It’s quite clear what it means, usually, for a man, but the hard riding/hard drinking/hard womanizing idea didn’t appeal to most of us. The wildness did, especially for those who grew up in repressive times.
The question got lost somewhere in our anxieties about drugs and unplanned pregnancies, which are surely not part of any version of being wild—except perhaps in the movies. For most of us, the sense of extreme vulnerability these states entail meant we don’t find them appealing—and I still wince at news stories of young women passed out drunk on frat house beds, who are then raped. And I am not blaming the victim.
I need my version of the wild, now more than even as the so-called civilized world closes in.
There are leaders along the way. I’m grateful to Rosemary Daniell, two of whose many books have meant a great deal to me: Fatal flowers: On sin, sex, and suicide in the Deep South and Sleeping With Soldiers, where she dared to take on the slogan (from where?) “Sleeping with soldiers to take the war out of them.”
And I will always be grateful to Erica Jong for Fear of Flying. A copy lay on my nightstand and on my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s; it was not the book’s fault that it couldn’t seed the desert between us.
Now, although writing about women’s sexual desire from a woman’s point of view (long co-opted by men) has become a little more frequent, in fiction and non-fiction, it is still restricted to certain times and certain ages. This constriction has produced Jong’s new book, Fear of Dying, which dares to take on the issue of older women’s still-flaming desire. Grandmas, beware!And let me not forget SARK’s groundbreaking books, one of which Eat Mangoes Naked is subtitled, Finding Pleasure Everywhere and dancing with the pits!.
Among many other delightful suggestions, SARK advises, “Start a Pleasure Journal of all the pleasures in your life”—including clippings, recipes, and the marks from your teacup…
But of course books are never quite enough to create the personal sense of wildness I crave, although they certainly endorse it.
Moving to New Mexico years ago was my valiant attempt to find the wildness hidden under layers of convention in the East, but New Mexico, or at least Santa Fe, is urbanizing and expanding so fast that the wilderness I used to see from my windows is now obscured by new houses and their hideous glaring “surveillance lights.” Who, I often wonder, are these lights surveilling? They grew out of the same nameless fear that causes my new, over-automated car to lock all its doors as soon as I start the engine—a terrible nuisance—and to relock them at every start up and turn. Who is supposed, by the car manufacturer, to be trying to get in?
But enough of that. We must find a way—we women who must claim our wild.
I’ve finally found mine in the shape of a broad swatch of bone-dry mesa, scattered with pinion and juniper, that rears up about ten miles south-east of Las Vegas, New Mexico.
It is almost waterless, not a suitable place for cropping or cattle-growing or almost any other utilitarian use, but it is splendid for walking, thinking, day-dreaming, and for writing—without cell phone or laptop, without neighbors or noise, except for the always-rushing wind.
A bluff at the end of the mesa overlooks a torturous jeep trail down to a green lower valley and the Gallinas River; in that valley, my friend and fellow enjoyer found pot shards with the distinctive black-on-white geometric designs often called Mesa Verde after the Ancestral Puebloan site to the north-west. Indeed, several of these shards show a crude but striking resemblance to the 13th-century mug shown in the Mesa Verde Museum.But it is the roaming and raiding Apache whose name has been given to this mesa—the tribe that conquering Spaniards called “barbarous” because unlike the Puebloans, who settled in villages along the Rio Grande, these natives were not easily Christianized, if at all. The Apaches used these high sharp bluffs as look-out points for spotting game, and enemies, and settled in temporary camps where women broke up their pottery cooking vessels when the tribe moved on.
Apache Mesa is my wild. I have nothing to do but and listen to the wind, finding a sheltered nook by a buttress of the Little House, once the one-room schoolhouse for a vanished community, that I’ve named after “The Little House on the Prairie.”
Yes, we’ve added a bathhouse and a solar-heated hot water system, but for heat I rely on the old wood stove, which takes carefully nurturing with twigs and split pinion logs when I start it up in the morning. Even when it is going full blast, it can’t quite heat water to boiling.
For light, I depend on four wall-mounted kerosene lanterns like the ones my mother, as a girl, learned to clean at her Aunt Rose’s equally rugged West Virginia farm. Rose, and her dogs, are buried in the farmyard; I plan to have my ashes scattered over the Apache Mesa bluff that overhangs the green valley and the Gallinas River.
This plan connects me at the root to the wildness that outlives our individual lives, the wildness that drove my maternal ancestors out of what became West Virginia, through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. The wildness that helped my five or six times great-grandmother to flourish during her three years as a captive of the Shawnee, that gave her the grace to mourn, and then get over, the Shawnee’s slaying of her infant—it was crying, and would have betrayed them to attackers—and to go back, eventually, to the life of a more-constrained frontier wife and mother of many children.
But—like me—she kept a taste for some of what she had been through: after her return from the Shawnee camp, she never again slept in a feather bed.
The old iron bed in the Little House is neither a branch-and-leaf wildness couch nor the luxurious bed I sleep in back in town; but it is small, and plain, and serves a purely utilitarian, rather than decorative purpose.
I haven’t yet spent the night at My Wild—I need kerosene for the lamps, as well as sheets and towels—but I will soon, and it will remain source and touchstone for what I refuse to lose.