Friday, August 27, 2010

Guys Gone Wild


Slate reports on “the most isolated man on the planet.”

Deep in the Brazilian Amazon, he is probably the last survivor of a tribe that was never contacted by the outside world. Officials detected his presence about fifteen years ago and in 2007 declared a 31 square mile area off-limits to trespassing and development in order to protect him from the logging and ranching that is closing in on his home.

After some disastrous efforts to assimilate isolated indigenous people into modernity, Brazil is now observing a policy of no contact. Before establishment of the safe zone around this man, at least one of his camps was bulldozed and one well-meaning individual approaching him took an arrow in the chest.


Reading of this survivor in the Amazon, I immediately thought of “Ishi,” the last remaining member of the Yahi people in California.

In August of 1911, an emaciated man walked into a slaughterhouse near Oroville, California, where he was discovered and turned over to the local sheriff. Nobody could understand his language, but anthropologist Alfred Kroeber began working with Ishi, who became something of a live exhibit at a San Francisco museum.

Theodora Kroeber, who met and married Alfred long after Ishi’s death in 1916, wrote an account of his life, Ishi – Last of His Tribe, fictionalized but compelling nevertheless. I understand that her other book, Ishi in Two Worlds is the better of the two.

Inspired by the story, Thomas Merton wrote Ishi Means Man, a book of essays on Native Americans. I’ve not read Merton’s musings on Ishi, but have always found his words valuable.



I’m a map fanatic and found this one via Human Flower Project. Showing the 48 coterminous United States, it is color-coded to indicate the distance from any location to the nearest road.

In our area, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would appear to be the place to get the farthest distance possible from a road. But where in the Park would that be?

I unrolled my big map of the Smokies and grabbed a dinner plate. After studying the map, I found one space where the dish would fit without covering any roads. The center of that space was near Bone Valley, west of Hazel Creek. Even there, you’re probably no more than six miles – as the crow flies – from the closest road.


Arley Phillips, the so-called “Wild Man of Cataloochee” died in January, aged 76. He lived in a rough house without running water or electricity in Haywood County’s White Oak community. Neighbors and friends said he would cut his own hair, pull his own teeth, avoid doctors and ignore most offers of help. Others recalled chance encounters with him in the woods near his home and the area around Cataloochee, and spoke fondly of his independent spirit.


Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, an account of Timothy Treadwell’s life and death among the grizzly bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park, is brilliant.

Timothy Treadwell - 1957-2003

The takeaway for me was this:

Treadwell exchanged the prospect of a long and safe life for several incredible summers that carried a high degree of risk. All said, he got the better end of the deal.

Herzog has made several films in which obsession ends in disaster and this is no exception.

Counterpoint to Treadwell's bubbly faith in the possibility of connecting with nature, Herzog interjects:

And what haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.


Wilburn Waters, the Hermit Hunter of White Top, was a legend in northwestern North Carolina and southwestern Virginia. Born in 1812 to a French Huguenot father and half Catawba mother, Wilburn was orphaned at the age of three. Later, he was apprenticed to a saddler, then his time was sold to the Wilkes County sheriff and at age seventeen, he ran away to the mountains.

Wilburn received his introduction to hunting dangerous game by trapping and killing a wolf that experienced trappers thought uncatchable. In 1832, Wilburn settled on White Top Mountain where he hunted bears, deer, and wolves. Of the latter he sometimes pursued entire packs, one time returning from his winter's hunt with forty-two wolves killed.

His life story was told in several books, including The Life and Adventures of Wilburn Waters published by his friend, Charles B. Coale, in 1878

Coale described how Waters lived in his tent on White Top Mountain:

This was his habitation for four years, where he lay at night with his feet to the fire on the outside, often lulled to rest after a hard day's hunt, by the howls of wolves and the screams of catamounts, which would prowl around but were too much afraid of the fire to approach very closely.

The Life and Adventures of Wilburn Waters is online at

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