The Wilderness in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain, and Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild
Journeys into the wilderness test far more than the physical boundaries of the human traveler. Twentieth century wilderness authors move beyond the traditional travel-tour approach where nature is an external diversion from everyday life. Instead, nature becomes a catalyst for knowing our internal wilderness and our universal connections to all living things. In Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain, and Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, “nature” mirrors each narrator: what the narrators ultimately discover in the wilderness reflects what needs they bring to it. Their points of view, expectations, and awareness all determine their experiences of the wild and “self.” Ultimately, however, each work reveals that the experience of nature need not be restricted only to “self-discovery,” but may well expand to an understanding of the spiritual “family self.”
Atwood’s psychological novel describes the return journey by its narrator from a self-centered, urban existence to the Canadian wilderness of her youth, where she finds the meaning of family and her role in it. Though not overtly psychological, Mary Austin’s intense devotion to the life and people of her desert community suggests these have become replacements for her own, unsuccessful attempts at conventional family life. Finally, Gary Snyder’s kinship with nature exemplifies a life integrated in all aspects—a union that merges the practical, psychological, and spiritual into what may be called the “cosmic” family.
Birth of Family
Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing describes the heroine/narrator’s physical and emotional journey in search of her lost father along the remote Canadian lake of her childhood. There in the wilderness, she is forced to look deeply into her life. Like the fish totem which she adopts as her “protecting spirit,” she dives deep into her childhood, resurfaces to confront her lost womanhood, dives into the face of death, then resurfaces finally into life.
In response to unresolved childhood conflicts, the heroine uses both flights of imagination and physical distance to escape an alienated family existence. Abandoning all but a surface relationship with her parents, she moves to the city, where she also refuses—or fails to find—herself a place in “family” at any level. Emotional instability causes her to translate a failed love relationship and an abortion into a made-up husband and child, both of whom she then claims to have abandoned to pursue a career. As she searches for her father and clues to his disappearance, she experiences disconnection from her real past and real emotions: “I realized I didn’t feel much of anything. I hadn’t for a long time. Perhaps I’d been like that all my life, just as some babies are born deaf or without a sense of touch” (123-24).