Into The Wild Essay
The Silent Fire
ODAP and the death of Christopher McCandless
I first became aware of the Chris McCandless story in 2002, when Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild was being offered as an example of contemporary narrative nonfiction in a literature course at the university where I worked at that time. The book had been placed on Reserve in the Library, and I can remember happening upon it and leafing through it pages idly for a moment, before suddenly thinking to myself, with strange certainty, “I know why this guy died.” At the time, I literally knew nothing more than that about the Chris McCandless story.
A more comprehensive reading of the book and further investigation into my initial sense of certainty about the cause of McCandless’ death seemed to demonstrate that neither my initial response, nor my certainty as to the cause of his death were unfounded.
I respectfully submit the results of that investigation to this forum.
The reason I felt that I knew what had killed McCandless with such certainty had to do with the fact that I was familiar with an otherwise obscure story of a concentration camp that had been located in the then German-Romanian occupied region of Transnistria, in the Ukraine, during the Second World War. The camp, known otherwise as “Vapniarca” (a place name) was notable because it was the only camp during the entire wartime period in which the inmates actually staged a food strike – and beyond this – where such a strike was actually “successful.” The reasons underlying the strike had to do with what was called “horse fodder,” or “pea fodder,” a kind of plant that had been stored to feed to the horses belonging to the Soviet Army’s animals. After the advancing Germans and their Romanian allies had occupied the Ukraine, and when other food sources began to grow scarce, these stores of the abandoned “pea fodder” were in turn given to the Jewish inmates at the concentration camp at Vapniarca by the region’s conquerors. Ostensibly, this fodder then became a food source for the prisoners to grind into flour and bake into bread. Essentially, this was both a cruel experiment and a death sentence, and the Jewish victims in time began to realize this.
The Indian physician Charaka of Triputa was the first to recognize it about 400 B.C., a plant that he called “Kalayakhanj.” At about the same time the Greek physician Hippocrates mirrored Charaka’s discovery when he observed, “all men and women of Aions who ate peas continuously became impotent in the legs and that state persisted.” Centuries later, the Bhave Pahesh, written in India in 1550, noted that, “Triputa pulse caused men to become lame and crippled, and irritated the nerves.” By 1671 the Duke of the German State of Wurtemberg had issued an edict that use of the flour of the plant lathyrus sativus was prohibited from use in making bread “because of its paralyzing effect on the legs.” By the early 1800’s, the Spanish painter Franciso de Goya had produced an aquatint entitled “Thanks to the grasspea” which depicts starving poor people eating a porridge made of grasspea fodder, one of whom is lying on the floor before the group and who has been crippled by the plant. In France, the consumption of lathyrus sativus was banned by 1829, and in Algeria in 1881. The precise mechanism involved in the crippling (especially among young males) by the legume was (and is) poorly understood, and yet it had become recognized, as the years passed, as an insidious and dangerous botanical killer. In fact, it was lathyrus sativus that comprised the “horse fodder” which had been given to the inmates at Vapniarca to bake into their bread allotments. What, exactly, is lathyrus sativus? Essentially, it is a member of an ancient food source family known as “pulse” crops which have been consumed as food by human beings for thousands of years. (“Pulse” is a derivative of a Latin word meaning “thick soup.” It is thought that the cultivation of pulse crops dates back for over 10,000 years). Grasspea, or lathyrus sativus, is a high yielding, drought resistant legume that occupies the same general family as soybeans, peas, and similar kinds of plants that produce seeds that are rich in proteins and oils and which have been an important source of food for both humans and animals for many centuries. What is unusual about the grasspea, however, is that, under certain conditions, it can not only be nourishing, but also dangerously toxic.