Into the Wild and other Poisonous Plant Fables
About ten years ago, a man approached me after a presentation that I had given on wild edibles. Obviously quite agitated, he stuttered a few syllables before launching a frantic diatribe, “You need to warn people that there’s some edible plants that look exactly like deadly poisonous plants, and they grow side by side, and nobody can tell them apart. Nobody! Not even an expert!”
I paused, in a mild state of shock, before responding, “That’s not really true. Some plants might . . . .”
“It is true,” he interrupted. “Books tell people they can eat these plants, but they don’t tell them that there’s deadly poisonous plants that look exactly the same. It’s like playing Russian roulette.”
Of course, it isn’t true, but the fear of wild plants runs very deep in Western civilization. While it certainly is true that people can poison themselves with wild vegetation, the fear that we attribute to plants is monstrously out of proportion with the actual danger they pose. Like many profound and unexamined fears, this one breeds irrationality, causing many people to suspend all logic and refuse to participate in rational discourse.
Such was the time when some friends and I stood at a beach, stuffing our faces with serviceberries, and two children, a brother and sister, took interest. As they were about to partake, their father intervened. From his lawn chair fifty feet away, he warned them that they’d poison themselves and die if they ate “those berries.” His son piped in, “But Dad, I already ate some and they’re really good!”
His father didn’t budge. A little later, the children passed by again and surreptitiously asked, “Are they really poisonous?”
As I shoveled in another handful, I smiled and asked, “What do you think?” They giggled back, recognizing the absurdity of their father’s logic: “These people are eating something they enjoy very much; it must be deadly poisonous.”
Our culture is spellbound and beguiled by the story of someone mistaking a poisonous plant for an edible one and dying from the error. It is a magnetic motif with a suite of admonitions that we find economically and socially useful: don’t stray too far from the beaten path; what civilization has given you is better than you realize; Nature cannot be trusted; be normal and live a predictable life of routine. These messages are compelling when a torturous death is presented as the cost of disregarding them.
Every culture builds its own propaganda to promote stability. An important aspect of this propaganda is fables—stories made up to teach particular lessons. Since we have trouble finding sufficient examples of wild plant poisonings, we fabricate the story again and again.
The Poison Plant Fable assumes many forms. When the world-famous forager Euell Gibbons died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm (which had absolutely nothing to do with wild plants or mushrooms), the public immediately began fabricating stories about his death, claiming that, in one way or another, he was killed by a “toxic diet.” These falsehoods are more widely believed than the truth and are still commonly circulated today, even by the media. I am frequently confronted by people who, believing this Euell Gibbons fable, present it as “proof” that foraging is stupid and dangerous. Several foraging-death urban legends are commonly told, even among foragers. In her Encyclopedia of Country Living (1994), Carla Emery uses this same tactic in an attempt to terrify her readers away from foraging:
Even Euell Gibbons, who wrote a whole series of books extolling the glories of wild food foraging, finally goofed and tried the wrong wild leaf in his lunch. That’s how he died. (Emery, 1994, p. 401)
The Poisonous Plant Fable is accorded more power when perpetuated by highly respected individuals. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond tells of his reaction when some of his native New Guinean friends collect some mushrooms to eat:
I patiently explained to my Foré companions that I had read about some mushrooms’ being poisonous, that I had heard of even expert American mushroom collectors’ dying because of the difficulty of distinguishing safe from dangerous mushrooms, and that although we were all hungry, it just wasn’t worth the risk. (Diamond, 1997, p. 144)
To members of the Foré tribe, this probably sounded about as absurd as “let’s not eat these bananas; perhaps they are deadly false bananas” would sound to us. Most Americans, having been indoctrinated with the Poison Plant Fable, would have given Diamond’s warning serious consideration, but the Foré were properly offended and would have none of it. In Diamond’s words, they “got angry and told me to shut up and listen while they explained some things to me.” That is exactly how I often feel.
The people who repeat this garbage have become tools in the perpetuation of a fable they have internalized. Their ignorant fear-mongering dissuades many from a safe and rewarding hobby. It is a disservice to everybody.
Into The Wild: Another Poisonous Plant Fable?
At nearly every workshop or presentation that I have given over the last ten years, I have been asked my opinion about Jon Krakauer’s book Into The Wild. “You should read it!” I was advised, dozens of times. Many people outlined the story for me, dwelling especially on the “cause” of Christopher McCandless’ death. The ending sounded disturbingly like another rendition of the Poison Plant Fable to me, but many very intelligent people, convinced by Krakauer’s skillful prose, would argue, “No, it’s really true!” I eventually realized that reading this book and researching Chris’s death were requirements of my job.
Into The Wild is about an emotionally embattled young man named Chris McCandless who left his affluent upbringings behind, renamed himself Alex, and wandered the West searching for purpose and identity. His decaying body was found by a moose hunter in Alaska on September 6, 1992.
Through an autopsy, medical examiners determined that McCandless had starved to death, and all evidence pointed clearly and unambiguously to that conclusion. But the Poison Plant Fable proved irresistible to Krakauer, who first wrote about the tragedy in “Death of an Innocent,” (a January 1993 article in Outside magazine). He conjectured that Chris had died by poisoning when he mistook the wild sweet pea Hedysarum mackenziei for the “wild potato” Hedysarum alpinum. But since Chris had clearly starved to death, Krakauer had to reach further, positing that McCandless was “laid low” by the poisoning, and thus unable to feed himself. Since we have all internalized the Poison Plant Fable, this unlikely and scientifically unsupported explanation for Chris’s death was immediately and widely accepted as fact.
