- Free Spirits: A Legacy of Wildness
Sublime silence surrounds me. I have walked to the top of the hill, plopped myself down to watch the world around me. I have no fear here, in this world of trees, weeds—and growing things. This is the world I was born into—a world of wild things. In it the wilderness in me speaks. I am wild. I hear my elders caution mama, telling her that she is making a mistake, letting me “run wild,” letting me run with my brother as though no gender separates us. We are making our childhood together in Kentucky hills, experiencing the freedom that comes from living away from civilization. Even as a child I knew that to be raised in the country, to come from the backwoods left one without meaning or presence. Growing up we did not use terms like “hillbilly.” Country folk lived on isolated farms away from the city; backwoods folks lived in remote areas, in the hill and hollers. To be from the backwoods was to be part of the wild. Where we lived, black folks were as much a part of the wild, living in a natural way on the earth, as white folks. All backwoods folks were poor by material standards; they knew how to make do. They were not wanting to tame the wildness, in themselves or nature. Living in the Kentucky hills was where I first learned the importance of being wild.
Later attending college on the West Coast I would come to associate the passion for freedom, for wildness I had experienced as a child, with anarchy, with the belief in the power of the individual to be self-determining. Writing about the connection between environments, nature, and creativity in the introduction to A Place In Space, Gary Snyder states: “Ethics and aesthetics are deeply intertwined. Art, beauty and craft have always drawn on the self-organizing ‘wild’ side of language and mind. Human ideas of place and space, our contemporary focus on watersheds, become both models and metaphors. Our hope would be to see the interacting realms, learn where we are, and thereby move towards a style of planetary and ecological cosmopolitanism.” Snyder calls this approach the “practice of the wild” urging us to live “in the self-disciplined elegance of ‘wild’ [End Page 37] mind.” By their own practice of living in harmony with nature, with simple abundance, Kentucky black folks who lived in the backwoods were deeply engaged with an ecological cosmopolitanism. They fished, hunted, raised chickens, planted what we would now call organic gardens, made homemade spirits, wine and whiskey, and grew flowers. Their religion was interior and private. Mama’s mama, Baba, refused to attend church after someone had made fun of the clothes she was wearing. She reminded us that God could be worshipped everyday anywhere. No matter that they lived according to Appalachian values, they did not talk about themselves as coming from Appalachia. They did not divide Kentucky into East and West. They saw themselves as renegades and rebels, folks who did not want to be hemmed in by rules and laws, folks that wanted to remain independent. Even when circumstances forced them out of the country into the city, they were still wanting to live free.
As there were individual black folks who explored the regions of this nation before slavery, the first black Appalachians being fully engaged with the Cherokee, the lives of most early black Kentuckians were shaped by a mixture of free sensibility and slave mentality. When slavery ended in Kentucky, life was hard for the vast majority of black people as white supremacy and racist domination did not end. But for those folk who managed to own land, especially land in isolated country sites or hills (sometimes inherited from white folks for whom they had worked for generations, or sometimes purchased), they were content to be self-defining and self-determining even if it meant living with less. No distinctions were made between those of us who dwelled in the hills of Eastern or Western Kentucky. Our relatives from Eastern Kentucky did not talk about themselves as Appalachians, and in...