After a terrifying plane crash that leaves thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson alone in the wilderness to fend for himself, he becomes acquainted with a rich, complex natural world that was previously foreign to him. Even after he is rescued at the end of the book, Brian’s interactions with that new world continue to shape him in profound ways. At first, the wilderness around Brian appears chaotic to him, just as his life in New York feels after his parents announce their divorce. However, as his experience in the wilderness unfolds, Brian slowly begins to see the rational order and deep value of the natural world—a new worldview that brings him peace and guides his actions even when he returns home. Through Brian’s experiences, Paulsen illustrates that nature provides a model of profound balance that can and should inform human behavior, even for people who live far from the wilderness.
At first, Brian is so used to interpreting the world around him as a chaotic blur that he can barely perceive the beautiful nuances that now surround him. Accustomed to the sensory overload of city life, Brian cannot at first see the natural balance that becomes so clear to him later on. Looking at the lake for the first time, Brian is dazzled by the reflection of the trees in the water, with reality and illusion blending together and everything looking like “a green and blue blur.” Initially, Brian is unable to appreciate the full beauty that he perceives later on. When Brian impulsively yells how hungry he is, he is surprised to find that complete silence follows his voice. He realizes that “in all his life he had never heard silence before,” underscoring how different his city life has been from his time in the wilderness. After that clarifying silence, Brian hears the birds and insects start making noise one by one, hearing them now as individuals rather than a blur of sound. With this moment, Paulsen demonstrates that quiet and peace underlie even the wildest of natural environments, and suggests that cities lack the conditions necessary to truly appreciate the nuances of nature.
Brian’s burgeoning understanding of the careful balance and logic underpinning the seemingly chaotic natural world around him comes from the dangers that he discovers. Initially they seem purely threatening, but many of these dangerous situations turn out to conceal clues that help him survive. The wolf that initially frightens Brian quickly becomes a symbol of his newfound sense of connection with nature. Brian reflects that “he knew the wolf for what it was, another part of the woods, another part of it all.” With this realization, Brian’s fear fades, and he gains further confidence that he has a right to live in harmony with the wilderness. Even the skunk that nearly blinds Brian with its spray demonstrates the crucial fact that food can be quickly and easily be lost. After this experience, Brian resolves to protect his food supply above all else, learning an important key to survival from a painful experience. In this way, the skunk helps Brian even as it harms him, again showing the presence of an essential balance in nature. Later, when a moose attacks Brian, he is stunned that he cannot find any reason for the moose’s “insane” behavior. Although it seems to be at odds with the logic that Brian discovers elsewhere in the woods, its randomness also serves a purpose for Brian: the moose’s attack illustrates the continued possibility of genuinely unexpected events even within a sensible environment. Brian’s ability to make peace with such random misfortune is a crucial part of his successful coping upon returning home to his divorced parents. Over and over, Paulsen demonstrates that each misfortune contains a lesson that Brian will need in order to continue surviving.
As Brian continues to grow more confident living in the wilderness, he learns to fully appreciate the finely balanced order of the natural world around him. Where he once saw chaos, he now sees logic and opportunity everywhere, an understanding that brings him peace even in the face of difficulty. Over time, Brian settles into a routine of maintaining his camp and food stores while repeating variations of the phase: “There were these things to do.” By sorting the complex landscape into rational concrete tasks, Brian gains a sense of stability and staves off his fear that he will never be rescued. This relatively early example of finding order in chaos foreshadows the even greater logic that Brian will come to perceive throughout the wilderness. Shortly before he is rescued, Brian rests after a day of work and reflects on the beauty of a sunset. He notes each part of the sight—the sky, the water, the trees—and thinks that the balance between all of these elements creates “almost unbelievable beauty.” Imagining what might be happening at that moment back in the city, Brian also wonders if the situation will someday be reversed: will he someday find himself sitting at home and imagining the details of the sunset that’s unfolding before him? This moment hints at the growing affinity that Brian feels for the wilderness. Even as he misses his urban home, some part of him understands that the balance of the forest sunset is lacking in the city. Upon returning home, Brian continues to dream of his camp at the lake and the peace that he found there. Paulsen writes that the dreams were “not bad and would never be bad for him,” and also notes that Brian’s increased thoughtfulness and ability to be observant will persist throughout his life. At the end of the book, even Brian’s parents’ divorce appears as a simple fact rather than the painful chaos that it was before Brian’s experience in the wilderness. Furthermore, it seems that the lake remains a truer home for Brian than the homes of either of his parents. The epilogue makes it clear that Brian is permanently changed for the better by his deep understanding of the natural world, even though he cannot continue living there.
