- Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness by Michael P. Branch
In the introductory “Pre-amble” to his new book Raising Wild, Michael P. Branch explains his intent “to suggest a very different approach to how we conceive the relationship between wildness and domesticity” (xxvii). The book’s fourteen essays explore the tensions between the wild and the domestic mainly from the vantage points of literary, historical, and place studies. Most of all, however, Branch’s book is narrative and deeply personal, even intimate, bringing readers into the life of Mike, Eryn, and their two young daughters at their home on the far western edge of the Great Basin, in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada.
This personal approach seems a fitting and honest way to treat such issues as the persistent fantasies of control, individual solitude, and masculinity in western American mythology; the joy and wildness of free play and exploration versus the real limitations and risks entailed in remote family life in the high desert; and even the hazards of romanticizing children’s potential for unmediated experience of their environment, while still recognizing their capacity to interact more directly with their own “storied landscape” (259).
In investigating these and related questions, Raising Wild enters conversations taking place across disciplines such as anthropology, education, psychology, and other social sciences, and even in parenting self-help manuals. Branch is careful not to explicitly call on coinages like free-range parenting, radical homemaking, unschooling, grit, reinhabitation, ecological literacy, and so on. But implicit here is an engagement with such inquiries about our intergenerational commitments to each other and the places we live and care about, and about how we might respond to larger trends in children’s changing relationships with the places in which they live, play, learn, and grow up.
Although a browsing of the publisher’s larger catalog—Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala—reveals an extensive assortment of titles for hands-on makers and doers, this book is not primarily a “how-to” manual. And despite his well-established standing as a scholar of early American and environmental literature, Branch’s [End Page 484] project here is not exactly a scholarly one either. He references dozens of other writers, and there is evidence of serious interdisciplinary research, ranging from wildlife biology and environmental history, to astronomy and narrative theory. But the book includes no formal citations, endnotes, or index, and Branch’s prose is widely accessible and generally familiar. While Raising Wild does include strong traces of literary scholarship and flashes of political advocacy and activist strategy, these dispatches add up more to a kind of family memoir or case study, often along the lines of natural history essay and personal practicum.
Indeed, the book’s “Pre-amble: Learning to Walk” and three main sections (“Birthing,” “Wilding,” and “Humbling”) are organized around epigraphs taken from Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild (1990). And Snyder’s ethos of bioregional praxis informs Branch’s intensely local attention to larger questions of what it might mean to live deliberately, not just for oneself, but also for the next generation, in a very specific place—in this case, Branch’s own corner of the Great Basin.
Earlier versions of many of these essays have appeared previously in Ecotone, Isotope, Orion, Whole Terrain, and other journals and edited book collections. And those familiar with Branch’s humorous “Rants from the Hill” column in High Country News will be glad to find plenty of whiskey and coyote piss in several chapters. The tonic of failure is also here as a useful, recurring correlative. Branch turns to many of his own experiences in order to challenge and often deflate conventional pieties and pretenses that as adults (literature scholars included) we often stubbornly cling to. As Branch notes that “unfortunately, a great deal of writing about nature (and, for that matter, about children) is humorless and predictable,” many of this book’s instances of discovery and humor stem from the humility that...