Mountain Life columnist Jon Turk talks lions, myth, and storytelling in his latest book. Words :: Feet Banks.
Jon Turk is not only Mountain Life’s original columnist, he’s also our resident expert on how to avoid being drowned by a crocodile and evade death at the jaws of a charging lion.
For protection against lions, you need a rungu—the thick, knotted, hardwood club used by the Samburu people of Kenya. In his latest book, Tracking Lions, Myth, and Wilderness in Samburu, Turk recounts arriving at a remote “lion research camp” (more realistically a safari tourism outpost) on the African savannah, being handed his own rungu, and instructed by his guide Ian on how to stop a charging 250 kg lion.
“Maybe you think to hit the lion on the head?”
I don’t need to make a fool of myself, so I shrug noncommittedly.
“No, you don’t,” he explains.
Ian takes the rungu back so he can demonstrate: “Like this.” Then, with a silent, explosive burst, like an NFL running back breaking through the line at the Super Bowl, he leaps into the air, spins sideways and swings his weapon horizontally at waist height.
I still haven’t quite comprehended the lesson until he explains, “You jump up and out of the way, so the lion does not eat you.” Ian looks at me intently, head cocked slightly to the side, to make sure I am listening, “And then, as you are falling back to the ground, you hit him on the side of the neck. Hard. Do you understand? You swing the rungu with your falling body and the arm. Together. Break his neck. If you hit him on the head, he will not stop. He will eat you.”
Photo: Rocky Mountain Books
“Thank you. Got it.” I try jumping, spinning and swinging, and Ian smiles feebly as if to say, “If that’s the best you can do, my friend, then I guess that’s the best you can do. You are a white-haired white man, after all. We’ll have to live with that.”
Spoiler alert: the book isn’t just about lions. Turk uses his time in Samburu to dig into the history of human civilization and demonstrates that, for the past couple hundred thousand years (at least) the stories we tell have defined the path ahead—from the Cognitive Revolution 70,000 years ago that led to the development of language and a population explosion, to the mechanized labour of the Industrial Revolution, to the current climate crisis.
Turk argues that the narratives we weave (or those woven around us) hold the keys to surviving our current perils of global warming, plague, pestilence, ego, greed and the impending self-destruction of humanity. On the other hand—yin and yang, black and white—the fundamental dilemma of humankind is that the narratives we weave created those same problems in the first place.
“We don’t need something new to solve our current problems,” Turk explains. “We need to rediscover something very old.”
Now in his mid-seventies, Turk has been a professional storyteller for decades and penned five adventure books, 30-plus textbooks and spoken at numerous events, including a TEDx in Canmore in 2016. As he releases what he says will be his last book (it came out in early September) we caught up with Jon to talk about storytelling, lions and why he jumps off cliffs to stay present.
Mountain Life: You wrote the first college-level environmental science textbook back in 1970, but most people know you for your adventure stories. This book feels the most like a hybrid or a bridge between those two worlds.
Jon Turk: This is really the book I’ve always wanted to write. To talk about the problems we have in a scientific way, but at the same time wrap it into a story that makes people want to turn the page. I wanted to write a book that encompassed more than a specific region or tribe; I wanted to wrap the condition of humankind into one story. Hopefully it works.
ML: You cover literally the entire history of humans in this book, but one part I really liked was early on: You’re alone and crawling into a thicket to get away from, maybe, rebels armed with AK-47s and you stop and say, “Feel this moment, you will never be here again.” When did you start tapping into that thought process, what people now call being present or finding a flow state? Has it gotten easier over the years?
JT: Oh you know it, the first time you scare the living bejesus out of yourself. You put yourself in a situation and think, “Oh my gosh, I could be dead in the next five seconds.” And then you feel your whole body focus in on the now and you have to focus completely on what you do in the next five, ten, ninety seconds to stay alive. And there’s this amazing clarity and wow… That was cathartic, that cleaned me out, that made me. A time when all the stories were gone from my head and I was no longer enslaved by thinking and the big brain… That is a wondrous feeling and you start reading later that this is what all the great teachers have been teaching for centuries. Now, putting yourself at risk is a harsh way to do it; if I was any good at meditation, I could do it without jumping off a cliff or whatever… but yeah, this is how people like us do it.
ML: And that ties into the main guts of this book, the ideas of those stories that we are always telling ourselves and each other, how our big brains take over.
JT: Yes, and of course some of those stories can help us survive. They are predictions. So, when we see something moving in the bushes and we can’t identify it, we tell ourselves a story—the last time I saw that, it was a lion, so it might also be a lion this time. But then, over time, our stories can get wacky, and we start enlarging them or talking about things that don’t matter and eventually drive ourselves crazy. Or worse, cause real damage to ourselves and our planet. Our brains have gotten away from us—they can really get in the way by creating a narrative that doesn’t exist, or by buying into someone else’s false narrative.
ML: And the next thing you know the planet is on fire, the ice is melting, people are fighting over any difference of opinion and we’re destroying the very things that sustain life—the air, the water, the land—to save a story we made up ourselves called “the economy.”
JT: Look, you recently turned me on to a book about fungi and mycelium, and some of those species have been around for a couple billion years. Humans, with our big brains, we haven’t been around that long—it’s an evolutionary experiment that’s only been tried once on this planet; this is our first try. And big brains are really good at predicting things and telling stories and building rocket ships, but I don’t know if the big brain is a real long-term solution to survival. The beauty of nature is hardwired into us, but so is this sense of tribalism. So, if someone on TV says, “Join the Pepsi Generation,” that means join the tribe. All you have to do is buy a Pepsi and you are with us, you are a member. And this competes with the cleanliness of nature, which is non-tribal. So there’s an evolutionary struggle there—the mythologies that gave us power have been hijacked and it keeps exploding. We’re using too much and expecting too much, and that’s a great tragedy.
But you can go out in nature—even without the danger—just sit in a canoe for three weeks and by the end of the first day those stories will diminish. By the end of three weeks, you’ll be living in a different headspace. Nature cleans us: A day is better than an hour, and five days is better than one and so on. But that’s one lesson people can take away from this book—nature will clean us out and give us purity.
ML: I think that is a good place to leave it—nature as salvation. Thanks, Jon. Hey, you mentioned that this will be your last book. Was that something you knew going in or did you realize that along the way?
JT: Before I wrote my last book, I said it would be the last book. So we’ll see. You can call me a liar, just don’t hit me on the head.
ML: Fear not Jon Turk, we’re saving that maneuver for the attacking lions.
(And for the record, the easiest way to avoid a crocodile attack, as outlined in Turk’s 2016 book Crocodiles and Ice, is to submerge your face in the water at the start of your journey to remind the river and the crocodile spirits that you are a friend. Explained to him by locals, this technique worked for Turk while paddling in crocodile country throughout the Solomon Islands. Alternatively, conventional wisdom on crocodiles clearly states that once you are attacked, it’s best to just stay calm until you get a chance to punch the croc in the eye as hard as you can and slip away… What story works best for you?)
The new Jon Turk book, Tracking Lions, Myth and Wilderness in Samburu is available now and you can listen to a full-length conversation with Jon that covers his books, adventures, and a plethora of other topics on the new “Live It Up With Mountain Life” podcast.