When the Wild Calls: A Primordial Adventure In Sweetland
In Jack London’s classic novel ‘The Call of the Wild’, an unsuspecting St. Bernard named Buck is stolen from his comfortable California home and thrust into the unforgiving Yukon wilderness. Forced to work as a sled dog during the Klondike gold rush of ‘97, Buck had to fight both the other dogs and the harshness of the elements in order to survive. Eventually he reverted entirely back to his wild state—a ghost wolf wandering the dark and snowy woods forever.
Something similar happened to me on my recent tour of Western Canada. Just like Buck, I left a comfortable home on the coast and pointed north in search of the Klondike. Both he and I boarded a boat bound up the Inside Passage, barely enduring our seasickness as we crossed the choppy Queen Charlotte Sound. Eventually we made it to the Yukon. Through endless woods and over mountain passes, the icy trail seemed to stretch on forever. But upon our arrival we found that our real trials had only just begun.
Partially inspired by Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species,’ London’s story is one in which only the fittest could possibly survive. The key to this survival is adaptation. We must learn to adapt to our ever-changing environment and the circumstances over which we have no control. Domesticated Buck was forced to reclaim the wildness within his wolfish DNA in order to live. Now I had to do the same. Poised against the wildest wilderness I had ever beheld, my next gig six hours down a winding road of snow and ice, my options were to adapt and become fittest, or die trying.
If Darwin was right, and it seems that he was, all life on earth is descended from one common ancestor that emerged from the ooze about 3.9 billion years ago. Still in its fiery youth, our now 4.5 billion-year-old planet would have looked very different to our deftly evolved human eyes. Since then, countless species have evolved, thrived and perished. Continents have been created, divided, have migrated, risen and fell. Glaciers have formed, advancing and retreating, carving out the lakes, mountains and valleys we know so well. And although it’s difficult to imagine, looking around at our homes, cities and parklands, only one thing is sure—nothing is permanent. One day all of this, and us, will most certainly be gone.
Scientists believe that anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa some 195,000 years ago. From there they fanned out across Asia and Europe in bands of hunter-gatherers. As the climate continued to shift during the last glacial period, massive ice sheets spread out across the continents freezing enough of the earth’s water to cause a significant drop in sea levels. This caused the exposition of many shallow sea floors including that of the Bering Strait, which became the Bering land bridge. Sometimes referred to as ‘Beringia’ this passage between modern-day Russia and Alaska served as an opportunistic migratory route for the First Peoples who colonized North America.
The ancient land of Beringia extended across Alaska all the way east into what is now the Yukon Territory. Thanks to relatively low levels of precipitation it was not covered in ice like the rest of the continent, but boasted grassy steppes upon which prehistoric mammals like the mammoth and muskox would graze. Today, above the Arctic Circle, near the northeastern border of what was once this ice-free zone lies the isolated First Nations community of Old Crow (or ‘Teechik’ in the Gwich’n language.) I was lucky enough to make it this far north on my journey. I confess I’d had a dodgy moment or two on my way, but it seemed that—at least for now—survival was on my team.
Old Crow was covered in snow, no grassy steppes in sight. My host offered to take me on a snowmobile ride up ‘the mountain’ to take in the view. How could I say no? It was –40 degrees Celsius so I put on all my clothes at the same time and climbed onto the throbbing machine behind him. I was instructed that the best way ‘not to fall off’ was to face backwards and hold on tight. So I did. Slowly, the landscape began to rise beyond the trees and I could see that long stretch of white all the way to the horizon. Beringia was before me.
I tried to imagine the mastodons snacking and the hunters gathering as the ice crystals formed on my eyelashes and hung down in wisps from my fur-trimmed hood. By the time we got back I couldn’t feel my toes at all. I really thought they were gone. But inside of me I could sense the DNA of my prehistoric ancestors. We are all biologically hardwired to survive the Ice Age. In the end the only two casualties of my trip were a chipped windshield and a flat tire. Not bad considering. But I was ready for some warmer weather.
The First Peoples of America were ready for some warmer weather too. Over thousands of years they spread out from Beringia, across Canada, the US and all the way down to the farthest tip of South America. I decided to go searching for them somewhere in Mexico, not too far from the popular tourist destination of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo. Here, in the town of La Soledad de Maciel archeologists have discovered the long-fabled ancient city of Xihuacan. An active ceremonial site for nearly 3000 years, it was destroyed in an instant by a tsunami that buried the city in sand. Their beautifully restored ball court (in which was played the traditional and sometimes gruesome Mesoamerican ball game ‘of the Gods’) was fully equipped with a trough in which to lop off the heads of the losers. It was the opposite of the Yukon: I felt weak from the heat like a delicate flower in need of a fainting couch.
The wildness of Mexico demanded a whole new kind of bravery from me. During my trip I got electrocuted, was nearly crushed to death, met a very large crocodile and didn’t wear my seatbelt a lot. But still, natural selection seems to have favoured my survival; I made it home with little more than a wicked mezcal hangover. And not since I had gazed out, with burning toes, upon the windswept steppes of yesteryear had I felt so incredibly and passionately alive.
Perhaps this is what happened to Buck. Confronted by his own imminent mortality he rose to the challenge and was not only able to survive, but thrive. He looked inside himself at the wildness within and chose not to fear it, but embrace it. There he found the ecstasy that marked the summit of life. This ecstasy came equally from being most alive and from forgetting that he was alive. I believe this is the allegorical gold that we both found up there in the Klondike. For the world is changing, the earth is shifting, nothing is sure and there is danger everywhere. Our only true task is to find a way to enjoy the ride.
Feature article by Kristin Sweetland
The accompanying photographic series ‘Stones & Ages’ is an ode to the antiquity of the earth vs the temporality of all that we construct on it. From Kristin’s continuing self–portrait series ‘Adventures In Sweetland.’
More at www.kristinsweetland.com