Monday, November 14, 2011

Diary of a Wilderness Dweller by Chris Czajkowski

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 207 pages
• Publisher: Harbour Pub Co, 2006
• Price: $19.95
• ISBN-10: 155017357X
• ISBN-13: 978-1550173574

When people read and heard about what Chris Czajkowski, a woman in her early 40s, had achieved in the wilderness, they exclaimed: How brave! How courageous! Ridiculous, Czajkowski would respond. To her understanding, she had achieved nothing more than many of us might, had we the mind to do so. “Skills will always find a way of arriving, it is the attitude that is important,” she writes in Diary of a Wilderness Dweller. “If you think you can do something, it will happen.” (Page 170)

What Czajkowski especially shook off were the comments that began with “especially for a woman.” And that is the end of that discussion. She’ll have none of it.

Yet what Czajkowski describes in her book, one of a series she has written about making her life in the northern wilderness (British Columbia, Canada) befits the unrealized dreams of many. She has left “civilized” society far in the distance, making her way into the mountains and woods, where she builds not one, but two log cabins entirely on her own.

For those who have been drawn to the books of Anne LaBastille, another woman who lived in a log cabin in the Adirondacks, I would say that Czajkowski’s are far superior. LaBastille had help building her cabin, and her books veer into personal essays on self-publishing rather than wilderness living. Czajkowski truly is a solitary traveler into the woods, and she stays entirely on task.

Then again, when I crave literary beauty in nature writing, I reach for Annie Dillard. Czajkowski certainly has her moments of artful and literary description, but her tone is mostly one of telling how to get the work done, what obstacles get in the way, how she endures and overcomes them. At times, that made me as a reader feel like I didn’t really know the writer of the diary as a person, even as I knew the world around her in detail.

Czajkowski begins her adventure with a moment of considering her “madness.” She has left her truck at the end of a logging road twenty miles away. She has hiked through unmarked forest and over a mountain to a piece of land beside an unnamed lake. She is going to build a log cabin very nearly with her bare hands, using just a few tools she has carried in or that a small airplane later delivers on the lake. So is she crazy? By end of the book, in retrospect, she writes that this adventure may have seemed mad and risked all, but had she not done it, she would have missed … everything. This is the kind of living that gives her life its value and its meaning.

Much can be explained by her musings midway through the book (pages 88 and 89): “People are always asking me why I live the way I do … I am not ‘sacrificing’ the outside world … I do have the enormous satisfaction of choosing what I want from it. The material things like television and washing machines, which most people take for granted and which, for some perverse reason, are used to measure our ‘standard of living,’ have never been as important to me as my surroundings.”

She explains that it is not that she is so very unsocial—she likes people and eventually creates a business out of her wilderness living by guiding wilderness tours—and she is not averse to tapping into some convenience if it is readily available, but when it is not, and she has the wilderness in trade, that is what she chooses.

“The words ‘remote’ and ‘isolated’ to describe my way of life are city conceits. ‘Remote’ means ‘apart from’ and I am indeed apart from the city and other people. But I am very close to nature and the way the world functions; in this respect it is city folk who are remote.” (Page 89)

Silence is one of her draws. She relishes the sounds of nature rather than the sounds of civilization, and muses that most people never experience it in the cacophony of machinery, automobiles, industry, stereos and conversation.

All ways and styles of life, Czajkowski writes, have their price to pay. Whatever one chooses is to choose against something else, and so we must choose what it is that we value and what we are willing to do without. Although at times she is “terrified” of her choices, facing extreme weather, predatory wildlife and other challenges and obstacles, she overcomes her fear to obtain a life that she can value.

In addition to writing her story, Czajkowski is also a visual artist, and her diary entries are here and there enhanced by skillful drawings. On art, she writes: “We live in what must be the only society in the world to separate art from life and condemn it as an unnecessary frill or, even worse, a hobby.” Yet everyone is an artist, she insists, and we shouldn’t try to subdue that natural part of ourselves. We use our sense of art when we decorate our homes or choose what clothes to wear. Why not relish our creativity and give it full rein?

Even if the author eschews it, the reader can’t help but admire her tenacity and skill at making do with what she has around her. She not only fells tall trees for the logs to construct her cabins, but hauls them over great distance, cuts them into boards for her floors, and fashions all parts of her cabins from them. She installs a reconstructed stove for cooking and heating, moving that, too, over long trails by herself. She hikes many miles through the most blustery cold and survives the night in spite of only partial shelter and one very curious and powerful bear. I wouldn’t say “even for a woman” when I read this diary—I would instead say “what a woman!” in respect for her willingness to follow her wilderness dream.