Can You Survive? Keep Breathing

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for stories of survival. It could be an individual on an island, like Robinson Crusoe, or Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away, or a group of survivors on an island, like in Lost. It’s all good.

I was even lured in by a new six-part Netflix drama, Keep Breathing, where Melissa Barrera’s New York lawyer Liv Rivera is stranded in the Canadian wilderness, which is like an island inverted: instead of the usual sharply defined limits, she’s stuck in a kind of boundless Eden.

Is it a spoiler to say that Liv makes it? Of course she does. Who would want to watch one of these extended things if the main character dies? Crusoe is rescued after 28 years; Hanks loses a tooth but gets rescued; even most of the Lost characters are rescued (although they do return to the island — whoops, their bad). Plus, the trailer practically promises as much. Get over it.

If Barrera looks familiar, it might be that you saw her as Vanessa in the film version of the musical In the Heights. As a veteran of Mexican telenovelas, this series, with its melodramatic flashbacks and tropes, plays well to her acting experience.

And it’s full of tropes. There’s the bear-in-camp trope. There’s even the trapped-beneath-rock-cave-in trope that every show from Lassie to the Hardy Boys to Lost in Space has probably used at least once, maybe multiple times.

Something to expect early on in any survival story is the wreck that gets things started. These scenes can be terrifying to watch, particularly on the big screen. When the sinking FedEx plane exploded in Cast Away, I think I just about jumped out of my theater seat. And then there’s Lost (brace yourself at about the 0:15 mark in this series trailer):

The crash in Keep Breathing is pretty harrowing too. It’s small scale, with a single-engine plane going down into the tranquil water of a smallish lake. But because it’s so intimate, it’s easier to imagine just how frightening and traumatic this experience would be, even if you walked (or swam) away from it largely unscathed.

Three centuries ago, Daniel Defoe was laying the groundwork for this trope. Crusoe’s ship having foundered in a storm, the crew took to a small boat, which was itself overturned. Here’s his description:

Nothing can describe the Counfusion of Thought which I felt when I sunk into the Water; for tho’ I swam very well, yet I could not deliver my self from the Waves so as to draw Breath…

Sounds very cinematic. Cue howling winds and crashing water, punctuated by occasional sucking gasps from the lone survivor.

Survivors almost always find something that washes up on the beach in the next day or so. Liv finds what appears to be a sonogram that she had with her (I know, what are the odds, right?). Hanks buries, gulp, the body of the FedEx plane’s pilot. Only in Lost do they have a big chunk of the plane and all its stuff parked right there on the beach (I know, what are the odds, right?).

Once again, Defoe was there first. Here’s Crusoe on his missing shipmates:

I never saw them afterwards, or any Sign of them, except three of their Hats, one Cap, and two Shoes that were not Fellows.

I like the title, Keep Breathing, since this has several meanings for the series. Obviously, it means don’t drown (plane, water), as well as do whatever you can to stay alive, but it’s also a rather humorous reference to the relaxation tapes Liv listens to, which are always going on about breathing. Well done. (Lost is a pretty good title too. Those folks were way beyond just lost.)

One of the issues when you have a solo survivor is how to keep the drama going. Do they talk to themselves or what? Defoe eventually introduced Friday, and at last Crusoe had someone to interact with. Tom Hanks puts a face on a volleyball and calls it Wilson to have someone to talk to. In Keep Breathing, Liv talks to the dead (guy from the plane, her father), the long absent (her mother), and the colleague/boyfriend.

This works pretty well. After all, it’s common cinematic fare: talking to someone who isn’t really there is a stand-in for introspection or decision-making, which is hard to depict visually. In a novel, you might use a different convention, one that’s probably no less phony (“She wondered what Douglas would say if he could see her in such trying circumstances…”).

However, I sometimes found these imaginary conversations to be a little distracting, as they made me think of the wonderful, deserted-island scenes with Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man. If you’ve seen that movie, you know what I’m talking about; otherwise, hop to it and track it down — I won’t spoil it for you.

There’s even a little poetry in one conversation. To distract Liv from thinking about dying, the imagined boyfriend recites the first line of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”:

      Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

Nice ironic choice, but Liv interrupts to say she’s more of a “Langston Hughes gal,” then recites a few lines of something. That’s Hughes? he wonders, and she admits it isn’t, but rather from a poem by her father.

So now we know what her father was, an academic and poet. There’s a flashback scene where he’s studying a book, but for all we know he could have been prepping for his taxes.

