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The Art of Survival

 by Les Stroud

Les Stroud

A member of The Explorers Club since 2005, Les Stroud, aka “Survivorman,” is an award-winning TV producer, musician, and author. His current projects include Wild Harvest, a new series on American Public Television that teaches local foraging and how to turn Nature’s bounty into a culinary experience. Having recently launched a new podcast, Surviving Life with Les Stroud, he is also penning a children’s book on adventure for Annick Press. For more on his work: Adventure photographer Laura Bombier has been documenting Stroud’s survival skills for more than a decade. For More on her work:

There is an old adage: An adventurer comes back and tells you what they did, while an explorer comes back and tells you what they learned. This is particularly true when it comes to the art of survival. 

If my two-plus decades of practicing and subsequently teaching wilderness survival have proven anything to me, it is that there is no survival without an intimate connection to Nature. And that connection can only come from deep knowledge and a willingness to learn, and learn I have, particularly during the years of filming for my television series Survivorman, and its follow-on, Beyond Survival. While the adventure involved in creating these shows has been thrilling, it is the learning that has been most captivating. 

It is true that survival skills travel the world well and can be called upon to help you make it through the night. But that doesn’t mean even the best survivalists will know which plants to eat in Borneo or the difference between insects that are tasty and those that can kill you. Connecting to a place for one’s own safety requires learning about it. And to learn about a place is to get to know it—for each new ecosystem presents a new learning opportunity that requires focus and fortitude to master.

I have been incredibly fortunate that the mission of my explorations and adventures has 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 expedition I filmed started with the meditation that I wanted to create something that was inspirational and brought about a positive influence in people’s lives. That was the human motivation. Creating. 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 has been 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. I have always felt that you won’t protect a place you don’t love, you won’t love a place you don’t know, and you don’t know a place you haven’t been to. Conversely, entire ecosystems have been saved thanks to one person’s memory of hiking within it as a child and thus connecting to it. 

During our Beyond Survival series, we sought to go beyond exploring the natural world in new settings, and so began communing with the indigenous cultures that remain close to it, through daily life and ceremony. The animism that seems to be an intrinsic part of every Earth-based indigenous culture is compelling. The Mentawai in Indonesia and the Waorani in the Amazon, for example, never see themselves as separate from Nature. The natural rhythms and cycles of their existence are based entirely upon the flight of birds, the level of river water, the heat of the sun, the strength of the wind. 

Ceremony upon ceremony, experience upon experience I had while filming these people, I found myself a student, which has led to new avenues of exploration, including one of my most recent projects. As of this writing, Explorers Club member William Thomas and I are gearing up to produce a feature-length documentary on the establishment of a major park system in Papua New Guinea, the first of its kind. But to do it, we must rely on the deep knowledge of its indigenous caretakers, the Hewa, to procure much needed details of the park system’s plant, bird, animal, and insect species. There is little about the natural biology of PNG they do not know. As their student, my explorer’s blood and my adventurer’s spirit are fired up and I am ready to connect. (Just hopefully not with the same stinging ants I encountered the last time I was there!)

As I have learned over the years, survival itself has never been, or at least should never be, included in a list of outdoor recreational or professional activities. While survival skills are extremely important in the realm of exploration, having to survive is something we must endure when things go wrong. It’s an ordeal to be overcome rather than 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. Ask Yossi Ghinsberg, who endured many horrible days in the Amazon jungle, what he would have wanted. He will answer you: to simply go home. No pretty shelter or tricky fire-starting method becomes more important than rescue, than salvation.

While there is little doubt that paddling a class five rapid or putting a flag on the top of a mountain is exciting and motivating, our time in Nature should never be motivated by the need to prove something or to put our name on a map. Pure and simple, the reason to be in Nature is to reconnect with what it is to be part of Earth’s extraordinary ecosystem, not apart from it. When heading out into the field, our ego is best left back at home, for the natural world has a way of humbling us without even trying, survival skills aside. 

With all of its seemingly inherent risks, what is it about the wilderness that lures us to seek it out in the first place, to put ourselves in places and situations where the need to fall back on our well-honed survival skills is a distinct possibility? 

My answer is biophilia: humankind’s innate affinity with the natural world, which is why Earth’s wildest places tend to provide such solace. 

Given that the will to live is one of the main components that determines whether or not someone survives an ordeal, I have often wondered whether trees or insects rely on their own will to live for survival. While it is easy to write off a quest for survival in the rest of the natural world as instinct and biological process, I suspect something much grander is at play. Nature survives because it must, not because it needs to think about it or motivate itself. However, what is often implied is that Nature is something else—that humans are somehow apart from it, possibly even above, Nature. And it is this sense of “apartness” that often leads us to feel disconnected. 

The truth, as we all know painfully well, is that we are very much a part of the natural world—not above it, nor outside it. We are it, which may explain why we venture out into the field, and, in doing so, challenge our capacity to survive, simply to affirm out innate affinity with the natural world. 

Nestled within our modern abodes we are impelled to make plans, draft checklists, organize rations, and pack gear all so that we can head out and reconnect with Nature, for without it we explorers simply cannot survive. 

I have found that the explorers and, yes, even survivalists that I admire and revere are never adrenaline junkies. Calm and thoughtful, their motivation is not the summit, but rather the connection to Nature. For they know that it is in this connection that the other magical component of Nature is found, and that is healing. 

We are continuing to learn from science that Nature has the capacity to heal not only physically, but emotionally. Nowhere was this more evident than on a recent canoe trip I took with students in the remote indigenous community of La Loche in Northern Saskatchewan. Two years before our trip, a young student had shot and killed four people and injured seven others at the local school, leaving the survivors still in a state of shock and challenged to emotionally process the tragic events that had unfolded. 

A caring teacher reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to visit the community and take part in a “healing canoe trip,” a journey into the wilderness that she hoped would aid in easing the minds of the eight teenage boys who would be participating.

As we set off, a sense of bravado filled the air, which was soon quelled as Nature began to show her power with unforgiving winds that held us at bay on some remote wilderness shoreline. Then, allowing Nature to lead the way, progress was slowly made, not only by paddle, but also by psyche—in the emotions of the trip participants. By the end of the journey, positive words of potential-filled futures were spoken and a small wedge of hope pierced the souls of the boys. Was it the words and counseling of the adult leaders that did this? Was it the adventure of the paddling? No, it was simply connecting to the natural world. The beauty and power of healing through Nature is that it does so whether you want it to or not. You step into Nature pessimistic, agitated, grumpy, and vindictive and you come back out refreshed, positive, relaxed, and forgiving. 

I am often reminded of my intimate connection with Nature, even when I am not in the field. Every time 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 my backyard, I am transported in memory back to Papua New Guinea. I feel the same blisters and the same muscle strain I did five years previous. 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. I have also come to realize that the pond behind my house is no less deserving of my respect and adoration than the Arctic, the Amazon, and Earth’s oceans and deserts. It’s okay 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. 

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 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. 

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