February 28, 2015

In Winter 2011, I took a course at Northern Michigan University titled “Education in the Outdoor Settings” which was taught by the myth, the legend, the incomparable Cheryl Teeters. She came into class one day wearing a wolf’s head hat – not entirely out of the norm for Cheryl – and shared with us a story she has been retelling since it was published in 1978. Patrick F. McManus, an American writer and humorist, has been a contributor to “Field & Stream” since the 1970s ; in July 1978, he published a narrative called “WILD THINGS.”

Cheryl, wolf head flapping, taught us how to howl that day in three-pitch fashion. A classroom tucked under the stadium seating of the Superior Dome slowly, surely emitted a cacophony of amateur howls – the final eruption of howls landing, finally, without the hesitation or inhibition of the first. We howled, and then Cheryl read.

This is a story I read every summer to my Student Conservation Association students, typically our first night out in the backcountry. We will have just settled down after cleaning up from dinner – a bedtime story to take back to their tents. But, more importantly, a ceremony marking the release of their “Wild Thing.”

I preface the story to them – the lead-in is on point – and there may or may not be some howling but I don’t want to give away all of my secrets; plus, the ritual deserves to stay where it happens: in the backcountry, in the wild.

Nevertheless, I give you “Wild Things” by Patrick F. McManus (Teeter may have tweaked some parts and given us an abbreviated version of the original story – this is from her copy):

A wild thing lives within me. It is dark and furry and quick of fang and claw. When I am in the mountains and along, the wild thing comes out and takes charge. This is good, usually, because it knows things I don’t. It knows how to walk slender, swaying logs across mountain streams without getting feet wet or bones broken. It knows the precise instant to leap and which rock is safe to land on. It knows that in just thirty seconds a herd of mule deer will come ghosting down out of the mountain fog.

“Be still!” it tells me. “Get ready!”

The wild thing is not particularly nice. I would not like for it to get loose in polite company. I certainly wouldn’t want it to come out and take charge in, say, a restaurant. If it got too warm, it might pour a glass of ice water over our head. It might sink our teeth into the loud and obnoxious drunk at the next table. It might growl menacingly if served brussels sprouts, or scratch our rear with a table fork.

Most of the time, I keep the wild thing caged. I feel the lesser for caging it… but life is easier that way. Its captivity diminishes both of us in ways I can’t articulate. Sometimes, I feel it pacing its narrow, ribbed cage, growling and whining. I try to tell myself it’s only gas.

After a long spell of being caged, the wild thing will occasionally become still as if it had given up and died. I often think it’s just as well. But when I return to the mountains, it always comes out again, as if from hibernation, stretching and yawning, sniffing the air, hungry for the long hunt.

“What is it we’re hunting?” I ask him.

“Don’t you know?” it growls.

I call the wild thing W.T. Crocker. It is important that he have his own name because we bear a certain resemblance to each other and I was afraid he might break out one day and start eating politicians, meter persons and rude clerks. Then I’d get the blame.

Not long ago, W.T. Crocker got loose, went out into the backyard and actually howled at the moons. Scared the neighbors half to death. Presently, two police officers drove down the alley in a prowl car, shining the spotlight around our backyard. I think they were afraid to get out of the car. W.T. Crocker hid behind a rhododendron bush until they were gone. Then my wife came out and helped me get W.T. back in his cage.

“Tomorrow I’m making you an appointment with a psychiatrist,” my wife shouted at me.

“Well, I don’t need a shrink,” I told her. “What I need is a wild animal trainer.”

W.T. Crocker behaves himself pretty well as long as I get him out in the wilds on a regular basis and let him run loose. Even there we have our little disagreements. W.T. will want to stay out all night, just curled up under the boughs of a cedar tree for a bit of rest. I will want to sleep in the camper. He likes his meat medium-raw. I like mine cooked well-done over a bed of coals. Hunting to me is a sport, a form of relaxation. To W.T. Crocker, it is a matter of ultimate concern. I will be exhausted, wet and freezing and wanting to go home.

“No, you weakling!” Crocker will snarl. “At the end of these tracks are the elk. We’ll catch them over the next rise or the next or the next. Fun!”

We have our philosophical difference, too.

“Tear down the dams,” he will growl. “Let the rivers run free.”

“You must be mad,” I tell him. “We need the dams for electricity, and electricity to run my electric toothbrush and to bring me reality shows on TV.”

“Rip up the freeways, eradicate the automobile, demolish the shopping center, trample the transistor,” he rants.

I don’t bother to answer. There’s no reasoning with a wild thing.

Even when I was a kid and W.T. was a whelp, we had our differences. He believed in everything wild and I believed in practically nothing. In fact, for several years we had a disagreement so serious that we almost gave up on each other and went our separate ways.

We disagreed over my practice of capturing wild things, putting them in cages and attempting to make pets out of them. Naturally, W.T. loathed the very notion of caging anything wild. Little did he realize that one day I would put even him in a cage.

An old woodsman by the name of Rancid Crabtree lived in a little cabin in the foot of a mountain not far from our farm, and he had a wild thing. Rancid let his wild thing run loose, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my wild thing was not an offspring of his. Rancid never gave his wild thing a name, but the respectable citizens of the community did. They called it simply that “BLEEP-BLEEP Rancid Crabtree!” and made no distinction between the two of them. Perhaps there was none.

One thing is for certain, Rancid shared W.T.’s loathing for my hobby of capturing wild animals and attempting to tame them.

“Look at this frog I caught down on the crick,” I would say, holding a glass jar up to Rancid so he could examine its occupant.

“Now gol-dang, whatcha go an’ do thet fer? You take thet little critter back whar you found it and tarn it loose, ya hyar?”

W.T. would echo Rancid: “Turn it loose, turn it loose!”

Other than mussels, a few frogs and a couple hundred worms and grasshoppers, none of the wild things I captured ever died while in my protective custody. Almost to a creature, however, they somehow managed to escape from their various confinements and disappear without a trace. The mystery of those escapes was never solved.

I’m just as glad. Later in life, I too came to despise the notion of capturing wild things and putting them in cages. The only wild thing I keep caged now is W.T. Crocker and I’m not entirely successful with him. Just last night somebody reported howling in the neighborhood again. I’d like to call around and learn more about the incident, but my wife is babbling hysterically on the phone to a shrink. And, besides, I’ve promised W.T. to take him out to the mountains.


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