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We Need Wild Fathers
We don’t need fathers to keep quiet. We need them to speak up, and to be more themselves than ever. We need them to be caring, but less careful.
This is part of a series on Fatherhood by a group of men writing on Substack that includes myself,, ,, , and . All of the pieces in the series are linked from this introductory post. This is not a part of my book-length memoir AN ORDINARY DISASTER—but if you dig my writing, be sure to check that out!
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I was visited recently in an early-morning dream by one of many wild fathers that I didn’t have—a blue-skinned merman with bits of coral woven into his sandy, sun-bleached tangle of hair. Sitting in his canoe, his weathered hands were wrapped around a wooden bowl of fish stew, marked with a red splash of fiery peri-peri peppers. A man who worked and hunted with those hands, and juggled rocks and drums—and children—with ease.
My own father was wild in one way, for sure—he took me into the wild outdoors. This was no small thing; I just returned from two weeks in the high Sierra backcountry, and the fact that I feel so at home in that particular wild is directly due to the time we spent up there together in my early years. When I get up to 11,000 feet, into the God Zone, I’m doing what I call the goat work—praying as the rock-running, rock-eating, rock-rutting goat god that roams high amidst the crystal mountain streams, miniature wildflower gardens, and lonesome granite peaks. In my fifties now, I feel that goat runing through me more than ever.
That said, we went into the wild, but we were not of the wild, and my father did not seem to me to be a wild man. As a boy, he felt capable, methodical, quiet, careful, intelligent, and strong—but not wild. Certainly not a timid man, but he rarely spoke with passion, jumped or ran, and never ate or drank lustily. I saw him work plenty hard at many, many things—and, I almost never saw him break a sweat or shout, and not once did he cry, break a tool or land a punch. I swear, I only heard him say “Fuck!” for the first time this year, and I have the sense, as I do with so many other men—and especially fathers—that, somehow, he was holding back.
The image of “father” that I receive from what circulates around us feels much the same to me. Tame, like a tethered horse circling in a paddock, fed well enough but rarely run hard—and lacking color, kick, and light in the eyes. Commuting to work, loading the car with balls and bags, poking at a screen, sucking on a beer. Barely alive.
My dad’s own love of the outdoors was enough to inspire me to respect nature, but it wasn’t enough to inspire me to respect him (at least not until much later)—and this points to one way that we often fail each other as fathers.
I was listening totalk about “How To Resist the Machine” in an interview the other day, in which he suggests asking ourselves “what kind of barbarian do I want to be?” As outlined further in his essay The Jellyfish Tribe, the question is whether you are “raw, or cooked”—that is, whether you are actually out “living in the mountain caves,” or whether you’re living within and as constrained by the system, even if still quietly resisting (although, let’s face it, most of us aren’t).
To be clear, Kingsnorth isn’t talking about men or fathers, he’s talking about people in general, and to what extent they subject themselves to, or resist, the pervasive influence of the Machine—that is, our current cultural and economic system, which, for all its benefits, is also the thing that is constantly doing its best—and ever more—to contain, control, and even to kill us. The reason so many fathers are so dull, so dead to the world, and so dumb and so uncool in the eyes of their own kids is that they’ve chosen, whether consciously or not, to give themselves over so fully to that very same machine that they’ve long since lost any sort of wild spirit at all. And, that machine, well, that’s also what’s often called “patriarchy”—really just shorthand for an antiquated system of economy and identity that requires us to “fit into the social machine without friction“ in order to be earn our place amongst men.
My point in calling up the archetype of the Machine—which has its own long-standing cultural legacy that includes the work of Erich Fromm, Marshall McLuhan, Aldous Huxley, Lewis Mumford, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, the films Metropolis and Brazil, and of course the band Rage Against the Machine, amongst many others—is that even more than the extent to which almost all of us are living inside the machine, and even more than the extent to which men are constrained by the machine in the expression of their own masculinity, it is fathers that, for fear of being seen as any sort of “barbarian,” have cooked themselves way past well done, into grey, tough and tasteless meat, barely recognizable as anything that could be edible, let alone appetizing. Nothing to gnaw on, no blood, and no heart—and also no voice, no music, and no songs.
Tame creatures have lost much of their animal essence—and we’ve become tame because we’re afraid.
The stereotype of the Alpha/asshole male is so pervasive not because that sort of man is actually so common, but because we’re so afraid of being anything like that sort of man—and because, while it is not all that much of a struggle to find good male role models, and there are growing number of voices speaking and writing about more whole, more plural, and more interesting models of masculinity, it’s still true that the male archetype has yet to receive a deep update. We all know that most men are good men, and that the basic model for a “good man” is as old as, and much the same as that for a good person. It’s the same blueprint that underlies most of the world’s religions and philosophies—just look at Stoicism, for example, and follow the line directly from the Epictetus's Encheiridion, which has its roots with Socrates in the 400’s B.C., all the way right through to modern pop-philosophers writers like Ryan Holiday and Sam Harris.
