Survival is in everything we do. We are hunter-gatherers, whether in the literal sense or the modern, figurative equivalent. No matter how far we evolve from our spear-carrying, mammoth-hunting ancestors, the innate instinct is still there. But most of us have forgotten the basics. Ask your average person on the street how to start a fire without matches or a lighter, or how to set a rabbit snare, and you’ll get a blank look followed by, "I’m a vegetarian. ou should be ashamed!" And yet the survivor narrative, whether in books, TV shows, or movies, is consistently popular. This tells me a lot of people wish they could peel away the trappings of modern life and live simpler, in a way more connected to nature.
Two of last year’s biggest blockbusters were survivor stories, both adapted from novels. The Revenant
by Michael Punke is the brutal, sort-of-true story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper mauled by a bear and left to die. The other is The Martian
by Andy Weir, the survival story turned up to 11, about an astronaut abandoned on Mars who has to find a way to live for over a year before rescue arrives. Then there are the harrowing true stories, Between a Rock and a Hard Place
(adapted into the movie 127 Hours
) or the story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed into the Andes (made into the movie Alive
). The simplicity and instinctual nature of the survival story appeals on a primal level. It’s a way to strip back the complexity of the world to the most basic of human needs — food, water, shelter, heat. Opening these books, seeing these movies, binge-watching Discovery Channel, pulls back the concrete, clears the exhaust fumes, and removes the Instagram filters. It takes us away from comfort and into isolation and danger where life and death are squarely on our own shoulders. They also show us an alternative way of life. Look
, you tell yourself, That family can survive, even thrive, in a two-room cabin they built themselves in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. I bet I could too. Look how happy they all are.
These stories allow us to see and appreciate nature at its most savage and beautiful, along with man’s connection to it. These stories push us to ask, What would I do? Would I survive if this happened to me? Could I really eat that?
During those three days I was permanently hungry, slept on the ground, built a shelter, started fires a dozen different ways, learned which plants I could eat and which would kill me, and made cordage out of stinging nettles.
I grew up in the countryside, in a remote rural area, where there was nothing but fields and cliffs between me and the ocean. I spent my childhood outdoors. I loved to make dens and camps and pretend I was lost in the wild, far from home. Now I live in London, work in an office, and every day I desperately want to up sticks and head to Alaska, the Yukon, even the Scottish Highlands, and build a cabin and become self-sufficient. I want to experience a truly basic life, but unfortunately that’s not possible for me (at the moment — one day I’ll get there), so I found myself writing about a woman who did live that way. Elka, the protagonist of The Wolf Road
, lives the simplest of lives, and I found huge comfort in writing about her life and, briefly, living it along with her.
When I was just beginning to write The Wolf Road
, I spent three days in the Devon woods on a survival and bushcraft course. I wanted a taste of the good life, but I also wanted to test myself to see if I could actually make a fire or bring myself to skin a rabbit. I also wanted to know what it would feel like to sleep on the ground and not wash for three days and cook over an open fire. I was playing in the woods, really. It was safe and I wasn’t all that far from the motorway, but it did teach me a few core skills that have stuck with me. Mostly, I wanted to feel that if I did ever end up in a survival situation, I would at least have basic knowledge from which I could draw, a basic knowledge which could save my life.
During those three days I was permanently hungry, slept on the ground, built a shelter, started fires a dozen different ways, learned which plants I could eat and which would kill me, and made cordage out of stinging nettles. I got dirty and cold and hungry and uncomfortable and fed it all into Elka’s struggle. By day three I was desperate for a soft chair and a hot shower, which only served to remind me how much I rely on my home comforts. That made me sad. It made me feel like I’d failed. That’s why, I think, Elka spurns such comforts, looks down her nose at them. She’d rather sleep on the ground in a thunderstorm than in a soft, warm bed.
One of the most interesting and useful parts of this course happened at dinnertime. We had to prepare game for that evening’s meal, sometimes without a knife, because you won’t always have a knife in a survival situation. I knew that if I didn’t gut and fillet that trout or skin and quarter that rabbit, I wouldn’t eat. That is a sobering realization. We are so used to popping to the fridge or cupboard to grab a snack (hell, I’ve got tea and cake as I write this) that to suddenly be without that option is at first scary, and then liberating. You’re hungry? Go forage for berries or nuts, or go and set some traps to catch dinner. Those traps came up empty? Too bad, go hungry, try again tomorrow.
As a culture, we tend to have a certain degree of detachment from our food’s origins. We buy our meat butchered and wrapped in cellophane and don’t like to think about how it got there. We buy our produce in a similar way, not knowing which farm, sometimes even which country, it came from. I hate this about our world. I want to know what I’m eating, where it came from, what kind of existence it had before, and I think we owe that to ourselves, to the animals we consume and the farmers who supply our food. Survival stories put this up front and center. The need for food and water in a survival narrative is absolute; it’s the only need the character has. If he doesn’t find water, he’ll die. If he doesn’t find food, he’ll die. It doesn’t get more basic than that, and it’s in these stories where characters find beautiful moments of clarity. They latch on to what is important in their lives, whether that’s family, religion, or good old-fashioned revenge. It’s pure and untainted by agenda or competition. It’s one goal — survive. The way the character survives, different for everyone, is what makes these stories so compelling; after all, the character, the survivor, could be you. The stories make you ask, What would I do to survive?
But the answer is always the same: I’d do anything
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of The Wolf Road
and a managing editor at Titan Books in London. She was raised in the wilds of Cornwall and split her childhood between books and the beach. She has traveled extensively throughout the world and has had close encounters with black bears, killer whales, and great white sharks. She has been a bank cashier, a fire performer, and a juggler.