The boyfriend was right to be suspicious. Here’s the lines and they don’t sound much like Hughes to me either:

      Holding you is difficult today.
      You feel sharp and jagged.
      All shoulder blades and elbows.
      How I would love to round your edges.
      To make you smooth in my rock tumbler heart.

We also occasionally get glimpses of the “poetry” of the wilderness, the beauty of the trees and the forest floor, the dense canopy, the play of light and shadow.

According to the credits, this series was filmed in British Columbia. But it’s not the gloomy BC of The X-Files, where the woods are always wet, always full of eeriness. No, the weather is surprisingly good. And that makes sense — it’s supposed to be the first week of September, which is a great month weather-wise to be out in the woods just about anywhere in North America. Note that Crusoe was also shipwrecked in September (of 1659).

But it still gets dark, and even before the equinox the nights are long. Yet city dweller Liv doesn’t seem to be, well, bothered about sleeping outside and without any gear. Even Thoreau found the Maine wilderness terrifying.

The point of a survival story is not just the how of survival and the catharsis of rescue, but also the ways that the experience has changed the survivor. These changes can occur slowly over the course of the story or suddenly as a result of crisis or epiphany.

Robinson Crusoe on his island undergoes a religious experience. Defoe spends quite a few pages on this, something that usually gets skipped over in film and TV adaptations, which understandably focus on the story’s action and adventure aspects. With Crusoe, his change of heart is connected to guilt over his seafaring life and how he ignored his father’s plea not to go to sea. In a sense, that decision has led to his current situation.

Modern readers might wonder why Crusoe does not connect a much more recent action with his present state, namely that the fateful voyage he alone survived, marooning him on an uninhabited island, was a trip from Brazil to the coast of Guinea to trade for “Negroes” for his plantation. Yikes.

But what we think of as the abolitionist movement didn’t get started until late in the 18th century. Defoe is writing early in that century about the world of his youth in the 17th century. He lacks the moral framework for thinking any other way.

Crusoe himself was captured by Turkish pirates and enslaved by their captain for two years at the beginning of his narrative, but Defoe does not present his enslavement in moral terms. Slavery was to be avoided, certainly, a condition worth risking your life to escape from, but for Crusoe it’s more a fact of life.

With Liv, we watch her inch ever nearer to closure on the memories of her parents: her mother’s abandonment of Liv as a child, her father’s abandonment by dying. One hopes that if restored once more to civilization, Liv would no longer be so mean to others, so prone to outbursts of temper, but perhaps that’s too much to hope for (cue lawyer joke).

Virginia Woolf was a fan of Defoe’s novels, particularly Moll Flanders and Roxana, and thought Crusoe a masterpiece because of its clear vision and insistence on its own perspective. Her essay on Crusoe was used as the introduction in my Modern Library edition:

It is, we know, the story of a man who is thrown, after many perils and adventures, alone upon a desert island. The mere suggestion—peril and solitude and a desert island—is enough to rouse in us the expectation of some far land on the limits of the world; of the sun rising and the sun setting; of man, isolated from his kind, brooding alone upon the nature of society and the strange ways of men. Before we open the book we have perhaps vaguely sketched out the kind of pleasure we expect it to give us. We read; and we are rudely contradicted on every page. There are no sunsets and no sunrises; there is no solitude and no soul. There is, on the contrary, staring us full in the face nothing but a large earthenware pot.

This brings us to the weakness of Keep Breathing and why it’s not, perhaps, a masterpiece.

As Woolf points out in her essay, Defoe convinces us of Crusoe’s reality by the volume and ordinariness of the details: how to survive, how to make things you’ve never made before, how to make do when you don’t have the right materials, the right ingredients, the right tools. This is exemplified by Crusoe’s unceasing efforts to make earthenware pots for cooking and storage.

Think on this: an old man sitting in his study in London, someone who is not a potter or a farmer or a carpenter, but had been a hosier, somehow came up with this stuff, such that three centuries on, we just assume (or at least I did) that if we followed Crusoe’s descriptions closely enough, we too could grow barley, raise goats, make clothes from their skins, fashion a boat from a log, and fire functional containers from clay dug out of a hillside.

N.C. Wyeth, 1920 (Source: WikiArt)

We get bits of this in Keep Breathing. We see Liv start a fire with a pair of glasses, boil water, forage for berries, all the while keeping track of the elapsed days by carving marks on a log (just as Crusoe famously did on his post). But too often this fascinating stuff is interrupted by yet another flashback, often to her childhood, but all too often to the New York law firm where she worked.

