W. H. Auden once said, "A culture is no better than it's woods."
But we live far away from the woods, far away from the places of wildness. We’ve never walked the haunted pass, past the black pools of danger and trial, the overgrown places. Our modern domestication has pushed the woods back to the lonely corners of our soul. To manicured patches on highway medians. To well-shorn hedges in the suburbs.
We are well scrubbed and wool suited. Trimmed and sanitized, groomed and pleasant to smell. Our modern, refined sensibilities are offended when we meet Romulus and Remus—the brothers raised by wolves—but they have something we do not. They have a certain danger, a secret life-giving wildness found only in the woods. And it takes this feral soul to create something great, like Rome.
But what happens to the culture with no woods? It builds privacy fences. It has civility and manners. Control. But it lacks the danger and initiation rites necessary for boys to leave Mom and make for the hills, stare down Something Awful, and then bring wildness back to the greater community.
There is something out there. Something dark and ferocious. Something covered with wet, tangled, and matted fur. Something waiting, and staring at us with black eyes and an open, fanged mouth. Poet Robert Bly talks about this something lost in the hearts of men. Drawing from the Brothers Grimm German tale of Iron John,
Bly says there is a large, hairy man, Iron John, buried deep in our souls. He lives way out in the woods, buried at the bottom of a pond. When he does emerge, he is covered in red hair. No man who goes out to him returns. Anyone who walks too close gets pulled under by a hairy arm.
Men fear the Hairy Man. Most are unwilling to go anywhere near his pond. We don’t want to get pulled under and never heard from again. So the Hairy Man remains buried somewhere in the depths below, unseen and untouched.
Culture too, warns us against the Hairy Man. It puts neon signs and fences around his pond. Whenever anyone brings out the Hairy Man, culture mocks him and binds him with chains, locking him away in an iron cage. Then, it gives the key into the keeping of the queen. Culture wishes for a milder, sweeter version: the safe man, the tame man, the shaved man, the emasculated man. But later, when Genghis Khan and his hordes come with torches, culture bemoans, “Where have all the cowboys gone?”
The church, too, fears this image.
The longhaired Samson tearing apart a lion with his bare hands. The fiery Christ swinging a whip, flipping over tables and driving out moneychangers with holy anger. Or Josheb, a mighty man of David and chief of the Three, standing against eight hundred enemies and killing them all with his spear.
These images make us nervous. And rightly so. Perhaps it's because we equate the Hairy Man with the Savage Man. This conjures up images of the criminal, the abuser, the dead-beat dad. We think of the rapist, or the destructive force who abuses his family, invades countries, uses WMD, traffics children, and wrecks havoc on society. Culture and the church rightly lock away the Savage Man.
It’s easy to confuse the two. After all, the Hairy Man has the same wild look in his eyes. His hands are leathery. He smells like raw earth. He has a dangerous, even terrible, burning look. He cannot be controlled, coaxed, or manipulated. He simmers with the white-hot fires of quiet intensity; he radiates a pulsing and living strength.
But the Hairy Man is no mindless savage. He’s not Vlad the Impaler. Far from it. He is—in the words of Mr. Beaver—“not a tame lion. But he is good.” He represents our strength. Our passion. Our sexuality. He represents the wild masculine.
I searched for the wild masculine among the Kodiak bears of Alaska.
(Part 1/2 from Heroic Path)