My sister Esther is a therapist in London, England. She specializes in voice dialogue therapy. Her work tries to engage the client’s heretofore unacknowledged multiple inner voices in constructive dialog with each other. Esther is highly intuitive. She can still work up her own fright by recalling from childhood our father Howard Zahniser reciting a poem she and I remembered as “There Is a Wolf in Me.” It turns out the poem by Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) is titled “Wilderness”:
There is a wolf in me . . . fangs pointed for tearing gashes . . . a red tongue for raw meat . . . and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.
I can still conjure my father reciting the poem to us as he stood framed by the doorway from our kitchen pantry-way into the dining room of our childhood home in the Hyattsville, Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
No matter that the house no longer exists. No matter that our father Howard Zahniser died 50 years ago. No matter that I have since seen wolves in the wild and witnessed their extreme wariness toward their bipedal primate nemesis humankind.
What was so frightening about the poem may be the fact that, truth to tell, there is probably a wolf in each of us. What if my wolf got out? What if your wolf got out?
What was so frightening about the poem may have been that our household operated under a multi-generation taboo on anger. The taboo in our religious family system invalidated strong emotion. Yet this poem poured forth with dramatic force from the alpha-male enforcer of our taboo, the one who sometimes reacted angrily to our child-like shows of anger. What made the poem so frightening was our undoubted anxiety: Who or what might we kill or maim if we were ever to let ourselves feel the full force of our own anger?
There Is a Wolf in Me: Was our suburban veneer of civilization so thin as the poem’s perceived force implied?
What may have been so frightening was how the poem connected my father to a forceful inner freedom that his normal parental role prevented his children’s seeing. What if our meal ticket and half our parental all-purpose security blanket should revert to the wild?
I broached with my sister Karen our father’s reciting this poem. “I hated that poem!” she said. I now understand the poem’s startling force in our childhood as wildness welling up from within.
Around our family cabin Mateskared in Baker’s Mills and throughout the Adirondacks wolves were long since extirpated, made regionally extinct, so to speak. Now Mateskared and not the wolf stands as a boundary figure on this margin or ecotone between civilization and the wilderness. No houses dot the hill above us now but only two or three cellar dents revealing where a small house or shacks once stood.
No doubt the wolf found berths in our psyches through the great forests cloaking northern Europe after the late great Ice Ages withdrew. As Robert Pogue Harrison writes, all we of European stock carry still that deep forest image in our consciousness. Europe’s wolf lived in those thick, post-Ice Age blanketings of forest. The final act of war there used to be to kill off the wolves that had multiplied along with wartime human body counts. Like many arch predators, wolves are also opportunistic scavengers.
Those great wolf-inhabited forests were that wilderness out of which, as Aldo Leopold declares in A Sand County Almanac, the artifact of our civilization has been derived—hammered was the verb Leopold settled on. No doubt Leopold borrowed his metaphorical pre-industrial hammer from Henry David Thoreau. In the “Chesuncook” chapter of The Maine Woods, Thoreau hits a similar albeit hand-cut nail on the head. Wilderness is “the raw material of all our civilization” and not just in the commodity sense but in a larger sense as well. Thoreau described himself as a “border figure” between civilization and the wildness that preoccupies not only his essay “Walking” but also chunks of Walden, The Maine Woods, and Cape Cod.
On Thoreau’s Cape Cod, shore, coast, and beach are, like Mateskared, ecotones, edge phenomena, a wild and strange borderland between terra firma and the vast wilderness of the sea.
The wild was Thoreau’s holy land, writes Robert D. Richardson Jr. “Thoreau came to practice a kind of ‘wilding therapy,’” Lawrence Buell says, “as a method for keeping himself as defamiliarized as possible during what might otherwise have become boringly routine activities.”
Defamiliarized: Thoreau could imagine a small brook as the Orinoco or Mississippi rivers. He would walk alone at night in order to feel what it was like to be the first or the last human.
Defamiliarized: The late great Adirondack conservationist Paul Schaefer ‘discovered’ Nate Davis Pond, which the State of New York didn’t know it owned. I am projecting here, but not, I think, by much: Paul imagined himself at the side of his hero Verplanck Colvin’s on Marcy’s flank at Lake Tear of the Clouds, the Hudson headwaters. His was the same quest Bob Marshall took up in subarctic Alaska: the quest for ‘the world as it was.’
Defamiliarized: Mateskared rests in a shrinking ecotone. Mateskared is a closing edge between civilization and the wilderness.
I am told one comes to terms with a living parent more readily than with a dead parent. Our old tapes prove our eternal aspect. Attics and safety deposit boxes hoard only the ephemeral by contrast. Siblings become therapists and pastoral counselors too late to do us the most good. That would be while we yet lived the very childhoods that provide us, as Flannery O’Connor asserted, enough material to work on for the rest of our lives.
My sister Karen recalls a curious anecdote of our early teen years. Perhaps her own priestly duties as an adult swinging the censer or thurible awakened for her this anecdotal memory—of Roman Catholic Father Bruno in our childhood suburban living room speaking strange litanies in Latin, the more strange to us as teenaged Protestants. If there was a wolf in my father, what might he have suspected in our household that moved him to invite the young Catholic seminarian to bless (or exorcise?) our home. My evangelical grandparents would have rolled over in their four graves like synchronized swimmers at the mere thought of Roman Catholic ritual invading their hopes for our “good Christian home.”
Father Bruno was the friend of a family friend. He stood at least six feet tall, darkly northern Mediterranean in looks, as I recall him. In his complementary dark, priestly street garb Father Bruno struck my child self as taller yet, mythic even, large-screen like the scene in the movie “Black Robe” as the protagonist plunges ahead into the winter wilderness. Father Bruno was studying at his order’s seminary attached to The Catholic University of America. The university lay on my father’s commuting route from our Maryland suburb to his office at The Wilderness Society then on P Street just off Dupont Circle in downtown Washington, D.C.
The ritual was foreign enough to seem, in the usualness of our late-1950s living room, like stepping inside the black-and-white television my father would not admit into that family space. Could Father Bruno’s ritual be where Karen got the primal impetus to her priestly vocation she took up in mid-life? Even opera libretto sounds important in a strange tongue. Father Bruno sprinkled water about our living room.
Father Bruno’s blessing didn’t save our childhood house from the road. This was symbolic retribution perhaps—posthumous payback for how hard our father, as primary author of and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System, fought to keep roads out of remnant wilderness areas. That was the big threat to big wilderness then: the roads for automobiles penetrating it, carving it up. The automobile had invented suburbia. The automobile threatened to push suburbia into the whole of the country, into wildness and wilderness, too. Seventy five percent of “We the people” now lives in this suburbia the car invented. The National Wilderness Preservation System now protects just more than 109 million acres of federal public lands. It also provided the definition for New York State’s wilderness system, whose Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area now borders Mateskared. All forms of mechanized travel are largely excluded from federal wilderness except in Alaska. But even 109 million acres make nowhere near a tithe of our landscapes here in North America, on Turtle Island.
Or maybe only Father Bruno’s blessing kept our house standing while my father still lived. When the house did come down we had already buried my father along the Allegheny River in Tionesta, Pennsylvania, his childhood home whose Indian name means “home of the wolves.” Since our suburban house came down, Mateskared has become the gathering place for our increasingly far-flung family. For me it became a space of centering down, like a dog circles its tail before plopping down to nap.
Photo: The view of the Smokey Mountains from Carl Sandburg’s front porch in Flat Rock, North Carolina. Courtesy Wikimedia user