Our Wild Side

Riverdave’s Journal
This essay appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Eno River Currents 

There are numerous ways to understand the complex personal aspects of the human primate. Some would say we are composed of a body, soul and spirit. Others might insist that we have both a corporeal body and an energy body. Still others would reduce us even further to only a corporeal body that includes a highly developed central nervous system. After interacting with the public by means of guided nature experiences through the years, I have evolved another format of understanding ourselves, that of a dichotomous personage consisting of two primary aspects - a tame side and a wild side.

As I observe those who come to our parklands to participate in river trips, I see these two sides at work. It is obviously necessary for us to develop a tame, domesticated or cultural side to our life on the planet if we are to live together successfully in family and community. There must be a consensual agreement of cultural norms for us to function together smoothly as a group. But the problem arises when some of us become so entrenched in our human community that we neglect our wild side, which has co-evolved over millennia with the wild sides of other forms of life and the elements - animals, plants, rocks, water, sunshine and air.

Pent-up in a complex urban setting, we develop an inbreeding that comes close to total domestication as our tame side mingles only with members of our own species. And as asphalt and concrete provide only an artificial environment, what little remains of our wild side often grasps at unhealthy practices to survive.  Such an isolated, unnatural and human-centered mode of living becomes the source of every personal, social and environmental evil, generating stress, sickness, greed, crime and violence. In such a state we are also prone to blindly run roughshod over any remaining natural areas around us. A herd of humans with frustrated wild sides run amuck is an insidious and dangerous phenomenon to behold.

So what can the Eno River parklands offer our Triangle community to help forestall the onslaught of such a burdensome situation? The answer is simple ... balance. Protecting the Eno River and its adjacent woodlands and meadows is one way to ensure that wildness still exists in this corner of the Carolina Piedmont. It means that there are still wild animals roaming freely in our midst, relatively undisturbed by the pressure of expanding human development. It means that we as human primates are provided an opportunity for our wild side to interact with other species of life on their terms.

I daily work with people who manage to pry themselves away from urban life, who come to the river eager to let their wild sides roam in this beautiful natural area. I have observed enough human behavior to know that if you don't let your wild side, at least occasionally, roam in wild natural areas, it will end up doing crazy things in the city. I have also raised three children who are now young adults and I know that if you don't take children out to let their wild sides have free reign in river and forest, they will surprise you down the road and do even crazier things in the city than you ever thought of when you were young!

Carlos Castaneda, in his mentorship with the Mexican Yaqui shaman don Juan Matus, found that an individual had to learn to deal with two aspects of his personal life - the “tonal” and the “nagual.” Through the years I have come to realize that these two complex and at times baffling Nahuatl Indian terms closely parallel my own understanding of what I call our tame side and our wild side.  Among the many aspects of the nagual or wild side, don Juan states that “one can say that the nagual accounts for creativity” and that “the nagual is the only part of us that can create.”  (Castaneda: Tales of Power, 1974.)  If this is true, then revitalizing our wild sides, by exposure and influence from other wild creatures and elements, becomes an important part of our inspiration for both our personal and professional lives.

Until this year I had concluded that the red fox, a species that has its origin in Europe but which was brought to the New World by early settlers, was the most common fox along the Eno. But this year I have had a number of very close encounters with our native gray fox. To suddenly stumble upon this wild canine sauntering through the forest is a startling experience. While recently sitting on the steps of my office at the old blacksmith shop at dusk, a gray fox stepped out of the forest right in front of me. The fox paused in its tracks while looking me straight in the eye and then retreated shyly into the underbrush. The whole scene flashed before me in a matter of ten seconds. But that momentary eye contact with this wild native of the forest was enough to excite and activate my wild side, setting off a dream several nights later in which I was running with abandon through the forest with a pair of wild canines!

Peoples from primitive cultures around the world believe that our human wild side often takes on the visionary form of a particular wild animal. They have come to learn that frequent and serendipitous encounters in the wild with one kind of animal along with subsequent reoccurring dreams of it, might just mean that this animal is imbuing us with a certain power or ability unique to its kind. The animal could also be functioning as a guardian animal spirit bearing messages. To take a cue from the more primitive peoples of our planet who still live close to the natural world, could the true guardians of our local communities actually be found living along our forested river corridors? And now I hear from the state park headquarters that there are three unconfirmed reports of coyotes along the Eno. Anyone else having dreams out there?

Photo by passerby: a child who knows how to express his wild side

*** See Riverdave’s follow up essay on this subject in his October 4, 2009 essay entitled Wild Canines.