BOOK REVIEW: Extreme Survival by Michael Tougias

Extreme SurvivalExtreme Survival by Michael Tougias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Release Date: December 6, 2022

This book presents lessons from survival under intense, life-threatening turns of events. It focuses on the psychology of a survival mindset. The author has expertise in maritime survival, and a large portion of the cases explored involve survival at sea. Though the author did seek to include some variety, including concentration camps, home invasions, climbing accidents, etc. However, the maritime focus is worth noting because it’s in contrast to competing books which tend to give roughly equal discussion to a variety of different threats to survivorship.

There are three books I’ve read in recent years on extreme survival – i.e. Kamler’s “Surviving the Extremes,” Ashcroft’s “Life at the Extremes,” and Ripley’s “The Unthinkable.” Of these, the book that is most similar to Tougias’s is Ripley’s. The first two books focus much more on the physiology of survival in extreme environments. However, Ripley’s book also focuses on the psychological / mindset dimension of survival, though through a more diverse set of disasters.

The maritime focus didn’t bother me for three reasons. First, I’d rather have a person with expertise focus in that area than stumble about in lesser-known fields. It allowed Tougias to focus more on the stories of those with whom he’d conducted first-hand interviews. [The author did engage in a variety of stumbling in Chapter 8 [on the sunk cost fallacy] when he discussed the sunk cost fallacy as a separate but similar situation to those survival scenarios he’d already described [which were also cases of sunk costs] – i.e. it sounded like Tougias believes the sunk cost fallacy only applies to financial costs, which isn’t how economists look at the matter.] Second, survival at sea is one of the most intense scenarios I can imagine facing (i.e. I’m not concerned about survival in space, and I feel more experienced, competent, and -thus- less viscerally responsive to survive on terra firma – e.g. high elevation, deserts, etc.) Thirdly, since the book was on mindset, it didn’t need to be as diverse as the Kamler and Ashcroft books which examined the physiology of challenges presented by varied environments.

That said, I’d give a slight edge to the Ripley book, if you could choose only one. Still, this was a solid book on the subject, and did a great job with narrative examples and explanation of lessons. My criticisms are small. For example, like many books, chapters begin with quotations, but I felt they were the wrong quotations. Opening quotes are a widespread and fine approach when the quote is one that taps into the theme of the chapter. However, often the quotes in this book were from people involved in cases that were later presented within the chapter, and so the quotes often lacked context. If the quotes were meant to be hooks, some landed better than others. (A few simply left me befuddled.) On the other hand, the author did an excellent job with summaries at the end of the chapters.

All in all, this was a well-written book on survival, and I learned a great deal from reading it. If you don’t plan on reading multiple books on the subject, you might look into others first, but it’s certainly worth reading. And it’s a topic that gets one interested in reading more.

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BOOK REVIEW: How to Read the Wilderness by the Nature Study Guild

How to Read the Wilderness: An Illustrated Guide to the Natural Wonders of North AmericaHow to Read the Wilderness: An Illustrated Guide to the Natural Wonders of North America by Nature Study Guild
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Release Date: November 22, 2022

This illustrated guide is designed to help readers learn some of the most prolific trees, plants, animals, birds, coastal life forms, and night sky constellations of North America. For plant [and in some cases animal] identification, the book uses a handy flowchart method that asks questions, sending the reader to an appropriate marker depending upon the answer. For wildlife identification, it uses descriptions of not only the animal, but skeletal remains, scat, and tracks. It also gives alternate names and asterisms for constellations.

The pros of this book include: 1.) it focuses on the most common elements and doesn’t get bogged down trying to be all-inclusive; 2.) it uses a flow charts, diagrams, and drawings successfully to do much of the heavy lifting.

The downsides of the book are: 1.) it seems be much more Western US-centric, and often treats everything East of the Rockies as a single zone (not to mention minimal discussion of Canada or Mexico – so maybe it should be thought of more as a US guide;) 2.) in trying to be text-minimal, it occasionally states things in a way that lacks clarity.

If you want to get a basic understanding of the elements of nature for the United States, this book is worth investigating. It’s young reader friendly, but not exclusively so.

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BOOK REVIEW: Forest Walking by Peter Wohlleben & Jane Billinghurst

Forest Walking: discovering the trees and woodlands of North AmericaForest Walking: discovering the trees and woodlands of North America by Peter Wohlleben
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Out: April 26, 2022

Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” was one of those rare books that profoundly changed the way I looked at the world, and so I was eager to read his forthcoming work. This book is at once narrower in focus (i.e. intended to appeal to the North American market, specifically,) but also much much broader (i.e. reflecting upon not just the trees but the other species that reside among them as well as how humans can best get around within the forest.) It might seem strange for Wohlleben (a German forester) to do a book on the North American forests, and I suspect that’s one reason that his one-time translator / editor (Jane Billinghurst) became his co-author. [I don’t know where Billinghurst is from, but she does add many North America-specific vignettes to the book.]