There’s a vagueness about the law Liv practiced. The words “timeline” and “motion” are thrown around, but we never see clients or a courtroom. It has to do with “securities,” so not family law, not immigration law, not criminal law, maybe something to do with representing rich guys who game the system. Yawn. This stuff is deadly and it’s possible the screenwriters had no more interest in it than we do and so wrote generic “lawyer” scenes.

But still, this series is not all bad. At the very least, like a lot of modern TV, it looks cinematic. That alone is enough to keep me going. Rewatch the beginning of episode 5, which opens with a closeup of Liv’s face. There’s no longer any sign of makeup, maybe not much hope either. But she’s surviving.


© 10 Franks 2022

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Henry David Thoreau (1849)


By way of introduction

So what book was dear Henry working on at Walden Pond? It sounds almost like a trick question along the lines of “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” The obvious answers (Walden, President Grant) are not exactly wrong, it’s just that there’s more to it than that. It seems Mrs. Grant is interred in Grant’s tomb as well. And while Thoreau was keeping the journal that would become Walden almost a decade later, he was also trying to shape an earlier journal into his first published book, an account of a river excursion he and his brother John took during the first weeks of September, 1839, in a boat they had built themselves at home in Concord, Massachusetts.

I say “weeks” to point out that the title is just a bit misleading. The boat portion of the trip did take seven days — five up and two down — but it’s a discontinuous “week,” with a couple more weeks of travel by foot in between before they headed home. Wisely, perhaps, Thoreau restricted the book largely to the water travel, although his choice of title does appear to have confused at least one publisher.

My used copy of A Week is from a “Limited Edition” published for Christmas 1966 by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, of all people. In this edition the designer of the book stuck an additional decorative page before each chapter, which Thoreau simply titled with the day of the week — this extra page specifies the day’s date, starting with Saturday, August 31, 1839 and ending with Friday, September 6. But this last date can’t be right since it omits the weeks of hiking. It made me think this edition was more an exercise in fine paper and eccentric typefaces, where the designer had not actually read the text. But still, even missing the original slip case, as mine does, this is an exotic, splendid-looking book, although perhaps intended more for display than for reading.

One other characteristic of this edition is worth mentioning: it’s not the complete book. A Week is a youthful book and Thoreau crammed it full of quotes, digressions, classical allusions, and possibly a little of just about everything he had ever read or thought about at Harvard or in the dozen years since. At times this just about buries the account of the river trip itself, although Thoreau is not himself without being Thoreau. Critics just hated this book when it was published in 1849 and modern readers may find some of his flights of fancy distracting or even mystifying. Some anthologies only include parts of this book; my edition removes “many irrelevant passages.” But that’s okay, I guess — Thoreau is still very readable even in excerpted form. If you need more, there’s always the complete book, either in an inexpensive printed edition or as a free electronic text from Project Gutenberg.

The journey

With a decent road atlas you can trace the brothers’ boat trip even today. And with a DeLorme or other more detailed atlas, you can find most of the place names Thoreau mentions, although a few of the Indian names are gone now.

Departing early in the afternoon on Saturday, August 31, the brothers rowed downstream and north on the Concord as far as Billerica, Massachusetts, where they camped.

By midday Sunday they reached the Merrimack near present-day Lowell, Massachusetts. They then rowed upstream on the Merrimack, continuing in a northerly direction until nearly dark, camping near Tyngsboro.

On Monday they entered New Hampshire and rowed to just past Nashua.

On Tuesday the weather must have been quite warm, or maybe the rowing was wearing out the boys, but they spent most of the afternoon resting on an island in the river adjacent to the village of Merrimack. In late afternoon they continued, reaching Bedford south of Manchester.

On Wednesday, they got as far as Hooksett, camping across the river from a landmark still known today as The Pinnacle.

Hooksett would prove to be as far as they got by boat. Thursday dawned with rain on their tent and anyway the last of the locks that their heavy boat required were only a few more miles upstream. So they took to foot travel, hiking through the rain as far as Concord, which they called New Concord to distinguish it from their hometown.

At this point Thoreau’s account grows vague and very abbreviated, but it sounds as though they followed the Merrimack to where it becomes the Pemigewasset near present-day Franklin, then continued along that river to where it peters out near Franconia Notch. But they didn’t stop there, it seems, reaching the Ammonoosuc River in northern New Hampshire and following it east and beyond to the summit of Agiocochook, called Mt. Washington today (elevation 6,288 feet). If true, this must have been a hell of a hike and it strikes me as odd that Thoreau doesn’t say much more about it than he does.

By the time they returned to their boat in Hooksett weeks later, autumn was in the air. But heading downstream now, they were able to reach the village of Merrimack that afternoon (a Thursday) and cover about 50 miles on Friday, arriving in Concord late in the evening.

