Column: Feral

by Gus Donohoo


From Dancing with Cats. Chronicle Books, San Francisco. (1999). Photo: Heather Busch.

Column: Feral

For They Shall Possess the Land

“I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions.” —Joseph Conrad

, Heart of Darkness

How separable is a human from their culture? Does the soul speak to us in English or does it hiss at us with a cat-like growl? There is an alluring thread to our existence that twists its way up the family tree and stretches out a simian grasp toward the most extreme of branches:

backward in time to those other bodies, your mother, and hers and beyond, speech growing stranger

on thresholds of ice, rock, fire, bones changing, heads inclining to monkey bosom, lemur breast, guileless milk of the word. —Gwen Harwood, “Mother Who Gave Me Life”

As our species’ knowledge has grown we have learnt that rather than carved from divine clay, we are animals; the products of millions of years of biological and cultural evolution.

But if not clay, what then is our fundament?

The Feral Child offers a seductive window into the caged beast behind the eyes. Think Mowgli, Tarzan, Robin Williams in Jumanji... Optimistic narratives of abandoned children who are taken into the bosom of the wilderness and who survive by becoming something fierce and untamed—something inhuman.

According to Assistant Professor Henrike Moll of the Minds in Development Lab at USC, there are very few threads of fact woven into these fables.

“They’re not real…humans have to grow up in a society…somebody has to go into the caretaking role and if that doesn’t happen, the child dies.”

Why then are these tales so pervasive? These infants are born and reborn in different ages; Romulus & Remus abandoned to the ebb of the Tiber, but spared by a nurturing she-wolf and raised to be the men who forge the city that became an empire; the Lithuanian boy living with bears in 1661; the Lobo Girl running with wolves by the Devils River in Texas in 1845.

The persistence of the Feral Child suggests that there is something alluring, or something truthful or believable in these tales. As though when we look inwards we see the stirrings of animalistic urgency that give credence to the wild child who develops into something older and more vicious—who regresses into something savage.

There is of course a colonial falseness in the dichotomy of the savage and the enlightened—the Australian Aboriginals came from a culture 40,000 years older than the Europeans who “civilized” them.

A lack of written language, an absence of machines with cogs and a novel approach to body piercings does not necessarily imply closer ties to where the wild things are, though hunter-gatherer societies do have far higher homicide rates—up to 1 murder per 100 people—similar to wild chimpanzee populations—and much greater than the roughly 1 per 10,000 in Europe in the 1600s and 1 per 100,000 today.

There is certainly an aesthetic obviousness that a life beyond gates, roads and tax returns will draw us closer to the animal darkness that Conrad found in the deepest Congo. But proximity to nature and an affinity therein does not negate the need for cooperation with other people—it shows how utterly essential it is.

Professor Moll: “Humans are the most dependant species… We’re extremely helpless as kids…we have no fur to protect us from the cold…we can’t protect ourselves from predators at all. We’re very pitiful creatures as biological entities”

Yet it is this feebleness that gives us our greatest strength. It is our weakness that necessitates the bonds and love that is essential for our survival. It is our fragility that has driven our teetering ascension to the apex of the food chain—our distance from the feral. Therein we perhaps see the allure of the Feral Child—a being that transcends our meekness.

But it is the meek who have inherited the earth.