Wild: An Elemental Journey – Jay Griffiths

I came across this book because of a recommendation given by Radiohead bassist Ed O’Brien on the band website Dead Air SpaceWild was on my Amazon wishlist for a while and I finally got around to reading it. I figured that it would be a good book to read this summer, as I will be spending a lot of my time travelling around without a really permanent place to stay.

WildThis book is a biography of Jay Griffiths and her travels to some of the more remote and primitive places in the world. However, Wild is more than just a travelogue of interesting stories. Griffiths spends at least half of the book giving her manifesto about the truth of wilderness and how first world countries have destroyed the indigenous cultures through ignorance, economic exploitation and religious proselytizing. I really enjoyed the fact that this book was more than just a travelogue. By discussing some of the contemporary issues for the indigenous populations, Griffiths shows that she actually is interested in the people that she traveled to. Instead of just viewing them as some sort of peculiarity, she is vitally interested in their plight and struggles. I felt that my mind was opened to some of the issues that these indigenous people face, and was caught up in an interest to learn more about them.

Griffiths writing is evocative, but sometimes overdone. She does a good job explaining landscapes and the customs of the people. Her writing was specifically good when she was talking about her travels in the Arctic, and especially cringe worthy when she writes about her travels in the ocean. Wild is kind of a mixed bag when it comes to style. The whole book is overwritten with loaded language and odd metaphors. Sometimes it really works and you get a very clear picture of what Griffiths is describing. When her prose is at its A-game, Griffiths can write very emotionally and suck the reader in. However, other times her writing is so over the top that I could not wait to get out of the current section.

The good thing is that Griffiths weakness with prose does not diminish from the impact of the book too much. The stories of her travels are still interesting even if you sometimes have to  ignore the problems with her prose. Even though I do not agree with Griffiths about some things (she is vehemently anti-Christian) I thought that she presented her arguments effectively, and made me reconsider some of my points of view.

I mentioned that the prose had some problems, but the biggest thing that stopped me from unconditionally loving this book was Griffiths overt self-righteousness. She spends the book idealizing the indigenous cultures that she came in contact with and discussing how the “civilized” societies of the world will never be as alive or free as the indigenous people. While that may be true, I felt like Griffiths purposely ignored the benefits of her society to paint the indigenous people in a kinder light. Without modern society she would not have had the ability to fly to these places, to have access to the wide range of quotes that she uses in her book or have access to the tampons that she mentions often as causing problems for her. Some of her more idealistic descriptions of the native people left me wondering why Griffiths did not just go live with them forever. Griffiths spends a lot of time trying to show that indigenous people have many of the answers to the world’s problems and live a better life (until the white Westerners come of course). If they are that great, should not Griffiths just pack everything up and go live in the wild instead of spending her time writing books?

This really is not unique to Griffiths. I think that in our attempt to find alternate ways of living, we often times over-idealize indigenous populations and forget how many advantages that we have as a modern society. I have no problem with Griffiths talking about how great the indigenous populations are, but when she starts being over critical of the modern civilization that she lives and works in, it just seems self-righteous and hypocritical.

That is my biggest problem with Wild. If you can get past that, it is a great book. I definitely enjoyed reading it and was enlightened about some of the Earth’s cultures. However, Griffiths nagging self-righteousness stops me from giving this book an unconditional good review.

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