If, as they say, the past is another country–I know one of the ways to get there…
Every year, my friends and I do something we call ‘The Trek.’ We pack up our historical kit from one of our time periods, pack as light as we can manage, and head off into the wilderness.
Wilderness is a complex word, full of associations,and people tend to toss it about, so I’ll be more specific: this Friday, with fourteen friends, I’m going to go seven miles from any road or path, to the place in the picture and perhaps beyond, over one more ridge and into our own ‘undiscovered country.’ It is an area so wild that the number of people who have ever been there can probably be counted on your fingers and toes–at least, that’s how many have been there int he last century or so.
To add a level of challenge, we’ll all go in mid-18th century kit, which,a s I’ve said elsewhere, is beautifully adapted to the North American wild. We’ll carry all our food==beef and greens, corned beef, bacon, pork, rice. split peas. The British Army ration of the day. And rum. Don’t forget rum. My historian friend Douglas Cubbison has suggested that the three essential military food groups are sugar, alcohol and tobacco, and that armies can do wonders when fully supplied with all three, and I confess I agree. At any rate–we’ll go for a week. It’ll rain, and we’ll be very wet. It’ll get cold and we’ll be cold. It will get hot and we’ll be hot. No nylon, no gortex. What nature dishes out, you get to take.
I write about the past–in history and fantasy. One of the blinding realizations of my early writing (maybe not blinding to you, fair reader) was that, for those who’ve never known bug nets and deet and gortex, the past wasn’t ‘uncomfortable.’ People simply endured. That was life, so to speak. And by spending a week or more ‘in their skin’ I get a sense of a different rhythm, a different world, really–a world where the weather matters more than anything except the quantity of food; where one sip of rum is more wonderful than a whole liquor cabinet at home; where the quiet conversation of friends or the loud singing of songs is all the ‘entertainment’ there is, and it is wonderful.
If the past is truly another country, I like to think I can go there via the wilderness, and I get to go there once or twice a year. This is a depth of immersion that no reenactment can give. I think it makes me a better writer–in every way, from observing people under stress (and in a state of joy) to the sheer practical knowledge of how to live (not fight, but live) in period kit. Reenacting is, by comparison, both easy, and less informative.
Of course, in my Traitor Son series, the Wild is a character. I see it that way–perhaps a little too Jack London of me, but the Wild has voices and feelings and moods and sometimes seems to react to our presence. I don’t being there as ‘survival’ or as a test of manliness but more as complex web of relationships–being tough seldom gets anyone fed, and it’s far more fun to swim and be clean then complain and be dirty. It is the same wilderness that inspired James Fenimore Cooper, and while few people read Cooper anymore, I grew up reading him by the light of campfires in these same endless woods.
At any rate, I’m on page 675 of Traitor Son 3. I’ve enjoyed writing it immensely and it is almost complete. I’ll polish it after I go back to the well, so to speak. After I visit the Wild one more time, and see what it has to tell me. It is, really, another country.
You should come sometime…