Jon Turk’s latest book Crocodiles and Ice [Buy from Amazon] takes the reader through a half dozen of his adventures starting from when he was a child cutting across an immaculate lawn on a shortcut to his grade school to a hike in the mountains in his late 60s. In short, it’s an autobiographical story of his life – of sorts.
In it he describes why he chose the life he chose. He describes his motivations and tells us about some of his trips – while maybe not the defining trips of his life, they seem to have helped shape his life or help shape the narrative that he wants to tell. For example, in the first story he describes his first adventure which ended with him in prison in Jordon for defending his childhood view of who he was. By the end of the book, while describing a bike ride across China to the Dalai Lama’s birthplace, the tale morphs away from a view that he himself is important to a view that he isn’t anything but a spoiled westerner who knows nothing about the rest of the world despite having adventured all over it. And I don’t mean that as an insult; I mean that as a compliment.
Typically, adventure books pick one theme and try to stick to it. But Crocodiles and Ice is full of competing and contradictory themes that complement each other in the same way as opposite colors on the color wheel complement each other. It is a story about growing up as an adventurer and realizing your own human frailty and mortality while trying to squeeze in just another adventure before you die. It’s a story about how the world is changing and has changed and how people have changed – enough so that it’s surprising to Turk when he fails to find modern kids cutting across the same immaculate lawn as he did as a kid. It’s a story about finding romance in poverty inspired by ancient cultures and discovering that it might not be romantic after all. It’s also a story about the frailty of an individual human in the face of the mass of humanity moving us into the early ages of the Anthropocene. An author with lesser story telling skills would have failed at running so many disparate themes, but Turk is a master storyteller and the abundance of themes increases the depth of the book.
Ultimately, the argument that Turk makes in this book is laid out early. He comes out and tells you exactly what he wants the theme to be:
The central theme of this book is that no modern human could build an ocean going canoe with stone tools, and sail across oceans to distant islands, because our thought and behavior patterns are too rooted in technology and too distant from the subtle, intangible, and inexplicable secrets of nature.
He writes that the consequences of our dependence on technology are:
- We have turned our backs on ourselves and “our fundamental, aboriginal, glorious humanity.”
- “We have altered the planet in perhaps catastrophic and irreversible ways” while creating “insurmountable consciousness barriers to overcoming the real, factual, serious problems that our complex society faces today.”
Throughout the book, Turk gives us subtle hints and smack-in-the-face jabs about what he thinks we need to do to overcome our dependence on technologies (something I’d call a technology-first-attitude). Among the most convincing to me include one found on page 119. Turk and his adventure partner Erik Boomer face off an arctic wolf while pulling their kayaks across the frozen ocean. He writes:
Now we run smack-dab-head-on into that fuzzy line between logic and magic, coincidence and synchronicity. And ultimately, it’s not a matter of fact versus fiction: it’s about how you choose to view the world –or perhaps more appropriately—how you choose to feel or to communicate with the world around you. If you feel that the wolf was an annoyance … then that’s how you live your life; there’s no argument. But, to me, life becomes so much more glorious if you align with a Crow elder who famously remarked, “You know I think if people stay somewhere long enough—even white people—the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of spirits coming from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirit will begin to influence them.”
The least convincing to me comes on page 181. He suggests applying a paleo-attitude to our culture. He writes:
I suggest that we adapt a paleo-attitude to our modern culture, because that is the mind-set that powered humans to survive for two millions years, against stronger and faster predators and competitors, through multiple and dramatic climate changes. It is a mind-set that brought our ancestors out of Africa, across deserts, steppes, oceans and tundra, to settle in every habitable environment on Earth….this paleo-attitude of pragmatic-romanticism is the best, perhaps only mind-set that can carry us into the future in a sane, compassionate, and peaceful manner. Yes, technology provides the tools to move a complex society towards sustainability, but technology become effective only if supported by patience, acceptance of vulnerability, recognition of the survival value of a reciprocal relationship with nature, and joy in simple pleasures even in the face of danger and adversity.
