In 1971, Jon Turk turned down a promising career in organic chemistry and chose the path less trodden. Turk, 67, has spent the past 40-plus years traveling the world in search of adventure and meaning in a world obsessed with oil, technology and consumerism.
A longtime environmental educator, upon return from his adventures Turk speaks and writes about what he has learned in an effort to raise awareness about the direction in which human culture is headed and the environmental tipping points we are facing in the new future.
On Wednesday, Oct. 23 Turk will be taking Nelsonites on a virtual journey through words and images across the globe; from sea kayaking in the Solomon Islands to a bike trip across the Tibetan Plateau to the birthplace of the Dalai Lama and into our own backyard.
The Nelson Daily took some time to chat with Turk about his interesting life, travels and what you can expect to hear during his presentation, Crocodiles and Ice, happening at 7 p.m. at the Nelson United Church – presented by the West Kootenay Eco Society and Wildsight.
On what led him to a life of adventuring.
I did the standard deal. I went to an Ivy League college. I went to a big university and got a PhD in organic chemistry. But at one point I went ‘Whoa, this isn’t me. I can’t do this for the rest of my life.’ That was in 1971.
Adventure’s innate in me. I think there are certain people that have an innate something in their souls. There’s one thing that makes you really happy, and if that’s in you, you really better listen to it or you’re going to be unhappy.
On near-death experiences and what pushes him to keep adventuring at age 67.
In 2011 Erik Boomer and I did a circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island . . . At the end of that trip I came close to dying. Not from a single catastrophic event. But I pushed my body so hard that when I finished the expedition my metabolism said it had enough and I got airlifted to Ottawa because I was dying.
At the end of that, they were interviewing me and they asked me where are you going from here. I said I was going to quit. That lasted for about a week. I got home and decided I’m going to tone it down. I’m almost 68. So I have to continue with the realities of my age and my body. But at the same time, this is what I love. This is who I am. I don’t have any alternative.
On the most profound thing he’s ever witnessed in nature.
On Ellesmere, we were trapped for 17 days in this ice constriction. On the north of us we had the whole polar ice cap being driven by a current into a 12-mile constriction between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Ice was flowing through, grinding against the cliffs. It was like tectonic forces. You see these massive amounts of material under tremendous forces breaking, crashing and smashing into each other.
On one level we were threatened with dying, but on another we were feeling the earth with its most beautiful and rawest powers.
On the cultural tipping point humanity is facing in the 21st Century.
Turk describes an experience on a recent trip to a small village in the Amazon Rainforest in which a resident tells him they still use blowguns with poison to hunt. He later walks by an Internet café in the same village where he sees a teenager browsing Facebook.
We live in this modern time in North American and in this world of great opportunity and incredible technology. We’re not going to turn that back and start hunting with blowguns again. But what we’re losing is a sense of deep ecology, and if we lose that and depend only on our technology, we’re in big trouble . . . We cannot lose our spiritual relationship with the earth. If we lose that, then all that technology is going to cause us trouble.
On spending five years living with a shaman in Siberia
My last book (“The Raven’s Gift”) was about five years I spent in Siberia with a shaman. I started out as this Jewish chemist who went to high school with George W. Bush. Then I became this adventurer dude and I end up in Siberia with this woman who grabs me by the elbow and tells me she has something to teach me.
This is the beginning of my reawakening. “The Raven’s Gift” was told through her eyes. Now I’m interpreting what she told me through the eyes of 21st century North America. The proper interpretation of this is critical to our survival.
On Crocodiles and Ice - his talk in Nelson
It follows me from the jungles of the Solomon Islands to the Ellesmere trip. I start with this Mesozoic battle battle between cockroaches and ants. Then onto a crocodile attack, and to the ancestral crocodiles, the black magic crocodiles and I lead into shamanism.
When I talk about shamanism, there are a lot of people who are going to go there with me, but there are a lot of people I’m going to lose. So I start with something people have to believe in; People in the South Pacific ocean with stone tools built ocean-going ships and sailed thousands of miles across the ocean, where they populated Polynesia and Hawaii. You have to believe that because it’s true.
If we can start with that, then we’re going to appreciate the potential in humanity. By humanity, I mean you and me. We have this huge potential and this is the potential we’re going to need in a major way to make this transformation into the 21st Century.