RAISING WILD

Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness

Michael P Branch

For over a decade Michael P. Branch has been writing about life in Nevada’s Great Basin Desert with an audacity, lyricism, and wit all his own. In Raising Wild, Branch offers an intimate exploration of the western high desert. Here we find the wild and extreme land of caliche and juniper, where pronghorn antelope run and mountain lions stalk, where wildfires and snowstorms threaten in equal measure, and where Branch, his wife, and their two curious little girls brazenly live among the packrats and ground squirrels, rattlesnakes and scorpions.

In Branch’s hands, this exceedingly barren and stark landscape becomes a place teeming with energy,

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For over a decade Michael P. Branch has been writing about life in Nevada’s Great Basin Desert with an audacity, lyricism, and wit all his own. In Raising Wild, Branch offers an intimate exploration of the western high desert. Here we find the wild and extreme land of caliche and juniper, where pronghorn antelope run and mountain lions stalk, where wildfires and snowstorms threaten in equal measure, and where Branch, his wife, and their two curious little girls brazenly live among the packrats and ground squirrels, rattlesnakes and scorpions.

In Branch’s hands, this exceedingly barren and stark landscape becomes a place teeming with energy, surprise, and an endless web of connections that ultimately includes his family and home. It is here where one can build a ladder to the stars and find a link to the past and to the heavens; where his children’s first garden becomes not the quaint blossoming of seed to flower and fruit but a smoke bomb–drenched site of futility in the face of an inhospitable desert environment; where the surprise of fire acts as a reminder all too real of the unknowable that awaits us and for which we can never fully prepare.

In this inspired and hilarious exploration of natural history and parenting, Branch reveals a desert wilderness in which our ideas about nature and ourselves are challenged and transformed.

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  • Shambhala Publications
  • Hardcover
  • August 2016
  • 320 Pages
  • 9781611803457

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About Michael P Branch

Michael BranchMichael Branch is the author of more than 200 essays, articles, and reviews, and has given more than 250 public readings and lectures. His creative nonfiction includes pieces that have received Honorable Mention for the Pushcart Prize and been recognized as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays (three times), The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. His essays have appeared in magazines including OrionEcotoneSlateUtne ReaderSunsetReader’s DigestHawk and HandsawHigh Country NewsPlaces, and Whole Terrain, and in many essay collections, including Wonder and Other Survival SkillsThe Best Creative Nonfiction, and Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together. He is cofounder of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), and he served for sixteen years as the Book Review Editor of the creative/scholarly journal ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment). Mike is Professor of Literature and Environment in the English Department at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he cofounded the nation’s first graduate program in Literature and Environment studies.

Praise

If Thoreau drank more whiskey and lived in the desert, he’d write like this. “—High Country News

This book is not exactly about wild landscapes but the life of a house-holding family placed out there with two verge-of-puberty daughters. It is about our daily reality, not our fantasy possibilities, and who knows today what these girls will have to say later? So it is remarkably interesting, lively, non-theoretical, and hopeful. The wild might be wildfire or bushy-tailed woodrats under the floor—not just to live with but to know them. Michael Branch’s book points forward, not back. “—Gary Snyder

“Reading Michael Branch’s prose is like attending a great and raucous party. A party held around a campfire in a secret corner of the wilderness full of intense talk, laughs, liquor, and deep insights. That the kids are invited this time makes it even better. A profound and moving book that just might change some lives. “—David Gessner, author of All the Wild That Remains

 

Discussion Questions

1. In the book’s preamble, the author contrasts his own epic hikes in the high desert with his daughters’ long-held ambition to climb a modest local ridge they call Moonrise. Ultimately, he concludes that the experience of hiking with his daughters is “more fascinating and valuable than any heroic male wilderness adventure could possibly be.” (p. xxix). What is the impact of the contrast between these two forms of experiencing wilderness—solitary male adventure vs. a father hiking with his daughters?

2. The book’s opening chapters, “Endlessly Rocking” and “The Nature within Us,” reveal that the author has real fears about whether he is prepared to be a good father. Why is he so hesitant about becoming a parent? How does he ultimately confront concerns that he will be inadequate as a father?

3. Much of this book is concerned with the author’s developing identity as “the father of daughters.” How might the book have been different if Branch had instead been the father of sons? How might the book’s story have changed had it been told by a mother of daughters or a mother of sons?

4. Branch writes that “Laughter is the sound we make in the moment we acknowledge, perhaps even begin to accept, our own mistakes or inadequacies” (p. xxxi). He even claims that “laugher generates the flexibility and acceptance that are necessary for one to develop patience and express love” (p. xxxii). How does humor function throughout the book? Would you agree that humor has the power to make us more accepting and resilient? What are the limits to the power of humor to help us in our lives?

