Friday, August 13, 2010

Feeling Wild

A few days ago, I took the path less traveled. When walking in the woods, I usually do. It surprised me that I'd never noticed this path before. Clearly not an official park path, maybe it had been at some point, or maybe it's just for ranger use. As I walked up Bradbury Mountain on this mossy trail, I was treated to a magnificent boulder field. Already, the exploration had proven worthwhile. Climbing up past the top boulder, I had a little trouble finding the trail again, but soon did, and walked on a little way. Then I stopped. I smelled something. Black trumpets. Unmistakable. I looked around a few times. At first, nothing. And then...

I spent the better part of two hours exploring and harvesting this patch of black trumpets, which truly went on and on and on. Sadly, it was well past the peak of this flush, and while I came home with a very impressive pile of some very good (and some frankly borderline) black trumpets, for every one I took there must have been ten that were too far gone.

It's always a gift to be reminded of the Earth's immense bounty and generosity. I felt this as I picked the mushrooms, and soon lost myself in musings about fungal consciousness, spurred on by my current read, Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets. It is a magical spot, as are all places where mushrooms grow, which is almost the equivalent of saying all places that are profoundly alive.

What will stick with me about that day, always, is that it was the first time I unequivocally found mushrooms by sense of smell, thereby doubling the number of senses I've used in the act of foraging. This sudden and vast expansion of my sensory connection to the living world which supports me, entrances me, and, despite my lingering cultural hang-ups, is me, left me feeling substantially more wild. Wild animals are noted for the keenness of their senses. Civilized humans are so dull they need to be bludgeoned just to register some signs of life (how many rapes and murders does the average American see on TV each week?).

Moreover, smell is not just another sense. Each sense possesses unique qualities, offers unique possibilities. It is difficult to tell a story in odor. Yet no song, no face, no touch can collapse the expanse of time quite like scent. Yesterday, I noticed an unfamiliar herb in my friend's garden. I plucked the tender tip of a stem with its bunch of tiny, silver leaves, rubbed it in my fingers, and smelled. For a flashing moment, I was a seven year old in Tuscany. Later, I learned it was wormwood, artemisia absinthium, which is indigenous and wild in central Italy. I have no idea precisely when or where I smelled it as a child. Presumably, it was a regular feature of the aromatic landscape. On this occasion, the odor transported me to a period in my life, long ago. Sometimes, odor brings us to a precise moment. Either way, it is our time machine. And we usually ignore it.

What does it mean to “rewild”? Surely, some of you have heard the term, perhaps some have not. It is a by-word in the culture of resistance to the dominant culture. It means to restore, either internally or externally, the qualities and characteristics of wildness. What does it mean to be wild? I think Henry David Thoreau said it well: “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest.” The dominant culture, the culture of nihilism, indeed a culture improperly so-called for it is the antithesis of culture itself, demonizes wildness, which is useful insofar as it facilitates the wholesale destruction of the community of life, including wild humans, including the beautiful, wild elements in civilized people, largely drummed out in childhood.

Wildness, along with the related word savageness*, has become associated with violence, mindlessness, and callousness. This is wrong. To be wild is to be a free agent, uncoerced, to be engaged, to be profoundly alive, to feel deeply, to see clearly, to connect. In the old Norwegian tale Valemon and the Wild Third Daughter, the great white bear Valemon carries the girl away from her parents' castle and into the deep woods. He begins the initiatory process with two questions. Have you ever sat more comfortably than you do now? Have you ever seen more clearly than you do now? To be wild, or, for those of us raised and living in captivity, to rewild, is to sit comfortably in this world, to sense keenly, to take part in the great dance, riding on the backs of our great animal energies toward our destinies.

* Check out the etymology of "savage." The historical progression is fascinating.


  1. Ahhhh, lovely! (She said, attuning her ears to the music of morning insects outside the window, the feel of the damp dawn air on her skin, the scent of butter and ginger and almonds in her breakfast bowl...)

  2. The power of smell to evoke deep memories has been noted by many, and certainly experienced by all. I read that the olfactory center is particularly close to the amygdala, and thus of the senses is most closely linked to raw emotion.

    I am very jealous of all the mushroom picking you get to do. It's funny, in this respect, our lives are sort of inverse. I started out my life picking mushrooms all summer long. In Russia, picking mushrooms is basically like little league here. I don't know anybody who didn't do it. There's all kinds of etiquette, cultural curiosities and lore involved with mushroom picking, as you would expect from a popular activity handed down generation to generation.

    One of my favorite parts of going back to Russia after we moved was knowing I would get to go mushroom picking again. The biggest prizes were always a giant patch of chantarelles, young (worm free) porcini and also this guy, a porcini relative:

    There is a shitload of these last ones on Cape Cod - I've picked them with my parents there. As a result of doing this so much in youth, I can discern 12-15 edible species native to Europe (and can discern a lot of "bad" ones by sight too.) Not much use for these skills in my current life, except I still can't get used to the absurd cost per pound of chantarelles at Dean and Deluca. My family used to laugh at this. Who the hell would pay that much for something that's free, we thought. In Russia, we used to make soup out of em, fry them, and with the excess, pickle them or dry them for the winter. Whereas up to age 20, I would go mushroom picking at least 10 times a year, now it's more like once every 2 years.