Friday, April 12, 2024

Beautiful blueberries

Happy 70th birthday Jon Krakauer, US author of several best-selling true-story books. I have no idea whether Krakauer is a diarist himself, but in two of his books - one about a young man who died on a solitary adventure in Alaska, and the other about Pat Tillman, a famous football player-turned-soldier killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan - he makes very good use of his subjects’ diaries.

Jon Krakauer was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on 12 April 1954, but was raised in Corvallis, Oregon, from the age of two. His father was a doctor and mountaineer, and he took Jon climbing from the age of eight. Jon studied at Hampshire College, where he graduated in environmental studies. He married Linda Mariam Moor in 1980. They lived in Seattle, Washington, before moving to Boulder, Colorado. But Krakauer divided his time between Colorado, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest, supporting himself primarily as a carpenter and commercial salmon fisherman, but also writing for Outside magazine.

Some of Krakauer’s essays and articles on mountain-climbing were collected in his first book, Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains, published in 1990. Then, in 1993, he wrote a 9,000 word article for Outside on Christopher McCandless an American hiker and idealist who ventured into the Alaskan wilderness and died four months later, probably from starvation. Krakauer went on to write a very successful book about McCandless - Into the Wild (Macmillan 1996) - partly based on a diary that was found with his body, and which documented his struggles to stay alive.

In 1996, Krakauer climbed Mt. Everest, but four of his party, who reached the summit with him, died in a storm. An analysis of the tragedy for Outside was highly regarded, and is said to have led to a general re-evaluation of the commercialisation of what had once been a romantic, solitary sport. His book on Everest, Into Thin Air (Villard, 1997), became another best-seller, and was widely translated.

A third non-fiction best-seller followed in 2003 with Under the Banner of Heaven (Doubleday), about offshoots of Mormonism, and the practice of polygamy within them; and a fourth best-seller came in 2009: Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (Doubleday). Tillman was an American football player who gave up sport to enlist in the army, in 2002, following the September 11 attacks. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The army initially reported that he had been killed in action, but it later became clear that his death by friendly fire had been covered up. Krakauer’s book draws on Tillman’s journals and letters.

In the first paragraph of the first chapter Krakauer writes: ‘During Pat Tillman’s stint in the Army he intermittently kept a diary. In a diary entry dated July 28, 2002 - three weeks after he arrived at boot camp - he wrote, “It is amazing the turns one’s life can take. Major events or decisions that completely change a life. In my life there have been a number.” He then catalogued several. Foremost on his mind at the time, predictably, was his decision to join the military. But the incident he put at the top of the list, which occurred when he was eleven years old, comes as a surprise. “As odd as this sounds,” the journal revealed, “a diving catch I made in the 11-12 all-stars was a take-off point. I excelled the rest of the tournament and gained incredible confidence. It sounds tacky but it was big.”

And here are several extracts from the first of Krakauer's best-sellers, Into the Wild, all of them quotes from McCandless’s diary. The first three are from a diary McCandless kept soon after leaving university and heading off on his solitary travels. During this period, he called himself Alexander, and wrote about himself in the third person. The rest of the entries are from the weeks preceding his death in Alaska in August 1992, probably from starvation, although Krakauer argues that McCandless poisoned himself by eating the wrong kind of berries. Sean Penn wrote and directed a film adapted from the book in 2007.

5 December 1990
‘At last! Alex finds what he believes to be the Weltreco Canal and heads south. Worries and fears return as the canal grows ever smaller. . . Local inhabitants help him portage around a barrier . . . Alex finds Mexicans to be warm, friendly people. Much more hospitable than Americans.’

6 December 1990
‘Small but dangerous waterfalls litter the canal.’

9 December 1990
‘All hopes collapse! The canal does not reach the ocean but merely peters out into a vast swamp. Alex is utterly confounded. Decides he must be close to the ocean and elects to try and work way through swamp to sea. Alex becomes progressively lost to point where he must push canoe through reeds and drag it through mud. All is in despair. Finds some dry ground to camp in swamp at sundown. Next day, on 12/10, Alex resumes quest for an opening to the sea, but only becomes more confused, traveling in circles. Completely demoralized and frustrated he lays in his canoe at day’s end and weeps. But then by fantastic chance he comes upon Mexican duck hunting guides who can speak English. He tells them his story and his quest for the sea. They say there is no outlet to the sea. But then one among them agrees to tow Alex back to his basecamp, and drive him and the canoe to the ocean. It is a miracle.’

28 May 1992
‘Gourmet Duck!’

1 June 1992
‘5 Squirrel.’

2 June 1992
‘Porcupine, Ptarmigan, 4 Squirrel, Grey Bird.’

3 June 1992
‘Another Porcupine! 4 Squirrel, Grey Bird.’

9 June 1992

Although McCandless was enough of a realist, Krakauer observes, to know that hunting game was an unavoidable component of living off the land, he had always been ambivalent about killing animals. Believing that it was morally indefensible to waste any part of an animal that had been shot for food, McCandless spent days toiling to preserve what he had killed before it spoiled.’

10 June 1992
‘Butchering extremely difficult. Fly and mosquito hordes. Remove intestines, liver, kidneys, one lung, steaks. Get hindquarters and leg to stream.’

11 June 1992
‘Remove heart and other lung. Two front legs and head. Get rest to stream. Haul near cave. Try to protect with smoker.’

12 June 1992
‘Remove half rib-cage and steaks. Can only work nights. Keep smokers going.’

13 June 1992
‘Get remainder of rib-cage, shoulder and neck to cave. Start smoking.’

14 June 1992
‘Maggots already! Smoking appears ineffective. Don’t know. Looks like disaster. I now wish I had never shot the moose. One of the greatest tragedies of my life.’

A couple of days later McCandless writes:
‘Consciousness of food. Eat and cook with concentration . . . Holy Food.’

And then on the back pages of the book that served as his journal, he declared:
‘I am reborn. This is my dawn. Real life has just begun. Deliberate living: Concious attention to the basics of life, and a constant attention to your immediate environment and its concerns, example -> A job, a task, a book; anything requiring efficent concentration (Circumstance has no value. It is how one relates to a situation that has value. All true meaning resides in the personal relationship to a phenomenon, what it means to you).

The Great Holiness of FOOD, the Vital Heat.
Positivism, the Insurpassable Joy of the Life Aesthetic.
Absolute Truth and Honesty.
Finality - Stability - Consistency’

5 July 1992
‘Disaster . . . Rained in. River look impossible. Lonely, scared.’

McCandless’s inability to cross the river (now much more swollen than when he had first crossed it earlier in the year), which would have allowed him to hike back to the highway, appears to have led to his death some weeks later. 

Krakauer quotes a few more journal entries, but, he says, the signs are ominous.

30 July 1992

2 August 1992

5 August 1992

12 August 1992 [the last dated entry]
‘Beautiful Blueberries.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 12 April 2014.

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