Trust me: we haven’t forgotten. We’re working on it—and, it will take time for the broader idea of what it is to “be a man” to evolve to match what is at least possible now, if still not widespread. Even so, to the extent that whatever changes and openings and outgrowths are in the wind—thanks to writers like bell hooks,, John Wineland, Traver Boehm, , and Robert Bly, of course, and also many, many others—for all I’ve read, it’s mostly about what it means to be a man, and much less so about what a father is, or can be.
Even though I’m not a father myself, what little fathering I have done, and those fathers that I know, have given me the clear sense that it’s fathers most of all that feel the fetters of a cultural system that requires their full submission in order to be allowed to participate. For all the rules there might be around manhood, there are many more around being a father. Fathers should be gentle, soft, and quiet, it seems, so as not to shake anyone up—especially not, of course, the mothers of their children, or, God forbid, the children themselves, who are these days encouraged to think of themselves as fully sovereign creatures from at least middle school onwards, even as the schools themselves do nothing to prepare them for actual autonomy.
Fathers are still usually assumed to be subordinate to mothers in their knowledge of parenting, not to mention in their rights as parents, even while it’s also still assumed, and legislated, that fathers have a disproportionate responsibility to provide financial support for children. This is changing now, but at the same time it was fathers, for the most part, who left home to work, and were therefore subject to the restrictive codes not just of their employers, but of the public, who had to be assured that these untethered men were safe, tame, good workers—certainly nothing like wild. In leaving home, they also left the love of their partners and children behind, all day, to return home weary, and alien. No wonder a heavy meal and a couple of stiff drinks were often so welcome, to dull the edges of a long and lonely day.
As a younger man, most of what I heard about fatherhood was that it required settling down—and while I have nothing against developing the maturity to calm oneself enough to put down roots, almost none of us are farmers these days, and while perhaps more of us should put our hands in the dirt, I don’t think we really have to settle down to be fathers. The idea was certainly never attractive to me.
As we begin to unwind the too-tightly coiled story of masculinity into a plurality of masculinities, I want to call for a similar, and more specific freeing of fathers. Now, more than ever, we need wild fathers.
A man free enough to be true to his sprit is one thing—and, literally, just one thing: an individual—but part of what we need to move on from is a way of thinking in which we conceive of everything from an individual point of view. While I’m very proud to be a free man myself, I’m also aware that in seeking and achieving that freedom I’ve sacrificed much of the togetherness that human lives are woven from. Fathers exist only in relation to others, and free, wild fathers—and also brothers, sons, husband, friends, and lovers—have the opportunity to transmit their wild spirit to others along the way simply through the sound of their familiar and soulful laughter, the soft and firm touch of their hands, the rustle of their well-worn clothing, and the heavy clink of tools laid down as they reach out, to embrace.
We don’t need fathers to keep quiet. We need them to speak up, and to be more themselves than ever. We need them to be caring, but less careful.
We need wild fathers that don’t make sense all the time, that aren’t rational and measured and correct.
We need wild-eyed, long-haired, nonsensical fathers who embed old stories in silly rhymes, drink a bit too once in a while, and who let slip with bawdy truths.
We need barbarian fathers who are in the world and of the world—not the abstract, ethereal, spiritual world, or the quantitative, computational, virtual world, but the dirty, physical, real world. The world of rocks, and plants, and animals.
We need fathers that dare to show their children how to do things that they shouldn’t—because, of course, they will anyway, and because kids respect the truth and laugh with derision at false restrictions and at ignorance.
We need fathers that dare to confront others in a positive way, with what they see and experience, with the truth of their love.
We need fathers who are wild enough to win the wild young hearts of boys and girls—and of other men, and women. It is that wild spirit of truth that I needed most, as a son of a father.
We need wild fathers who are unafraid to shout and wrestle and dance, to use their bodies for pleasure, and to protect, and also to guide.
We need fathers who aren’t afraid—and aren’t made to be afraid—of being shamed as wrong or bad for appearing primitive, or ‘too masculine,’ or for taking control when chaos swirls around us.
When I think of wild fathers, I think of a high-school friend’s father, a multi-talented musician who gave his son a weekly allowance of the finest Humboldt green—or sometimes Maui Wowie from a friend in the islands. On Mondays my buddy PJ would come to school with a his gold cigarette case packed full with a dozen perfectly rolled joints—truly unequalled treasure in the Pit where we all gathered, geometry textbooks crammed between home-made bongs and copies of High Times in our backpacks. His father had his own business to attend to as he descended the basement stairs to jam with his Afro-ska band, but I know that his son loved and respected him—and not because of the grass. It was because he was honest, and cool, and creative, and colorful—and it was because he was wild.
