Survival Is About Connection

Ego doesn’t belong in nature

If biophilia is the innate affinity of human beings with the natural world, then is that why we do it? Is that why we explore, adventure and even survive, for the “affinity” with the natural world? Or is it because we want our pictures uploaded to Instagram? Not caring why or how we explore, fish and hunt in the natural world, so long as we do, is the wrong approach to take. Our why and how matters greatly. Our motivation is incredibly important to the results we achieve, the emotions we feel and, in the end, the connection we make with nature. Our ego is best left back in the city, for the natural world has a way of humbling us without even trying.

Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo.
Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo.

Survival itself has never, or at least should never, be included in a list of outdoor recreational or professional activities. True, survival skills are extremely important to learn within the scope of all aspects of life. However, having to survive is something we must endure when things go wrong. It is not an end unto itself, except for those with a death wish or, at the least, something to prove. Referencing survival as a recreational activity belittles the horrifying experiences people have gone through in real survival situations. There is nothing about survival that is even remotely fun or exciting. It’s an ordeal to be overcome. Ask Yossi Ghinsberg, who survived a horrible 17 days in the Amazon jungle, what he would have wanted. He will answer, “To go home.” No pretty shelter or tricky fire-starting method becomes more important than rescue, than salvation.

Our time in nature should never be motivated by the need to prove something. Paddling a class five rapid or landing that big fish is exciting and motivating. But for me, the real connection to nature, and therefore the real reason to be in it, is manifested when I sit in silence overlooking a valley 11,000 feet below or relax on a rock beside the river’s edge near a calm pool. It’s not the satisfaction in whatever amazing feat I am congratulating myself for having just completed that touches my soul in those moments. It’s the fact that they don’t even matter. It’s the realization that the delicate flowers growing beside me don’t care about my recent exploits or discoveries. I sweat and struggle and hike and push my way through the wilderness, proving my prowess as an explorer and an adventurer, and all the while nature barely yawns and out grows a mighty pine tree.

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The will to live is one of the main components that come into play for whether or not someone survives an ordeal. I wonder if trees or flowers or rivers or insects or wildlife have to deal with their own will to live for whether or not they survive. Somehow, I don’t think so. We write it off as instinct and biological process, but I suspect something much grander is at play. Though the concept of plants being sentient is really intriguing, it would seem to me that all of nature simply survives because it must, not because it needs to think about it or motivate itself. But what is implied here? That nature is something else, not us. That humans are separate, even above, nature. The truth, as we all know too well, painfully in fact, is that we are also a part of the natural world. Not above it or outside of it. So then why is it we feel the need to connect to nature? Or more poignantly, why do we feel disconnected? We are nature. Just the same, nestled within our modern abodes we make plans, we write check lists, we organize food and we pack gear all so that we can head out and re-connect with nature.

Fifteen years of practicing and subsequently teaching wilderness survival taught me one thing: There is no survival without connection to nature. In fact, perhaps not ironically, it was when the TV series Survivorman was at its peak, that the business of being a nature filmmaker got in the way of my own connection to it. This busy-ness severely distracts us so we can’t see the trees for the forest. Producing a long-running series about how to survive in the wilderness was at first entirely an exploration. The learning captivated me. The adventure excited me. Each new ecosystem presented a new learning opportunity and required fortitude to master. It is true that survival skills, in a generic sense, travel the world well and can be called upon to help you make it through the night. But that doesn’t mean I know which plants to eat in Borneo or which insects are tasty rather than deadly. Connecting to a place even for your own safety requires learning about it. To learn about a place is to get to know it. The hoped-for philosophy of this connection is that you will protect a place you love, but you won’t love a place you don’t know and you don’t know a place you haven’t been to. Entire ecosystems have been saved thanks to one person’s memory of hiking within it as a child and thusly connecting to it.

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When a cold winter wind whips across my cheeks, I can feel the Arctic air, so I know I am still connected to that land. When it is hot and humid, I can still smell the Amazon, so I know I’m connected to the revered rainforest. When I step into cheap rubber boots and begin to walk through mud in Papua New Guinea, not in memory but for real, I feel the same blisters and the same muscle strain I did five years previous. It seems I’m not so jaded after all, as I feel connected to a place I’ve only been twice before. The wind and the rain and the blisters speak of my connection to these places, not my conquering of them. There should be no checklists in our ambitions of exploration and discovery. The pond behind my house is no less deserving of my adoring, respecting and connecting to than is the Arctic, the Amazon, the oceans or the deserts. It’s ok for us to be ambitious explorers, connected to far off places of grandeur and discovery. But we should be as equally connected to the tadpoles in a local pond as we are to a magical vista in Madagascar.

I was incredibly fortunate that the mission of my explorations and adventures required that I spend extended time alone in the middle of jungles, deserts, tropical islands, forests and snow-covered regions. This solitude made certain that I could take a moment to shed all the responsibilities of the “adventure,” all the goals of my profession, and reconnect with nature. I could explore quietly. Every day of every survival expedition I filmed started with the meditation that I wanted to create something that was inspirational and that brought about a positive influence in people’s lives. That was the human motivation, to create. However, it would be nature that would provide the power, truth and honesty of the situation that I could not manufacture, no matter how creative I thought I was. Nature is the ultimate artist. The success of this film work was due to nature connecting to people watching it. It was not nature’s goal to do so. It’s just what happens. We see with our eyes the beauty of nature and we connect instantly, even if through a screen. This is why we keep nature books on our shelves and adorn our walls with images of beauty. We are constantly under the influence of our biophilia. We are always needing to connect with nature.

What’s that old saying? An adventurer comes back and tells you what they did, and an explorer comes back and tells you what they learned. True, there is always something to learn even when you revisit a place you have explored before. However, those lessons do tend to become less and less after several visits. You become a little complacent. You have ceased exploring. The adventure has become soft and you are left with only one reality: Either you feel connected to this place, and that is all that matters, or you don’t.

When Survivorman had lost its lustre and become slightly routine, it was the series Beyond Survival that gave me the opportunity to actually reconnect with nature myself, rather than being a conduit, a filmmaker with goals. I started exploring both the natural world in new settings, as well as the Indigenous cultures that remained close to it through daily life and ceremony. The animism that seemed to be an intrinsic part of every Earth-based Indigenous culture is compelling. The Mentawai in Indonesia, or the Waorani in the Amazon, never see themselves as separate from nature. The natural rhythms and cycles of their existence is based entirely upon the flight of birds, the level of river water, the heat of the sun, the strength of the wind. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all live like that? But I digress.

Ceremony upon ceremony, experience upon experience while filming these people and I once again became a student. I never detach when I produce a documentary. The next camera shot is always secondary to the experience I’m in. It’s a lot like that scene in the Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (the new one with Sean Penn) where he decides not to take a picture of a snow leopard because: “Sometimes I just want to be in it, the moment.” I entered back into a connection with nature that cannot be satisfied by making a film, taking a photo, catching a fish or writing a book. Taking the time to sit upon and truly touch the Earth profoundly reminds us that our own survival is not based on the ability to make a fire, but rather it is within reconnecting with the rhythms and cycles of nature. There is a dance in that realization, and it is a slow dance at that. Go ahead and try to fight against the winds, try to push against the rapids, try to scale an impossible cliff. But be prepared for soul-crushing defeat.

There is no winning against nature because there is no battle. True exploration, and thusly survival, is achieved by paddling with the current, walking with the wind and finding the mountain pass that is doable. Adventure is more appropriately achieved by working with, and connecting to, nature, not fighting against it.