Standing in the lake back in the present, Brian is confident that he will never be the same as he was before his day of First Meat. He also relives other First Days from his weeks in the woods, including the first time he made a working arrow and the first time he killed a rabbit. He reflects that although he is still always hungry, he finally understands how to obtain food and take care of himself.
These reflections highlight the permanency of the changes that Brian has undergone. With each hard-won “first,” he marks a step away from his previous, less mature self. Brian also understands that relying on himself also means relying on the world around him.
Brian spots a foolbird in the brush and carefully hunts it, finally hitting it with an arrow after several patient attempts. After killing the bird, he kneels at the edge of the lake to wash the blood off of his hands. Suddenly, some small instinct tells Brian to look over his shoulder, and he turns just in time to see an enormous moose running toward him. The moose throws him into the water with her forehead and then follows him into the lake.
This sudden change from success to peril illustrates how much Brian is still at the mercy of chance, even though he has carefully learned how to work with the natural world. Just as the plane crash was a freak accident, so too does this unexpected attack come from nowhere and demonstrate the inherent risk of being alive.
The moose continues to attack Brian, attempting to push him under the water with her head. He thinks the word “insane” over and over again, helpless to get free, until suddenly the moose stops, and Brian is able to come to the surface and breathe. Seeing that the moose is not paying attention to him, Brian begins to swim to shore, but as soon as he moves, the moose attacks him again, pushing him under the water and smashing into his ribs.
The word that Brian fixates on in this moment, “insane,” highlights the contrast between this episode and the rational balance that Brian has come to perceive throughout the wilderness. Brian thought that he had discovered the logical order of everything in nature, but the moose shows him that even in such an elegant system, random misfortune still occurs. Coming to terms with this kind of irrational pain is a crucial final step in Brian’s journey to grow through adversity.
When he is able to surface again, Brian realizes that his ribs are injured and wonders how badly he’s hurt. Slowly, he moves out of the water little by little, trying not to attract the moose’s attention. He makes his way into the edge of the woods and realizes that he has left his bow and spear in the water, but thinks that he will have to leave them behind. Just then, the moose walks away along the shoreline and Brian goes back for his possessions once she is out of sight.
The moose’s sudden departure shows again how quickly reality can shift, this time from dangerous to peaceful. The balanced natural world still exists, even after the intrusion of the sudden attack.
Brian slowly makes his way back to his camp, unable to breathe deeply because of the pain in his lungs. He dwells on the lack of reason in the moose’s attack, unable to come up with any reason for her behavior. When he arrives at the shelter and begins to fall asleep, he feels grateful to be alive with fire and fish to eat nearby.
Brian’s immediate reaction to the attack demonstrates both how much he has matured since the start of the book and how much more growth remains ahead of him. He copes with the significant setback and feels grateful for what he has, but at the same time, he fixates on trying to understand what is essentially unexplainable, just as he did with his parents’ divorce at the book’s start.
Brian awakens in the night, still in pain, to a sound that he cannot identify. The sound is like a strange, distant roar, and he feels afraid of it. Brian gathers his weapons and slowly realizes that the sound reminds him of something he saw on television: the roar of the wind of a tornado. Understanding that a tornado is heading toward his camp, he realizes it’s too late to defend himself.
The complete inevitability of the tornado heightens the intensity of the random dangers that Brian continues to face. In this case, he simply accepts that there is nothing he can do, rather than dwelling on the irrationality as he did with the moose attack. This reaction hints at the further growth that is yet to come.
The tornado hits suddenly and throws Brian into the walls of his shelter, reinjuring his ribs and blowing coals from the fire onto him at the same time. Brian huddles in the shelter and hears the tornado rip away the wall of his shelter and all his tools, throwing them out into the lake. He thinks desperately that he wants to “stay and be,” wondering if he is praying. Brian opens his eyes to see the lake torn into waves by the tornado. Then, the tornado suddenly vanishes, tearing trees down as it leaves the lake. Brian realizes how quickly his sense of stability has vanished and thinks that he has lost everything. Without the fire to keep them away, the mosquitos swarm around him once again.
As the tornado rips through his camp, any illusion that Brian had truly gained independent control over the natural world is stripped away. He can exist only in open connection with it, a fact that he seems to realize when he chooses the simple words “stay and be” as a kind of prayer. His sense of having lost everything echoes his feelings after the rescue plane missed him, but this time, his desire to go on living is clear and forceful, showing how much stronger he has grown in the intervening weeks.
Lying awake, Brian slowly understands that this time, he feels able to survive his setbacks. He thinks that he is “tough where it counts—tough in the head,” and finds a new sense of resolve as he finally falls asleep. When he wakes up, his ribs hurt more than ever, but when he goes to drink from the lake he sees that some of his possessions, including the wall of his shelter and his bow, are scattered around the beach, broken but still useable. Then, he looks out at the lake and sees a bright yellow object sticking out of the water down the shoreline. He realizes that the object is the tail of the submerged plane. Thinking of the pilot sunken in the water, he walks along the shore to the plane and focuses his mind on the pilot, thinking: “Have rest.”
Again, Brian demonstrates a new resilience and a thoughtful response to challenges, even in his most devastating situation yet. His concern for the pilot underscores this change, displaying Brian’s ability to think beyond himself and his own needs in a way that he was initially unable to. The revelation that the plane’s tail is above water is also the books most dramatic example of the gifts hidden within the challenges of the natural world. The tornado destroys the life that Brian had built, but it leaves him with the potential for even greater growth.