5. In his endorsement of Raising Wild, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gary Snyder writes that the book “points forward, not back,” and he describes it as “hopeful.” What do you think Snyder meant in describing the book as pointing forward?

6. Although the book is often both funny and hopeful, a number of chapters offer serious contemplations of potential loss. For example, “Tracking Stories” examines what might be lost if pronghorn antelope were to be extirpated from the author’s local landscape, while “Fire on the Mountain” examines the near loss of Branch’s family home to fire. Why are these contemplations of loss important to the larger story told by the book? How can they be reconciled with the book’s lighter, more hopeful tone?

7. The key to this book is its setting in the remote, high-elevation Great Basin Desert, which the author describes as being “among the most extreme landscapes in North America” (xx). “This place is not remarkable in spite of its blizzards and droughts, its fires and floods, its rattlers and scorpions,” he writes. “It is astonishing because of them” (p. xxiii). If the high desert landscape is so inhospitable, why does he value it so highly? Why does he want to inhabit this extreme environment—and raise his children there—if it is such a difficult place to make a home?

8. At many points in the book, the author contrasts the way adults and children see the world. “There is something about adult perception, however finely honed it might be, that struggles to attain the sense of possibility that is instinctive to children,” he writes (p. 104). Do you agree that children retain a “sense of possibility” that has become less accessible to adults? What are examples of things children can imagine that grown-ups have a harder time envisioning? What might adults learn from a childhood sense of possibility?

9. Although Raising Wild is a book about the author’s life with his family in the high desert wilderness, it often reaches out to make contact with popular culture. For example, “Playing with the Stick” offers a humorous look at the induction of the stick into the National Toy Hall of Fame, while “The Hills Are Alive” takes a comical approach to examining the musical film The Sound of Music. How do the chapters that work with pop culture relate to the chapters that more directly discuss Branch’s experiences with his children in their home desert? For example, what does “Playing with the Stick” suggest about the differences between adult and childhood perceptions of nature, a theme important throughout the book? How does “The Hills Are Alive” challenge our assumption that green landscapes are superior to arid landscapes, which is another key issue in the book?

10. For many of us, a garden is an important domestic site where nature and culture meet and overlap—a place where we try to understand nature but also shape it to our own purposes. What representation of the garden emerges in the chapter “My Children’s First Garden”? What are the author’s ambitions for his children’s garden? How are those ambitions thwarted? How does Branch respond to his repeated difficulties in this troubled garden? Do you consider the garden described in this chapter to be a failure?

11. The author addresses his book’s title this way: “We tend to think that something that is ‘raised’ cannot also be ‘wild’ and that something that is ‘wild’ must not have been ‘raised.’ (Think salmon here.) But rather than figure the wild as other than and apart from the family, this book explores the ways in which living as a family in a wild landscape reveals the wildness at the heart of both childhood and parenthood” (xxvii). How does Branch conceive of the relationship between domesticity and wildness? Would you agree with his sense that the wild and domestic can coexist, or do you instead consider them mutually exclusive?

12. Henry David Thoreau, whom Branch quotes and refers to a number of times, once wrote that “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” However, this quotation is often incorrectly rendered as “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” What is the difference between wildness and wilderness? Can one exist without the other? In what ways does Raising Wild explore the relationship between wildness and wilderness, and what does the book ultimately say about the distinction between the two?

13. Near the end of the chapter called “Fire on the Mountain,” the author discusses the scientific consensus that “People who write about traumatic events are a great deal more resilient than are trauma victims who do not create a narrative of their experience” (p. 250). Why do you think writing about emotionally difficult experiences has been shown to be so therapeutic? What is it about retelling the story of a traumatic event that makes that event more endurable, perhaps even more comprehensible, to the writer?

14. How would you reply if asked to categorize Raising Wild by genre? Is it creative nonfiction? Memoir? Humor writing? An essay collection? Nature or science writing? Regional literature? Is it a parenting book? How might you read the book differently if you were to first identify it as being an example of one or another of these genres?

15. Very late in the book the author addresses his readers directly, inviting them to try a specific thought experiment: “Take a moment to imagine the landscape you now inhabit or, alternatively, a treasured landscape from your past. What memories have you attached to that place? How has that place helped to shape the person you are today? How have your experiences there informed your way of seeing yourself, your family, the place itself?” (p. 259). Now actually try this! How have your experiences or memories of this special place influenced your identity and your view of the world? How might you be a different person had you never encountered this unique place?