Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wild at Home

One of the pieces of work I give my students is an excerpt from The Stone Horse, an essay by Barry Lopez. It recounts the finding of an intaglio horse drawn in stone upon the Californian desert. It's as beautiful and glacial as his writing usually is, wresting the usual Lopez observations, bare-armed, into convincing moral curves and uprights. I'm not being snarky saying this; it's good to read sermons when they're written by a masterly hand.

It's a very good piece to give students. They generally meet it with bewilderment and some indignation. It's not a novel. It's not a poem. What is it? A piece of art criticism? Why does the speakers' voice slip from this ecstatic register so suddenly to science? How does the mixed lineage of the horse make it American? Or not American? What does
American mean? How does this piece negotiate questions of identity...and so on. Bald questions. But the piece gets more interesting the more you pick away at it. Yes, identity, and a sly dig at myths of origin, and a parse at the point of art, and on what is looking. And more.

The Stone Horse is very, very good. Which is to say, it is beautiful, and convincing, and also slightly irritating. Sufficiently irritating that it gives you room, like two fingers under a cuff, to work out your own view of all these Lopezian dictats. No matter how beautifully they are couched, and no matter how magisterially, the pronouncements of the nature writer must give you enough room to turn on them. So you can think on the matter for yourself. I'm not good with authority, trust me.

Lopez ends his essay:

A few generations ago, cowboys, cavalry quartermasters, and draymen would have taken this horse before me under consideration and not let up their scrutiny until they had its heritage fixed to their satisfaction. Today, the distinction between draft and harness horses is arcane knowledge, and no image may come to mind for a blue roan or a claybank horse. The loss of such refinement in everyday conversation leaves me unsettled. People praise the Eskimo’s ability to distinguish among forty types of snow but forget the skills of others who routinely differentiate between overo and tobiano pintos. Such distinctions are made for the same reason. You have to do it to be able to talk about the world.

It's a killer last line, isn't it; and I've had all sorts of fantastically fun and sometimes excrutiating discussions with students about what is going on here. Some of the students kick back and tell me that this myth about forty types of snow is nonsense; others frown and get that intimation of importance, that just-about-to-sneeze gist of a truth-well-told.

What is interesting to me right now is what Lopez is saying here, because for the last few months, everywhere you look are books on The Wild. I'm not complaining about these books! One of the very finest was written by a very dear friend of mine, and I love it very much. And all the others, in their various ways, are honest and fine works. (Actually, one is unreadable, but hey ho). Wild is the watchword of nature-writing in the UK at the moment.

(Of course we never had the debate on wilderness: we don't
have any according to the American model, and we're all-too-aware that our own wild landscapes — deer forest and crag and heather moor — were burned and cleared and painted into existence by Victorian lairds and courtly Scotsanistas)

And it would be too easy to say that this is just a publishers' bandwagon—that a best-seller on wildness brings more in its wake, pace the innumerable Da Vinci Code knock-offs that came and went after Dan Brown. And it would be too easy, I think, to say that there's something about today's climate and culture that has brought us back to the themes of the 1950s; of rurality, of lost ways, of stories of companion animals and of how we should revivify ourselves by identifying with nature, rather than some urban utopia.

I was looking at one particular book this morning, Simon Barnes' How to be Wild. Barnes is a sports writer, and naturalist, and has the capacity to irritate me so much I splutter. But I sat in a cafĂ© and turned the pages and decided I liked this book. It does some interesting things. It's not afflicted by the manners of most nature writing — manners I share, of course. As soon as I think what I'm writing is "writing", I come over all high-priestess. It's ghastly. Like David Gessner's Sick of Nature, Barnes' book refuses the meditative. And it happily fronts the naturalists' pose; while making grand claims about wildness, it catches enough of the personality of the writer to make the claims human and personal. In this way it's an even-handed read. It's not a text on how to live, but a text on how one man thinks we should live, which is much easier to deal with than the moral certainties of an absent personality, however magisterial. And he cusses and swears and comes across as a slightly over-enthusiastic, occasionally bombastic soul; prey to arrogance but aren't we all.

I love that Barnes decides that wildness is like homosexuality; or at least, is amused that his argument works along those lines. There's a sweet story here about his attempted seduction by a gay musican, who explained to Barnes over long conversations that he was clearly gay, but just didn't realise it. And went on to explain that the world is divided into those who are gay and realise it, and those who are gay, but don't. "It is my belief" says Barnes, in response, "that we are all wild: but frequently we seek to express our wildness in strange ways. This is no doubt a result of repression; a result of an unwillingness to incur the censure of society and the strange looks of our neighbours. And this, thinks Barnes, is why we walk our dogs, feed the birds, go fishing, play golf, go swimming, go sunbathing."