But there is no evidence that Chris McCandless ever ate even a single seed of H. mackenziei. Krakauer doesn’t even try to provide such evidence; he simply tells us that the two plants grow beside each other and are “very difficult to distinguish.” Provided with these facts, most people immediately and unquestioningly conclude that McCandless mistook wild sweet pea for wild potato. Like Krakauer, they don’t need any evidence because the Poison Plant Fable says that it happens this way. But how plausible is this?
An important component of the Poison Plant Fable is the insistence that “even experts” have trouble identifying edible plants. In Into The Wild, Krakauer writes, “Wild sweet pea looks so much like wild potato that even expert botanists sometimes have trouble telling the species apart” (p. 191).
Of course, if they are both unfamiliar, any two related plants may be confusing to an “expert botanist.” This is a meaningless and irrelevant point. Hedysarum alpinum and H. mackenziei, like any other two plants, can be consistently, reliably, and easily told apart by any person who has become familiar with them. Despite Krakauer’s misinformed insistence that the veins on the underside of the leaflets are the only reliable characteristic distinguishing them, there are actually numerous features of the two plants that are notably different. In fact, experienced foragers can readily distinguish these plants by their roots alone (Schofield, 1989).
Krakauer’s hypothesis requires that, after more than a month of collecting H. alpinum safely, McCandless suddenly couldn’t recognize the plant and accidentally ate a significant volume of H. mackenziei seeds. This explanation displays a gross misunderstanding of how pattern recognition works in the human brain. Once a person becomes thoroughly familiar with two plants, they appear distinct. Thus, every household cook can easily differentiate a head of green cabbage from one of iceberg lettuce, even though they look identical to the uninitiated. The same cook would not be able to point out a single readily visible diagnostic feature that she uses to distinguish these plants. After weeks of collecting wild potato and successfully distinguishing it from wild sweet pea, Chris would have developed an excellent search image for both plants. Misidentification at this point would be about as likely as a man making love to the wrong woman and not noticing. In a foraging culture, such an absurd proposition would be immediately ridiculed and discarded. The fact that our society swallowed this hypothesis and regurgitated it as fact demonstrates a systemic gullibility based on profound ignorance.
The second fatal flaw in Krakauer’s poisoning hypothesis is the fact that H. mackenziei, the plant that supposedly poisoned Chris McCandless, is not poisonous. Although Tanaina Plantlore, the field guide that Chris was using, says that the plant is “reported to be poisonous,” the author does not actually call it “poisonous.” Although “reported to be poisonous” may sound alarming, it is actually rather insignificant. I can find printed references reporting about two-thirds of all wild edibles to be poisonous. The familiar garden parsnip, Pastinaca sativa, is listed as poisonous in dozens of wildflower books, some written by reputed botanists. I even have one book that calls it “exceedingly lethal.” Indeed, some plants called poisonous or inedible in Tanaina Plantlore were regular food items for other Native American tribes.
Krakauer calls H. mackenziei “poisonous” in his Outside article. When he elaborates in Into The Wild, he admits that “accounts of individuals being poisoned from eating H. mackenziei are nonexistent in modern medical literature” (p.191). He goes on to counter that, “the aboriginal inhabitants of the North have apparently known for millennia that the wild sweet pea is toxic,” but he does not tell us what makes this assumption “apparent”. Krakauer finds one account of a poisoning “attributable” to wild sweet pea, but this report, from 1848, is highly questionable (a point also argued by Treadwell and Clausen, 2008).
In the wake of the Chris McCandless case, extensive laboratory analyses have been conducted, attempting to verify the toxicity of H. mackenziei. Roots, seeds, flowers, leaves, and stems were all analyzed. These tests have turned up no alkaloids or toxins of any kind (Treadwell and Clausen, 2008). The authors of this study also state that there is no credible chemical, historical, or ethnobotanical basis for the anecdotal belief that H. mackenziei is toxic. They believe that the wild sweet pea is nontoxic and has not been traditionally used simply because of the smaller size of its roots.
The hypothesis that Chris McCandless died from eating H. mackenziei seeds is supported by no evidence whatsoever, has absolutely no factual basis, and in fact relies on disproven assumptions. It should be discarded.
Krakauer’s Second Hypothesis
Krakauer himself recognized the preposterousness of advancing misidentification as Chris’ cause of death. When he elaborates on the story in the book Into The Wild, he writes, “For three weeks beginning on June 24, McCandless had dug and safely eaten dozens of wild potato roots without mistaking H. mackenzii (sic) for H. alpinum; why, on July 14, when he started gathering seeds instead of roots, would he suddenly have confused the two species?” (p. 192). After discarding his original explanation for McCandless’ death, Krakauer proposes a new one: that Chris was poisoned by the seeds of H. alpinum—the plant that he thought he was eating. If the Poison Plant Fable didn’t work, he would try the next best thing. Now, the story went, Chris hadn’t eaten the wrong plant, he had eaten the wrong part of a plant, and this caused him to starve to death. Krakauer’s eloquent and captivating rendition of the Poison Plant Fable has inculcated millions with its insidious message.
