dead serious: By the film’s end, the iconography of the gaunt, bearded, agonized figure in the loincloth is hard to miss. “Who do you think you are, God?” Mom (Marcia Gay Harden) asks Dad in a flashback that is not in the book. “I am God,” Dad responds. (William Hurt, precise as ever, shows us that Dad is 82.3 percent joking.) Chris is thus the Son of God who dies for our sins—or, more to the point, for God’s, which might well be said of the real Jesus, too.

Penn’s mythologizing, which exceeds Krakauer’s by several kilocampbells, is gripping, but troubling, too. For a case can be made that it was McCandless’ need to see himself under the klieg light of myth, with little room for shade or nuance, that was his undoing. As Krakauer makes plain, but Penn (despite that scruffy, snow-crunching opening scene) does not, McCandless willed his wilderness to be wilder than it really was. In truth, he was never more than a few days’ hike from a traveled road. The abandoned bus in which he made his camp sat just outside the boundary of the wilderness preserve. There were cabins (uninhabited at that time of year) five miles away. There was an abandoned cable-and-basket rig he could have used to cross the Teklanika River. There were points upstream that might well have been fordable even with the river in flood. He would have known about these things if he’d bought a USGS map. Of the magic gifts McCandless lacked, that would have been the cheapest and easiest to obtain.

Why didn’t he get one? Krakauer has an answer: He yearned “to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map.” But in 1992, there were no blank spots. So, “[h]e simply got rid of the map.”

Here is where the spikes meet, where Cronon and Krakauer concur: The myth of wilderness can be dangerous, to the individual as well as to society as a whole. The problem is, the absence of that myth is more dangerous still.

Since Cronon’s essay appeared, the scientific evidence has piled up on both sides of the scale. On the one hand, it has become clear that many places we think of as wild have in fact been transformed by millennia of human meddling. Even the Amazon rainforest owes its most fertile soil—the terra preta or “black earth,” which is thought to mat, in aggregate, an area the size of France—to Indian “cool burning.” At the same time, it has become ever clearer that places we think of as wild—however imperfect their wildness—are crucial to human survival. They are so by virtue of the wildness that is in them: the ecological intelligence that has evolved over millions of years and will keep evolving if we don’t pave it over. The flow of energy, the cycling of water and nutrients, the mix of gases in the atmosphere, the regulation of climate and of the oceans’ salinity: These and other vital services are provided free of charge. We can, if we are modest and deft and clever, work in partnership with this intelligence, but we can never fully duplicate it, control it, or replace it with mechanisms of our own.

The Indians of the Amazon could live in wilderness, stretching and torquing it subtly without squeezing out its wildness. We can’t. Our tools are too brutal and we swing them about too freely. Above all, there are too damned many of us. If we get too cozy with wilderness (or “wilderness”)—if we convince ourselves that we are competent to manage or “garden” or “steward” every inch of the Earth’s surface—we are asking for trouble. As I wrote some years back, wilderness is indeed a social construction, but so is the guard rail at the edge of a cliff.

The object Cronon tried, with some success, to dismantle is, for all its difficulties, one of immense value, both spiritual and practical. In order to have practical value, it must have spiritual value: a paradox, but true. Religion is constantly building fences, planting hedges, scarifying our soles for traction against the slippery slope. The trick, of course, is to respect the guard rail but remember that one may, from time to time, have to climb over it. When we read on the front page of the New York Times that the Nature Conservancy, in acquiring 161,000 acres of Adirondack wild lands, has gone into the logging business, we are right to be skeptical but not closed-minded. And when we walk into the wild ourselves, we are right to do so in fear and trembling, with our feet on the ground and a good, up-to-date map in our pack.