Thursday, 9 January 2014

When wild becomes feral

England in flood, east coast blizzards, delayed flights, losing my hat on the journey (payment to the crosswinds): it was a trip but we made it. Our brave ally John Gouldthorpe swooped us up in the middle of the night and drove us north after twenty four hours straight travel. It's a delight to be back on the west coast, and to be leading "The Mythic Life" course at Stanford.
A quick note and then onto a piece on feral children. Oh and some agile Lorca on the duende of the guitar:

Escaping the
round mouth
of the guitar
is the bellied-sob
of roaming souls:

It is a sound that
halts even dreams,
they remove their hats
and begin to weep.

A tarantula,
she weaves a
great star
to float in
the guts of her

A rare Bay Area mythtelling evening: as part of the wider Great Mother Westcoast Weekend.

January 31 at 6:00pm; The Center for Living Wisdom - 11270 Sun Valley Dr., Oakland, CA, 94605, Oakland, CA.
"Martin will be telling the archaic fairy tale “Faithful John”: a story of a young king, a red horse of desire, an ecstatic woman, a shirt of grandeur, a locked door and the three drops of poison in a brides breast. This extraordinary initiation story tells us much about living well in difficult times" Is the link to getting tickets. There are very few places!

“Feral” children, children raised independently of any human parents or society, are rare but do exist. Back in the eighteenth century, a wild girl came to the edge of a French village. She was around nine or ten, barefoot, a dress of skins and face and hands as “black as a Negroes.”2 The villagers set a raging bulldog on the girl, but she held her ground and struck him one mighty blow on its head with a club and it fell dead to the floor. She did a strange victory dance and ran back into the open countryside, climbed a tree, and fell asleep.

A visiting dignitary, the Viscount d’Epinoy, took an interest in the case of the feral girl, and had her captured and brought to him. She spoke no French, and loved to eat raw meat; any attempt to cook it, or add other delicacies, led her to have terrible abdominal pains. Turned out she wasn’t black either—when scrubbed down, her upper arms and chest were white. She had unusual hands; palms as small as a girl of her age but enlarged fingers and thumbs—from clutching branches they guessed as she swung around her favorite trees. She had a necklace and small pouch that contained her little club and knife. She was amazingly keen in her eyesight—they say she could see from all sides at the same time, could imitate birdsong, and using just her thumb and forefinger, she could dig deep holes.

When they fed her wine and salty food, her teeth and nails fell out. In a panic that she would die they baptized her on 16th June, 1732. When the Viscount died, she was put into the care of a convent where they kept her away from climbing trees, catching and eating frogs, imitating bird song, and anything else she loved to do. She learned to sew, and, from a beginning when she was afraid to be touched, grew passive and directed all attention at whoever was the most tactile. They say her voice was shrill and uncommon, just the odd broken word.

As she grew older she became semi-famous for her history and ended up in Paris, peddling books about her life. She ended up owning most of the copies, piles filling around her small bed. She consciously tried to be a curiosity, a freak, in Paris’s Rue St Antoine, but grew steadily more private, her health permanently ruined by the savage change of diet that had been forced upon her.

During her life she attracted the attention of wealthy patrons and even royalty. The great mystery was where she came from—an Inuit? a Norwegian? This seemed to be answered by her account to James Burnett. She talked of a sea journey from a long distant land, being painted black to be sold on as a slave, before ending up in France and living entirely wild for ten years. There is convincing evidence that she started life into the Fox tribe of Wisconsin—then a French colony—before being sold to a Madame de Courtemanche, arriving in Marseille just as a plague descended. It was then she escaped to the woods of Provence, to be discovered a decade later, wild as they come. In the end, the girl from the forest, now known as Memmie Le Blanc, died alone at the age of sixty-three.

Memmie’s story reveals a society at odds with otherness, and the slow acting poison enacted when she is taken from the wild into the domestic without due support. She had fallen out of some other story that we have forgotten. A horrible irony is when, in the wider cases of children raised by animals, some speculate that the children would never recover from the “lack of love.”Lack of love? While I acknowledge that love from a wolf or monkey would have a profoundly different quality to that of a human, to state there is no love displayed is an anathema.

