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Know the West

Rants from the Hill: Feral child


“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert, published the first Monday of each month.

Almost ten years ago, after my wife Eryn’s difficult and dangerous 22-hour labor, our first daughter, Hannah Virginia, made her reluctant entrance and began an unbroken run of being a sweet, smart, thoughtful, interesting kid. In the early years of Hannah’s life Eryn and I were in the habit of congratulating each other on what amazing parents we were. What could be wrong with all these other people, whose kids ran around screaming and climbing things, when our daughter’s only idiosyncrasy was her preference for quiet and order? We felt sorry for these exhausted parents, who had to live with so many failed attempts to tame their ungovernable urchins. For us, parenting was a pleasant affirmation that, even in a world of chaos and noise, a rational, intelligent approach could produce a kid who is well-adjusted and delightfully low-maintenance. It was this unchecked hubris that prompted us to have a second child. After all, we were so good at parenting that doubling down seemed an easy call.

But that was before we met Caroline Emerson. Six years ago Caroline was born after a fast and hard labor, and she has been running us ragged ever since. I suppose the middle name we chose for her may have started the trouble. Ralph Waldo Emerson is America’s most eloquent exponent of self-reliance—the belief that fierce independence, individuality, and non-conformity are the qualities we should develop in ourselves and value in others. This wild independence is precisely what we got in Caroline, though in her it is braided with an intense physicality—a remarkable strength, coordination, and spontaneous desire for adventure that makes her appear equal parts cute little girl, simian beast, and Hollywood stunt double.

At two weeks old Caroline launched herself out of her grandmother’s lap; at ten months she stood up and walked away from us; at four years she insisted that monkey bars should be built instead of sidewalks because she can cover ground faster when “it’s just swinging.” It is a major accomplishment to persuade her to operate occasionally on the horizontal surfaces of the world, and her innate ability to climb is both terrifying and inspiring. Caroline can scramble up anything: trees, fences, walls, and (in one of our best father-daughter party tricks) even me. I stand perfectly still as Caroline jumps onto my chest, momentarily hugging me like an orangutan, after which she wedges her toes into my hipbones and then, reaching for my neck, buries her fingers under my collarbone and leaps up onto my shoulders in a single, graceful motion, like an organ grinder’s monkey hopping onto a pony’s back. Having summited “Daddy Mountain,” Caroline pumps her fists in the air and screams “BOOOYAAAHHH!

The Ranting Hill and its surrounding wilderness provide the ideal habitat for a little girl who is so thoroughly animal, though I often wonder whether Caroline’s wildness is innate, or if instead this remote, high desert landscape has produced the wildness that is so unmistakable in her. To her, this arid wilderness is home, and town is a place you go only when you have no choice. Caroline doesn’t mind the extreme cold out here, or the blistering heat, or the incessant wind. She hates proper clothes and coming in for supper.

She loves chasing jackrabbits and hunting for scorpions, and she relishes the night sounds of coyote yelps and raspy owl hoots. In early spring she wants to spot sagebrush buttercup and death camas—signs of the changing season here—and her main goal is to find a mule deer antler. Her favorite summer activity is scrambling up into scratchy Utah junipers, where she builds stick nests that she hopes the ravens will occupy. In fall she is the only one in our family who welcomes the return of the big wind, because she insists it is alive, and her main worry is that she may never glimpse the mountain lion that hunted our valley last autumn. In winter she watches constantly for pronghorn, and she sleds madly down the Ranting Hill even though it is impossible to do so without crashing into thickets of prickly ephedra and thorny gooseberry. Her favorite winter activity is taking off her clothes, running outside, and making angels in the snow. Though the very idea seems hilarious in retrospect, when she was four years old we tried a last-ditch effort to civilize her by taking her to ballet lessons in town. When she was asked by her dance teacher to play the role of a butterfly in the class recital she refused, explaining coolly that she didn’t want to be anything that could be eaten by a kingbird. Instead, she set the terms for her participation: she’d join the recital if she could be a harrier.

The humbling experience of trying to parent Caroline Emerson has cured us of our delusional belief that any actions of ours will “produce” children of a certain kind. An endearing term like “feisty” doesn’t do justice to Caroline, who is so fiercely independent, energetic, and stubborn that she is, for all practical purposes, unparentable. Her signature reply when asked to do anything she prefers not to is to adopt the stance of a boxer—turned slightly sideways, with one foot in front of the other, fists circling slowly—and growl “You want some of this, huh?” The other day when she struck her pugilist pose I said “Give it your best shot!” She instantly launched a roundhouse left, but I caught her little fist in my right palm; she followed with a savage right uppercut, which I managed to grasp in my left hand. In this moment I believed foolishly that I had neutralized her attack. Caroline just smiled and then, before I could respond, launched herself forward and rammed the crown of her head into my groin, doubling me over and leaving me gasping for air. “BA-BAAAM!” she hollered, holding up her puny arms in a would-be biceps flex.

Unlike her professorial big sister, for whom all actions are preceded by thorough analysis of possible consequences, Caroline takes a “ready, fire, aim” approach to being in the world. Her instinct is always to try something to see if it will work, rather than to think—or, even worse, to talk—about whether it might work, and she views the basic risk analyses inherent to parenting as cowardly stalling, hedging, and jawflappery. And while this attitude has a substantial downside—one made clear when she leapt into the Pacific Ocean several years in advance of learning how to swim—it is impossible not to admire her sheer, unrelenting, visceral drive to experience the world. In the time it takes Eryn and I to discuss whether it is safe to allow Caroline to climb a particular tree, she has already reached its top. While we think, she acts; while we calculate, she executes; while we wonder what she might be capable of, she sets out immediately to find out. Caroline is more her own person than any adult I know, and her spontaneous confidence provides a healthy challenge to the deadening logic of a grown-up world in which things are as they are only because that’s how they’ve always been—because some adult who was afraid to try something in their own way couldn’t dream up a better reply than “because I said so.”

The word wild derives from the Old English wilde, which means “in the natural state, uncultivated, undomesticated.” But the word’s older root is in the Latin ferus, which gives rise to the English word fierce, which is itself a cousin to the wonderful word feral. It is this quality of being feral that fascinates me most, for while a wild animal has no experience of enclosure or constraint, a feral animal has “achieved a wild state after escape from captivity or domestication.” Caroline Emerson began her escape from domestication—began going feral—the moment she was born. We can give Caroline a home, but she’ll be in the blast of the desert wind most of the time. We can dress her in warm clothes, but she’s going to run outside naked and leave angels in the snow. As our family’s emissary to the non-human realm, Caroline seems to me to have entered this high desert landscape through a snowstorm, or a lenticular cloud, or a secret green door beneath the sage. She is the girl for whom the walls the world has built around her exist merely to hold up the wild doors that only she can see.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.