I’m goin’ up on uh mountain
Find me uh cave ‘n talk the bears
In tuh’ takin’ me in
Wild life is ah mans best friend—
from Wild Life by Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart
On the morning of October 18, 2011, Terry Thompson, out of jail and in financial straights, got up, released his exotic animals from their cages, got out one of his many guns, put it to his head and pulled the trigger. Reports of wild animals on the loose brought the authorities out in force. Within 24 hours 48 of them were shot dead.
The animals had to be put down ASAP, that was the unspoken message. No time to make preparations for capture; someone might get hurt. And who would want to come face to face with a black panther? Did you know that Bengal tigers grow up to ten feet long from nose to tail? Have you ever seen a baboon’s teeth?
And yet I couldn’t help but feel heartsick at the slaughter, and I wondered about the place of our large mammal cousins in a concretized, manicured and sanitized world. We think of ourselves as sophisticated in a way we don’t attribute to the baboons, whose number one predator, by the way, is us. Is not the most basic definition of civilization that it is the opposite of wild?—Even though baboons arguably have a culture of their own: they organize themselves into clans with formal rules for behavior; they protect and love and feed their own, just as we do. It is rare for us to think of ourselves as animals at all. But we are. And what wilds lurk deep within us? Does our denial of these wilds contribute to the violent eruptions that perpetually trouble our societies? And would taking ownership of our own inner wilds empower us and further advance our civilized ways?
Indeed, we have a troubled relationship to the wild, alternately celebratory and denunciatory. We admire wild behavior under certain circumstances and at other times we use the wild as an insult. Nowhere is this more evident than in the arts. At the 1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris a critic threw this insult at a group of painters who had the temerity to paint the human figure in weird distortions, with skin of bright green or some other wild color. He labeled them les fauves (wild beasts) and it stuck.
Eventually, as Matisse entered art history, he could wear the label as a badge of pride, even if it stung when it was first pinned on him, but move forward to the 1980’s and we see the word “wild” coming up again with regard to the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and this time it has nasty racist connotations.
A case can be made that Basquait’s death at 27 was directly related to his inability to navigate the rough waters of fame, to determine who was using him and who really loved him. The fact that more than twenty years after his death he remains a controversial figure must say something about our relationship to wild as well as race and fame. For the fact remains that Basquiat was an unschooled painter who resisted analyzing his work even a little bit, and was known to throw collectors out of the studio (and throw things at them) if they pissed him off. Tamra Davis’s documentary on the artist introduced me to this poem:
By Langston Hughes
This is a song for the genius child.
Sing it softly, for the song is wild.
Sing it softly as ever you can—
Lest the song get out of hand.
Nobody loves a genius child.
Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?
Nobody loves a genius child.
Kill him—and let his soul run wild.
Although I knew I wanted wild to be our prompt, thinking the wild in poetic terms did not come easy for me; my attempts kept getting swept into the unrestrained flow of prose. I could not escape my own troubled relationship to the term. A few years ago I was going through a bad time. At a crossroads, I sought out a close friend’s counsel. The advice he gave—“search your heart”—came as a surprise to me, for my friend is not one to spout clichés. I followed his advice and what I discovered changed me forever: there was no bottom to my heart. My heart was a vast, wild, pathless place where I could wander forever and get lost. If I was to explore my heart, I had to do it with intelligence and discipline, that to just let go, as popular songs would seem to have it, would surely kill me. And yet there was now no turning back, not if I wanted to be truly alive. My friend lent me Creative Mythology by Joseph Campbell to read, and I found my thoughts and concerns confirmed. In a passage about the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table, Campbell writes:
We today, willy-nilly, must enter the forest: and, like it or not, the pathless way is the only way now before us…. the circumvallating mountains that to others appear to be of stone are recognized as of the mist of dream, and precisely between their god and devil, heaven and hell, white and black, the man of heart walks through. Out beyond those walls, in the uncharted forest night, where the terrible wind of God blows directly on the questing undefended soul, tangled ways may lead to madness. They may also lead, however, to ‘all those things that make heaven and earth.’
Let us write the wild together, knowing that even though we walk the same forest, each path will be unique. For those who would like an extra boost, I offer this Spotify playlist
- Wander in the wild, lasso a poem, reel it back.
- Copy & paste the url of your poem into Mr. Linky
- See how others have explored the wild