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A Primal Will

November 3rd, 2005 · Written by · No Comments

On the fifth day he realized his only hope of escape was to amputate his own arm

The human body is a marvel of perfectly synchronized chemical reactions choreographed to perform optimally in a relatively narrow range of external conditions. While it is possible for the human organism to adapt to environmental stresses, it doesn’t take much for its symphony of physiology to collapse into chaotic discord. When deprived of water, food, or oxygen these processes begin to break down. If internal body temperature varies by more than four degrees, malfunction is imminent. Despite this fragility, when put to the test the body can prove to be extraordinarily resilient. Upon sensing a threat to survival, higher cognitive functions controlling precariously defined notions of ethics and social acceptability shut down allowing primal and instinctual reactions to take control. When death seems unavoidable, humans are often driven to commit acts of desperation typically deemed impossible or reprehensible. Sometimes these acts are just enough to keep them alive.

Sacrificing a part for the whole

Aaron Ralston set out in the spring of 2003 for a day hike through a remote canyon in Utah. While attempting to slide through a three-foot-wide slit between rock walls, he accidentally shifted an 800-pound boulder and pinned his hand beneath it. He explored all his options to no avail: waiting for help, trying to chip away at the rock with his utility knife, and rigging a pulley system with his climbing rope to move the boulder. Nothing worked. By the third day Ralston was out of food and water, drinking his own urine, and growing delusional from lack of sleep. Finally, on the fifth day he realized his only hope of escape was to amputate his own arm. Although his pocketknife was too dull to cut through bone, by levering his arm he snapped both forearm bones above the wrist. Then he applied a tourniquet and spent an hour hacking through his damaged appendage. After freeing himself, Ralston descended a 60-foot cliff and walked six miles down the canyon before being rescued. The realization of certain death allowed Aaron to overcome mental aversions to sacrifice a piece of his body to preserve the whole.

Others have faced this challenge on a more mental level, having to transform themselves into vicious killers in order to obtain nourishment. On the sixth night of a solo Atlantic crossing, Steve Callahan’s 21-foot sailboat crashed into a whale. The craft sank, leaving him stranded on a life raft in the middle of the ocean with no hope of land fall for 1,800 miles. Thanks to a solar still and fishing gear Callahan was able to survive, but not without sacrificing some semblance of his sanity. After finally impaling a fish with his spear gun, he brought it aboard and struggled to keep the flailing creature from puncturing his raft. He stabbed it in the eye, and finally cracked its spine before it stilled. When his instincts subsided, Callahan was overcome with guilt when he saw he had ruthlessly killed a fellow mammal — a dolphin. He had to disregard personal qualms and eat the animal raw in order to live.

Overcoming Aversions

In a life or death situation it sometimes becomes necessary to violate even the most fundamental cultural taboos. For someone facing starvation, eating a dead human body is no longer an act of perversion but a demonstration of desperation. This was the case in 1972 when a plane of Uruguayan rugby players crashed in the Andes. Surrounded by the frozen corpses of their former teammates, they were stranded for two months in barren terrain with no food. After intense deliberations they brought themselves to eat the dead bodies of past friends, giving them the strength to travel to lower altitudes where they were rescued.

What starts with eating the dead can quickly override other moral tendencies as well. This type of degradation occurred among some of the members of the infamous Donner Party — the settlers in an 1847 wagon train headed for California but stranded by an early winter in the Sierra Nevadas. The first settlers to die were buried, only to be dug up and eaten once food became scarce. As the situation escalated those who died were eaten immediately. Soon, primal behavior was unleashed as some members found themselves killing and eating the weakest among them.

The possibility of cannibalism was once an accepted aspect of mariner life.

The possibility of cannibalism was once an accepted aspect of mariner life. There was no written code, but sailors knew a shipwreck might mean people would die so others could live. The dying and wounded would be devoured first, followed by sailors selected through the drawing of straws. The first round would decide who the meal would be, and the second would designate a butcher. Sometimes the drawing of straws was feigned, as in the case of the sinking of the Mignonette in 1884. The 50-foot yacht sailing from England sank in a South Atlantic storm. After 18 days lost at sea a younger crew member drank seawater and became delirious; the others decided he wouldn’t survive and made a sham of drawing straws. They killed and ate him, and after being rescued three days later were charged with murder.

An Iron Will

While many are lucky enough not to have to resort to cannibalism, they still must face extreme conditions and come out on top if they want to live. An intense amount of determination is required in all high intensity situations. A century ago, a prospector named Pablo Valencia survived an unthinkable eight days lost in the Mojave Desert with only one day’s supply of water. After being stranded by his guide and running out of water, Valencia was sure that he had been left to die and swore vengeance. His desire to find and kill his guide was the only thing that kept him going. He stripped off his clothes and wandered through the desert naked with only urine to drink. He avoided traveling during the hottest parts of the day, and ate a few flies, spiders, and one scorpion. By the time he found the director of the Saint Louis Museum, W.J. McGee, camped by a waterhole he was near-death. “His formerly full-muscled legs and arms were shrunken and scrawny; his ribs ridged out like those of a starving horse; his abdomen was drawn in almost against his vertebral column… His eyes were set in a winkless stare… His lips had disappeared” so that “his teeth and gums projected like those of a skinned animal, but his flesh was black and dry as jerky…” related McGee. It took three days of care for Valencia to regain the ability to speak. Although he had virtually no knowledge of desert survival skills Pablo Valencia’s will led him through his ordeal.

It is no mystery that positive thinking promotes health. A will to live calls forth powerful forces which speed up healing and allow bodies to withstand environmental stresses which would normally be fatal. Whether due to a placebo, religion, desperate circumstances, or sheer determination — the result is the same. When pushed to the limits of endurance, human beings — especially those used to the cushion of modern civilization — don’t always persevere. Nonetheless, we may find the latent instincts to survive lay dormant until we are forced to pit ourselves against unimaginable odds. Today, our species is facing some of the biggest threats to our survival in evolutionary history. Global warming, nuclear war, and large-scale ecological destruction haunt our every step. It is time to disregard faulty cultural conditioning that has grown antithetical to our very livelihood and overcome this challenge with all the resourcefulness and instinct we can muster.

Tags: Essays · Nonfiction · ·

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