“Where does wildness begin, and how far does it extend?” - Esther Woolfson, in Corvus: A Life with Birds
The above question is plucked from a book about a family living with wild birds that had been rescued as chicks, fallen out of their nests or abandoned. Woolfson writes beautifully about how people in Western society relate to wild animals, the wilderness, and wildness itself. Her question fascinates me, and sends off sparks of other questions in me.
What is wildness? Wildness is a judgement made of a person, animal or place. It is a measure of how much something should be feared. From childhood, we are taught to be afraid of wildness. When in the bush, we should never stray from the path. When a child is judged as being wild, they don’t fit into the neatly laid out boxes that contain what a child “should” be like. When an adult is judged as being wild, they are somehow immature, irresponsible, or outrageous.
Wildness is not only feared, but it is also fetishised. “Experience the Wild” the road signs say as they point us to a national park or holiday destination. We visit ‘wild’ places as a taster, a teaser, of what it might be like to live alongside nature. The places we deem to be wild add spice and excitement to our lives, but ultimately we live separately from them.
Western society’s obsession with containing and controlling wildness has enormous consequences for the natural world. In Australia, like many places in the world, habitat for native animals is quickly shrinking as neatly manicured houses and lawns eat further and further into native forests and grasslands. The myth that we are separate from the wild also makes it possible to turn a blind eye to the continual logging of our native forests, the increasing volume of plastic in our oceans, the worsening of deadly bushfires throughout Australia resulting from climate change.
To make a judgement that someone or something is wild is denying or hiding the fact that you are wild yourself.
Growing up in a family band that played at folk festivals across Australia, I’ve had a lifetime of trying to fit in and completely failing to. Being picked on and excluded for being different in primary school led to me being hyper-vigilant in high school. I spent my busking and pocket money on the right shoes, the right clothes, to hide my wildness. I rejected people who were seen by my friends as weird. It was painful, keeping up appearances, and not being seen for who I really was. For as much as we strive to be, we are not all the same. The daily striving to be perfect and normal causes us a great deal of harm.
If “tame” means to fit the mould, to go along with the seeming stream of normality – then to be “wild” is to be different, to be intrinsically unique.
I’m so thankful for the perspective that growing older brings, and how the things I cared about when I was young matter less and less. I’m turning 30 this year, and there’s a feeling growing in me, that I’ve run out of steam for putting on a front, for presenting myself to the world in socially acceptable ways. “Will you take me as I am?”, a line from Joni Mitchell’s song California comes to mind often. But first and foremost, I think I need to ask this question of myself. How would life be if I really did take myself as being enough, as I am?
I wonder what would happen if I, and we all, made an intentional effort to recognise, accept, and love our innate wildness? Would the fear of difference, the fear of the “other” - be as much of a factor in the shaping of our social lives? In our social interactions, rather than wondering: “In what ways are we the same?”, could we ask: “In what ways are we different?” What can we learn from one another, in all our differences? Could an acceptance, an embracing of our unusualness and our real tendency to be different to one another, actually help us to become a kinder, more humane and resilient humanity?
Maybe this time of social restrictions can be seen as an opportunity to really get to know ourselves, and make an effort to not just accept our quirks, but to appreciate and love them. Once we do this, we might allow ourselves to accept and love other people’s quirks too, the things that make them really who they are. Maybe the fact that we are different is what we all share in common.
Here in regional Victoria, Australia, this second lockdown has me missing seeing my people. But I also wonder at the possibilities it might bring up. I wonder if it will allow all of us, at the end of this, to approach social gatherings with more curiosity, more openness to the unusual, the out-of-the-ordinary. It might change the questions we ask of one another in our conversations. Instead of “what do you do?” maybe it can be “what are you growing in your garden?” We might be out of practice, we might stumble on our words. We might forget what’s appropriate or inappropriate to say at a particular time. We might even rock up to the party in our trackie dacks, forgetting that when you go out, you're meant to dress up. It would be a smile bringer. A conversation starter. A means of connection. Allowing a little wildness to shine through.