That’s Turk’s main argument; that if you start to realign your mind to see spirits in nature and hang out long enough in nature, your mind will change enough to overcome “insurmountable consciousness barriers to overcoming the real, factual, serious problems that our complex society faces today.” And from experience, I believe it in part. I’ve written on PaddlingLight.com before about how ritual can make an expedition more meaningful and we have examples of that throughout human’s religions. Not only that, but recent studies have shown that spending time in nature provides significant benefits. Check out this directory of over 100 such research studies, news articles and case studies: https://www.asla.org/healthbenefitsofnature.aspx and a simple Google search for “studies showing nature benefit” will bring up many more.
Let’s say that Turk is right and it is exactly what humanity needs as we ride an out-of-control freight train towards oblivion. Let’s say that a paleo-attitude is what we need. Then the problem is convincing the mass of humanity moving us into the early ages of the Anthropocene. We need to convince them that moving away from the asphalt conquest of the earth is actually progress (and not the other way around), and we need to convince them that if we proceed to turn earth into a giant parking lot, we are lost as a species and become something post-human if we survive at all.
Turk is not unaware of this. He writes:
But somehow, this journey, that so many poets and visionaries have imagined, has not “simply prevailed.” Instead, inexplicably, all that momentum smashed against the bright lights of Las Vegas and ran aground against the oil-soaked Bligh Reef with the Exxon Valdez. How did we allow ourselves to trade the currency of peace, love, and material simplicity for the universal, global, modern Cultural Revolution called commercialism? How did our wily leaders and CEOs convince us to drop everything else in our lives, humiliate and kick our teachers, and march through the village square, with raised fists, and red armbands chanting in unison: “Hooray for Coca Cola.”
And then on page 253 he answers his questions while describing the sharing nature of a paleo-tribe:
At the same time that we are a thumb-wielding, tool-manufacturing species, we are also an intensely social species. Chimpanzees move as a troop from tree to tree, foraging along the way while early hominids built central campsites where they could protect the children while sending out foragers radially to collect food, return with it, and share. Crucial to sharing and dividing labor, we formed extended families and tribes. Using our marvelous big brains, we congregated in deep painted caves, singing, dancing, and chanting among flickering torches.
Thus socialization, family, tribe, art, music, and dance formed us into what we are today. In our ancient prehistoric past, stuff and commercialism came secondary.
Let us not be seduced by advertising or by convenience to forget, or ignore, or lose this side of ourselves. Let us not be seduced into thinking that tools and technology come first. As my Koryak friend, Marina, from Kamcharka, said, “It is the magic in your life that gives you power.”
Later after referencing Krugman’s “existential angst” description of middle-aged white America – the same angst just elected a strongman – Turk describes it as “an awful lot of people are doing what they are trained to do—think—when thinking is not only unnecessary, but a downright pain-in-the-neck.” There is no doubt that for me this is true. My mind is always thinking even when it is not helpful to do so. Heck, even as I write this I have two threads of thought going on. One contains the words of this essay-slash-review-slash-I’m-not-sure-what-it-is and the other thread is about my family or selling a kayak or not paddling enough or what picture I need to take or if my data plan will run out on my cell phone before the end of the month with all the traveling that we’re doing. If you’ve read the story about my Port Huron to Home Expedition, then you’ll know that in order to help prevent myself from thinking too much while on expedition I count my paddle strokes. It helps keep my mind from wandering off and thinking about things that really don’t matter.
Turk continues to describe that type of thinking that he is talking about:
But there are also lots of people who are opulent by any conventional standards, but who decide to conjure up this totally bogus invented story that their lives are deficient. So they dream up problems that don’t exist, making their potentially wonderful and gratifying lives woefully out of whack.
In Buddhism, they’d describe this as the way the human mind creates desires and if you can’t get those desires, then it suffers and suffering caused by desires is a big reason – THE reason – that life sucks. It’s our stupid brain that loves to think and that loves to desire that drives this. If thinking is the problem, then why do it? I actually wish I thought less, because it sure as heck would make life a lot more pleasant. Maybe many people don’t have this problem and are more content.
