Relearning the Practice of the Wild

“Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us closer to the actually existing world and its wholeness.” —Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild


I was fortunate enough to grow up the child of two parents who hated television and loved adventure. When I was an infant we moved to a cowboy ranch in rural Oklahoma, where my dad punched steers along the Canadian River and shot jackrabbits for dinner. My mom still likes to say that the 100-year-old log cabin we lived in was so loosely timbered that “you could fly a kite in the living room.”

We moved back to California when I was still young and one of our yearly rituals was camping deep in the redwoods of Big Sur. On these trips, my dad would take my brother and me on long, trail-less hikes into the steep canyons and over the dramatic waterfalls of the wild feeder creeks that formed the headwaters of the Little Sur River. It was awe-inspiringly wild country, the kind of wilderness that rarely sees another human for years on end.

Big Sur was where my dad and mom had met—two hippies who had burned out on the increasingly drug-addled Haight and Berkeley scenes. My mom worked at the Esalen Institute, the mystical coastal headquarters of the human potential movement. My dad was raising goats and weed high in the upper reaches of Palo Colorado Canyon.

Years later, we moved to Mexico, where my dad and I once again set out on wild adventures, traipsing through remote mountain villages where native tongues were the only language spoken—places where legends, myths and superstitions ruled. We would walk until our legs barely worked, passing through rugged Mexican jungle that reminded me in some ways of the moss- and fern-draped canyons of the Little Sur River.

About 10 years ago, my life suddenly became much more conventional. There is still the occasional backpacking trip into the wilderness, or a backcountry snowboarding ascent of an Eastern Sierra peak. But much of my interaction with the natural world these days is an after-work mountain bike ride or walk around a few acres of forest right outside my garage door. Many weeks I’ll spend what seems like every waking minute sitting at the keyboard, driving to work and going about the daily duties of life.

I think a lot about this absence, this transition. I know life loses much of its mystery as we age. The wonder of those first discoveries fade into repetition. Many of us fall in line because it is the right or the safe thing to do. These structures of the nine-to-five and the daily routine give many of us solace. The wild becomes foreign and uncomfortable again. Our childhood of wonder fades into middle-aged monotony.

But then we have children. And we engage in this profound, secondhand rediscovery of these magic moments. My daughter is 10 and my son is 4, and I see these sublime expressions spread across their faces on a walk through the woods. There might be a road 150 yards away and the forest might have been recently thinned by a mechanical thresher, but they find moments of pure enchantment with nature effortlessly.

They are discovering the world piece by piece, a thing that only happens once in life. This is one of the wonders of living in Tahoe. You get to see your childhood cycle back in front of you in the form of your own children, and you get to impart to them the same adventures that shaped your life.

They are growing up in a universe overwhelmingly swept up in digital distraction that zaps attention spans, demolishes patience and tantalizes us with vacuous, empty interaction. These connections to wild nature are vital counterbalances for their spirits, bodies and minds.

I’ve recently been re-reading essays by Paul Kingsnorth like Dark Ecology and The Axis and the Sycamore, and also going back to some of my favorite thinkers and writers—Gary Snyder, Rick Bass and Jim Harrison. They are like light posts in this increasingly confusing world, bringing me back to a celebrated and simple connection with the land, and guiding the way as I pass along what I can to my kids.

I feel blessed to be raising a couple wild kids in a place where majestic beauty and true adventure can be found right outside the back door.

And oftentimes, when I am walking with my son and daughter in the woods, I think back to what seems like a lifetime ago, scaling waterfalls as a young kid, following the thread of the Little Sur River higher into untouched canyons, through thick ferns and up to mystical pools hidden beneath a canopy of redwoods. My dad is hiking out in front of me, forging through the stream in waterlogged old tennis shoes—one day, one adventure, one encounter with the wild that will live in my memory forever.

And I know my children are taking in the sweet smell of summer cedar and pine sap, the gurgle of a Tahoe stream, and the lapping waters of Lake Tahoe with the same childlike lens that I remember so vividly. I hope they never lose that, and I thank them for allowing me to revisit and relive that magic once again.

David Bunker is a Truckee-based writer.


1 Comment
  • Rita Gatti
    Posted at 20:55h, 23 June Reply

    Great to read this David. Stirs memories that we share in the wilds of Pico Blanco.

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