A cougar is sighted in the Santa Cruz mountains. The sighting prompts a manhunt and the story is picked up by television news and the daily papers. By the following day the cat has been found, shot with a tranquilizer gun and then “put to sleep.” Its crime? It was wild—alive, wild and on the loose. But don’t we sell our soft drinks, lipsticks and automobiles with similar descriptions—wet and wild, alive, free? The contradiction between repressing the wild and selling the idea of it pervades our entire society.
I lived for a year on a remote island in British Columbia. Nearly each day at dawn, the sound of distant howling wolves would rouse me from deep sleep, the kind of sleep one has in the wilderness. One day a friend and I were on the path to his house when we came upon a freshly killed deer, still warm, just yards from the front door. “Cougar,” my friend said. “How do you know?” I asked. “Because wolves run in packs and would have finished the whole thing off,” he explained. Some of the guys dragged the deer to a removed spot in the woods. Day by day more of the deer had been eaten.
Although evidence of their presence on the island abounds, cougars are rarely seen. They are generally shy of people; nevertheless, we had all heard stories of attacks by cougars on other islands and the mainland. For me, the thought of this cat-creature stealing unseen into our inhabited area in broad daylight created a sense of wonder. That so wild a thing lived among us, was somehow one of us, inspired in me feelings for my place in the ecosystem. It reminded me of what it is to live one’s identity—the cougars and wolves killing and eating flesh, the orcas on nearby Johnstone Straights with their highly-evolved communication and family structure, eating plankton and smaller whales. It’s our story, Life in the Food Chain, and try as I may to control my own mind, I face the built-in generic program that comes with being born human.
Throughout history we have tried to control all that is “wild” in nature, including nature itself. We’ve penned in birds and animals, killed them off to extinction, displayed them in cages for our entertainment, raised them as commodities, our “livestock.” Becoming adept at “resource management,” we’ve rerouted the rivers, seeded the clouds, dragged icebergs around the world, and paved a good deal of the planet.
We have created similar controls for those parts of ourselves which are spontaneous and intuitive, thereby setting us adrift in a high-tech wasteland far from a time when we lived in touch with the seasons, with wild nature and with our natural instincts. Perhaps this is why western civilization is obsessed with sex, one of the few occasions when the wild is permitted, when we can really let go.
What we are seeing culturally reminds me of something Robert Bly (I think) described when he said that when someone who has a limp tries to walk in such a way that it doesn’t show, the limp comes out someplace else. In our collective case, it’s the wild. The suppressed wild is coming out in sad and harmful ways. It is coming out in violence, and greed, a perverted wildness which, in its exponential degree, has driven us to using this earth’s vast resources and the minds of most of our scientists to make weapons of unparalleled destruction.
We work hard to train our minds, to practice awareness in all that we do, think, and feel. Let’s not use this training to suppress our very humanness by squelching emotions, natural impulses and creativity. Rather, let us use our training as an expansion of the field in which our minds and bodies play, developing a special, forgotten kind of wisdom which Gary Snyder calls, “the wisdom of the wild.”