We know from McCandless’ journals and photos that he actually had eaten H. alpinum seeds. However, evidence for toxicity of these seeds is entirely nonexistent. Krakauer himself points out that “the seeds of H. alpinum have never been described as toxic in any published text: an extensive search of the medical and botanical literature yielded not a single indication that any part of H. alpinum is poisonous” (p. 191).
Yet Krakauer’s second hypothesis doesn’t just require wild potato seeds to be poisonous; it requires them to be poisonous in a very specific, rare, and unusual way: by promoting starvation through inhibiting digestion and metabolism. Chris McCandless clearly starved to death, and Krakauer has never denied this—he just argues that eating a wild plant made him starve to death. At face value, this is a very odd proposition. Last time I checked, starvation was caused by not eating things. Krakauer is breaking new ground; not just arguing that McCandless died this way, but indeed, introducing the very idea that people can die this way at all—something that the medical and toxicological community has never confirmed. Krakauer identified a chemical called swainsonine as a hypothetical culprit—although he was apparently, like me, unable to find a single reported case of swainsonine poisoning in humans.
Krakauer doesn’t test the implications of this exceedingly improbable hypothesis to determine if it is valid. Instead, he carefully crafts a series of specious arguments and illogical conclusions, by which the readers of Into The Wild are misled to believe that this hypothesis has somehow been verified. First, Krakauer tells us that the plant family Leguminosae, to which H. alpinum belongs, “is rife with species that contain alkaloids” (p. 193). (Krakauer is factually wrong here; Deshpande and Deshpande [1991, p. 247] state that “although widely distributed in the plant kingdom, alkaloids are not common in legumes.”) As soon as this is incorrectly suggested, wild potato is treated as if it is known to contain alkaloids. As soon as it is implied that alkaloids may be toxic, they are treated as toxins. We are told that alkaloids may be localized in one part of the plant, and that the seeds are the most likely site for this localization. When we are then told that “preliminary testing” indicated that the seeds contain “traces of an alkaloid,” we are beguiled into the totally unsupported conclusion that wild potato seeds contain toxic alkaloids despite their roots’ edibility. (Thorough later testing contradicted these irreproducible preliminary results; but Krakauer didn’t change his story until the media exposed this fact more than ten years after Into The Wild was published.)
We are then told that there is “a strong likelihood” that the (non-existent) alkaloid is swainsonine. Krakauer never explains why he thinks the likelihood is “strong”—since there are many thousands of known alkaloids, and swainsonine is not known from the species in question, any reasonable assessment would place the likelihood as “very small.” In fact, the proposition that Hedysarum alpinum or H. mackenziei contains swainsonine is rather absurd. These are common, widespread range plants that are considered good forage for livestock (Larson and Johnson, 2007). If they contained swainsonine, this would almost certainly be well known, since virtually everything we know about this chemical is due to its toxic effect on grazing livestock, and a great deal of research has gone into identifying which legumes contain it. After all this, Krakauer tells us that wild potato seeds may contain swainsonine (they do not). Then he proceeds to treat them as if they do contain this alkaloid, and discusses the physiological effects of swainsonine poisoning in livestock.
The above is not an explanation; it is a meaningless string of unverified assumptions. It is not a theory; it is an untested progression toward a predetermined conclusion. It does not withstand even cursory examination under the scientific method. Yet it fulfills the Poison Plant Fable.
If Krakauer is correct in assuming that swainsonine poisoning in humans would be accompanied by symptoms comparable to those in animals, then it should be easy for him to conclude that Chris McCandless was not suffering from it. Chris only exhibited one swainsonine symptom, emaciation, and this was observed well before the alleged poisoning by H. alpinum seeds, and can clearly be attributed to the caloric deprivation that he was suffering. Krakauer ignores the fact that Chris was not exhibiting the widely known classic symptoms of swainsonine poisoning, which appear before weight loss: uncoordination, hypersensitivity, depression, blank-staring eyes, loss of awareness, and similar neurological symptoms (Harries et al., 1972). It is for these symptoms that Astragalus plants containing swainsonine are known as “locoweeds”—loco is Spanish for “crazy.” When you read Chris’s journal and see the photos he took of himself just before death, along with his final note, it seems obvious that he was not suffering swainsonine poisoning.
Dr. Thomas Clausen, a biochemist at the University of Alaska, extensively tested H. alpinum for toxins and concluded that no part of it is poisonous. No traces of swainsonine or any other alkaloid were found in any part of the plant. Dr. Clausen admits that he wanted Krakauer’s tale to be true, since it made a nice story, but laments that this view has been found untenable. Indeed, he states of H. alpinum seeds, “I’d eat them myself” (Lamothe, 2007).
Just to lend a firsthand anecdote, I cooked and ate a small portion of H. alpinum seeds. Quite frankly, they were delicious—much like black locust seeds, but far better. No wonder Chris ate them for two weeks.
The Moldy Seed Hypothesis
In September 2007, Matthew Power wrote an exposé, “The Cult of Chris McCandless,” in Men’s Journal, in which he made the point that Krakauer’s explanation of Chris’ death in Into The Wild was effectively refuted, since chemists had tested these seeds for toxins and found none. Power’s article received significant media attention, and at about this time, a new printing of Into The Wild hit the bookstore shelves across the country—in which Krakauer presents yet a third explanation for McCandless’ death—which, of course, still blames it on eating a wild plant.
