The word rewilding entered the lexicon around 1990, describing activist intentions to return land to, as Oxford puts it, a wilder and more natural state. The word appears frequently in contemporary ecologically inflected discourse, including that of ecocriticism and ecopoetics, though the concept undergirding it was already in circulation when I was a subscriber to Ranger Rick in the early 1980s. In that magazine I read a story about an unmowed yard whose long grasses and flowering weeds initially signified neglect to neighbors in what appeared to be a white suburban neighborhood, but over time comprised a miniature meadow beloved by all. To young me, the story revealed how exciting our yard could be if only my parents would stop paying a local man to mow it. Such is the racial and class privilege the aesthetics of wildness can encode: it’s an aesthetics available to those who have the choice between a lawn and a meadow, the choice between paying a landscaper and paying a landscaper to make your lawn look un-landscaped.
Just as I was vulnerable to the aesthetic and ethical satisfactions of wildness as they entered my childhood imagination, I was vulnerable to wildness in ecopoetic discourse. “I wanted the world to be wild again,” I wrote in my second book of poems, joining ranks with environmentally inclined poets whose work I deeply admire. In my scholarly work on ecopoetics, I was not alone among twenty-first century critics to apply rewilding to language that puts readers into eco-ethical relationships with the landscapes they inhabit. One method might be to remind them of the names for the diverse flora, fauna, and landscape features with which we make our lives. Crested buckler-fern, triangular club-rush, starfruit, strapwrot: these are among the thirteen wildflowers most in danger of going extinct next (even here, I could not help but write them).
This summer, as I was rereading notes from a Romantic poetry course that I took in graduate school, I recalled that the professor led our class on an early evening walk through Central Park to find examples of the picturesque. This recollection, merging as it did with preoccupations that included the language of the 2016 presidential campaign and a spate of assaults on women using the running trail where I live, led to the further preoccupation that is the subject of this essay: namely, that contemporary American ecopoetic discourse around rewilding, including my own, has neglected to interrogate its etymological kernel, the word wilding. Wilding entered the American imagination in the late 1980s to describe a fiction of youth gang violence in public places and, most famously, the actions of the five boys of color convicted in the case of the Central Park Jogger. These were boys for whom Donald Trump, in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, called for the reinstatement of the death penalty, boys who, after serving their sentences, were found innocent. If, as literary scholar Stefan J. Mexal writes, “wilding … illuminat[es] the degree to which both the historical language of wilderness and the contemporary cultural construction of postindustrial urban spaces inform American racialist discourse,” it cannot be excessive for me, a poet and scholar, to find trouble with the word inside the word.
I was thirteen years old when Matias Reyes, a serial rapist who later confessed to the crime, attacked Trisha Meili in Central Park. The narrative that the news coverage and the parents who read the news coverage dispensed to a white girl from the suburbs was that a woman alone in the natural world was subject to violence. This narrative is not new. (For its exegesis and critique, see Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, and Susan Brownmiller’s study of New York Times rape coverage in 1971, which reveals a bias in favor of “victims who had some kind of middle-class status, such as ‘nurse,’ ‘dancer,’ or ‘teacher,’ and with a favored setting of Central Park.”) I am speaking narrowly here of what I learned (and forgot I learned) from wilding, how it kept my body away from the natural world that I write about, and how (by way of the prefix re-) I expressed a desire, one that deeply troubles me now, to go back to it, to have it happen again.
Rewilding. Re: wilding. What does wilding mean to other poets or scholars who invoke its return? The word’s nexus of race, class, and gender calls for a more thorough consideration of its use and the different lessons that different people have consciously or unconsciously learned from it. What did the boys of color in East Harlem learn? To stay away from the natural world too, lest they be convicted of wilding, a word invented for a crime they did not perpetrate? If it’s anyone’s responsibility to remember that the word wilding was once weaponized, it’s the responsibility of the poet, for whom language is precious and precise, and the literature scholar, for whom textual analysis is a vocation. Before wilding became synonymous with racism and violence against women, it existed in the English lexicon for hundreds of years as a noun. A wilding was a wild plant, flower, or fruit, until it wasn’t. It was rewilded, which is another way of saying it was forgotten.