Now this is hilarious—but I kind of love him for it. What comes across so much in these books, in all of them, is a strange and baffling need to present Wild as a monolithic concept; a single thing that's either repressed, or is motoring its way out or through you, and is found out there, somewhere.

It's not good enough. It's just not enough words.

I've written before on how hunting is like marriage. There are different kinds, and it does no good to try and write about hunting as if it is one thing. Hare coursing is not fox hunting is not fishing is not running down an antelope or shooting a snipe in an Irish Bog.

The wild is the same. The best books on wildness interrogate what the wild is, and find the concept wanting. Not complicated enough. But we need to go further. We need forty different words for forty different kinds of wildness, and we need to stop thinking of it as something transcendent or Other, as if it were God.

Let's pray for a little polytheism, as far as the wild goes. It's
wilds, not wild. Lares, not Lare. Gods, not God.

My goshawk is a kind of wild. She is precisely the kind of wild that is my household god. There are other bits of wild are in my home; souvenirs of place and thing. Stones and stuffed animals and bits of driftwood. They're tokens of other places and other types of wild, and a little bit stolen.

But the goshawk is different. She is not really a god, of course—although something of the hieratic hangs about her. She's taught me that tameness and wildness aren't necessarily antagonistic. While the stones and taxidermy are frozen souvenirs, the goshawk is truly wildness at home. She makes my home wild while being tame herself, and it's the particular kind of wild I need.

An altar to the household gods, Pompeii

When I play with her in the evenings, even when she fluffs up like a happy kitten as she jumps around the room catching balls of paper, she's a particular kind of wild. And when I fly her out on the hill, it makes the hill home.

It makes the hill home not only because you get to know it so well, from crossing it so many times. And not only because she's flying across it — because, of course, when you're a falconer, you can't help but identify with your hawk, extend your consciousness out to imagine you are flying with it. But that's a large part of it. There's something about flying a hawk that makes you less than yourself, more than human. It's part of what lets this kind of wild be home.

What I am trying to say, and being confused in the attempt, is that for me, having wild at home is more important than travelling out there to find it. Yes, I want to be at home in the wild, but not the wild that everyone talks about. I need more words. Curses!

Which reminds me: I must go downstairs to offer a quail to my household god.


Matt Mullenix said...

Pluvi, here's one "gist" of a truth I've been almost close enough to reach: if the wild remains in us, then it's possible something human exists in everything wild. Which may only be to say that there is no real distinction.

What we think of as the human perspective may be a commonplace self-awareness---not as proven by ethologists with mirrors but as witnessed and worked upon by any falconer on the hill. Haven't you come to the same conclusions as your goshawk? Haven't you known what she knows?

When my own hawk and dog and I are converged on some hiding bird, I have a very strong sense that I could be in any of our four heads. The transition would be slight, I think. In each I would have a better or worse collection of sensory inputs, but my interpretation of ongoing events might not differ at all: "Danger; two ways to escape; wind at my back; where is the sun? Water here, then again farther on, then woods. Go!"

I don't mean all animals are human, but I might mean that humans are not quite what we think we are. Can we accept that without being paralyzed by it? It would be much easier to believe instead that we are one thing and the wild something else.

Heidi the Hick said...

"She's taught me that tameness and wildness aren't necessarily antagonistic."

I love that line.

Again, here I go comparing everything to horses... I often think that's why some of us love horses so much. NO matter how much training we put into them, there's always that ancient flight response. Maybe it's an ego thing --I can handle this half-wild animal. Or romantic --Imagining our well behaved, fenced, managed horse flying across a prairie, free. I admit, I think about it.

Could be why I love having a cat in my house. Cats may be tamable, but they're never owned. He'll do his own thing, he's always a hunter, and everything's on his terms. I can't control him. I have to just give in to his cat wildness.

(the dog though... he's just a big little slobbering baby...)

Great post!

mdmnm said...

Lovely essay. I always find it interesting how some folks feel a need to periodically touch on things wild, to feel that they're experiencing a bit of it, and others never miss that sense.

Here's an off-topic song about a different sort of wild but that came to mind:

Chas S. Clifton said...

One reason that I never tire of teaching Gary Snyder's essay "The Etiquette of Freedom" is that he makes the connection between the wild "out there" and the wild psyche -- all of its aspects that are not under the ego's control.

My students have a semester-long bioregional take-home test that they must complete. One question asks, "Where is there wilderness in your bioregion?"

"In my mind" would be an acceptable answer -- one of many.

Steve Bodio said...

George Dyson said someting similar in Darwin Among the Machines, reminding us that Thoreau said in WILDNESS is the preservation of the world.