This third, the “moldy seed” hypothesis, is the most fanciful, forced, and inane of all. It states that, although the seeds of H. alpinum are not poisonous and do not contain swainsonine, they might become infected with a certain mold, Rhizoctonia leguminicola, which could produce swainsonine. If you ignore the fact that Rhizoctonia leguminicola is not known to infect H. alpinum, and the fact that Chris’ symptoms appear incompatible with Rhizoctonia poisoning (a hyper-salivating condition known as “slobbers”), you are still left with the problem that there is no evidence that Chris actually ate any moldy seeds—much less the “enormous quantities” that Krakauer proposes (and which would be required to cause poisoning). The only evidence that Krakauer gives to support this hypo-hypothesis is that McCandless collected some seeds during a rainy period and put some of them in a Ziploc bag. That’s it? Yup, that’s it.
The moldy seed explanation is patently ridiculous. By this time, one begins to wonder if Krakauer will just continue to change his hypotheses ad infinitum as each one is logically and scientifically refuted. This capriciousness is the hallmark of “science” with a predetermined conclusion. Clearly, Krakauer’s predetermined conclusion is that Chris McCandless died from a wild plant that he ate. Leaving the first and second hypotheses intact, though refuted, in his book, lends credibility to his latest story by making it seem like the author is searching earnestly for the truth, rather than grasping desperately for tenuous explanations to defend his fundamental belief in the Poison Plant Fable. It also adds to the feeling of peril associated with eating wild plants: “Behold all of these potential causes of death-by-plant that were almost true.”
It doesn’t upset me that Krakauer was wrong; it bothers me that he was wrong-headed. These explanations of Chris’ death should have been recognized as deficient, if not the moment they were conceived, then certainly after minimal investigation. Yet Krakauer has labored and belabored for fifteen years to perpetuate them. Rather than make a genuine effort to gather facts and draw sensible conclusions, he drew extravagant conclusions first; then facts were conjured, contorted, or ignored to support them. Journalism should be an exercise in finding and communicating the truth, not in obfuscating the obvious explanations in favor of sexier ones that find no factual support. Krakauer’s presentation of the matter seems stubbornly defiant at best. If his reasoning is not obstinately perverse, his arguments are disingenuous.
There is a reason that his entire book, save for this one part, is thoughtful and masterfully crafted: the deep, irrational, unexamined prejudice about foraging that prevails in our society. Edible wild plants remains one of the few topics about which such journalistic irresponsibility is still tolerated. Such conjectural nonsense about most topics would never pass the editors. But in reference to wild food, logic and scrutiny are totally suspended. The result is a best-selling book, and now a movie, together constituting the single largest message about wild food that the media has ever given our society, perpetuating the Poison Plant Fable.
Sean Penn’s Deliberate Deception About McCandless’s Death
In the movie version of Into The Wild, Sean Penn chose to portray McCandless poisoning himself according to Krakauer’s first hypothesis—mistaking wild sweet pea for wild potato. Although this scenario is irreconcilable with the facts and had long ago been abandoned by Krakauer himself, it produced the strongest drama and the scariest anti-foraging message. This motif is integral to the film’s plot and development. It is introduced almost immediately, as Chris writes to Wayne Westerberg about his “new book on the local flora and fauna.” Soon after Chris arrives in the Arizona desert, there is a close-up of the cover of his copy of Outdoor Life’s Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants. In another early scene, Jan Burres, who he met on the road, says to him, “That book of yours is really cool and all, but you can’t depend entirely on leaves and berries.”
Later, after Chris is starving and trapped by the high waters of the Teklanika River, the film shows him having an epiphany after reading the words “to call each thing by its right name” in Doctor Zhivago. After this, he takes the field guide Tanaina Plantlore and goes on a plant identification spree. Among the plants he identifies is Hedysarum alpinum. (In reality, Chris had already been collecting and eating this plant for several weeks by this time.) After eating this plant’s seeds, McCandless becomes very ill. Upon a second look at his book he realizes that he has mistakenly eaten H. mackenziei, the wild sweet pea. Further reading reveals that he is bound to die a slow, agonizing death. He throws the book down in rage, screaming, “Fuck it all!”
To the viewer who may admire Chris or hold some of his ideals, it is a powerful scene: the wilderness sojourner and independent seeker of wisdom from Nature, brought to his knees and murdered for an innocent mistake by the treachery of a poisonous plant, now finally able to throw away all of his foolish ideas—but it is too late. Just before Chris expires, so that nobody forgets how he perished, the movie hauntingly repeats the words, “To call each thing by its right name. By its right name.”
The message is clear: Eating wild plants will kill you.
But it’s a lie.
Although it is understood that some details of a story will be changed to make it more friendly to the motion picture format, most viewers assume that a film “based on a true story” depicts things that at least remotely approximate the truth—especially when it comes to the most significant event in the entire story. The deception in this fictitious scene is careful, extensive, integral, exceptional, and inexcusable.
There is no reason to believe that Chris ever ate even one wild sweet pea seed, and these seeds are not poisonous anyways. But the film’s most egregious deception occurs when Chris opens up Tanaina Plantlore (Kari, 1987). The book’s actual cover is shown, but when Chris flips to page 128 to read about H. mackenziei, the movie shows a counterfeit page that the producers have forged and inserted. The excerpt from the book that McCandless reads in the film goes like this (Yes, it really does go like this; the apparent errors and omissions are original.):
The lateral veins, nearly invisible on leaflets of wild sweet pea the plants poisonous seedlings. If ingested symptoms include partial motor paralysis, inhibition of digestion, and nausea. If untreated leads to starvation and death. Another way to distinguish is that the stem of the wild sweet pea is mostly unbranched.
