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Disappearing, Getting Lost, Getting Found

I recently re-read Sheila Nickerson’s Disappearance: A Map: a meditation on death and loss in the high latitudes, which is place-based in Alaska in an extraordinary way, as might be expected from our former poet laureate. It’s not really Alaska science lit, but it reminded me about another book, Deep Survival: who lives, who dies, and why, by Laurence Gonzales, which is probably non-Alaska science lit, but contains the neurological explanations about why we behave the way we do that fascinates me. The two books, taken together, provide a complex meditation on the phenomenon of people getting lost while on adventures and journeys. Disappearance provides the perspective  of the people left behind when someone vanishes, and Deep Survival provides the perspective of what makes the difference in terms of getting lost and surviving to return. Both are also fantastic examples of the weaving of subject matter and personal meaning.

The first chapter in Disappearance, “Lost” begins with “I live in a place where people disappear. Alaska. Too big to comprehend.” Nickerson’s narrator asks “What is it to disappear? . . . What is it to map disappearance?” She weaves together stories of many people who have disappeared – beginning with a colleague of hers at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, followed by Arctic explorers, pilots, boat captains and their crews, hikers, and even a hapless tourist fresh off a cruise ship in Juneau. She follows the searches that come after the disappearance as the stories in the newspaper moves further away from the front page and the effects of the disappearances on the people who continue to search. She embeds these individual stories in a broader history of Alaska, in which resources disappear, and the disappearance of less tangible things such as Alaska Native languages and culture.

She is preparing, throughout the book, to retire from her job and move from Juneau to live on a sail boat in the Caribbean. The book begins in May, “almost spring, but still a time of potentially cruel weather,” to November,  as she sheds  not only the tangibles like the contents of her office, possessions from her home, and files and books related to her successful writing career, but also the intangibles of title and professional identity. At the same time, she is observing the weather and the seasonal changes happening around her closely on a daily basis.

At a deeper level, the book is also a spiritual memoir of her inward journey of searching. “All my adult life,” she says early in the book, “I have searched for spiritual truth.” She likens the ending of the spiritual path to a type of disappearance, one she never professes to have reached over the course of the book. (“The place called disappearance can’t be mapped, because nothing there is separate, lost, or less.”) She also connects her personal search for spirituality to the traditional spirituality of Alaska Natives which suffered from the disappearance of shamans. Finally, she examines the purpose of words and writing in their ability to journey towards transcendence, on the one hand, and keeping the disappeared people alive, on the other. (“A powerful written record can keep a lost person alive.  But not everything gets said and not everything gets said correctly. “)

Gonzalez’s narrator begins with the “fantastic” story he heard throughout his childhood of his father’s survival during WWII. His father’s plane was shot down at 27,000 feet, and he rode the plane down to the ground, breaking most of his bones in the process. When he came to, a German was pointing a gun at him, pulling the trigger. The gun failed to fire. He recovered while a prisoner of war under horrific  conditions. “That he had lived while so many others had died seemed to me to have so much meaning. . . His survival made me believe that he had some special, ineffable quality.” The narrator reflects on his life of life of looking for his “own brand of peril,” and his years of research about brain function to plumb the psychology of risk taking and survival. The principles he discovered applied to the dilemma of wilderness survival he began with, but in the end, he realizes they apply to “any stressful, demanding situation, such as getting a divorce, losing a job, surviving illness, recovering from an injury, or running a business in a rapidly changing world. . . The maddening thing for someone with a Western scientific turn of mind is that it’s not what’s in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It’s not even what’s in your mind. Corny as it sounds, it’s what’s in your heart.”

The narrator in Deep Survival tells stories and analyzes a variety of situations – landing planes on an aircraft carrier, snow machine accidents, climbing accidents, lost hikers, plane wrecks on the sides of mountains, sailboats lost at sea – and distils some lessons about what works and what doesn’t for survival and, to some extent, why from a neurological point of view.

He describes the two systems in the human brain: the “emotional” amygdala that detects danger and girds the body for response and the “rational” prefrontal cortex that responds to training and creates the future plan. (These are the same two at the heart of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman). The problem comes when the real future doesn’t match the plan.

One chapter is titled “Bending the Map,” the term used in orienteering for trying to make the map fit where you really see that you are rather than admitting you are lost. The hippocampus, with its “place cells,” is the part of the human brain where mental maps of the environment are constantly created  in concert with your proprioceptive system that maps where all the parts of your body are at all times. As you move and navigate the world, you are constantly remapping it. But the sense of moving to a destination, a goal, is emotionally motivated and can override the mis-match between the world you’re experiencing and your mental map.

I’ve had the experience of using an aerial photograph with a group of people to find a landmark to start a wildlife survey and spending three hours arguing about where we were on the photo. It turned out we weren’t even “on the map,” within the boundaries of the photo yet we all argued about where in the photo we were standing. We had done just as the narrator predicted – struggled to make our mental maps and the world conform, with a growing sense of urgency that would eventually signal a full-blown emergency.

Deep Survival is full of interpretations of brain science, like “bending the map,” that ring true with my own experiences. Nickerson’s question “What does it mean to disappear?” is answered by Gonzalez from the point of view of the lost human, first in the neural mechanisms the amygdala that can no longer match the mental map to the world and the alarm-signaling, emotional hippocampus, then in descriptions of how it feels: “the creepy feeling that knowing that you are nowhere,” “All you know is that you are going mad (For what else is insanity but a failure to match self and world?)” “To be seen is to be real. . . Part of the terror of being lost stems from the idea of never being seen again.”

The narration in Deep Survival grounds the science and inquiry into the personal meaning of one man’s quest to understand what remains fundamentally not reducible to the functioning of parts of the brain. “Survival,” Gonzalez concludes “is nothing more than an ordinary life well lived in extreme circumstances. . . not being lost is not a matter of getting back to where you started from; it is a decision not to be lost wherever you find yourself. It’s simply saying, ‘I’m not lost. I’m right here.’ Nickerson’s multi-leveled narration in Disappearance circles around and around the unique human knowledge of death and the understanding of transience that attends the search for a spiritual destination and its truth, like a Pole that is constantly discovered and constantly lost, reappearing and disappearing.

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