Back to the Wild: Within This Wilderness, Feenie Ziner

After finishing The Orchid Thief, I resumed reading Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness (see previous posting about being unable to get to my book.. too cold, too far).

Witihin this Wilderness was recommended to me by my boss–she knew Feenie Ziner, and said I would have liked her. I certainly like the way she writes, what she says… I think we would have gotten along just fine.

This book was also described to me as being similar to John Krakauer’s Into the Wild, another book I really enjoyed.

It is similar, and yet, it’s not.

Into The Wild is a very compelling read because it was pieced together by a journalist and told in a clear-eyed yet sympathetic way. There is an air of mystery around Christopher McCandless, the missing man-child — Why’d he go? How’d he die? For that matter, how’d he live?  Krakauer is exceptional at telling a story around the story – putting up the frame, so that we can picture the whole house.

Feenie Ziner’s story is different, in that the tale is told by the mother of the man-child who removes himself from society. She describes her struggle–at first, to get him home, and finally, to accept him as he is.

In the 70’s, Feenie’s son, Joe Ziner, moved to British Columbia to get away from civilization and to find himself. She was able to visit her ‘missing’ son, and try to form a bond, a connection, a conversation, with him. The story comes from that tension. Will mom ever understand her son? Will he ever understand his mother? In the end, they reach an accord of sorts. It’s a beautiful story, of love in all its forms. Love for the wilderness, love between a mother and son, love for life… however it must be expressed.

Feenie was a children’s book author, had a long career teaching in the English department at UConn, and was most recently, a Branford, CT resident. Her son ended up becoming a book publisher. He did not completely disappear, the way the boy in Into The Wild did.  The story of Within is not that of “how could this person lose himself and completely disappear”. This story is one we are all familiar with–a story of acceptance of who we are, what we want, and what we must do to be happy when we don’t get it.

Within This Wilderness is also an exploration of how we reconcile ourselves to living in a world of consumption when we are, at heart, children of the land. We are all pure, yearning for simple lives. And yet, we struggle against simply ‘making do’. We humans must progress, achieve, build. Where do we draw the line and say, enough? For Joe, he opposed the Vietnam War, opposed American’s ignorance of its horrors and mindlessness, opposed immoral accumulation, opposed partaking of suburban America. His only solution to was to flee, and to set up in a minimalist shack in the wilds of British Columbia. but you can’t escape your emotions, and he had to reconcile those eventually, with himself, his mother, if not his country. As his mother wrote, “in time, everyone who undertakes a great moral journey must confront the fact that the Devil is always the stowaway.”

This book is almost 30 years old, but the emotional struggles are as relevant as ever.  Coming up next:  The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard.

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