Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Book review: Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why is a study of who makes it through extreme survival situations and why. The author, a life-long thrill-seeker by way of extreme sports, aviation, etc, mixes case studies of people in wilderness situations with psychology and information about how the brain works. Although the book focuses on raw, wilderness physical survival situations, the author's argues that the mental attitudes crucial to survival in the wild are equally important in dealing with financial crisis, a divorce, or presumably peak oil and the collapse of civilization.

I have a hard time putting into words the messages of the book. In fact, as I was reading it, I wasn't even sure I was getting much out of it...until I watched the movie Hotel Rwanda and found myself applying some of the lessons and theories of the book to the survival situation of the characters in the movie. I think this book needs to be read and experienced to get the full meaning, not just summarized in a book review. But I'll throw out some of my thoughts anyway, partly for you and partly for me as notes to jog my memory.

One of the interesting themes of the book is that we don't live in reality. We live in the mental construct of reality which we have assembled in our brains. Our mental map is updated with new information all the time, but there's also a strong tendency to cling to the map or aspects of the map even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the map is wrong. Examining what it means to be lost, in the woods for example, Gonzales observes that if you find yourself making up elaborate explanations for why your map of the hiking trail doesn't match what you're seeing ("that lake on the map could have dried up so I can't see it now" or "that huge boulder could have rolled away somewhere") then something is wrong and you need to stop and reevaluate where you actually are. This seems so obvious from the known position of my desk and my keyboard, but Gonazeles' warnings are invaluable preparation for embarking into befuddling new landscapes. It's important to know that our brains so desperately want to retain a sense of knowing where we are that they'll concoct ridiculous stories to force the contradictory evidence from the eyes into the pre-existing mental map. Hopefully knowing that this occurs will make it easier to break the spell when it actually happens.

A similar mental blind-spot to watch out for is when emotions surge and take over from the rational brain in dangerous situations. Gonzales gives an example of search-and-rescue snowmobilers returning from a successful rescue, revved up with adrenaline. Two of them decided to sled down a hill and up a far slope, despite having been warned that day of the risk of snow-slide on that slope. One of them died in the resulting slide. A similar urge comes when lost or when headed towards a comforting destination. The emotions and imagination of reaching water or of getting to safe, familiar home can cause you to rush forward, heedless of rational precautions of pacing oneself, marking a path so as not to get lost, or even whether you're actually headed the right way. Hopefully having read about the effect will make it easier to recognize it if it ever comes up for me in a wilderness setting.

Gonzales also dances a lot around the concept of "Positive Mental Attitude", a top item in the US Air Force's survival checklist. Positive Mental Attitude can't be defined or explained, but it's another major theme that he weaves into the tales of survival. He doesn't give any advice on how this can be learned or cultivated. It's not clear whether it's something you're born with and have or don't have for the rest of your life, or whether it's something you can deliberately develop. Closely related to this theme is that of using dark humor to prepare for or cope with difficult situations. Another indefinable quality is that of "cool", being able to stay calm and poised in the worst situations, coralling and maybe even harnessing the emotions of fear and anger while keeping the rational brain in charge of actions.

It's interesting how routinely civilized humans these days underestimate nature, with the ease of driving halfway up a mountain and walking out along a pre-marked sign-posted nature trail. This book was a good warning to me (with almost no experience in non-urban areas) that when I depart the carefully sheltered confines of the city, I need to be really aware of where I am and how vulnerable I am to the real world if I'm not prepared. A similar attitude will have to apply to homesteading, both on the main site and when hunting and gathering in surrounding wilderness.

Gonzales summarizes what survivors do:


  1. Perceive, believe (look, see, believe)
  2. Stay calm (use humor, use fear to focus)
  3. Think/analyze/plan (get organized; set up small, manageable tasks)
  4. Take correct, decisive action (be bold and cautious while carrying out tasks)
  5. Celebrate your successes (take joy in completing tasks)
  6. Count your blessings (be grateful--you're alive)
  7. Play (sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count anything, do mathematical problems in your head)
  8. See the beauty (remember: it's a vision quest)
  9. Believe that you will succeed (develop a deep conviction that you'll live)
  10. Surrender (let go of your fear of dying: "put away the pain")
  11. Do whatever is necessary (be determined; have the will and the skill)
  12. Never give up (let nothing break your spirit)

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