To Be Wild, by Ria


In social science fields one of the ‘hot topics’ exciting to explore is the ‘feral child’, i.e. children who for one reason or another are either socially isolated or abandoned in ‘the wild’ during their earliest years. This excitement filled the director and psychologist who called me in for a special meeting. They ran a therapeutic nonprofit for young children and families with emotional and behavioral issues. As the intake room head teacher, my job was to assess incoming children and help them get acclimated to the setting, a process that typically took 3-6 months. At this sad but oddly upbeat meeting, my supervisors first reminded me of my duty to privacy. This was a case that could draw much publicity if leaked, which would be especially embarrassing to the child’s grandfather, a high ranking US government official.

His wealth afforded lavish lifestyles for his daughter, her husband and their son ‘Charlie’. Unbeknownst to him, his monies mainly fed expensive drug addictions. It took three years for the grandparents to discover the extent of the problem and go through the legal process of obtaining custody. During his first three years Charlie was kept in a basement with two dogs. The dogs were his family. He slept with them, played with them, ate with them out of their bowl, was comforted and warmed by them.

As soon as Charlie walked through my classroom door I felt a deep connection with him. His grandma released his hand and he got down on all fours to crawl in. He boldly moved and sounded like a dog. Other kids were confused by and scared of him. He agreed to sit in a chair to have snack with the others, but dumped the food on the floor to get down and eat. When the food was limited to the table, he poured it on the table and lapped it up. He had a small vocabulary he could intersperse with his dog sounds.

Not knowing the extent he would learn verbal language, we paired sign language with talk just in case. We wondered the extent to which he was still in the ‘window of opportunity’ to learn verbal language. All were elated when he quickly increased vocabulary & complexity of sentence structure. He rapidly met goals of replacing his dog behavior with walking, talking and playing with new friends. By the time he ‘graduated’ to another room 4 months later, signs of his history barely showed.

Sometime later the director let me know that we had a similar case coming in. The child was ‘Appalachian’. “Did you say Appalachian?” “Yes, from Appalachia…” She quit talking when she heeded the hint of my own dialect. I had never heard of such a… ‘disabling condition’? I could imagine what she and others thought, the same stereotypes I grew up with attached to me: indigent, neglected, filthy, backwards, uneducated, uncivilized, etc. But she said this was a ‘similar case’ to Charlie’s. How so?

Reflections flashed me back to my own childhood, deep in my own family roots. Psychologists study the developmental outcomes of infant-parent interaction. Needless to say, early co-relating and emotional attachment is crucial. This is an overgeneralization, but I speculated perhaps it could be generally true that white babes deep in the mountains of modern Appalachia do not engage in the ‘dance of talk’ with fully bonded and responsive caregivers.

For the first time I looked at my own early childhood through the lens of a psychologist. It would be later that an unrelated brain MRI seemed to confirm my suspicions. The neurologist asked, “Do you have a history of difficulty with language or memory?” “Like what?” “Well, it’s not that you’re getting Alzheimer’s, but the part of your brain that’s affected has symptoms similar to it… Never mind. If you never noticed anything it’s nothing to worry about.” The subtexts of this statement triggered memories that would drift to mind over the years.

Though I don’t remember my infant years, I saw the early caretaking of my younger sibs. We were in a ‘nuclear family’ that had moved far away from mountain life for my father to find work other than coal mining. Childrearing barriers were firm, separating suburban neighborhood homes; not too many ‘villages’ raising US children. My father grew up dirt poor & shoeless with no father and a disgraced mother, desperately moving home to home deep in Appalachia. Though my father worked hard to financially support his children, he was just as emotionally absent from them as his own father had been physically absent from him.

My mother was the oldest, born to a fun-lovin’, banjo-pickin’, garden-growin’, rattlesnake-handlin’ preacher & his Indian wife who lived self-sustainably and remotely on their own mountain. My grandmother’s loneliness resonated down through my mother’s detached nurturing. She took care of our physical needs, and didn’t seem to be aware of any needs other than those. Feeding and bathing with no talking. Putting to bed with no goodnight story and kiss. No conversations or play. But on the bright side, the best gift my parents gave me was plenty of freedom to be wild me.

My earliest memories ranged from age two to four. We lived in a home with a large backyard bordering a field and forest where a community of neighborhood kids was left to our own devices whenever the sun shone. It’s challenging to find words to describe that life. In hindsight I’d call it magical realism. I remember senses and feelings, but no thinking. Intuitively, wordlessly exploring plants and creatures of the field and forest edge. It was a fluid flow, a timeless, dream-like existence, a tender intermingling of my nature being with the nature around me. It all felt so alive.

