Study Guide

Hatchet Man and the Natural World

By Gary Paulsen

Man and the Natural World

Brian looked out to the side and saw a small pond and at the edge of the pond some large animal—he thought a moose—standing out in the water. All so still-looking, so stopped, the pond and the moose and the trees, as he slid over them now only three of four hundred feet off the ground—all like a picture. (3.8)

This is how Brian sees the forest below him just before the plane crashes into the lake. Notice how artificial everything looks to him, as though nothing he's seeing is real. The words the narrator uses to describe the scene ("still-looking," "stopped," "like a picture") clue us in to how removed Brian is from the world of nature at this point. Boy, his world is about to be rocked.

Brian opened his eyes and screamed.

For seconds he did not know where he was, only that the crash was still happening and he was going to die, and he screamed until his breath was gone.

Then silence, filled with sobs as he pulled in air, half crying. How could it be so quiet? Moments ago there was nothing but noise, crashing and tearing, screaming, now quiet.

Some birds were singing.

How could birds be singing? (4.10-14)

Waking up after the plane crash, Brian is terrified and shocked by everything he's been through. Nature, though, carries on with business as usual, totally unconcerned—because that's what nature does.

He was in deep woods and didn't have any matches, couldn't make a fire. There were large things in the woods. There were wolves, he thought, and bears—other things. In the dark he would be in the open here, just sitting at the bottom of a tree.

He looked around suddenly, felt the hair on the back of his neck go up. Things might be looking at him right now, waiting for him—waiting for dark so they could move in and take him. (5.70-71)

Brian senses that nature is not always a friendly, happy place to be. We're not in Kansas anymore, are we?

He could do nothing, think nothing. His tongue, stained with berry juice, stuck to the roof of his mouth and he stared at the bear. It was black, with a cinnamon-colored nose, not twenty feet from him and big. No, huge. It was all black fur and huge. He had seen one in the zoo in the city once, a black bear, but it had been from India or somewhere. This one was wild, and much bigger than the one in the zoo and it was right there.

Right there. (7.38-39)

Brian encounters a large wild animal for the first time and is (understandably) overwhelmed and frightened. Not to mention disappointed—he was hoping for Bigfoot. Like so many of his other experiences in the woods, this one is totally different from anything he's known in his past life.

Brian looked back and for a moment felt afraid because the wolf was so…so right. He knew Brian, knew him and owned him and chose not to do anything to him. But the fear moved then, moved away, and Brian knew the wolf for what it was—another part of the woods, another part of all of it. Brian relaxed the tension on the spear in his hand, settled the bow in his other hand from where it had started to come up. He knew the wolf now, as the wolf knew him, and he nodded to it, nodded and smiled. (13.8)

Now that he's been living in the forest for a longer time and he's basically given up hope of being rescued, Brian's whole relationship with the natural world has changed. There seems to be almost a spiritual understanding between Brian and the wolf—rather than being an intruder, Brian sees himself as part of the natural world around him. This ain't no fairy tale, that's for sure.

Early in the new time he had learned the most important thing, the truly vital knowledge that drives all creatures in the forest—food is all. Food was simply everything. All things in the woods, from insects to fish to bears, were always, always looking for food—it was the great, single driving influence in nature. To eat. All must eat. (14.5)

One of the first lessons Brian learns when he's begun to see himself as part of the natural world, rather than as something outside it, is that food is all-important. Here at Shmoop, of course, we already knew that chocolate is all-important, but this whole food insight is a new thing for Brian. Like all the other animals in the forest, Brian is driven by his need to survive.

But those were his eggs, not the skunk's, and the half smile had been quickly replaced with fear that he would lose his food and he had grabbed a handful of sand and thrown it at the skunk.

"Get out of here…"

He was going to say more, some silly human words, but in less than half a second the skunk had snapped its rear end up, curved the tail over, and sprayed Brian with a direct shot aimed at his head from less than four feet away. (14.8-10)

Whoa, this really doesn't sound fun. This episode helps Brian to see—and, um smell—how little he really understands about nature. He may think he's more powerful than a little skunk, but ultimately his "silly human words" can do nothing to protect him.

He had another half-second to fill his lungs with air and she was on him again, using her head to drive him down into the mud of the bottom. Insane, he thought. Just that, the word, insane. Mud filled his eyes, his ears, the horn boss on the moose drove him deeper and deeper into the bottom muck, and suddenly it was over and he felt alone […]

So insane, he thought, letting sleep cover the pain in his chest—such an insane attack for no reason and he fell asleep with his mind trying to make the moose have reason. (16.14, 23)

Even at this point in the book, when Brian has achieved a certain sense of harmony with nature, the creatures and the forest around him can still totally throw him for a loop. He feels a need to try to explain the moose's behavior in a way that's familiar to his human understanding, but the best explanation he can come up with is that the moose was acting "insane." Sounds like a good description to us. Sometimes nature just doesn't make sense.

He looked down at his feet and saw that there were some fish in his fish pen looking for the tiny bits of bait still left from before the wind came. He fought impatience to get on the plane project and remembered sense, remembered what he had learned. First food, because food made strength; first food, then thought, then action. There were fish at hand here, and he might not be able to get anything from the plane. That was all a dream. (17.11)

In the natural world, Brian reminds himself, physical needs like hunger and thirst have to come first, before less immediate goals can be pursued. Being in nature forces Brian, here and elsewhere in the book, to live in the moment and concentrate on the here and now. It's a lesson we could all use—ideally over a glass of milk and a few Oreos.

It was a strange feeling, holding the rifle. It somehow removed him from everything around him. Without the rifle he had to fit in, to be part of it all, to understand it and use it—the woods, all of it. With the rifle, suddenly, he didn't have to know; did not have to be afraid or understand. He didn't have to get close to a foolbird to kill it—didn't have to know how it would stand if he didn't look at it and moved off to the side.

The rifle changed him, the minute he picked it up, and he wasn't sure he liked the change very much. (19.7-8)

After finding the supplies in the survival bag, Brian reflects on how the rifle and the other tools affect his relationship to the wilderness. The advances of modern technology seem to interfere with his understanding of nature and his place in the woods. Do you think that doing things the easy way (like with a gun, instead of a handmade spear, for instance) might ultimately make it harder for Brian to connect with nature?

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