The Natural World ThemeTracker
The Natural World Quotes in Hatchet
It was his first good luck. No, he thought. He had good luck in landing. But this was good luck as well, luck he needed.
Outside the rain poured down, but Brian lay back, drinking syrup from the berries, dry and with the pain almost all gone, the stiffness also gone, his belly full and a good taste in his mouth. For the first time since the crash he was not thinking of himself, or his own life. Brian was wondering if the bear was as surprised as he to find another being in the berries.
He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn’t work. It wasn’t just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that—it didn’t work. When he sat alone in the darkness and cried and was done, all done with it, nothing had changed. His leg still hurt, it was still dark, he was still alone and the self-pity had accomplished nothing.
So much from a little spark.
A friend and a guard from a tiny spark.
He looked around and wished he had somebody to tell this thing, to show this thing he had done. But there was nobody. Nothing but the trees and the sun and the breeze and the lake.
He smiled. City boy, he thought. Oh, you city boy with your city ways—he made a mirror in his mind, a mirror of himself, and saw how he must look. City boy with your city ways sitting in the sand trying to read the tracks and not knowing, not understanding.
I am not the same, he thought. I see, I hear differently. He did not know when the change started, but it was there; when a sound came to him now he didn’t just hear it but would know the sound. He would swing and look at it—a breaking twig, a movement of air—and know the sound as if he somehow could move his mind back down the wave of sound to the source. He could know what the sound was before he quite realized he had heard it. And when he saw something—a bird moving a wing inside a bush or a ripple on the water—he would truly see that thing, not just notice it as he used to notice things in the city. He would see all parts of it; see the whole wing, the feathers, see the color of the feathers, see the bush, and the size and shape and color of its leaves.
Brian looked back and for a moment felt afraid because the wolf was so… so right. He knew Brian, knew him and owned him and chose not to do anything to him. But the fear moved then, moved away, and Brian knew the wolf for what it was—another part of the woods, another part of all of it. Brian relaxed the tension on the spear in his hand, settled the bow in his other hand from where it had started to come up. He knew the wolf now, as the wolf knew him, and he nodded to it, nodded and smiled.
With his bow, with an arrow fashioned by his own hands he had done food, had found a way to live. The bow had given him this way and he exulted in it, in the bow, in the arrow, in the fish, in the hatchet, in the sky. He stood and walked from the water, still holding the fish and arrow and bow against the sky, seeing them as they fit his arms, as if they were part of him.
He had been looking for feathers, for the color of the bird, for a bird sitting there. He had to look for the outline instead, had to see the shape instead of the feathers or color, had to train his eyes to see the shape…
It was like turning on a television. Suddenly he could see things he never saw before. In just moments, it seemed, he saw three birds before they flew, saw them sitting and got close enough to one of them, moving slowly, got close enough to try a shot with his bow.
She had done more damage than he had originally thought, the insane cow—no sense to it at all. Just madness. When he got to the shelter he crawled inside and was grateful that the coals were still glowing and that he had thought to get wood first thing in the mornings to be ready for the day, grateful that he had thought to get enough wood for two or three days at a time, grateful that he had fish nearby if he needed to eat, grateful, finally, as he dozed off, that he was alive.
He went to sleep thinking a kind of reverse question. He did not know if he would ever get out of this, could not see how it might be, but if he did somehow get home and go back to living the way he had lived, would it be just the opposite? Would he be sitting watching television and suddenly think about the sunset up in back of the ridge and wonder how the color looked in the lake?
It was a strange feeling, holding the rifle. It somehow removed him from everything around him. Without the rifle he had to fit in, to be part of it all, to understand it and use it—the woods, all of it. With the rifle, suddenly, he didn’t have to know; did not have to be afraid or understand.
They were not nightmares, none of them was frightening, but he would awaken at times with them; just awaken and sit up and think of the lake, the forest, the fire at night, the night birds singing, the fish jumping—sit in the dark alone and think of them and it was not bad and would never be bad for him.