by Tammy Cloutier
Whole Terrain staff
Imagine a place ravaged by wildfires, shaken by earthquakes, exposed to fierce heat and winds, and buried beneath unrelenting snowstorms: isolated, unforgiving, a place of extremes. Now imagine raising a family there. Trust contributor Michael P. Branch documents such a life in his new book, Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness, available tomorrow through Roost Books and other booksellers. In it, Branch invites readers to share in the challenges and triumphs of engaging in parenthood and working in harmony with the elements.
A self-proclaimed desert rat and curmudgeon, Branch is no stranger to the Great Basin Desert. Alone as a younger man, he explored miles of it in what might be considered the stereotypical American “man versus nature” style: the solitary man setting out from all that is familiar to head into the unknown, to conquer the wilderness, or to simply participate in quiet contemplation with only the sun and stars to guide him. What Raising Wild adds to this American story, however, is the uncharted territory of raising a family in a harsh desert environment.
Branch prompts us to contemplate “the relationship between wildness and domesticity” (xxiv). He explores this idea not only through tales of the vast, wild landscape he and his family call home, but also the forgotten or unexpected aspects of wildness that exist in childhood and parenthood. All three themes — landscape, childhood, and parenthood — help us recognize both our limits and potential opportunities for growth. We must face the intersection between wildness and domesticity in humorous stories such as the battle between the author and a family of bushy tailed wood rats, the ironic Presidential pardoning of a turkey at Thanksgiving, and the humbling but comical tale of “Vegpocalypse,” reminiscent of scenes from Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, with the author resembling the role of the unfortunate coyote.
Representative of the underlying theme of connections between domesticity and wildness, the book begins with an event shared by many living beings: pregnancy. Although experienced and/or celebrated in different ways among cultures and species, it is a biological process that reminds us of the vitality, fragility, and mystery of life. Another story describes the author’s need for an occasional break from what he lovingly terms the “baking hell” (168). Escaping to the Tahoe Basin forest, the “lifeblood of the desert” (173), as a forest monitor has unexpected results that demonstrate the fundamental connection between human beings, wild places, and future generations. We may praise our ingenious inventions and technology that alter ecosystems to suit our purposes, but cannot escape the fact that we need healthy forests and water sources to maintain human health and survival, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Although perhaps not a connection shared by all species, the night sky filled with stars has been used as a navigational device or agricultural calendar by human beings for millennia. Stars not only guide us by their place in the sky, but also by their roles in stories, stories that can span generations. This relationship and ritual is demonstrated through the bedtime stories the author tells his oldest daughter, who then relates her own versions to her younger sister. Simply by listening to the tales woven by his children, with unimpeded imaginations and the idea that anything truly is possible, he discovers that the stories contain natural history lessons about their desert home in addition to fun-filled adventures of the nonhuman animals that coexist with them. Having not yet been hampered by society’s rules and life lessons, children raised with ample access to nature can be much more closely connected to, and in tune with, the natural world — a gift the author notes that adults lose, or may forget, all too quickly.
While offering room for reflective thought, Branch also keeps us laughing with topics such as the induction of a controversial toy, the stick, into the National Toy Hall of Fame. Adults debated the stick’s place in history, but only a child’s insight, “Why don’t they ask kids?” (145), could really put it into perspective. The unlikely relationship (and ensuing battle) between pack rats and human beings shows us that the more we learned about pack rats, the more we actually learned about our own species. Branch also discusses gardens, which not only supply us with food but, similar to parenthood, provide teachable moments about sustainability, patience, labors of love, miracles, and humility.
Family moments easily flow and illustrate information about the wonders of the natural world, whether it’s the pronghorn with its twenty million year evolution, the Pleiades and their appearance throughout human history, or other creatures such as California ground squirrels that, though admired by the author, threaten to push him over the proverbial edge. Branch delivers these tales in a way that is serious, sarcastic, humorous, poetic, and contemplative. His style allows readers to learn without feeling as though they are being preached at and remind us how freeing it can be to view the world through a child’s perspective. Though these stories are personal to the author and relate to his particular desert context, they speak to and offer lessons for the rest of us, regardless of the places we may call home. Branch leaves us to reflect on the all too real danger that comes from both humanity and the wild, as well as the possibilities available if we change our perspective — even just a little.
Bio: Michael P. Branch is, among many other things, a writer, environmentalist, and Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. His writing has appeared in multiple publications including Reader’s Digest, Orion, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing. To learn more about him, see our recent interview.