The word wild is like a gray fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of sight. Up close, first glance, it is “wild”-then farther into the woods next glance it’s “wyld” and it recedes via Old Norse villr and Old Teutonic wilthijaz into a faint pre-Teutonic ghweltijos which means, still, wild and maybe wooded (wald) and lurks back there with possible connections to will, to Latin silva (forest, sauvage), and to the Indo-European root ghwer, base of Latin ferus )feral, fierce), which swings us around to Thoreau’s “awful ferity” shared by virtuous people and lovers. The Oxford English Dictionary has it this way:
Of animals-not tame, undomesticated, unruly.
Of plants-not cultivated.
Of land-uninhabited, uncultivated.
Of foodcrops-produced or yielded without cultivation.
Of societies-uncivilized, rude, resisting constituted government.
Of individuals-unrestrained, insubordinate, licentious, dissolute, loose. “Wild and wanton widowes”-1614.
Of behavior-violent, destructive, cruel, unruly.
Of behavior-artless, free, spontaneous. “Warble his native wood-notes wild”-John Milton.
Wild is largely defined in our dictionaries by what-from a human standpoint-it is not. It cannot be seen by this approach for what it is. Turn it the other way:
Of animals-free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems.
Of plants-self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities.
Of land-a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of nonhuman forces. Pristine.
Of Foodcrops-food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of qualities of fruit or seeds.
Of societies-societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation. Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory. Societies which resist economic and political domination by civilization. Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem.
Of Individuals-following local custom, style, and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post. Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent. “Proud and free.”
Of behavior-fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploration. Far-out, outrageous, “bad,” admirable.
Of behavior-artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned. expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic.
Most of the senses in this second set of definitions come very close to being how the Chinese define the term Dao, the way of Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self-organizing, self-informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self-authenticating, self-willed, complex, quite simple. Both empty and real at the same time. In some cases we might call it sacred. It is not far from the Buddhist term Dharma with its original senses of forming and firming.
Gary’s writings began their play in me back in the mid 1970s during my Idaho days. He was an inspiration in both his writing and in his time spent on Fire Lookouts. That’s part of how I came to spend a summer on William’s Peak Lookout on the Payette Forest, drawing to a close my own forest fire fighting years.
Gary’s perceptual agility, here demonstrated by his ability and willingness to see ‘wild’ from the other than human perspective, is certainly part of why so many of us… owe him sooooo much. Thanks, Gary; you write with and carry the spirit of wild resiliency.
Thanks to Paul Krafel, The Upward Spiral, for calling this passage to my attention.