But, I doubt that many are much more content, because, at least in America, we all desire and want the American Dream – a dream that seemly feels out of reach. But we deserve to have it – whatever it is. Heck, our forefathers didn’t have three snowmobiles, an oak cabinet full of guns, two cars, a trailer with a bass boat sitting on it, a refrigerator, computers and cell phones and we think they had the dream. Maybe the American Dream is something imagined by our thinking brain – a myth to distract us from the knowledge that all we need is family, community, compassion and nature to achieve the Human Dream and to achieve happiness. But I digress.
In the end, as far as I’m smart enough to tell, and maybe I’m missing a few nuances, I think Turk’s argument on how to make the world a better place for all of us is:
- Choose to view the world as a place that has spirits that speak to us. That a visit from a wolf has deeper meaning than just being a visit from a wolf. When an eagle flies overhead, it means something – it’s a sign and not just an eagle flying overhead. And if you sit long enough and quiet enough you’ll hear nature speak to you.
- Develop a paleo-attitude that values community, compassion and sharing first.
- Don’t let technology control us. It is secondary to what is important.
- Don’t think too much about what you could have, what you think you need and stop believing your lives are deficient.
It doesn’t sound all that complicated to me. It seems rather simple and something well worth striving for.
I’m not a professional book reviewer (as you can probably tell if you’ve read this far) and I have the strong belief hammered into me by University of Iowa professors while earning a BA in English that any story is a conversation between the writer and reader, but a conversation in which the writer has lost control. It’s up to the reader to continue the conversation. That’s where this review is about to head. If you have a problem with that, then skip to the last two paragraphs.
The problem for me is that I read part of this book before the 2016 U.S. elections and part after the 2016 elections. Before the election I thought it was a hopeful read, but in light of the election results it’s hard to see how to move forward with Turk’s ideas. America isn’t the country that I thought it was. It’s a country that voted for a guy who thinks that global warming, a scientifically established fact, was invented by the Chinese to help their businesses. I’m not all that optimistic that humanity has the will power or interest in actually fixing the problems that we’ve created; because half of us won’t admit there are problems.
That half that won’t admit there are problems would rather believe in what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness.” They would rather ignore the evidence and the science and stick their heads into a hole in the ground to find a safe place where they can believe that what we’ve aspired to up to this point hasn’t really put us into one heck of a predicament. The election results seem to say that humanity, at least American humanity, just wants to move forward in its fit of consumerism, desiring more, wanting to gold-plate the world and sit on a golden throne without concerns for the consequences. Damn be change, said this election. Change is bad, said this election. We’re just going to go back to burning the heck out of fossil fuels and spewing CO2 into the atmosphere, said this election. It said, just carry on with the belief that more, more, more is better, better, better. Greed is good, it said. But, I also think about the fact that Trump lost the majority of votes by a landslide. The change candidate, the person best set to continue the break with the fraternal rule of white guys desiring more, absolutely stomped Trump by close to 3 million votes. But, she lost and thus we’ll continue on the same path as before. Fuck the earth, that path says, it’s ours to pillage. I just hope that it’s not too late for us after four or maybe eight years. The outlook doesn’t look good.
Ultimately, Crocodiles and Ice is Turk’s attempt to make you believe in a consciousness change, he takes you on a journey, and although the book is a collection of Turk’s journeys, the journey he takes you on isn’t a journey of adventure. He forces you to take a separate journey – maybe completely different – than the physical journey that he’s describing in the book. It’s a journey that makes you think and a journey that takes you out of the now and into what I imagine Turk hopes is a consciousness changing path to help save humanity from itself. He’s right. We need change from the technology-first-attitude. And if he helps readers understand that, then his book is a success. If you’re not into that, then the stories are fun and enjoyable.
- Crocodiles and Ice [Buy from Amazon]
Jon Turk Reading List
- Crocodiles and Ice: A Journey in the Deep Wild
- In the Wake of the Jomon: Stone Age Mariners and a Voyage Across the Pacific
- The Raven’s Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and Their Remarkable Journey Through the Siberian Wilderness
- Cold Oceans: Adventures in Kayak, Rowboat, and Dogsled