When my mother was growing up and her children and her grandchildren, many of the kids living between Hope, Idaho, and Paradise, Montana, grew up wild, and they still do. Folks trying to get started in the Clark Fork valley often have to work so hard to plant themselves that there’s no time to cultivate the children, also. Instead, we were thrown as young seeds into the yard.
“You kids go outside and play,” someone says, and off we go into a yard the size of which is determined by our adventurousness. “You kids go out and play,” we hear and the back door slams behind us.
To the edge of the yard where the woods grow dark we go, and then a few steps into the forest, and a few more, until one day we look back and the house is gone, disappeared. “You can’t see us,” we think, playing peek-a-boo with the entire civilized world. We turn and look out to the big rock that will one day be the battlements of the Alamo; the uprooted tree that will become the rolling deck of a clipper ship beating its way upwind through the Straits of Magellan. But that’s later, after our native wildness gives birth to even wilder imaginations.
In the beginning, we are saved by our parents calling us in from play, to bath or bed or dinner; back to the house before it gets too late. But, it’s already too late. We are already started on that first faint trail to wildness, even if it is just the one that leads a ways past the outhouse.
We grow like weeds, like daisies, wild and beautiful in the fields and in the sunny glades of the forest. And the yard gets bigger; size dictated by length of daylight, our ability to escape chores, willingness to pack our own lunch, and, again, that magic evolvement rising between our ears, our growing adventurousness.
There is great satisfaction in finding our way out and back of our own volition and ability. Granted, someone is there to provide a bit of education in the ways of wildness; older friends and cousins and parents who take us up the creek fishing and let us walk home, pointing us down the dusty road before rattling off in the truck.
“Stay close to the road,” they caution.
“OK, Mom and Dad.” Yeah, right.
This leads to secret shortcuts and stealthy dogtrots across neighbors’ fields and run-ins with feral cows and getting temporarily confused; but only temporarily. We always find our way home.
“How was the walk?” Mom asks. “It was easy to follow the road, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, Mom. Easy.”
And she looks at us out of the corner of one eye and we smile wanly, and go wash up for dinner, noticing in the mirror that a long strand of black moss got mixed with our hair when we dove into the brush to escape the feral cows.
Parents and children know, then, that the road is a reference point, a last resort, a thread running through the eye of the needle that is the house in the haystack that is the forest; one that we can follow home, but only if we have to.
Growing up between Hope and Paradise means knowing what Virginia creeper is, that it clings to buildings in the fall like a tongue of flame as single diamonds of rain leap from serrated edges of the leaves toward earth from under the eaves of a cedar shake roof. It means knowing the difference between tag alder and vine maple and hating them both with equal ardor. Especially once you’ve had your shins bloodied and clanked continually by such until each next contact threatens to bring tears.
Growing up wild means knowing innately whether it is a waxing or waning moon. The night sky is a map for us, and a compass. We know the Pleiades and Cassiopeia and Cygnus and Ursas Major and Minor. We are intimately acquainted with Orion and his nocturnal winter hunt in which he stalks across the southern sky. We sight along the roofline of a barn our grandpa built when he first came into the country and remember that this was the reference he used to show us Polaris for the first time, and how surprised we were when we realized that the star was there before grandpa built the barn.
When you grow up wild, you learn to be polite around other wild things, like bears and skunks and certain sections of certain rivers and big creeks and drunken smoke jumpers on Saturday night. Growing up wild, one might have difficulty settling — down, or in or on anywhere, anything or anyone. Restlessness is part of our nature. But restlessness accepted allows us to become less vagrant; for then we can feed it instead of fighting it and let it take us places; here, there, hither and yon, over hill and dale, to Ravalli, Russia, Rangoon, Rattlesnake Gulch — and home to rest from being restless.
We who grow up wild may be uncultivated, but we are not unculturable. We come to appreciate Mozart and Tchaikovsky and even Dvorzhak. We learn to love and to tell the differences between Matisse and Renoir and even old Pablo — well some of us do. We fall under the spell of great art, but we want to lay down on the floor of the museum and put our hands behind our heads and stare at a painting for the better part of several days, until the landscape of the art becomes part of us — as we do with a range of mountains, a stream drainage or a high rock basin; our wild places.
When you’ve grown up wild, you have a sense for wild places. You find them by the way you feel with you enter one – at home – at ease – on your toes – in the Presence of God – able. You feel able. More so, you are. You have learned to be independent; to think for yourself; that the well-beaten path of culture sometimes leads off of a cliff, depending on who engineered it.
That’s what comes of growing up wild, and I caution you about what to tell your children about such things. I urge you, when the time comes, to say, with good intent; “You kids go out in the yard and play.” We need wild things in this world. We do. For if we insist on domesticating our entire planet, we will become completely domesticated ourselves, and against the wild nature of the Universe, then, we just won’t have a chance.