Caution: Spoilers Ahead!
I am so glad my blogodoppelgänger recommended Into the Forest by Jean Hegland because it was a very appropriate read for me at this time. It is a story about two orphaned sisters, Nell and Eva, struggling to survive in rural Northern California after the complete collapse of modern society. The chapter-less book is presented as the journal of the more bookish of the sisters, Nell.
Much of the first half of the book consists of discontinuous flashbacks explaining who they are and the situation they are in: how they were preparing to start their careers, Nell at Harvard, Eva at the San Francisco Ballet; how they lost their mother (before the crash) and then their father (after the crash); and how their world gradually and mysteriously unravelled around them. This was the hardest part of the book to read because although the story is fictional, the general scenario is likely to become real in the next few decades and the thought of hundreds of millions of real people suffering in this way is hard to take.
However, one basic premise of this story, that the people had no idea what was going on and assumed it was a temporary glitch, was not believable. I have to remind myself that the book was published nearly 10 years ago, when “peak oil” wouldn’t have meant anything to most people, but it still seems far fetched that in an age of 24-hour cable news and the internet (not to mention that old stand-by, short wave radio) that people would have been completely in the dark about the scope of the disaster, and thus unable to prepare. Over and over again the characters talk about “when it’s over” and waiting for “things to get started again.” I didn’t buy it, and I think it would have been much more interesting for the characters to have known what was going on and reacted according to their natures. The only purpose I can see for their ignorance (and later denial) is that it delayed the end result, leaving room for the story to unfold.
The second half of the book is when the healing begins. The girls snap out of their inertia brought on by their multiple losses and start to take their survival into their own hands. This starts off in the domestic realm, the garden, but eventually moves out “into the forest” that they had never known before. This is where it gets fun for me, as a plant and survival enthusiast. Nell, with her mother’s copy of “Native Plants of Northern California” begins to acquaint herself with her surroundings and discovers that while they had been rationing tea and sugar in minuscule amounts, they were surrounded by sweet berries and delicious (as well as medicinal) wild teas. They discover that acorns are a plentiful and easily accessible source of food, and Nell also goes through the ritual of her first hunt. There are also internal changes. Nell’s wild and unrequited yearning for connection is fulfilled by Nature when she finally leaves the house (after a quarrel) to live in the forest.
I … dream I am buried in the earth up to my neck, my arms and legs like taproots tapering to a web of finer roots until at last there is no clear demarcation between those root hairs and the soil itself. As I look out over the earth, my skull expands as though I were absorbing the aboveground world and the sky itself through my eye sockets. My head grows until it is a shell encompassing the whole of the earth. I wake softly, with a sense of infinite calm.
Her sister Eve soon joins her, after realizing that she will never be safe in their house with desperate, vicious men prowling around. “Our real lives are out there,” says Eva, and together they set fire to their house, using their ’emergency’ can of gasoline, and they “enter the forest for good.”
I was delighted with how this book turned out. The first half literally gave me a stomach ache, but the second half makes me want to run out into the forest and just hang out with my photosynthesizing friends. What I love about this book is that it portrays life in Nature as being superior to the modern, fossil-fuel lifestyle. Nell and Eva would not go back, even if the power came back on and society got put back in order. Wilderness survival is a better way to live, according to those who have lived it in reality, and the forest-dwelling author is obviously well aware of this. I hope other readers will not take that as part of the fiction of the book. It’s true, as true as the fact that we will also be losing our technological lifestyles as Nell and Eva did. We all have a tremendous advantage over these characters, however, and that is foresight and time to prepare. The key is not to fear the losses, but to welcome the gains.
And if you’re not convinced that wilderness living beats suburbia, let me recommend “The Tracker” by Tom Brown Jr. which describes his own real life journey ‘into the forest.’