Wild Cambodia Jungle-Girl

Its happened before, you know.  This wild geezer coming out of the woods thing.  Today’s BBC story about the Wild Cambodia Jungle-Girl reminded me of a story I was researching recently.

In 1911, a gaunt alien figure of a man who spoke a strange tongue drifted out of the wilderness of the California mountains.  He was ‘discovered’ by Dr. Alfred L Kroeber, celebrated Berkeley anthropologist and father of science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin.  The mystery man was identified as the very last survivor of the European massacre of a Native American tribe, the Yahi of California.  Though his real name was never known (because in his society it was taboo to say your own name) Ishi, meaning ‘man’ in the Yahi dialect, had his life famously chronicled in Ishi in Two Worlds (1960).  He was the last wholly free-living Indian in North America.

The story inspired George Stewart to write his science fiction classic, Earth Abides (1949).  Stewart, who like Kroeber was based at Berkeley, chose as his main character for Earth Abides Isherwood, or Ish, who also emerges from the hills into a new and unintelligibly alien world.  Overnight modern industrialised society has been transformed into an agrarian post-apocalyptic landscape.  And in contrast to the more brazen and survivalist accounts that imagine civilisation can be re-established in a few weeks with a semi-wrecked vehicle, a hacksaw and a Swiss army knife, Earth Abides suggests that civilisation may never be the same again, the novel’s title echoing the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Men go and come, but Earth abides.”

With the benefit of hindsight, the most striking aspect of Earth Abides is its lack of post-apocalyptic clichés. There’s no shortage of shelter or rations.  Absent are the leprous biker gangs and the requisite roving mob of mercenaries.  And there is no farcical and final battle between good and evil.  Instead, Ish is a scientist anti-hero; low on survival skills and foresight, but academically sharp.  Stewart recognises that even those who practice science are fraught with human frailties, unlike the archetypal heroes of pulp fiction.  Earth Abides chronicles Ish’s post-apocalyptic life, and his efforts to restore society among the small band of plague survivors.  Much of the story focuses on the lasting positive effect on the ecosystem once the blight of industrialisation has all but vanished. Indeed, at one stage, Isherwood sees a flickering Coca-Cola sign in the distance, and wonders how long the grid will keep alive this suspect symbol of civilisation.

Just as the real-life Native American Ishi emerged from the wilderness as the last envoy of his tribe’s culture, it becomes clear that Ish is the last emissary of American civilisation; the last American. Earth Abides, like many post-apocalyptic or disaster stories, appealed to commonly held secret desires: sanctuary from the confines of civilised society, a less populated world, and the chance to test one’s mettle against the elements.  Albert Einstein had said, in 1945, “I do not believe that civilisation will be wiped out in a war fought with the atomic bomb.  Perhaps two-thirds of the people of the Earth might be killed.  But enough men capable of thinking, and enough books, would be left to start again, and civilisation could be restored”.   But, in contrast, the genius of Stewart’s Earth Abides is in its elegy to mankind.  By the story’s end, the community Ish founded has grown into a motley crew of superstitious hunter-gatherers, as primitive as the Neanderthal, and totally uninterested in rebuilding ‘civilisation’.



2 comments


    God

    January 19, 2007

    Also reminds me of Nell the 1994 film starring SF luminary Jodie ‘Contact’ Foster as a wild child who emerges from the everglades only being able to speak a language developed by her now dead twin sister and herself after her mother predeceases them in the forest. Based on Mark Handley’s play Idioglossia, the film sets itself up as a battle of the scientists – between the doctor who discovers her (Liam Neeson) and who wants to study her in-situ and the psychologist (Natasha Richardson) who wants her moved to a lab …

    Andrew

    January 19, 2007

    When this first broke there was a story on the bbc news web site about how people often cross the border between cambodia and viertnam. Makes you wonder if in 20 years time she “escapes” from her “new family” what her “old family” will do.

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