That’s strange, because when I open to page 128 in my copy, it only says this in the same place:
The lateral veins of the leaflets of wild sweet pea are hidden, while those of the wild potato are conspicuous. Another way to distinguish between the two plants is that the stem of the wild sweet pea is mostly unbranched, while that of the wild potato is definitely branched.
In real life, the book has no mention whatsoever of “partial motor paralysis, inhibition of digestion, and nausea,” nor of “starvation and death.” The movie paused on a fragment of text representing each of the primary components of the Poison Plant Fable: “poisonous,” “and death,” and “the plants resemble each other.” The focus on “lateral veins” corresponds to the “even experts” component of the fable, as does the subtly changed wording from “hidden” to “nearly invisible.” The film also focuses on the words “starvation” and “digestion” so that we remember the imaginary effects of the plant that the filmmakers are pretending is poisonous.
This bogus text—displaying poor grammar, worse compositional skill, and profound ignorance of botany—is an insult to the actual author of the book. The movie’s fictitious death scene is an insult to the viewers. But more than anything, it is an insult to Christopher McCandless.
If this movie was made “in memory of Christopher Johnson McCandless,” as it claims, then why was a fraudulent, insulting scene fabricated for his death? Chris’s life story has been usurped by the very same propaganda machine that he so vehemently rejected, twisted into a fable for the purpose of casting fear and doubt into those who would seek what he sought. The greatest lessons that could be learned from his life are now buried under lies.
So how did Chris McCandless die?
There has never been debate about this: Chris starved to death. His autopsy, performed by the crime lab in Anchorage, confirmed this. When Chris’s body was found, it weighed 67 pounds; it was estimated that his weight at death was 83 pounds, with a body mass index of 13.3 (Lamothe, 2007). Death from starvation usually occurs when body mass index falls to about 13 (Shils et al., 1994; Henry, 1990). The proportion of weight that Chris lost was comparable to that normally associated with victims of concentration camps, severe famine, anorexia nervosa, and death by starvation (Keys et al., 1950). Even Chris’ own journal, nineteen days before his death, says, “Starving. Great Jeopardy.”
Keys et al. (1950), in their famous and fascinating study of human starvation, point out that starving people become exceedingly preoccupied with food, writing and talking of little else. Krakauer and others were struck by this very feature of Chris’s journal: Andrew Liske, who accompanied Krakauer to the bus after Chris’s death, noted after reading the journal, “He wrote about hardly anything except food” (p. 183). Chris displayed this obsession for the entire stay, because he was starving through all of it. The journal entries clearly show that he was not getting nearly enough calories. He took pictures of himself that document his steadily decreasing body mass throughout his stay in Alaska. He appears dangerously malnourished weeks before ingesting the seeds that Krakauer claims killed him. The medical examiners who performed Chris’ autopsy noted telltale signs of starvation: severe deterioration of his muscles and a lack of subcutaneous fat. No other individual who has investigated the matter finds Krakauer’s explanations necessary or even credible.
The only reasonable conclusion is that Chris died of starvation—the regular kind of starvation, which results from not eating enough food over a prolonged period—not from some farfetched and imaginary sort of starvation.
Then why does Jon Krakauer insist that Chris McCandless died from eating a wild plant?
When the story of Chris McCandless’ death hit the media, it produced a strong negative reaction among some people, particularly many Alaskans. McCandless was publicly ridiculed and lambasted. Krakauer saw through the shallowness, insensitivity, and irrationality of much of this criticism and wanted to provide a counterpoint.
I don’t disagree with him. Although Chris made serious and egregious mistakes, this is not a sensible reason to become furious at him or about what he did. The impulsive disparagement levied toward Chris displays the insecurities of a kind of redneck found in every rural district—one who feels deeply threatened by those who do things that he would not dream of trying and can’t understand. Only on the surface is this criticism about his fatal mistakes. Chris’s death verifies his critics’ self-image as rugged frontierspeople, and renders him a defenseless target.
Shortly after the story broke, the Alaskan hunters who found McCandless’s body ridiculed him, saying that he had killed a caribou and mistaken it for a moose. In the words of Gordon Samel, “When I read in the paper that he’d thought he’d shot a moose, that told me right there he wasn’t no Alaskan. There’s a big difference between a moose and a caribou. A real big difference. You’d have to be pretty stupid not to be able to tell them apart,” (p. 177). But there is no doubt that Chris did, in fact, kill a moose; his photos clearly show it. These Alaskans not only couldn’t identify the animal’s remains, but they derided Chris for getting it right.
This is a microcosm for much of the criticism Chris has received. When people say that Chris’s adventure was pitiful and insignificant, and imply that “Alaskans do that kind of stuff all the time,” they are kidding themselves. What they actually mean is that Alaskans go into the bush with snowmobiles or ATVs, lots of gear, and ample food supplies; why couldn’t Chris just do the same? This is as irrelevant and hollow as mocking a marathon runner because you can get to the finish line faster in your car. There is nothing inherently moronic about what Chris tried to do; he just failed. No person who has the ability to successfully do what Chris attempted would detest him for trying.
