Wednesday, July 15, 2009


This week, I encountered wildness in two unique and diverse ways. First, I connected with a steelhead on the American, a rare event during the summer season. With the flows high and the river blown-out, my friend Larry and I went out to practice casting in the evening. Larry introduced me to fly fishing years ago but that’s another story.

We went to a favorite spot on the river, a place that gave us room to cast and didn’t present a wading risk. A side channel that usually runs low was ripping. Where it rejoined the main channel a nice bucket formed in the slower moving, oxygenated water. If a steelhead was in the river, I thought to myself, it would be right there.

In case one was, I tied on my go-to low-visibility streamer and swung it into the lie. Most of me thought there were no fish around, so when line spooled off my reel and headed downstream it took me a moment to realize a fish was on. Through the connection of wet fly, fly line, and fly rod, I felt that predator take his prey and turn back into the current. I applied pressure and he reacted. After a leap, a flash, and an exquisite barrel roll this silver fish was gone. To experience such wildness is why I fish for steelhead. And that such wildness exists in an urban river helps me begin to understand one of Thoreau’s famous quotes.

“In Wildness,” Thoreau wrote, “is the preservation of the world.” In an essay of the same name, Jack Turner writes that there is a “tension between wilderness as property and wildness as quality.” Turner, a philosopher turned climbing guide and writer, observes that fewer and fewer humans “have a concept of wild nature based on personal experience.” For this and other reasons “most of us simply don’t know what Thoreau meant.” Despite my own years in the wilderness, you can count me among them. For me, Thoreau’s quote is less a maxim, a saying with some proven truth, than it is a koan, a Zen riddle to develop one’s intuition. While puzzling over Thoreau’s koan, I experienced my second encounter with wildness.

That came in the form of live theater. My wife and I saw Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo performed at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. This stage play explored Thoreau’s koan. In the first of two acts, a middle-aged, upper-middle-class, married couple share a lazy Sunday. Despite being together in the same elegant apartment, Ann and Peter are each isolated in their individual spheres. Ann enters the living room from the kitchen and asks her husband if they can talk.

She cautiously questions whether the life they’ve chosen, “a smooth voyage on a safe ship,” was the right one. They’ve tamed their lives, and those of the children, the cats, and the caged birds we never see but assume are in their own safe places. She asks Peter if it he thinks it’s possible to make contact with their animal selves. She wonders if a place to make contact with that wildness is in sex, asking why they can’t make love like wild animals. Peter becomes uncomfortable because he fears the primitive wildness he knows is in him, and confesses that he’d lost control over it once when he was in college. That event still causes him to live cautiously, with restraint.

To escape the discomfort caused by the conversation, Peter essentially flees the apartment and, in the play’s second act, encounters a dangerous wildness in the form of Jerry, a self-described “permanent transient.” The park where they meet could as well be a wilderness. Albee, the playwright, doesn’t let Peter escape this difficult conversation or avoid its tragic outcome. Civilization’s thin veil is torn for him. He is no longer in control of things and he must act. Whether or not he acts to save himself from a life of quiet desperation, back in the apartment, is left unanswered.

Before I go, I want to explain that the title to this blog post is a line from “The Silver Fish,” a poem I once wrote. It appeared in Runes, an especially-well-conceived literary journal. The poem’s inspiration began with a Chinook salmon I caught near the Farallons, twenty-five miles off the Pacific Coast. A fish I brought home and grilled “on the fire I built in my backyard.” I went on to write, “His taste was the lost memory of my wildness.”

Whenever I bring a steelhead to hand its wildness stirs my genetic memory. Wildness is a quality you can feel. And sometimes, I still feel that wildness in myself.