I think of Wayne MacDonald, founder of his Urban Pioneers program that I was lucky enough to take part in during my last year of high school—a bear of a man who loved deep and clear as the air of the high Sierra—and who was also someone that you didn’t want to cross. Now long retired, I ran into another version of Wayne again in Tim Corcoran of Headwaters Outdoor School, near Mt. Shasta in Northern California—another big, wild-haired, slightly dirty bear of a man who has very similarly dedicated his entire life to loving and teaching young people—and who doesn’t hesitate to corral them when that’s needed. Funny, more than a couple of girlfriends have called me “bear,” and encouraged me to get more in touch with that big, furry, somewhat-smelly—and also frightful, downright dangerous, and even bloodthirsty part of myself that, just the other day, surprised an oncoming stranger on the trail with my guttural grunts as I drove myself uphill, following the scent of wild sage.
I think of another man I know who dropped much of his own personal life to focus on his just-teenage son, successfully pulling him out of an endless black tunnel of video gaming and away from what would have otherwise been pharmacological “treatment” for ADHD, in part by inviting him to join him in the dojo. As they learned to wrestle on the mat together, a door that had been closing between them re-opened, and instead of fighting off his father’s advances, the boy began to welcome his help with math and other school work. As I came to know him better in his mid teens, this young man began to flourish, with an emerging passion for mountain biking and surfing—and a close relationship with his father that I wish I didn’t have to say was unusual. By the time he was finishing high school, I knew two men, one older, one younger, both of which are a pleasure to sit and talk with around a fire, and even moreso together.
How many teenagers do you know who can keep good company with a group of men two and three times their age—and with their father as one of them? I don’t mean just tolerate or be tolerable as company, I mean contribute to the conversation, add their own personality and bring life to the group. Not many, but there are some, and they are not tame, timid, or quiet boys.
There’s another man I hardly know, but who I’ve seen do his best to wrangle his own three boys as a single parent. I can see that he has to pick his battles, but one of the ways he manages is by using his body—just pressing his weight into his sons—on the couch, on the floor, against the fridge—and with his voice, to let them know with bodily force that while he may not be in total control, he isn’t afraid to assert himself, to confront them, and to guide them—and to use some fear in the process, if need be.
That man in turn reminds me of one of my best friends, a man I’ve known since we were both teenagers ourselves, who, often enough, would cause me to cringe when I heard how gruff he was with his own kids. How rough he seemed, how unsympathetic, how unyielding to their young and fragile needs—and also, how constantly, deeply, and powerfully loving he was. What’s striking now is how his kids not only respect him, but like him, hang out with him, and laugh with him, instead of treating him as a stranger, uncool, ‘weird,’ or lame.
The argument goes that in our current cultural system, men learn that they have disproportionate power over women and others—that they can get away with things, that they can dominate, that they have an advantage. In practice, however, in my own life, and in the lives of most of the other men that I know, the reality is that we learn that we need to be careful. Men learn that they must constrain and contain themselves. We learn that we must not to do any of those things that might demonstrate to others that we could be of the oppressing variety.
Now, I agree that “men need to learn to equip themselves for peace,” as Grayson Perry put it, and that masculinity can, and should be “not about dominance, but resistance,” to the oppression of others—but let’s not forget that that resistance must also be against the machine. That is, against the cultural inertia that wants us to stay behind the fence, shut up, and forget our wild selves—and against the place we’ve come to, where fathers are prosecuted for showing any kind of strength in their efforts to lovingly guide their wild kin.
As is almost always the case in human culture, we have overcompensated in our effort to correct for the dominance of men, and we are suffering the consequences.
Sons and daughters need wild fathers.
Wild—and protective, not just of other people, but of other species.
Wild—that is, grounded in reality, as evidenced by the patterns of nature.
Earlier, I said that we haven’t forgotten—but there is something else that we have let go, and that we need to reclaim.
As Woniya Thibeault, who won the first season of Alone: Frozen not just by surviving, but thriving in the forbidding winter landscape of coastal Labrador put it as she prepared to skin a fox that she’d retrieved from her trapline, “The wild world has always informed who I am and where I get my strength…and is my home. The wild is where I come from. I’m just as much a wild animal as a fox. I just have to remember it.”
We have to remember who that long-haired, blue-skinned, music-making merman of a father is, and how to meet him—and how to be him.
⭐️⭐️ THANK YOU FOR READING ⭐️⭐️
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References and Further Reading
- and her Substack . Read her chapter on Everyone Is Orpheus for a transformative exposition on “praying as” and opposed to “praying to.”
Never Alone: A Solo Arctic Survival Journey, Woniya Dawn Thibeault
The High Sierra: A Love Story, Kim Stanley Robinson
The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
The Myth of the Machine, Lewis Mumford
The Machine Stops, E.M. Forster
The Waves, Virginia Woolf
- who writes
Iron John, Robert Bly
Epictetus's 'Encheiridion': A New Translation and Guide to Stoic Ethics, Scott Aikin and William O. Stephens
My complete “for men” reading list.
Questions for you
Who are your wild fathers—the ones you had, or didn’t have?
How do you feel wild—or tame—as a father?
What is your own relationship with the Machine? What are you living with, or resisting?
What other subjects beyond Fatherhood would you like to see this group explore in our writing?
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