The love of tending, feeding, and protecting something as profoundly other as a human child is a huge demonstration of love. They could have just as easily become dinner. This disconnect is not forged in the wild, but the damage abundant in the mindset of the domestic. What are called feral children are not, these days, rummaging around in the un- dergrowth of the forest, but in the estates and projects of Birmingham, Detroit, and East London. I’ve worked alongside multitudes of them, and the real wild is exactly where they need to go.

Another story. The reverend Singh was a missionary to the tribes around Midnapore, a town roughly eighty miles southwest of Calcutta. He ran an orphanage. Stopping for a night in a local village, the villagers urged him to perform an exorcism in the forest—they were seeing ghosts. He agreed and they made their way to an enormous anthill, as high as a house. At dusk, a wolf stole out from one of its many tunnels, then three more and some cubs. And then, behind the cubs came the ghosts, two of them.

Singh realized in an instant that they were children, despite running on all fours with their heads down. The reports are that they were terribly ugly, with matted hair from their heads covering their faces, with just glittering eyes peering out. They were “rescued” and briefly placed in the local’s care while the reverend continued on his travels for another few days. On his return the girls were half starved, soiled, and covered in sores on his return—and tied up. He took control and had them taken back to the orphanage.

They stalked, ate, and drank like wolves. They adored darkness and would wander the compound on all fours at night. They pissed where they wanted, and lay bunched up tight together when sleeping. They seemed fearless to many things that terrorize the psyche of the civilized. Apart from briefly befriending a child and then suddenly attacking him, they remained wildly aloof, seeming to have no interest in others. They were all to themselves. They didn’t laugh and only showed distress when one of the girls —Amala (they were both now named Amala and Kamala) sickened and died.

Kamala went into profound grief and pulled entirely back from contact with other humans. She would smell Amala’s clothes and wander the gardens, as if looking for her. The orphanage was worried she would literally die of loneliness. In the end it was Mrs. Singh who started to give the wolf-girl massages and talk lovingly and softly to the girl, and that brought her back from the very edge. For eight more years she lived at the orphanage, and received love and care. But, like most children brought out from the care of the wild, did not live a long life, and in 1929 she died.

The village as herd mentality wanted to starve, abuse, and ultimately kill the girls, full in the knowledge that they were children. Rumors from that region abound that girl babies were often left in the forest to die. These dark children, the truly exiled, shunned, cursed, driven mad not by the forest but by the return, have a champion in Cundrie, a hundred thousand just like Amala and Kamala are gathered under her cloak of fierce language.

Daniel Deardorff states: “The Genius of Deformity is much more than a vantage afforded by alterity, nor is it a mere capacity of human intelligence—it is the extra-human agent of the imagination. It is the lost and longed for twin...”3 So, mesmeric as the images of the wolf-girls are, and heartbreaking as their story goes, we are faced by a mirror of how we generally react to otherness. But Deardoff also touches on the area of longing for the lost children of the woods. We weep for them because somewhere in our befuddlement we recognize that we are they. It is not enough to just ladle wild perception onto these remote figures in place of our own, or accept them as intellectual propositions. We are really in the business of profound recognition. It is what makes the divide between the court and the forest so very painful.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014


Barbara Spring said...

This has really touched me. Thank you.

AbbieStory said...

Thank you for this article Martin.

Children's development is a concern/interest/issue for me and I frequently use the world 'feral' to describe children who are learning outside of the constructs of an adult-led world. There is this massive misbelief in the current education system that children don't learn - you have to make them learn. These stories are evidence, not only of the necessary 'finding' that occurs in the wild, but the facts that children will learn without desks, chairs, textbooks and rules to be silent. Children learn constantly from whoever and whatever is around them. As human beings, we are in a unique position to give almost endless options to our children. If ministers would take that on board in a real way, then maybe we'd stop teaching the kids a limited reality and start teaching them an expansive one.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the reasons why I homeschool my two girls, Abbie, and by homeschool I mean unschool; they are free to learn about the world in the way they want. We do not have desks or textbooks or those other things found in regular schools.....

This post reminds me of The New World, a film by Terence Malick - about Pocohontas and her 'taming' by the English of Jamestown, the beginning of the film is extraordinary; following her feral life in the wild.