14 November 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

A river in spate, a screaming baby, a snowy mountain peak: such things stir irresistible emotions. They move us because they are out of control. We cannot help but respond to these calls of the wild. I was reacquainted with my own wild inner journey thanks to a chance meeting with Jay Griffiths. I was paying a flying visit to CAT to teach a session of a course with the rather unpromising title of 'Emergency on Planet Earth'. Jay provided the cultural spot yesterday evening and she charmed us all with readings from her new book, Wild: An Elemental Journey.

As I have previously described, my own wild journey is somewhat more domestic, since I no longer fly and reaching anywhere even halfway exotic by land is fairly demanding in terms of time, energy and money. My adventure with the field mouse became considerably more wild than I was able to cope with, when it was followed into the pantry by rats who disturbed my nights, spoiled my food and chewed their way through beams and possibly electrical cables too. I colluded with John the ratman and my landlord's partner in their death by poison, feeling a mixture of disgust, relief and guilt when a total of four dead and putrid remains were variously disposed of.

As with so many aspects of life, the lesson is about balance. We do not need to travel to the ends of the earth to learn about the wild, which is right here on our doorstep and inside our selves. Society and culture are concerned to maintain an appropriate distance between ourselves and the wild. Wiser cultures than our own cherish those gifted persons - shamans, medicine men and wise women - who can travel further into the wild without becoming destroyed by it.

The learning that has stayed with me from Jay's stirring reading is her description of the Nazis as people who could not tolerate wild wandering. She identified the aberrant nature of their key target groups for extermination: the Roma people; those who wandered in their minds; those who strayed off the straight sexual path; and the wandering Jewish race. She did not link this - as Simon Schama does in his weighty study Landscape and Memory - to the primeval forest and the barbarian heritage of the Teutonic people which the Nazi regime sought both to celebrate and to repress through its obsessive bureaucracy.

We might, as questioners were tempted to do last night, see a parallel in the bland uniformity of the market system, which forces the wild in us to escape into violent computer games or derivatives trading. Giving way to the wild risks insanity and isolation; repressing it creates violence and stifles creativity. Where the wild things are, it turns out, is everywhere there is life.

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