Like “The Hidden Life of Trees” this book is packed with intriguing insights into woodland environments. The twenty-one chapters aren’t explicitly divvied up, but there’s a clear logic to the grouping of chapters. An opening chapter focuses on the importance of having a multi-sensory experience in the woods, and then chapters two through five are concentrated on trees and their various parts.

Chapters six through eight explore species that work on, with, and against trees, with particular focus on fungi and other species that break down and recycle forest material. Chapters nine and ten turn the attention to how to help kids get the most out of their forest experience. The next couple chapters consider how to get the most of seeing the forest at unconventional times, i.e. night and during varied seasons. Then there are a few chapters investigating how to observe other lifeforms of the forest, particularly animals and insects.

Several chapters follow that explore how humans can survive and thrive in wooded ecosystems, including everything from wilderness survival / primitive living skills to dressing to save oneself from ticks and chiggers.

I learned a lot from this book. As I mentioned, it’s full of intriguing little tidbits about the forest.

The opening sentence of the book’s Introduction did mention it being intended as a book one would take into the forest with one, and I would say it’s not that book at all. It’s the kind of book one reads before going out (and probably returns to after coming back) but it’s just not organized in such away to make it worth lugging around (i.e. it’s not like a field guide – set up to allow one to rapidly find what one is interested in on the fly.)

That said, you’ll learn a lot from reading it, and I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: 98.6 by Cody Lundin

98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive by Cody Lundin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

If you’ve seen the Discovery Channel show Dual Survival, you’re familiar with Cody Lundin. He’s the one who looks like a hippie and is always barefoot. 98.6 is a book designed to prepare readers for a wilderness survival situation. To be clear, this book isn’t about going out for a six-week trek. It’s about going out for a day hike and finding your foot stuck in a bear trap or having your jeep washed away in flashflood. It’s about how to stay alive for as much as a few days while search and rescue teams are looking for you (and how to make sure they do look for you.)

As the title suggests, Lundin focuses on the issue of maintaining the body’s core temperature as the key to short-term survival, and special attention is given to the subjects of hypo- and hyperthermia. Besides dressing appropriately, maintaining core temperature involves requirements such as hydration that may not seem relevant at first blush. The heart of the message is that one has to plan for the worst even on apparently mundane treks or drives into the backwoods. Lundin hammers home the importance of letting others know where one is going and by when one will return. However, the bulk of the space is devoted to suggestions about what to pack in your survival kit.

Lundin takes a light-hearted tone while talking about the dire nature of survival in the wild. Many of the graphics are quirky, caricaturesque line drawings (there are also photos–mostly towards the rear of the book in the discussion of gear and kits.) His writing style is conversational—which is to say that he writes like he talks. While this may induce rage in English teachers, I find it’s only problematic if it leads to misunderstandings. (i.e. In conversation there are fewer opportunities for misunderstanding because there is non-verbal communication and the potential for feedback.) Having said that, I can’t recall any cases in which meaning was unclear, so either Lundin is conscientious about this issue, or his editor did a good job of maintaining his style without losing clarity. The conversational tone involves a lot of analogies and metaphors that are sometimes humorous but sometimes over-the-top.

Lundin’s advice runs toward the pragmatic and the frugal. Survival gadgetry and gear is a huge industry, and Lundin’s guide helps a budget-weary amateur outdoorsman know where it’s worth spending a little extra and where it’s likely to be a waste of money. (In some cases, spending more money will leave one worse off in more areas than the pocket-book.)

Despite his folksy tone, it’s clear that Lundin is no stranger to science. One thing that one will get in his guide that’s uncommon in others is scientific explanations–in lay terms–of why some methods or equipment will or won’t work. This ranges from the physics of space blankets to the psychology of fear to the chemistry of nutrition.

Another strength of this guide is that it gives due attention to the crucial nature of the mind in survival. There are a few early chapters devoted to this. Many guides might give a paragraph to the subject before plowing into survival methods. The problem is that some people may die overwhelmed and unable to keep all that knowledge straight. Tips about keeping one’s head seem worth the space.

In addition to the use of humor and anecdotes, there is a clear attempt to make the information memorable. Lundin uses mnemonic devices to help people ingrain information, and frequently recaps important points. He also has a “Cliff Notes” version at the back of the book that condenses his message down into a few pages.

If you like to spend time outdoors, I’d recommend you pick up this book. Of course, reading a book is not going to keep you alive, you have to practice with the gear you assemble, but the book is an important first step.

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