I understand Krakauer’s desire to defend McCandless from such crude and childish attacks. Having Chris die from a poisonous plant that could even fool “experts” makes him seem less foolish and overconfident than if he died by simple starvation. Krakauer’s incongruous interpretation of the evidence seems to be based on this desire to preserve a more positive image of McCandless—both for the readers and for himself. But his beliefs rest on two demonstrably false assumptions: first, that starvation alone is inadequate to explain Chris’s death; and second, that Chris’s journal entry from July 30 somehow indicates that a plant eaten on that day is what killed him almost three weeks later.
Krakauer is in obstinate denial about Chris’s state of health during his stay in the bush, and this is reflected in a strange dismissive attitude. Krakauer says that Chris “feasted regularly” from mid-May to late June, when in fact he was only eating sufficiently perhaps once or twice a week. He points out “a bounty of wild meat” in early June—the only stretch of his 113-day stay when Chris might have been consuming sufficient calories. Krakauer speaks of an “apparent munificence” and claims that “the country was a fecund riot of plant and animal life, and his food supply was adequate” (p. 188). Meanwhile, Chris’s journal and photos clearly document his own starvation.
Krakauer also shares that “game seems to have been plentiful: In the last three weeks of July, he killed thirty-five squirrels, four spruce grouse, five jays and woodpeckers, and two frogs” (p. 188). Perhaps he never did the math, but this is a striking shortage of game. And this was a period of relative abundance in comparison with much of the trip. An examination of Chris’s journal shows that he went without food on many days and almost always had an extreme caloric deficit. His starvation clearly began on April 28, not July 30 as Krakauer proposes.
When Chris tried to leave the wilderness in early July, he probably did so because he realized that starvation was a real threat. He took a picture of himself at that time, about which Krakauer says, “He looks healthy but alarmingly gaunt. Already his cheeks are sunken. The tendons in his neck stand out like taut cables” (p. 169). How does Krakauer deduce “healthy” from that description? This photo was taken almost seven weeks before McCandless died, and four weeks before he ate wild potato seeds and felt ill. Clearly, he was gravely malnourished and on a trajectory toward death long before the alleged “poisoning” even occurred. But Krakauer still maintains the fallacy that Chris was doing fine. Only one page after the above description, he states that Chris had “been fending for himself quite nicely in the country” (p. 171).
Krakauer is trying to squeeze blood from a turnip, so to speak, because he rejects the obvious. This denial helps explain his bizarre juxtaposition of incompatible statements: “His meager diet had pared his body down to a feral scrawn of gristle and bone, but he seemed to be in reasonably good health” (pp 189). Krakauer argues that starvation alone can’t explain Chris’s death because, before July 30, there was “nothing to suggest that McCandless was in dire circumstances.” If a hundred days of drastic food shortage doesn’t sound dire, what does? There is, in fact, overwhelming evidence that Chris had been starving before this date; the photos he took of himself show visual proof. Chris’s own journal says “Starving” on July 30. Starvation doesn’t happen suddenly.
Nothing about the journal entry “Extremly weak. Fault of pot seed. Much trouble just to stand up. Starving. Great Jeopardy” indicates that H. alpinum seeds killed Chris, or that Chris feeling ill that day caused his death nineteen days later. There is no plausible theory connecting these events. Most likely, this entry simply reflects that he overindulged on wild potato seeds and felt ill. Almost any fruit or vegetable will do this when eaten in immoderate quantity. Considering Chris’s nutritional state, he seems a likely candidate for overindulgence.
As a child, I once became extremely ill from eating way too many green peppers. Another time, as an adult, I seriously pigged out on bearberries and developed terrible stomach pains that doubled me over for an hour. In neither case did I die of starvation three weeks later.
Lamothe (2007) modeled Chris’s food intake versus requirement, based on World Health Organization guidelines, and showed that his caloric deficit alone was sufficient to cause death. This supports the conclusion that Chris McCandless died of starvation—just like the medical examiner had said, and still contends. This also explains the “mystery” of why Chris didn’t do more to save himself: the advanced stages of starvation are characterized by an extreme listlessness, weakness, and depression (Keys et al., 1950), all of which were probably aggravated by low-level lead toxicity from the game he was eating (ND Dept. of Health, 2008).
I can sympathize with Krakauer’s desire to portray McCandless in a positive light, but there comes a time when you must let go of extravagant, unsupported guesses. There is simply no reason to believe that Chris McCandless was killed by a plant.
What lessons about wilderness survival and wild food can be drawn from the story of Chris McCandless?
Whatever you think of Chris as a person, it is hard to deny that he overestimated his skills and underestimated how much knowledge—and food—he would need. Despite some vocal anti-McCandless opinions, he was not ill-equipped or under-equipped; he was unskilled and unprepared. He didn’t need a better map or a high-powered rifle. There are many knowledgeable and skillful people who have returned from similar adventures in good health, and who would have thrived with the same gear and in the same circumstances under which he starved to death.
In a short-term survival situation, food is of minor importance. However, in long-term survival or “living off the land,” it is of paramount importance.
Chris grossly underestimated the amount of food that he needed. Before his trip to Alaska he had spent periods on a negative calorie budget and lost a great deal of weight. At one point his journal (oddly written in third person) said, “Malnutrition and the road have taken their toll on his body. Over 25 pounds lost” (p. 37). Yet he was always able to access food after these excursions and restore his body mass. During such a replenishment period, after a time of living on wild plants, Jan Burres described him as “big-time hungry. Hungry, hungry, hungry” (p. 30). It is OK to lose twenty pounds over three weeks, but continuing that same negative calorie budget over several months is deadly.
