From The Mag

Be Here Now: the art and science of survival

Be Here Now: The art and science of survival |
Photo by Joel Hindman.
Written by Mara

Online Reprint

Originally printed in issue #101 (May 2018) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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by Mara Schmid and Ashlee Richman

March’s Blue Skies Book Club read was “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Lawrence Gonzales. From F-18 pilots to sailors to rock climbers, Gonzales examines the biological and psychological implications of risk and survival to explore why some humans seek out danger—and why some die while others survive.

Ashlee: Personally, something I’ve always struggled with (in life generally, but especially in skydiving) is planning. I love having a plan and sticking to it and sometimes it’s a struggle for me to let go of a plan even though it’s clear it’s gone to shit. One of my first instructors told me, “Plan the dive and dive the plan,” and that’s what I am instinctively drawn toward—that feeling of control, of predictability.

Mara: The thing about having a plan is that it works until it doesn’t. Life is generally predictable, which is why it can be so easy to build habits. You do A; the world responds with B. Over and over. But then one day the world responds with C or you intended to do A but actually did D. Things change, go awry. We have to be willing and able to update to a changing reality.

Ashlee: Though the entire book spoke to me, I especially loved the way Gonzales talked about planning: “In nature, adaptation is important; the plan is not. It’s a zen thing. We must plan. But we must be able to let go of the plan, too.” And then, “Plan the flight and fly the plan. But don’t fall in love with the plan. Be open to a changing world and let go of the plan when necessary so that you can make a new plan.” It’s a longer mantra, but I’m changing to it, for sure.

Mara: The No. 1 most interesting thing to me was that one of the demographics with the best survival rates in lost-in-the-wilderness scenarios is children six and under. While no one is sure exactly why, the best theory is that it’s because young children listen to their instincts. They rest when they’re tired. They curl up in a hollow tree if it’s cold. They aren’t likely to end up in the dangerous place of panicked by danger yet conscious enough to push past their natural limits.

PD New Beginning

Ashlee: I also found it interesting and inspiring that all the stories of survivors began with people recognizing their environment and even taking time to really appreciate the beauty and power of nature surrounding them. Or better put: “To be open to the world in which you find yourself, to be able to experience wonder at its magnificence, is to begin to admit its reality and adapt to it. Be here now… To experience wonder is to know this truth: the world won’t adapt to me. I must adapt to it. To experience humility is the true survivor’s correct response to catastrophe.”

Mara: I really liked Chapter 6, about chaos theory. Every system will collapse at times. Nothing will ever be perfectly predictable or safe. The best you can do is mitigate the odds that it will collapse on you.

Ashlee: This is a book I would recommend to literally anyone. I especially want non-skydiver friends and family to read it because I think it may help them come away with a better understanding of why we do what we do (which they otherwise consider risky or “not worth it”). A quote for this: “Better to take the adventure, minimize the risks, get the information, and then go forward in the knowledge that we’ve done everything we can … To live life is to risk it.”

Mara: I agree. I think every single person could gain something useful from this book.

Ashlee: One last quote that I loved and want to hold on to when life feels like a particularly daunting journey (I know, lots of quotes—two-thirds of the book is underlined and earmarked), “Ultimately, it is the struggle that keeps one alive. What seems like a paradox is simply the act of living. Never stop struggling. Life itself is a paradox, gathering order out of the chaos of matter and energy. When the struggle ceases, we die.”

Join us next month in our book club, hosted at, for “Above All Else” by Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld!

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