Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Wild Thing

My happiest and most exhilarating moments often fulfill the most primitive needs. Those moments exist absent complications, and many times, rational thought.

DH Lawrence wrote a poem on self-pity:
"I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself".
It reminds me of a video I saw once: Planet Earth captured footage of a gazelle being taken down by a cheetah after a long chase. The gazelle had no hope of matching the cheetah in speed, but as a wild thing, it has no choice but to act in one way. The slow motion shot allows us to see the gazelle tripping over itself, legs still running even after its fallen, getting up to run again, and falling continuously until the cat strangles it. From both animals, pure instinct. No pity.

Behind the mask of urbanization, the seeping flow of roads and steady growth of skyscrapers, I believe people are wild things. Despite being convinced of our existence as something distinct from "nature", we are as distant from the tilt of that sun which gives earth life as ants are from their hills: we may be earth's most prolific architects, but we are by no means separate from it as a result. A few generations of technology has convinced us that the wild things in us are now civilized, turned into a domestic version of our mammal counterparts.

This spirit of the wild thing manifests itself in creative ways, often in forms or through acts of individuals we find inspiring – what we love so much about sports champions, survivors, artists, and self-made success stories all point to the ability those individuals have to most fully harness the purest forms of their wild intuitions. From the bare grit of enduring pain or the stubborn resilience of defying circumstantial downfalls to the practical genius of creation and intuitive sense of art, even the concept of "genius" (from Lance Armstrong to Mark Rothko) is really the bottled timbre of the stuff that is "wild". The last fighting breath of the gazelle bested by the cheetah, the strategic ferocity of the killer instinct in that cat, the equally desperate struggle among both animals is what we hope to see in our "urbanized" lives – the fighting breath of the marathoner in the last three miles, the killer instinct of the attack on the peloton in the mountain stages of the Tour or Giro, the wildly dancing cypress and grassy fields of Van Gogh’s paintings of Saint-Rémy all evoke in us a parallel feeling. We fight to feel the instinct of both the gazelle and the cheetah. We fight to feel that instinct because it exists underneath the blanket of rational thought we are convinced, erroneously, is the substance of "human-ness". But what is tame about human nature?

My happiest moments are ones that fill the most primitive needs. The summer after my first year from college, I suffered from what could be called a small nervous breakdown. Years of directing my life towards steps that led to goals felt suddenly lost during that summer of 2005; I felt estranged from any basic sense of hope. The single cause of this was that I could not rationalize life. The wild thing in me was suffocated by an elusive sense of responsibility and the overwhelming burden that I had put onto myself. And that is when I started racing again.

"I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor".
My favorite moments in racing, and in general, are ones when I am on the borderline. During those moments, I can feel an edge in both my thoughts and emotions, testing a fragility that is un-tampered during most other moments when physical comfort is so accessible that I don't even realize the separate existence of water, food, air...comfort becomes a limb separate from my own body. That fragility takes me to the humbleness of understanding my organic weaknesses but also experiencing untested and surprising resilience. Those fragile moments are the most clear and distinct - the most "real". They bring me closer to the wild thing in me, clearing out the unnecessary, messy, and complex consequences of rational thought and self-evaluation. There is nothing rational about racing on a bike, speeding downhill at 50 mph with 30 other riders within feet, sometimes inches, where the protection between my body, momentum and the pavement lies in the balance of two, boastfully light carbon wheels with 110 psi worth of pressure. Those blurring moments are based on pure instinct, trust, and a primitive desire to always go faster, a desire to escape cultured boundary by becoming too alive. Likewise, the moment before a sprint finish has no other tactic except intuitive attack - to rationalize would be too late: the twitch of that alarm in your legs is set by an innate clock. So the mirror that we use to both understand and evaluate (a skill precious to a lucid mind) is also inhibiting and burdensome. The lightness and freedom of allowing rational thought to nest behind our basic instincts for a brief moment is nothing less than a momentary epiphany.

Those moments during a race, when I’m on the edge and the wild thing in me feels recognized, exist in more peaceful forms during moments of isolation in the outdoors. In the woods or the mountains there is a delicate balance between the concept of self and the loss of self. In "nature's" home field, I am made elegantly aware of my own "animal" as each human is subjected to the same natural rules as every other creature. The rise and fall of the stars, including the sun, can neither be falsely maintained nor altered by electricity. Trees grow not as a manicured edifice for our daily walks to work but as rulers of tempered weather and soils. And streams do not flow to deliver a private, domestic need, but run according to an unknown history of landscape and winds, ancient markers witness to the evolution of human himself. I am made aware of the mathematically balanced yet chaotic spirit of the wild in the cohesive setting of a forest in
New England or in the Alpine fields of Switzerland. The ultimate capitalist, there is no jurisdiction with more extended and final ruling power than nature herself. But that makes my own little existence feel all the more fulfilling because I, too, become a wild thing amid the trees and the streams.

Talk of primitive man often relegates him to some distant corner of our human history, if he is included in it at all. But it's an unfair casting of a collective consciousness we still maintain, and should maintain - the spirit of human is not so different from the spirit of the earth which gave birth, sheltered, and put to rest that very human. We are wild things. We see it manifest in all human activity, perhaps with more vitality in some than others (and the desire for its closeness and awareness more vital in some than others). But this cultivation and protection of the wild thing in myself has become the most important and valued identity I have.
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