REVIEW – CROCODILES AND ICE:
A JOURNEY INTO DEEP WILD
Reviewed by Christy Barnes Mackintosh
In Crocodiles and Ice, acclaimed adventure writer Jon Turk ventures deep into the wilderness of Ellesmere Island and recounts memories of journeys past. Far beyond the adventure tales, however, the author endeavours to speak to the reader’s heart and mind. One reviewer grapples with her own connection to Nature, to the author himself, and his quest for a more peaceful, sustainable planet.
As a long-time mountain dweller, I can’t go more than a couple of days without playing outside before I start to feel unwell. Fatigued. Anxious about the state of the world and how we all seem to be living and working longer, harder, and faster so we can buy more stuff we don’t need and go on trips we can’t afford – all to get away from the painful truths of our everyday lives. Most of us in Canada enjoy an unprecedented abundance of First World material comforts, but we are damaging the planet. The world is deeply divided. And we are afraid of change, because we assume it means things are getting worse, and not better. We are either rushing madly, or we are stuck.
And yet, venturing out into Nature for even a few hours brings relief. We reconnect to our own breath, our heartbeat, the rhythms of the Earth. We look, listen, observe. We connect to something beyond what author Jon Turk refers to as “our think-too-much-know-it-all brains.” And, he argues, that something, uniquely encountered in Nature, will lead us to the ecstasy and the answers we seek.
Jon Turk is an author and environmental science writer with a PhD in organic chemistry and a passion for extreme outdoor adventure. He is also a mountain man who, when not travelling, divides his time between Fernie, B.C., and Darby, Montana, where he lives with his partner, Nina.
I met Jon back in 2006 when we were both participants in the Banff Mountain Writing Program. A bit of a codger with fungus growing in his toenails from too many hours spent kayaking, he was working on The Raven’s Gift (2010), struggling to reconcile his knowledge as a scientist with his experience of being healed by a Koryak shaman named Moolynaut, whom he had encountered during a journey through the Siberian wilderness. I was many years his junior and six months pregnant with my second child, an emotional eater wrestling with the strange disconnect from wilderness that I had experienced when I birthed my first child in 2003. At the time, it certainly appeared that we had little in common.
Ten years later, I jumped at the opportunity to review Jon’s latest book, Crocodiles and Ice (2016). Why? Because in spite of our disparate journeys, I can see now that we are both grappling with the same need for a new (or is it old?) way of being in the world. Jon’s writing joins the Zeitgeistian chorus calling for a Spiritual/Consciousness Revolution towards a more peaceful, more sustainable world – a world founded on compassion and respect for others and a deep connection to wilderness. And Jon has gone deep into that wilderness.
Crocodiles and Ice is a travel book that (in Jon’s own words) romanticizes “exotic adventures in remote lands.” Yes, this is a book by a 70-year-old, Ivy league- educated white guy who “dropped out of Religion, career, and a couple of marriages”, who sets out on a circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island with his skins on backwards and embarks on a long-haul kayak trip without a GPS.
Clearly, Jon is a romantic, believing that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. His self-deprecating storytelling rescues the narrative from becoming your stereotypical, chest-thumping, male adventure narrative:
“There are a zillion other ways to make this journey of discovery,” he writes. You can “stay home and grow a garden.” You can make art. “My friend Eloise once told me, with a playful smile, that I am seeking what many others seek, only I make a big deal about it, and then hit myself over the head with a heavy stick. Fair enough. I’m just using the tools I know how to use.” (Jon’s advice to me during the Mountain Writing program was, in fact, that I should take my struggling manuscript and “beat it with a stick.”)
His agenda is Romanticism defined: a longing for what is missing and an attempt to supply it to his readers.
“My argument is that we’ve reached a cosmic paradox: For our civilization to continue in a smooth, uninterrupted fashion, we must cheerfully reduce our physical opulence and embrace vulnerability to assure security. Joy. Contentment. Wholeness. That is what Tundra, and Wolf, and our little contrived modern adventure can tell us.”
I dare say that Jon writes much like he adventures: setting out with his skins on backwards; following random invitations for exploration; speaking out of turn about things he knows nothing about, then relying on ritual or instinct to get himself safely to shore (or out of a Turkish prison); paying such close attention to his surroundings that he becomes a part of those surroundings, patiently and miraculously finding a way forward.
Crocodiles and Ice bounces around geographically and temporally so much that it’s disorienting. I found myself craving a map and wanting to construct a timeline to ground myself in the narrative.
In the first chapter alone, we travel from the Solomon Islands in 2009, back to the Siberian wilderness in 2000, back to the United States in 1964, then on to a kibbutz in Israel, across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, and on to a terrifying hitchhiking trip across the Middle East. Then we’re off on a trial-by-ice circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island. Then on to China, Tibet, the Dalai Llama, the Spiritual Revolution, Noble Poverty, random adventure, and nomadic bicycle life. And finally, we end up in the urban world of culture, academia, social work and fine arts. Along the way, we encounter a truly memorable cast of characters: crocodiles and crocodile ancestors, a raven and a Koryak shaman, Turkish tour guides and prison guards, Boomer (Jon’s much younger, much faster ice-floe co-navigator), a lone wolf, the Politician, Ma Lu Bin (a friend and former propagandist for Chairman Mao turned bicycle nomad), and even a dance company called Weber Dance.
But hey, Jon can navigate the ocean by kayak without a GPS. Perhaps a romp through the pages of his book ought to provide a similar challenge? It only became clear to me, as I worried my way through figuring out how to review such a book that the only way to truly appreciate it is, as its author repeatedly says, to let go of your “think-too-much-know-it-all brain” and just feel your way through, seeking out moments of ecstasy all along the way.
A “slippery and elusive” journey makes for slippery and elusive writing at times. It is a challenge to write about ecstasy in a way that a reader can experience it with you. Jon does more telling than I would like at times, and less showing.
But, oh, there are gems.
We mountain dwellers all crave and know what it feels like to be “in flow” with Nature. And we all know what it feels like to be humbled by it.
“No, we weren’t going to “get tougher” than the Arctic icepack, squeezed together between Ellesmere and Greenland,” Jon writes. “No, it doesn’t work that way. It’s a dangerous lesson to teach our children.”
Instead, he asserts, “Let’s try, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough drink tea.’ Doesn’t that sit more comfortably in the pit of your stomach? Sit down. Observe. Relax. Embrace and enjoy your vulnerability.”
Isn’t this what we all want? What we all crave, and need?
Reading, and appreciating a book like this takes patience, and time – lost arts in today’s fast-paced, ultra-competitive world where we often find ourselves glued to our computer screens.
In the end, it was an adventure, and a conversation, I’m glad I took on. Because as Jon himself says, “I do believe that if you hang out patiently long enough, with low expectations and a smile on your face, more often than not journeys will take you to where you thought you might have wanted to go in the first place. Or maybe they will take you to a place, equally wondrous, that you never even dreamed you wanted to go to.”
Christy Barnes Mackintosh is happiest when playing outside in nature. She is celebrating her 22nd year of “playing Life” in Banff.