The great thing about a show like Man vs. Wild on the Discovery Channel is that you can watch other people sink into quicksand in the Moab Desert, bite the heads off snakes and get dumped into a piranha-infested jungle river -- all from the comfort of your own La-Z-Boy recliner!
Bear Grylls: Knowles' descendant?
Of course, since it's a so-called "reality" show, the action should bear some resemblance to actual events. Man vs. Wild's British star, former Special Forces op Bear Grylls, has had some credibility problems lately. The producers claim that their rugged hero "strands himself in popular wilderness destinations where tourists often find themselves lost or in danger," but according to an eye-popping story in the UK-based Daily Mail, Grylls was spending some of his evenings ensconced in luxury hotels, where the amenities included Internet access and blueberry pancake breakfasts.
On a trip to California where he was supposedly surviving on "just a water bottle, a cup and a flint for making fire," he had room service. And was he really stranded on a remote Hawaiian archipelago as a "real-life Robinson Crusoe"? Naw, the paper said, he had the keys to a motel room. Even the "wild mustangs" he lassoed in the Sierra Nevadas were tame and delivered by trailer.
When I heard Grylls' sad story last year it was rather serendipitous, because I'd spent the last eight months working on a biography of a man who, long before television, was the prototype reality show contestant. And he was charged with being a fraud, too!
Knowles disappears into the forest, August 1913. / Naked in the Woods
My book is entitled Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery (Da Capo), and it tells the story of a former trapper and hunting guide who, in August of 1913, left his clothes behind and disappeared into the forests of Maine for two months to prove he could live off the land. It was a publicity stunt for the struggling Boston Post newspaper, and it couldn't have been better timed.
In 1913, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes was being serialized to tumultuous applause, and Jack London's Call of the Wild was still a bestseller. The frontier had been closed, and Americans were leaving the farm for industrial jobs in the big cities. Were we losing our connection to nature? Not if Joe Knowles could help it.
"When I emerge in October, I shall be sufficiently clothed to walk the city streets," he proclaimed in the Post. "From cap to heels, I shall be fitted out with at least one [outfit], and may possibly have a variety to suit weather conditions." He said he expected to dine regularly on broiled frog's legs, and promised to send out regular birch bark dispatches to the newspaper, written in charcoal taken from his cooking fires.
One of Knowles' charcoal sketches from his (disputed) ordeal in the wilderness. / Naked in the Woods
The dispatches told of many adventures, and were illustrated with his vivid sketches. He trapped a bear, and emerged wearing its skin to a huge welcome. As many as 200,000 people thronged to catch a glimpse of the Nature Man on his first day back in civilization. Co-eds lined up to pinch his muscles, and Harvard's director of physical education proclaimed him the most perfect specimen of his age.
The crowds greet the Nature Man in Boston, circa October 1913. / Naked in the Woods
But just as Knowles was embarking on a lucrative vaudeville career (making fire on stage was among his tricks) the rival Boston American bannered that he was a fake. Instead of a crude lean-to, he'd been staying at a comfortably appointed cabin, eating canned beans. The bearskin was bought from a trapper, the American said, and it had bullet holes in it.
Knowles fired back with a spirited defense, and the back and forth was a tonic for the circulation departments of both papers. It was small wonder then, that when tempers cooled a bit the Hearst papers (which included the American) made Knowles a lucrative offer of their own. He went into the woods twice more, with the first trip (on the California/Oregon border) interrupted by the start of World War I and the second in the Adirondacks aborted by the Eve to the Nature Man's Adam (the comely Elaine Hammerstein, star of stage and screen).
Knowles in his bearskin: Were there bullet holes? / Naked in the Woods
Bear Grylls is still working. He puts faces in front of screens, as Knowles got them reading the newspapers. And natural fakery continues unabated. As the Guardian newspaper's George Monbiot reports in "Planet of the Fakes": "Natural history programs lie more frequently than any other documentaries. They film animals in cages and pretend they have been filmed in the wild. They import tame predators, and release them to hunt wild prey. They cut between uneventful sequences to suggest that animals are interacting. Most of the soundtrack is added to the film in the studio: the noise of antlers clashing is likely to be the noise of technicians dueling with broomsticks."
What's worse, the programs make it appear that the animals live in pristine wilderness, when in reality their habitats are ever shrinking and hemmed in by humanity.
Oh well, it's all about production values, isn't it? Joe Knowles never had kids, but he certainly had many descendants.
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