The book

So where to begin? How about invoking the name of Thoreau’s deity and thank the Good Genius for Ralph Waldo Emerson, who encouraged Thoreau to keep a journal in the first place. Talk about your what-if scenarios and roads not taken. At 22, Thoreau was just a lad in 1839, but he was Emerson’s lad. No doubt he might have gone on to do something interesting without having known Emerson, but the Thoreau of our universe depends upon the intertwining of these two mens’ lives.

Still, the possibilities for speculation… What if Emerson had not moved to Concord in 1833? What if Emerson had not published Nature in 1836, a book which heavily influenced Thoreau? And what if Thoreau had built his hut on an island in the Merrimack River, as he contemplates in A Week, rather than at Walden Pond? But of course Walden Pond lay on land owned by Emerson — that guy again — and so we now have Life in the Woods rather than some latter-day Robinson Crusoe’s account of island life.

If Walden is life in the woods, then A Week is life on the river. But this book is not Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, published a quarter-century later. The river that runs past Twain’s hometown has a vastness and scale to it that the Concord and Merrimack lack. And while the Mississippi and Merrimack were both commercial rivers when these books were written, Thoreau’s is the more personal river, the one you might retire to. Populated not by paddlewheel steamers and professional gamblers, but by canal boats that sit low in the water and locksmen who double as philosophers and mathematicians. This is Transcendental New England, after all, not the avaricious gateway to the West.

A Week is full of fish and grasses and birds and water. It’s also full of showy erudition, colonial history, astute observations, and startling statements. Although not exactly a humorous book, it contains a great many things I found amusing. Who else but Thoreau would describe the least bittern as having a “dull, yellowish, greenish eye” and then surprise us, out of the blue it seems, with this statement: “Methinks my own soul must be a bright invisible green.” Who but Thoreau would digress on the differences between priests and physicians and say that “the one’s profession is a satire on the other’s and either’s success would be the other’s failure.” Or conclude a description of the Merrimack’s fall from its source in the White Mountains to its mouth on the Atlantic with this: “There are earth, air, fire, and water, — very well, this is water, and down it comes.”

On the basis of what Thoreau tells us, we have to conclude that a trip like this, taken for the pleasure of the journey and the discoveries made along the way, was not common in his day. One canal boatman they meet simply refuses to accept the brothers’ explanation of what they’ve been doing and why they’re inquiring about a certain island in the Merrimack, assuming their interest is only due to the island’s disputed ownership. And yet we get glimpses of two Huck Finn precursors who would very much like to leave their young lives behind and sail away with the brothers Thoreau. The first is a stone mason repairing one of the locks on the Merrimack. As he examines their outfit, Thoreau sees “many a distant cape and wooded shore reflected in his eye.” But alas the young man’s duty is to his chisel.

The second is “a little flaxen-headed boy, with some tradition, or small edition, of Robinson Crusoe in his head.” But alas he’s too young, although on their return trip the brothers do buy a melon from this young entrepreneur. Life in those days is about work, it seems, and travel, whether by canal boat or stage coach or, increasingly, by train, well, that’s about work too. Interestingly, one of Thoreau’s favorite words is “retired” and he uses it over a dozen times in A Week, although mostly in the somewhat archaic sense of “secluded” rather than our modern sense of “no longer employed.”

19th century gear

Provisions: packed, purchased, picked

  • Potatoes and melons from Thoreau brothers’ patch in Concord
  • Bread, sugar, cocoa, rice
  • Huckleberries, picked
  • Pigeon, caught and broiled
  • Squirrel, caught and skinned but “abandoned in disgust”
  • Milk and homemade bread, presumably purchased
  • Watermelon, purchased

Bedding

  • Cotton tent; boat mast doubled as tent pole
  • Buffalo skins for sleeping on, with blankets for covering

Clothing

Thoreau makes no mention of what they wore on the river, although one can’t help but think they were barefoot and bareheaded much of the time, like canal boatmen.

Packs

None. Although they weren’t weighed down by packs, the brothers did have to propel and worry about a 15-foot boat. In Walden, we find this:

“How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty…”

And yet where do they leave their gear to dry when they commence their foot journey? In a farmer’s corn-barn, of course.

Boat

  • 15 feet long x 3.5 feet at widest, painted green and blue
  • Two masts, sails
  • Two pairs of oars, several poles
  • Outfitted with wheels for rolling around waterfalls (not used)

Calendar quotes (best lines ever)

“Cold and damp, — are they not as rich an experience as warmth and dryness?”

“One half the world knows how the other half lives.”


© 10 Franks 2015