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The Tonic of Wildness: Coming of Age as a Night Creature

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

I don’t ever remember being afraid of the dark.  I remember knowing in my intellectual mind that I should be in the way all humans hold a tatter of their ancestors' instinct that things with teeth reside in the dark.  We are descendants of cave dwellers who huddled nightly around a fire, hiding from the big cats, but also making love and giving birth and nursing and dreaming.  I think another tatter in my ancestral memory has always known it is a night creature.  I am a night creature.

Last night we slept with our windows open for the first time this season.  As the air cooled, its scent crawled over the window ledge and under the doors.  And when I walked into the bedroom, it took my face in both of its hands, breathing the sweet earthen smell of plants, trees, and sky into my nose and mouth.  Like a mother’s first kiss that breathes life into her precious newborn, the night air pressed my own memories into my chest and I felt my heart electrify with a power that only the wild dark can bring.

That smell, the night smell, always revives me after six months or more of a long winter spent closed off, shut in, stifled in a different kind of dark.  A surviving dark where I wait out the cold and the sideways-falling snow.  That smell.  It carries on its back the essence of warm wind, brilliant moonlight, sweet grass, musky animals, and stars.  Each breath I take pulls it deeper and deeper in, like water into the lungs of a drowning sailor.  Only unlike the sailor, I don’t die.  Rather in the drowning, I am reborn and in the rebirth, I remember.

I remember those first years on my own, out from under the downy wings and the tightly-woven stick walls of the familial nest.  The nights spent roaming the streets with my roommates like a pack of wild dogs, slinking down alleyways from one house party to the next.  Smoking pot and passing beers on the porches of loose acquaintances, making out with strange people in strange beds.  Skinny-dipping off docks into the warm summer water of Hayden Lake and feeling it nestle into places normally hidden by a bathing suit. Tiptoeing with feigned skittishness past the multi-storied abandoned brick buildings along Bellingham’s university-adjacent streets, the broken-paned black eyes staring like sockets in a stone skull.  Nights of hauling wine through the woods behind the dorms to the abandoned fire tower and climbing the rickety ladder to the platform.  There we played music, danced and drank, laughing as we stumbled over one another in the dark.

We were trying on wild like a coyote pup chasing prairie dogs, stalking cartoonishly while the hawks watch, patiently amused, from their perch on a two-rail fence.  We were trying on wild the way a child tries on her mother’s jewelry or shoes, knowing it doesn’t fit now, but someday it will.  It’s too big to find ourselves in, but we’ll grow into it.  For now, we wear that wild boisterously, irreverently, liking how it feels despite its overwhelming size.  We wait impatiently for the day it will fit less like a blanket and more like a second skin.  After a few years of waiting, I took the wild off and put it away with mementos of babyhood, girlhood, and my first forays into womanhood.  But the wild waited, never forgetting me, knowing I would pick it up again someday.

As I lay awake in the dark last night, I felt that wildness in a different way. Through the window came the night, soft-but-heavy on my skin, and even before the memories or the thoughts I was aware of the sensations.  My heart began to dance, pounding harder but not faster, eager for some intangible thing like a dog watching cats in the yard.  My lungs pulled deeper, hungry for air impregnated with the gestational promise of spring.  In this moment I felt keenly aware of a simpler, truer essence of wild.  I saw images in my mind from last October’s hunting season: my son on his birthday pointing his small, chubby finger at the full moon and I felt my heart dance a little more.  There it is, it whispered,  that’s the feeling we’ve been searching for.  I followed this feeling to another image: climbing out of the jeep earlier that same night, under that same full moon, and seeing a herd of deer grazing under its night sunlight.  They heard us moving and turned their shadowed heads in our direction, one doe’s glittering eyes observing the unfamiliar in me.  I see you, her eyes said.  I feel you.

And that is the wild in me, a wild less billowing and much closer.  It fits me better now; I roll it on close to my skin like a stocking or a satin glove.  It feels keen, observant, sensory, alive, and fiercely in love with the simple gifts of life.  A deer’s wide-eyed gaze across a meadow of starlit grass.  A child’s hand reaching for the moon.

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