By Madeleine Forbes
He’s balanced and breathless, with sticky cherry juice staining his chin. Barefoot. Grubby. Waiting for his cue, which is for me to move towards him, startling that glorious toddler cackle from deep within his belly, so that he can wobble and fall over again.
We moved the old mattress into the big canvas tent when my brother and his girlfriend stayed last month. The pillows and covers are back in the house now, leaving only a faded blue sheet on the bed. I know the dog likes to sneak in and nap here in the heat of the day, and now the kid loves it too, running in circles on the dusty floor, hurling himself onto the bed.
Our friends brought their daughter to visit from the city, and she’s frowning at me now, with a look of mild disbelief. The neat white socks and sweet buckle shoes have been tossed to the floor. Her hands are sticky. Still she hesitates. Really, she seems to be asking me? You’re not worried about how filthy dirty we are, how over-excited we are, about the mud we’re adding to the paw prints the dog left behind?
But the toddler’s delirium is infectious. Now they’re both jumping and giggling, giggling and jumping, higher and higher as the sun pours in and I stretch out and notice the streaks of mud on my legs from the impromptu stream paddling. The big dog lays his head on the ground beside me and sighs, content to be here in this space with the small beings in their frenzy of delight, and I am content too.
Wildness is a summer state of mind. When I think about wildness, I think about those moments I have stepped into since moving to the hills. Memories which take my breath away just to think of them.
Hiking down to the river and, arriving sweaty on the bank, taking off my clothes and skinny dipping. All alone, just me and the trees, the shock of the freezing water and the steady current of the river tugging at my ankles.
Taking a moment to step away from my desk halfway through the day and lying down on the ground, gazing up at the olive tree. Breathing in the warmth of the afternoon and the hum of the insects and the great steady certainty of the land at my back, holding me.
Walking home at night from a friend’s place, the night still warm enough not to need a sweater. Daring myself not to use a flashlight; to engage my peripheral vision. The strangeness of the black and white world in moonlight, adrenaline coursing through me. Getting almost to the house and breaking into a run over the last hundred yards to the front door, for no reason other than the dark is terrifying and home is welcoming and it does one good, now and again, to feel that thrill and succumb to it, to pound one’s feet and leave the terrors of the night behind.
But it isn’t only in the wild that we feel that sense of looseness, of freedom, a sudden flash of the power that’s ours when we let go and fully inhabit this world we’re in. It’s waiting for you, too, my love, if you’re ready and willing. If you can take a breath and allow your grip to loosen.
It comes when you step out of the shower and, instead of rushing to dress and cover up, simply hang out in your skin for a while. Notice how liberating it is not to hold your stomach in; to claim the space you take up and the soft, hairy, unrestricted presence of you. Not to make apology for yourself, to simply exist the way a cat or a bird or a rock does. Here. There’s a wildness in that.
I remember nights cycling home from work, when I’d take a longer route than usual. I’d take my bike helmet off and let it swing from the handlebars and meander aimlessly up and down suburban streets, breathing in the scent of the sweet flowers in tiny yards, and watching the lights come on in front rooms and the gentle domestic scenes within—TV, homework, dinner.
Driving in the evening sun, music blaring, singing at the top of my lungs to the sounds of my teenagehood.
Alone in the house, frying eggs to have for dinner. Eating them between slices of buttered bread in the kitchen, extra salt, letting the yolk run down my chin. Not caring, not caring that I didn’t care.
There is something to be said for diverting from your assigned route. To being a little late, a little loose, to allow your feet to take you where they want to, to playing hooky from your life for a little bit.
A good starting point, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, is to free yourself from your phone. It contains all manner of tedious reminders of the grown-up world you inhabit most of the time. Worse, it holds the potential for calls from people who might not be impressed to find you naked or intoxicated or eating a fried egg sandwich on your own at 3am. Put the thing on airplane mode, or better still leave it at home while you head out to encounter the world. It will still be there when you return, tired and grubby and feeling alive.
Like all good magic spells, wildness needs certain circumstances in order to thrive. You can’t invoke it at any old time. The continuous state of running wild is a different beast altogether, requiring a more serious release of responsibility (along with things like mortgages and shoes). Besides, too much of anything can leave a sour taste.
I find wildness best enjoyed in spontaneous pockets; all the better to savor the contrast with your earnest day-to-day. It’s nice to dilly-dally once in a while. To be lazy and gross, to revel in that, to abandon decorum and optimization and the forming of “good habits.”
It must be savored, too, properly enjoyed. If you hate yourself for stepping off the straight and narrow, it’s no fun at all. Better to relish it; to feel the freedom you have, lucky living breathing pulsing flesh-and-blood you are. It’s only natural you should want to push your bare foot into the mud once in a while, to step away from the screen for a day and hang out in the park. To curl like a cat in a patch of sunlight; to go for an aimless wander in your neighborhood at twilight, just hanging out, just noticing things, the way we did much more in pre-internet times.
Sometimes wildness is as simple as not checking your email when standing in line or waiting for a friend. It’s staring into space, letting your mind noodle, observing the deeply delightful smorgasbord of humanity in a public place. It’s letting your mind run riot a little, imagining yourself as that harried executive, that sulky teenager, that serene old lady.
We become wild when we abandon the trappings of society—yes, even the good ones, the ones which keep us sane and healthy. Those dietary guidelines you’re so good at observing; the emails you diligently respond to; the table you set for dinner.
What if you ate from the pan, with your hands? Neglected your text messages? Answered honestly next time a stranger asks you how you’re doing?
What if you had breakfast for dinner and followed it with a second glass of wine? What if you woke up one night and instead of lying there worrying, actually got up? Lit a candle, padded downstairs, wrote a letter, cast a spell?
Summer’s coming. Get sweaty, skip a shower, get grass in your hair. Say yes. Forget what anyone else thinks. They’re only wishing they could be doing it, too.
Now and again all of us need reminding that an awful lot of the rules we follow are ones we have created. Most of them are there for good reason, but once in a while it’s good to remember that you have the power—the power to feel what it’s like to have the sun on your skin and the mud between your toes, to let yourself be a little uncouth, a little rough around the edges, to stop making everyone so damn comfortable all the time. Let them wonder instead, wonder what it might feel like to be as free as you are right now, eating a peach with juice flooding sticky down your arm, sweaty pits, hair a mess, skin salty with sweat.
Let yourself unravel. The world is yours, and you are the world. Your wildness nestles within you like a cherry stone, waiting to be spat into the long grass, waiting to grow.
Madeleine Forbes is a writer, walker and unapologetic neglecter of her inbox. Born in London, she left city life in 2014 to start an off-grid life in the hills of central Portugal. She’s founder of The Seasoned Year, an online project to help us deepen our connection to seasonal cycles. Most recently she’s exploring a new response to the climate crisis, rooted in the cycle of the year and our craving for deeper connection. You can sign up for free Letters from the Land and follow Madeleine’s blog via her website; or follow her on Instagram or Facebook.