In Search of Wildness

Emily Dickinson was right to see that a prairie consists of only one flower and a bee. When my world was small, a quarter acre vacant wooded lot was enough to make a wilderness.

I grew up in the limits of a sprawling Alabama city, but I was happiest when I imagined I was surrounded by ‘wilderness’. In the leafy chaos of empty lots and wooded neighborhood margins I was a pioneer. Playing cowboys and Indians in a tiny fraction of an acre of woods, I could imagine that I was in undisturbed ‘native land’, and belonged there as a native myself.

As I grew older, I needed more of the nutrient of wildness than my little neighborhood woods could give. I went to summer camp and my backyard forest was magnified a thousand fold. Living at camp for a week, smelling of creek water and pine straw with a hundred other free-ranging feral children,I felt more connected to the larger life of the world than I would have after an entire summer of immersion in chlorine-smelling swimming pools or organized, sanitized sports.

I fished to find wilderness. Fishing possessed its own sense of isolation and otherness and was its own alien country fit for a young explorer. Mostly I fished alone walking the shoreline; more often than not, I’d find myself distracted by a little side creek or a rock bluff along the lake and I would forget fishing entirely. It was not the fish I was after, after all.

Like many of my friends, I followed my father onto the golf courses that spread into the countryside ahead of the expanding city. Our dads went there looking for something–to find tranquility and be near the land perhaps by chasing behind a little white ball. I’d wander off the manicured fairways into the rough turning logs for salamanders. And I decided that for me, just being out there was the point.

It is not easy these days for city children to know the joys of secret woods. Most of the tiny wilderness sanctuaries of my childhood are paved over now. Locked behind guardhouses of gated communities, they’ve become uninviting and forbidden domesticated places. Even the margins and edges from youth were not far enough away to provide reliable wildness. Maybe knowing this has made me long for remoter places when looking for our true home, a place for roots in our later years.

Now, far beyond the edges of a town so small that there are no spreading suburbs, we have found those roots. A vast forest surrounds me, and creeks flow full of bright fish and sunlight. I have tranquility by the sky-full here, and few neighbors to disturb in my rambling walks.

This little valley may be the place I knew I would belong to long ago in that half-acre woods. And I have to wonder if I did not start moving to Floyd County while picking berries with small hands– beyond my suburban yard in a secret patch of woods where natives lived.

This is a repost from Fragments (or elsewhere) from years ago. It just seemed fitting, what with all the reading and thinking lately about childrens’ exposure (or lack thereof) to the natural world.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Fred, I really enjoyed your latest column in the Press on this topic. The photo of Abby running with the broken kite really added to it.

  2. Very nice piece of writing Fred. You truly have the gift of personalizing and expressing observations about our essential connections with planet Earth that most people are only vaguely and unconsciously aware of, but long for in reunification as biological organisms.