Sunday, April 17, 2005

Book Review: Deep Survival--by Laurence Gonzales

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How and why do accidents occur? Are there some people pre-disposed to react in a more efficient and clear-headed manner when the going gets tough? Does thinking through a potential situation before it ever happens provide any hope that a person will respond correctly upon such an eventuality? Or, despite having vague ideas about potential emergencies playing out, without having ever experienced them, are humans absent a mental map which can guide them to safety?

These and more are some of the questions that are addressed and themes that run through a fascinating non-fiction book by Laurence Gonzales entitled Deep Survival. Gonzales has spent a lifetime undertaking and writing about extreme sporting activities, risky professions and dangerous human behaviour in general. In this book he brings together his years of experience in studying and observing the reactions of people faced by such stress and in particular he deconstructs numerous accidents that have occurred to various people along the way. The question that has always intrigued him and forms the underlying theme of this book is: why exactly do some people react better than others and in the process survive any number of frightening near-death experiences brought about by the vagaries of chance, the chronically underestimated forces of nature and plain stupidity?

The results as instructed by his years in the field and supported with loads of research from various psychologists, doctors, survival experts and the testimony of survivors themselves, would have many self-proclaimed hard cases second-guessing their own boasts of how well they would handle themselves when the shit hits the fan.

One recurring observation that comes home again and again after a thorough analysis of numerous screw-ups in the wilderness by weekend warriors and hardened individuals with a lifetime of experience under their belts, is the power of the human mind.

There is no good pre-indicator that tells us which individuals will handle themselves better under stressful and dire situations in the wild. A teenaged girl is just as likely to respond in a way that will increase her likelihood of survival as opposed to a seasoned outdoorsman. This is not just some quirky unfounded claim but something borne out by statistics as detailed by Gonzales and backed up by the various experts in the field whom he interviews in the book. However, look closely at a person's thought process and analyze their actions under stress and certain "eerie similarities" exhibited by survivors do emerge, such as the fact that rule-breakers are more likely to come out alive as opposed to the rigid rule-followers of the world.

While individuals normally can't be assessed accurately on first glance as to how well they would respond in tough situations, there does appear to be statistical evidence regarding demographics. Children under the age of 6 actually have one of the highest rates of survival when being lost in the wilderness and this is even more proof regarding the power of learned processes. Children at that age are not cognizant of the idea of "being lost," thus the realization and subsequent panic never dawns on them. If the mind has not already been conditioned to live in the world of urban convenience we have constructed, which is highly forgiving and induces certain patterns of rewards and expectations, then it appears survival in the wilderness is more likely.

Myths, such as various aboriginal peoples of the world being inherently more attuned to the ways of wilderness, a long-held belief that fits into the hazy, karmic law of compensation that so many fools ascribe to and that somehow soothes our consciences, are tossed aside. That certain individuals from such populations are more skilled in survival in the bush and have a greater feel for direction than others is not in doubt, but this is simply from an awareness and subsequent practice from an early age.

Gonzales spins a highly entertaining and readable narrative in which he deconstructs numerous extreme sporting accidents and highlights common themes upon which he then extrapolates with various theories and personal observations. Every chapter has its own series of mishaps and tragedies told in a way that pulls no punches...never mocking the sometimes incredibly naïve, ill-prepared fools, yet always being brutal in the assessment of how and why they fucked up.

No matter how easy it is for a reader of these tales to shake their head in disbelief at how brazenly obvious the impending disaster was, Gonzales always drives home the point that this is the very nature of such accidents. Just as in everyday life while performing some trivial task, the same litany of factors influence every decision while rappelling down a steep slope. From peer pressure, the desire to impress, laziness, tiredness, daydreaming...the reasons are multitude. Of course the potential consequences are much more deadly but that is readily apparent. That you haven't ever experienced such a situation and thus are lacking the mental map to respond and which inhibits your ability to survive is what is key.

Or as Gonzalez opines on the word 'experienced': "(it) often refers to someone who’s gotten away with doing the wrong thing more frequently than you have."

Just as a few conditions need to come together to set the stage for disaster, the absence of such conditions convince many that they know what they are doing when in reality they have been blundering along at some weekend past-time from the beginning, lucking into their string of “successes”. That more fuck-ups don’t occur is what is so surprising.

This book is jammed with shrewd insight and well-articulated hypotheses and observations. It's one of those books that takes you a while to read—not because there is any lack of desire to keep plowing through the pages—but because it continually hammers you into a reverie and forces you to stare off into the distance and ponder something that the author has so perfectly highlighted.

For some, Gonzalez may go a bit too far in the early going as he establishes the concept and poses the questions that make up the running theme of the book. Nothing he writes goes so far as to be called filler, and though extrapolation is the stock in trade of non-fiction writers, in an attempt to ensure the big idea is lost on no reader, he sometimes adds more than necessary in those early chapters. It is clear that this is a topic that is dear to his heart, something so intimately intriguing to him that he has essentially devoted his life to experiencing, observing and writing about it.

Another thread running through the book is the author's own personal experiences as well as those of his father, who flew during WWII as a bomber pilot. Usually a clear writer of crisp passages and memorable lines, only occasionally does he add unnecessary throwaway lines such as:

"When I first heard that story, I almost wept, because it seemed so much like me and my father."

Scant criticism for a book that, overall I highly recommend. Like all good books it leaves you wanting more.

The subject matter is one that will resonate with most men, at least, and probably a growing number of western women as well, for whom an ever-expanding swath share the aspiration to be men. As the famous saying goes, the greatest compliment one man can hear from another is praise for performance in battle or on the field of play. Everyone likes to fancy themselves as possessing at least a modicum of physical ability and for many, competitiveness is a motivating factor behind everything they do. With prosperity available to most apes of average intelligence from western countries, the number of people turning to extreme sports for recreation and the opportunity to prove themselves outside of their bland office existence will continue to grow.

Gonzalez not only deconstructs numerous survival incidents that stand alone as entertaining pieces but also provides some incidental as well as prescribed advice on how to best prepare your mind for such encounters. Through those compelling mishap post-mortems, patterns necessarily emerge and some conclusions can be drawn, though Gonzalez also shows reverence for those unknown factors that remain a mystery. Ultimately, every person will only ever know their true reaction if and when such a difficult situation arises. As Gonzalez so concisely points out on a number of occasions throughout, you can only hope that you’ve spent a lifetime building up a solid core that will help you to respond.

Or, as one such maxim from the ancient philosopher Epictetus states, plucked from numerous Gonzalez includes and which demonstrates that the enigma of human survival has always intrigued and driven mankind to further understanding:

"On occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use."

Cross-posted at Blogcritics