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Portrait of Jack London (date unknown) from George Grantham Baine Collection at Library of Congress

Founder and owner of Patagonia Clothing Company, Yvon Chouinard is a tireless adventurer, philanthropist, supporter of environmental causes, and author of  the 2005 memoir, Let My People Go Surfing. Chouinard spoke with the NEA about the resonance he first experienced reading Jack London's The Call of the Wild as a young man.

[Jack London's] philosophy toward nature is basically what I was looking for when I was young, a philosophy of life that included a life in nature. So he really resonated with me. It's a yearning to get back to a more natural life. It's no different than, you know, Thoreau or some of the naturalist philosophers in the early days of this country. I think it's just recognizing that we're part of nature, that we're not above nature. And the closer we can be to nature the more human we are.

[Buck is] kind of  a metaphor for modern man; we're yearning for something too. And a lot of it is just a yearning to get back to being real humans. . . .you know, that's why people like me have become mountain climbers. You know, climbing mountains is a pretty senseless thing. You don't make any money at it, and you get to the summit and there's nothing there, but it's the striving that is a human need. That's when you're most alive.

I think there's passages in The Call of the Wild that really explain that really well. In fact, one of my favorite passages [I wrote] in my journal when I was, I don't know, 18 or 20 years old: "There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living. This ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame. It comes to the soldier, war mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter, and it came to Buck leading the pack, sounding the old wolf cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. . . ."

When I was younger I used to do some pretty serious climbing, you know, ten-day climbs on the walls of Yosemite and stuff. And after the first day you don't sleep and you're all freaked out and you're scared of the height and all of that. And then the second day becomes a little more normal. And then after about three or four days living on this vertical wall, you become so attuned to your environment and your senses so acute . . . and I'm looking at the crystals in the granite and they're glowing. And there's little tiny red microscopic bugs that I never had seen before. I'm staring at them for minutes at a time. And it's just like the artist, you know, sculpting a piece of granite or marble. And they just completely lose themselves in the art really. And  London did, I think, a fantastic job of explaining that. That's when you're most alive, absolutely.

Hear more about Jack London and his work from Chouinard, animal activist Cheri Lucas, Hollywood legend Robert Redford, and others on the The Call of the Wild radio show.



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