We get food so easily and automatically that we hardly consider the quantities that we require, or its calorie content. Most Americans are profoundly out of touch with these things. What Chris did is common for wilderness survivalists today, who typically “survive” on negative calorie budgets, steadily losing weight. The only difference is that their excursions are normally of less than a month’s duration, and they simply gain back the lost weight after returning to civilization. (An excellent description of this process of survivalist starvation followed by binge eating can be found in The Last American Man [Gilbert, 2002], pp. 52–63.) I believe that this is exactly what Chris intended to do, just as he had done before; but his attempt to leave was thwarted by a collusion of unforeseen conditions, weakness, and injury.
Maintaining one’s weight and health over the long term is an entirely different proposition. It doesn’t help that many survival books and instructors teach that only very small amounts of food are needed in the bush. McCandless’s experience should serve as a lesson to any survivalist who entertains these caloric delusions. Making believe that Chris died by poisoning robs us of this important and potentially life-saving lesson, and instead imbues us with an unrealistic and unfounded fear that only makes us more likely to perish in the wilderness.
I like to measure my food in calorie-days—the number of days of my full caloric requirement that the food represents. I calculated Chris’s calorie requirement as 3,300 per day based on his age, gender, a body weight of 145 pounds, and heavy physical activity, using guidelines from Grodner et al. (1996). This estimate is rough, and the true figure would depend on many unknowable variables. Still, my point is easily demonstrated: McCandless didn’t have nearly enough food. He began his journey on April 28 with a ten pound bag of rice—which constituted less than five calorie-days. By May 9, he had only killed one grouse and had written “4th day famine” in his journal. The rice was already long gone.
When Krakauer insists that McCandless had sufficient food in the Alaska bush, it makes me suspect that he has never lived on red squirrels. I eat three in one meal, and that’s with wild rice and vegetables.
The squirrels that McCandless was eating (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) typically weigh five to nine ounces (Whitaker, 1996). Using seven ounces as an average, and realizing that after subtracting the skin, tail, head, bones, feet, and entrails, the edible flesh would constitute about 40 percent of that weight, or 2.8 ounces of meat per squirrel. This means that he would have needed to eat about twenty-five squirrels per day to meet his caloric requirement. If he carefully removed and ate the liver, kidneys, kidney fat, heart, lungs, and brain of each squirrel, he would have about doubled the calories that he received from each animal. Since he probably did this to some extent, I estimate that he needed roughly sixteen squirrels to equal a calorie-day.
I can find no estimate of the caloric value of H. alpinum roots. I use figures for parsnips in these calculations, since they seem like the most physically similar cultivated vegetable. (Note that, despite the common name “wild potato,” H. alpinum is not closely related to potatoes, nor similar in form.) If parsnips have similar energy content, Chris would have needed about nine pounds of wild potato roots to equal one calorie-day.
Since we don’t know exactly which berries Chris was eating and in which proportions, I calculated with the caloric value of blueberries (which is actually higher than that of some of the berries he was eating). It would have taken about thirteen pounds of blueberries to equal one of Chris’s calorie-days.
A hypothetical day’s food for Chris might consist of half squirrel meat, and a quarter each of berries and wild potato roots. In this case he would have needed eight squirrels, 2 ¼ pounds of roots, and 3 ¼ pounds of berries each day. I don’t propose that he ever ate exactly this complement of food—that detail is insignificant. What matters is that his food journal clearly shows him getting only a small fraction of the calories he needed. (Note: the calorie content of various foods used in this section are derived from Grodner et al., 1996, except for dry rice, which is from Van Wyk, 2005.)
If this seems like a high volume of food, that’s because it is. We have sought, developed, cultivated, and become accustomed to calorie-dense foods for so long that most of us have never been without them. We’ve never had to eat food in volumes like this. When you realize that a stick of butter has as many calories as two and a half quarts of blueberries or seven pounds of broccoli, you can see why the innate human desire for calorie-rich, low-fiber food developed.
You can’t just eat whatever is edible; you must eat food in appropriate proportions.
This is a big shocker to modern folks, who get to pick and choose their dietary proportions from an almost endless variety of easily acquired food. Most of us have never really faced this challenge. The survivalist often imagines that she can find an edible plant and just eat it until she is full, but this is simply not so.
Chris had access to a lot of lingonberries. If he didn’t get any meat, couldn’t he just eat more lingonberries and get all his calories that way? Absolutely not. He would have needed to eat almost three gallons of lingonberries per day. He’d probably be vomiting before finishing the second quart. No matter how many lingonberries were available to him, his body would have only accepted them for a small portion of his caloric requirement. This doesn’t make lingonberries “poisonous”; the same is true of virtually every food, although the appropriate proportions vary. Toxicologists do not consider an illness from overindulgence to be a poisoning (Kingsbury, 1965). When Chris wrote, “Extremly weak. Fault pot seed,” it was not because H. alpinum seeds are poisonous, but simply because he had eaten too much, and his body rejected them.
The concept that foods can be eaten only in appropriate quantities is taken so much for granted that, to my knowledge, it has never been given a name in the medical literature. I call it the maximum caloric proportion (MCP). Some foods have a very high MCP, such as milk, meat, and potatoes. They are easily digested and contain few antinutrients or toxins, thus they are suitable as dietary staples. Others, such as cabbage, rhubarb, and raspberries, cannot serve as staple foods and are only suitable to supply small portions of the diet. As one travels north, there tends to be fewer plants with a high MCP; this is why hunter-gatherers from northern latitudes ate meat for the great majority of their calories.
