As Canada has become less wild, many of these obstacles have been recognized by writers to exist internally, as Atwood says: "no longer obstacles to physical survival but obstacles to what we may call spiritual survival, to life as anything more than a minimally human being."
Grim survival is that sort of survival which overcomes a specific threat which destroys everything else about one, such as a hurricane or plane crash. One supposes that survival in a war setting, or even survival of a serious personal tragedy (such as rape) might also qualify. Of this sort of survival, Atwood writes: "The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life."
Cultural survival is also a vital issue. French Canadians struggled to retain their language and religion under the rule of an anglophile government. Today all Canadians are struggling to maintain their independence under the cultural and economic global hegemony of America. Survival can in this sense be either quite positive, as in the maintenance of a valued cultural integrity, or refer to what Atwood calls: "a vestige of a vanished order which has managed to persist after its time is past, like a primitive reptile..." Either way it is a typical response against colonialism.
When dealing with Atwood's writings, and it seems with Canadian writing in general, the issue of colonialism is quite important. Atwood's very existence is a protest against colonialism, because the colonial mindset rebels against the very existence of its colonies developing their own literary traditions. Atwood speaks of the way in which colonial powers and the colonized alike remain "indifferent" to the presence of great Canadian writers. " Atwood found this indifference of Canada to Canadian talent puzzling and disappointing.... she noted a tendency among Canadians to become aggressive nationalists when living [in America]. She explained the behaviour as 'The Great Canadian Lie' because urban Canadians reinvented themselves as Great White Hunters and rugged naturalists." (NiR) the idea of survival and the value of naturalism is seen as a response to colonial pressure, even as the ignorance of a nation's own literature may reflect a blind struggle to survive.
Nature and Meaning in Surfacing.
Surfacing is one of Atwood's early books, in which she begins to formulate her approach to subjects such as nature and survival. In this story, a young woman returns to the wilderness where she grew up with her family in an ultimately vain attempt to find her vanished father. While there she explores her relationship with her more "civilized" urban friends and with society at large, while reliving expanses of her childhood and past. In the isolation of these woods, the four friends who have ventured forth together find their individual relationships all decaying and falling apart.
Meanwhile, the protagonist traces her father's steps, at first thinking him mad and eventually coming to realize that he had quite sanely -if mystically-- somehow discovered a power in the woods and waters which predates the civilization of humankind and offers to give them back the truth of natural life. Under the influence of these spirits, she realizes that she has been lying to herself about her abortion, and slowly reverts to a primal state in which she lives in the woods briefly as a savage thing. In the end, she returns (one assumes) to her own humanity, carrying with her the animal determination to survive without becoming a victim or selling out to the Americanization of her soul.
This story, though it presents a sort of deification of nature, certainly does not treat the wild as Disney might, making it simple and non-aggressive. Nature, in this work, though it is worthy of reverence and represents the best of what is available to humankind on the one hand, is also shown as being capricious and capable of great harm. The narrator casually, if heartbreakingly, admits that "it's not unusual for a man to disappear in the bush... all it takes is a small mistake, going too far from the house in winter, blizzards are sudden, or twisting your leg so you can't walk out, in spring the blackflies would finish you, they crawl inside your clothes, you'd be covered with blood and delirious in a day." (Atwood, Surfacing, 43) Nature, though the ultimate shape of purity in this novel, is also a great threat to those who under-estimate it.
The idea of nature as a threat is evident in Atwood's writing on Survival, where there is an entire chapter called "Nature the Monster." In this chapter, she speaks of the death by nature (as distinguished from a natural death) which Atwood reports seems to kill more humans in Canadian fiction than in modern Canadian reality. This evil manifestation of nature occurs when "something in the natural environment murders the individual, though the author, who is of course the real guilty party, since it is he who has arranged the murder." (Atwood, Survival 54-55) in Surfacing this sort of death by nature is a constant threat. The protagonist suspects that her father may have died thus, and it is frequently recalled how her brother nearly drowned to death.
Yet it is not nature which is the greatest threat to the protagonist, in the end - it is not actually nature that she must fight against to survive, but rather it is humanity itself. She refers to being human as like being German after the war, complicitly guilty of all the crimes of her race against animals, each other, and the earth. The greatest threat to human survival is not the failure to find food, to mate and eat and survive, but the risk that as a species we will make ourselves and our environment extinct. This fear is vocalized through out the novel by different speakers, embodied in the fear that Americans will start a war to steal Canada's money, or in the threat that greedy power companies will raise the lake level and erase the protagonist's home. Even the threat of nuclear annihilation is mentioned, though it does not seem to be such a central focus compared to the threat of cultural and environmental annihilation posed by the Americans.
In the end, even more important that the developing heroine than her mere search for food. She focuses in the end, "above all" on the issue of resisting victimization by other humans. "I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone... The word games, the winning and losing games are finished; at the moment there are no others but they will have to be invented, withdrawing is no longer possible and the alternative is death." (Atwood, Surfacing, 197)
Humanity is far more of a threat than nature could ever be - not just humanity exterior to the individual, but also the trappings of civilization which have been internalized -- and this threat will continue until the individual returns to the truth of their mammalian state. It is clear through-out Surfacing that the great problem with humanity is that it has divorced itself from nature - that its technology has made it cruel and exploitative, fencing its psyche away from the test of the world.
This forbidding is evidenced in the way in which the protagonist was slowly taught by her ancient gods, in the end, that she must not pass into the garden because it has been separated and alienated from nature by its fence. "The cabins, the fences, the fires and paths were violations: now his own fence excludes him, as logic excludes love." (Atwood, Surfacing, 192) This is the same law that is at play when the gods forbid her to eat out of tins and glass jars, which confine and separate food from the earth.
Even before this, however, one may see the protagonist slowly becoming aware of the way in which human separation from nature is improper. One of the first hints come in her slow rejection of fishing with hooks, "if we dived for them and used our teeth to catch them, fighting on their own grounds, that would be fair, but hooks were substitutes and air wasn't their place." (Atwood, Surfacing, 127) Yet it is not merely that technology, be that technology fences or jars or hooks, is evil. In fact, at one point in the book the gods seem to rejoice in her ritual use of clothing, whereas at another point they ask her to reject clothing - and yet still allow her to keep a blanket. So it is not the existence of technological remnants such as cloth that are a problem, but rather it is that the technology serves to distance the individual from the truth of their physicality, just as the protagonist suggests that the neck separates the intellect from the body.…