During the summer I anticipated staying out so late the lightning bugs came out. Once my mother and older children came to join us in the field chasing and catching lightning bugs. But instead of looking at them and letting them fly off, my mother had us put them into paper bags. It felt amiss, but still was thrilling to do with so many people. I kept waiting for the moment we would release the bugs as night grew darker. Instead, people started carrying the bags into the house with the bugs still in them. I watched in horror as my mother put them into the freezer. I sympathized for their cold suffering. The haunting memory triggered me to ask my mother about this in following years. The best I can make of her explanations is that she heard an announcement on the radio that lightning bugs were needed for some kind of science experiment, and they were paying people to collect them. The more I comprehended the motive, the more my impression of both my mother and the ways of civilization changed.

Another earliest memory was observing and handling worms and small snakes with my friend Jimmy. We let them slither in the palms of our hands, then placed them down and watch them squirm away. It was exciting, but we had no fear of them. Then one day when I was four years old my granny who was visiting gave a sound and a look that I knew meant Danger, freeze! I did, watching her to give clues as to the source of the danger. She picked up a shovel and stalked toward me in ambush position. I feared her, but stayed put, then instinctively ran away as she wielded the shovel edge to repeatedly cut a big black snake that had been between my feet. The snake had also obeyed her command to freeze. I was horrified as pieces of it frantically wriggled. I had never seen such a horrific deed. Days later I got sick with a high fever and hallucinated snakes and worms all over the room. I didn’t figure out the hallucination wasn’t ‘real’ until I was a teenager, but by then it was too late, my fear of them was deeply set.

One of my few verbal early childhood memories was playing in the snow with Jimmy when we were four. He said, “I can make a bomb!” I watched as he packed snow into a tall white paper cup, peed in it, cued me to hide with him behind a bush until a car drove by, when he leapt out and through it onto the car’s windshield. We ran away fast and hid, feeling no guilt. {Were we young ELFs born knowing that civilization needed to be smashed? Ha!}

When I was five school invaded my life of wild magic. We moved back to Appalachia for a couple years before returning to suburbia, this house with no forest, but a huge field in back. Despite school, the magical realism somehow re-awoke, returning for several summers. Every morning the community of kids woke up & darted outside barefoot. Whether alone or with friends my entire being was enmeshed with the field, stalking about sensing everything, again with no words. The sound of grasshoppers as they leapt from grass stalk to grass stalk. Muddy pools of tadpoles. Sand hill homes of ants coming and going. I was forever awed watching how they moved, wondering where they were going, trying to decipher why. I moved like them to try to understand their feelings and intentions. Interventions in the life of others was rare, like nourishing baby birds fallen out of nest. The ethic of nature care was strong, we kids stood together against anyone causing any creature harm.

As teen years approached civilization increasingly dominated the landscape. The worlds of field and forest were replaced with more and more human houses. Fortunately I found that the dreamlike wild state was not just a connection with the outside natural world, but with my own nature being. We kids gathered outside on lawns and streets to play games that tapped into our wild ways within the domesticated milieu amidst the wild world void.

Somewhere in the back of my schooled, civilized mind I assumed that entry into adulthood meant the death of wild ways, perhaps with the exception of sex, which was shameful, kept very separate from modern life. I went to college, wrote a thesis, got a ‘career’. Then my surprise pregnancy slowly reawakened wild me. Not so much the pregnancy itself, but giving birth, and especially what happened the day after.

I had stayed awake all night breastfeeding him and just watching him. In the morning a nurse came in, quickly explained some test that needed to be done in the other room, picked him up and left. After the door shut I protested to my baby’s father, whose reassurances only worried me more. Minutes later I heard my son crying. The father said it could be any baby, but I recognized his cry. My body sprang into action. The father stood in front of me to block my way as I headed toward the door. Both of my hands met both of his shoulders as a force I never knew I had pushed him back into a wall. I headed down a long corridor with my baby’s cries echoing closer, pushed open the ‘authorized personnel only’ door, and rescued him from that nurse. In that moment I had become Tiger Mamma.

In years that followed I could tap into Tiger Mamma to care for or play with or protect my son. My connection to wild was now through him. When my boy became a man and traveled far away, I wondered what would happen with my wild. My answer came in the harshest way.

My brother was murdered. I had never experienced such profound suffering. When planting his memorial tree in a meadow near a forest edge, powerful energy traveled from my body through my hands and into the soil. Nature called me to place my grief energy into work healing this wild place. Through caring for nature in the physical realm I cared for my brother in the spiritual realm. I stewarded forests, then wetlands and then an estuary. In the years since his death, nature has given me the gift of connecting with him.

Now I sense wild life energy, like a leaf stretching to take in sun rays. My wild senses are again strong, at least for a domesticated human. And now I sense that neither I with my Appalachianish upbringing, nor Charlie with his dog upbringing are unique. All humans, no matter how domesticated, have dormant primal ways. Our wild ways are challenged by this civilized world our species has created, and our wild ways are opposed to it. They call us to rewild it. They are ever present. Beneath it all. Waiting.


6 thoughts on “To Be Wild, by Ria

  1. Pingback: To Be Wild, by Ria — vegan anarchist primitivist – Vegan Primitivist

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