As a child, my favorite novels centered on wilderness survival. From the lush island life of The Swiss Family Robinson, to the cold, unforgiving Canadian winter of Hatchet, there’s just something primally seductive to me about mastering the elements (or at least attempting to do so) while far removed from civilization.
My favorite was My Side of the Mountain which follows a 14-year-old Sam Gribley as he abandons his stifling life in 1950’s New York City and settles into a new one in the Catskill Mountains. There he fashions a home inside the trunk of a large dying tree, creates his own clothing & tools, and raises a peregrine falcon as a pet & hunting partner.
Early in the story as he was returning from gathering supplies for his first campsite, Sam noticed a forest warden investigating his camp due to the smoke from his fire. Sam briefly panics as all his efforts up to that point seemed for naught but soon remembered that he still had his knife. As long as he had that, he could start over again and again as needed.
This realization of his in particular resonated with me after my most recent read-through of the book in 2016. What is my knife? What is the one thing that regardless of situation or environment, I could use to pull through or start over? Do I already have that thing? Is it even a physical thing at all?
When I first read the book in 3rd or 4th grade, I could relate to Sam’s desires. On average up until that point in my life, I’d moved once every year (and would continue to do so until 2017). I was constantly severing ties with friends and trying to find new ones. This coupled with the fact that I rarely was given my own room led to a deep yearning to be in control of my existence both in terms of location and scheduling.
Yet the thought of actually moving off into the mountains still feels impractical, boring and a waste of potential (both in terms of what I can gain from the world and what I could contribute to it). I’d also likely grow restless of my surroundings just as I have before each of my past several moves.
Instead, the planet itself has become my wilderness. Rather than mastering the elements of one environment, I’m learning to adapt to new locales and circumstances. Rather than being a tourist, I’ve become a mobile citizen – temporarily setting down roots wherever I am be it a remote village in Vietnam, a manga cafe in Tokyo, a cross-country bus, a converted fire station in Little Rock, or a conventional house like my current AirBnB across from the Motown Museum in Detroit.
Perhaps it is this inborn acceptance of discomfort and change that is my knife. Objects are only useful contextually but improvisation is always needed.