Don’t underestimate the skills and knowledge that living off the land requires.
Chris was neither a good hunter nor a good gatherer. He either didn’t realize these facts, or didn’t think they mattered. Identification represents perhaps one percent of a seasoned gatherer’s knowledge about a particular plant. The rest is learned from experience, not books. Each plant is a complex skill, which often takes much time to master, but many neophyte foragers don’t appreciate this fact. An experienced harvester might locate a plant in half the time of a novice and select better specimens, harvest them six times as fast, then process and prepare them in only a quarter of the time. Even with a skill as deceptively simple as berry picking, skilled collectors typically acquire two to four times as much as inexperienced pickers beside them. Such disparities add up enormously and can be the difference between life and death in a survival situation.
McCandless was also a complete novice when it came to hunting. Skilled hunters kill many times more game than the inexperienced. Porcupines, red squirrels, and spruce grouse are notoriously easy to kill. Of course, he should have eaten easy prey, but mention of the more elusive game is mostly lacking. Snowshoe hares, for example, are found in the same area and provide about six times the meat of a squirrel, but they also require more skill to hunt. It takes years to become a proficient hunter, and Chris sorely lacked such experience. This callowness is all the more egregious when you consider that Chris was attempting to survive in a landscape where high-calorie plant foods do not exist, and hunter-gatherers subsisted largely on meat.
In a very real sense, Chris was killed by the ignorance he displayed when he killed the moose. It took him two days to finish removing the internal organs, which should have been done within an hour or two. He didn’t even commence with smoking the meat until four days after the kill. In June! Beyond this, it is honestly quite hard for me to imagine the naivety that would be required to not know that meat should be preserved by cutting it into thin strips and drying. Sure, plenty of people don’t know this—but they aren’t going into the wilderness alone without provisions. Chris was attempting to live off the land. If he had all this time to read Tolstoy, why didn’t he have time to read about what he was doing? There is an abundance of literature on this topic, and he could have easily done a little research and discovered that this was the standard way to store meat before freezers, almost everywhere in the world. Even a small moose would have provided at least sixty calorie-days, virtually ensuring his survival if he had only known a few basic facts.
Everything he needed was amply supplied, except for knowledge and resourcefulness. He just failed to take advantage of it.
If you are going to live off the land, food needs to be a priority, not an afterthought.
In a long-term subsistence situation, food is the priority. In former times, the native people of the Far North planned each move according to food availability. McCandless largely ignored this consideration, planning his entire wilderness experience based on aesthetic and philosophical considerations.
Moreover, the entire trip was ill-conceived from this standpoint. If Chris was really planning on feeding himself from the wild, he should have gone to a place with a lot of wild food. Instead, he chose what is arguably one of the most difficult places in the country to feed oneself. This is a mistake that I often encounter. People want to go to a remote, wild area to live off the land. Ironically, these areas are remote and wild precisely because of their limited biological production (i.e., hardly any food).
Chris did not seem to think food mattered very much. One wonders how much this had to do with the influence of Tolstoy and Thoreau. Shortly after his terrible experience wasting the moose, he highlighted his passage from Walden:
I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind.
This was not a vacation to Chris; it was a vision quest. I believe that, in the early part of his stay, he saw his caloric deprivation as some kind spiritual necessity and moral statement. By the time he changed his mind, it was too late, and his inexperience caught up with him.
Survival or “Earth living” entails more work than many people claim.
There is a prevalent myth that living by hunting and gathering requires only “two hours of work per day.” Many authors and teachers of wilderness survival preach this, but it is groundless. The idea is based on the work of a few anthropologists (Richard Lee, Irvin DeVore, James Woodburn, and McCarthy and McArthur), popularized by Marshall Sahlins (1972). If you take the findings of these anthropologists out of context, they may seem to support this claim, but careful reading of the original studies brings to light a few things worth pointing out. First, two hours per day was the lowest estimate made in any of these studies. Second, the subjects were life-long professional hunter-gatherers who had been familiar with their respective areas all their lives. Third, most of these estimates did not include the time required for food preparation and other tasks such as building shelters or crafting tools. Further, the estimates are for groups of people, and so represent the many advantages that collaboration and division of labor provide. And finally, the observations come from tropical cultures which invested little to no labor in shelter, clothing, long-term food storage, or containers. Two hours of work per day might feed you—if all of these conditions apply to your “survival” situation.
Many survivalists have been confused and rattled by this myth, thinking that things are so hard for them either because they are inept, or because they just can’t find the hamburger tree. Today we are fed with such ease that, when thrust into a subsistence or survival situation, most people find it remarkably difficult to muster the diligence and effort necessary to acquire sufficient calories. When this frustration is compounded by inexperience, some people are shocked into near paralysis. I suspect that, at least to some degree, this happened to Chris McCandless.
In this essay, I do not wish to pass any judgment on Chris McCandless. He made incredible mistakes, overestimated himself, and underestimated “The Wild,” but that does not make me scornful of him. In fact, I admire his courage despite his fatal hubris. I also admire his search for truth and meaning in a world that is often disgusting in its shallowness and materialism. The fact that he died in this search in no way diminishes the lasting truth of the answers he found. To that end, I hope he would appreciate what I have written here.