Wrung from the Dark
Natasha Rivett-Carnac recommends a book that journeys into the heart of human nature. Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths. Penguin, 2008. ISBN 9780141006444
A loving revision of a rather ubiquitous theme, Wild pares the subject down to its very essence. Much more than a travelogue or Nature book, it is the unflinching account of seven years of the author’s life devoted to the healing of her “fragmented self”, so much so that the outcome of this truly fascinating book seems almost negligible.
In her investigation of the world’s wildest places, Griffiths takes the reader on a sensual journey to the Arctic, the desert, the mountains, the Amazon and even Outer Mongolia. But the pleasure of Wild is in accompanying Griffiths on her experience of transformation, approached with an enigmatic combination of courage and humility.
Wild is rigorously researched. Still, it is neither a compendium of fascinating facts about politics and ecology, nor a straight-forward memoir; Wild is in form as it is in content: borderless. Fierce in its use of language, the prose sparkles and seduces, but never generalises or romanticises: like the poet she is, Griffiths is cautious and concise, yet she writes from the ‘wild’ place in herself. She never sacrifices the narrative for the sake of frivolity. The language always serves the story.
In the account of her time with the Inuit in the Arctic, Griffiths writes about the experience of witnessing a beluga being killed during the Inuit’s traditional annual whale hunt. She describes with pointed vulnerability the death of a “hot-blooded animal”, writes through her own inner conflict of the strangely beautiful red of blood against snow, revealing the way her hands shake as she tries to capture all the details of the event, especially the way her emotions refuse to co-operate with her intellect, which knows that it isn’t the Indigenous traditions that have led to the dwindling numbers of whales in the wild, but commercial whaling.
In this way Griffiths’ journey addresses difficult subject matter with journalistic integrity on the one hand and, on the other, unbridled reverence. Never reduced to regurgitating accepted views on Nature, Griffiths’ prose is alive with unsentimental sincerity.
But above all Wild is a sensual journey. Griffiths listens to the Arctic wind, tastes fresh seal liver, and smells the dank wilderness. Ever vigilant, she refutes stereotypes and inherited knowledge, regularly evaluating what she sees and hears. Griffiths entices the reader with her undeniable childlike curiosity, coupled with the mature language of a seasoned writer: “The Northern Lights is a special instance of the Arctic’s irrealities: while the snow is softly drinking the moon, the aurora borealis rains down huefuls of greenlight. The night sky is tie-dyed and spun, in centrifuge from the sun, in hesitance and light; the wind wrests colour from the night and secret light is wrung from the dark.” Griffiths’ language is wild. The prose seems to rip its way through the page, to breathe of its own accord.
An ambitious and precocious book, Wild attempts to expand our limited and often unexamined ideas about wilderness. But the real treasure is the underlying theme that claims wilderness isn’t somewhere out there – a living, steamy creature or an isolated mountain range – wilderness is within ourselves.
Although Wild takes its shape from the writer’s hard-won journey into the depths of her own wilderness, distilled to its essence the book tells stories simply and movingly, cutting to the core of what it is to be human on this beautiful planet.
Natasha Rivett-Carnac is a freelance writer and arts manager based in London.