Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Review: Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Thirty years ago a young woman dreamed of walking across the deserts of Australia supported by a team of camels.

Camels, you say?

Yes. Amazingly enough in the late 19th century camels were imported to Australia as work animals. Some of them escaped and some of them were let loose. The terrain was perfect for them and over time their population grew dramatically. As of 2009, biologists estimated that there are nearly one million ferrel camels in Australia.

Which brings us back to Australia thirty years ago and a young woman's dream of walking across Australia supported by a team of camels. Robyn Davidson's dream became a reality when she received backing from National Geographic. But the backing came with a catch. A photographer would travel with her occasionally.

Tracks is the story of a woman, her four camels, her dog, and her adventure through the Australian Outback. The book chronicles Davidson's first--often comic--experiences with camels through her ultimate mastery of both the animals and herself. Though the mastery of herself isn't the same it is in many outdoor narratives...

Davidson has an adventurous spirit. Others ask questions about why she would travel the desert, but others who involve themselves in outdoor adventures already know why. It's because we need too. The issue with Davidson is that she has an impression of what her experience should be like. She believes that the experience should be a certain way, and when it is not exactly that way, it creates conflict.

Davidson was forced to "endure" a photographer through many portions of her trip. When she started, she didn't envision herself babysitting a photojournalist. This other person who tries to bring her story to the rest of the world, is a thorn in her side. She wants an intensely personal experience, but it's not to be. It wasn't supposed to be this way.

One of the many morals of the book is that adventure isn't supposed to be anything. Adventure just is...and the young woman learns that during her odyssey in the Australian outback. She also begins to understand just how much a fierce environment shapes an individual.

And as I walked through that country, I was becoming involved with it in a most intense and yet not fully conscious way. The motions and patterns and connections of things became apparent on a gut level. I didn't just see the animal tracks, I knew them. I didn't just see the bird, I knew it in relationship to its actions and effects. My environment began to teach me about itself without my full awareness of the process. It became an animate being of which I was a part.

The only way I can describe how the process occurred is to give an example: I would see a bettle's tracks in the sand. What once would have been merely a pretty visual design with few associations attached, now became a sign which produced in me instantaneous associations - the type of beetle, which direction it was going in and why, when it made the tracks, who its predators were. Having been taught some rudimentary knowledge of the pattern of things at the beginning of the trip, I now had enough to provide a structure in which I could learn. A new plant would appear and I would recognize it immediately because I could perceive its association with other plants and animals in the overall pattern, its place. I would recognize and know the plant without naming it or studying it away from its environment. What was once a thing that merely existed became something that everything else acted upon and had a relationship with and vice versa.

In picking up a rock I could no longer simply say, "This is a rock," I could now say, "This is part of a net," or closer, "This, which everything else acts upon, acts."

When this way of thinking became ordinary for me, I too became lost in the net and the boundaries of myself stretched out forever.

In the beginning I had known at some level that this could happen. It had frightened me then. I had seen it as a chaotic principal and I fought it tooth and nail. I had given myself the structure of habit and routine with which to fortify myself and these were very necessary at the time. Because if you are fragmented and uncertain it is terrifying to find the boundaries of yourself melt. 

Survival in the desert then, requires that you lose this fragmentation, and fast. It is not a mystical experience, or rather, it is dangerous to attach these sorts of words to it. They are too hackneyed and prone to misinterpretation. It is something that happens, that's all. Cause and effect. In different places survival requires different things, based on the environment. Capacity for survival may be the ability to be changed by the environment.

Davidson and one of her camels at the end of the journey.

Though this story has been regularly compared to Cheryl Strayed's Wild, it is a very different story. Yes, both were young women who embarked on adventures to discover themselves. But each individual's inward journey was different. Strayed's inward journey dealt with guilt and pain. Davidson didn't need such dramatic circumstances to begin her journey. Instead she appears to want to understand nature and her place in it.

Perhaps my one criticism of the book is that while Davidson's story is engaging, she does tend to write in long paragraphs. This structure feels somewhat classic and gives the book a little bit of a dated feel. It doesn't hurt the story but it can be psychologically daunting to see a page without a paragraph break.

Tracks is an extraordinary adventure about an extraordinary woman. This was a piece that truly brought me there. Every night after I put down the book and closed my eyes, I found that I never left the Outback. I dreamed of deserts and camels night after night. Davidson writes about how at the end of her journey she didn't want to leave the desert. I enjoyed her story so much that I didn't either...

--Jason D. Martin

No comments: