Review of One
Manís Wilderness, by Sam Keith and Richard Proenneke
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/1/05
A while back
I turned on my tv to PBS and was entranced by a documentary called Alone In
The Wilderness, which followed a man named Richard L. ĎDickí Proenneke
on an odyssey of his to tough it out virtually alone in the Alaskan wilderness.
The film was based upon the read journal entries of Dick, along with footage
shot by the man over the course of several years. In Googling the name I found
that the film was based upon a classic book that came out in 1973 called One
Like the film it was fascinating, as Dick is not a professional writer, yet, virtually every page is chock with witticisms and gems that are heightened by the directness of what comes before. Such as this, from page 39, May 29th:
Ö.I whirled it a few times, gave it a toss, and watched the stone
sinker zip the slack line from the beach and land with a plop about fifty feet
from the shore. Letís see what is prowling the bottom these days.
It was raining slightly when I turned in. thereís no sleeping pill like a good dayís work.
That last sentence utterly lifts the segment up from the diurnal banalities. The book is loaded with them, such as this, from page 117, September 25th:
Ö.Seven miles later, on the upper end of the lake, I found the same
disregard for the purity of the wilderness. I did my best to erase the ugly
scars the visitors had left in their wake.
Must have traveled close to twenty miles today, but it was something I felt I must do. It was payment for the useful items I found.
Not to go off
in to airies over the wonderful philosophy of the man, but this comes at the end
of a rather rote description of another day, and that last sentence nails the
Now, a question comes into play whether these are the unvarnished musing of Dick Proenneke, or his co-author Sam Keith, a professional writer. On that point I do not know, and both Proenneke and Keith, it seems are now dead, although the book is cover credited as By Sam Keith from the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke. So, whether that means Keith merely edited, because Dickís journalings are not daily, but selective, or he added his own wit and wisdom to the entries, may never be known. Regardless, it does little to argue against the many brilliant reflections.
The 1973 book was a bestseller, and the 1999 updated edition I have is now also a perennial good seller. Basically, Dick spent many years after World War 2 (he was born in 1917) working various jobs in Alaska. After too many 50 hour work weeks, and years of saving enough up to go off, Dick finally does, to a place called Twin Lakes, in the southwestern part of Alaska. He first found this area with a pilot pal of his named Babe, and come the late 1960s he just chucks it all, and finds a suitable spot along one of the lakes, then plots and builds his log cabin all by himself, while staying in another friendís cabin. He does, and his descriptions of the land and wildlife are marvelous, as shown above.
After over a year by himself, he leaves his home, and spends the next thirty or so years between it and his life elsewhere. His philosophy dictates that he leave his cabin with an Ďopen doorí policy, so that other wayfarers find comfort. What a wholly un-Modern sentiment, yet wholly human, in the best sense. This book has a remarkable ability to grip into a reader, and should be read over the years- especially his remarkable ending called Reflections, which itself ends:
Iíve seen a lot of sights from this old spruce chunk, and have thought
a lot of thoughts. the more I think about it the better off I think I am. The
crime rate up here is close to zero. I forget what it is like to be sick or to
have a cold. I donít have bills coming in every month to pay for things I
donít really need. My legs and canoe provide my transportation. They take me
as far as I care to go.
To see game you must move a little and look a lot. What first appears to be a branch turns into that big caribou bull up there on the benches- I wonder what he thinks about? Is his brain just a blank as he lies there blinking in the sun and chewing his cud? I wonder if he feels as I do, that this small part of the world is enough to think about?
Man, woman, adult, childÖ.all can get something from this marvelous book, and the adventures of Dick Proenneke- the great and mythic ones, as well the small moments that flute to his soul. He is a stylist in his non-style, but oh, what a lack! The world needs more of him, although Iím afraid he may be gone for good. If so, this book is all the more valuable, a bit of the past that amber clarifies, like an ancient insect whose limbs still seem ready to scuttle across the floors of bygone forests, and new forests which bloom of his kindís passing.
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