Father's Day Reflections from Raising Wild author Michael Branch

In both his memoir, Raising Wild, and in a new book of essays on living in the remote wilderness of Nevada's Great Basin Desert, Rants from the Hill, author Michael Branch weaves hilarious and heartfelt reflections about raising his two daughters into his account of what it's like to live in such a barren and sometimes challenging natural environment.

This Father's Day, here are a few passages from the books that capture Branch's irreverent and fun-loving parenting style along with some photos of the author with his daughters Hannah and Caroline.

On unwanted pets

"I am the father of young daughters, a condition that is 95 percent blessing and 5 percent unwanted pets."

On being both a father an an environmentalist

"The problem with being both an environmentalist and a father is that whenever I rant about an issue I always end up caught by my daughters in some act of complicity that exposes my hypocrisy. In this case, the trouble started when little Caroline insisted that we celebrate sister Hannah’s ninth birthday with a balloon release. I was in a tough spot, since I had to choose between being an uptight, sanctimonious, balloon-reviling ecogeek and being a really cool dad who happened to be externalizing the true cost of his coolness by exporting some aerial trash downwind to Utah. I remained on the fence, until Caroline explained that our balloons would not go to Utah but rather to the moon, where she intended to clean them up herself, just as soon as she becomes an astronaut. Well, that was pretty persuasive, so we began preparations for our birthday launch."

On being a father living in the wilderness

"Even my most cherished self-image—that of an independent man whose journey to this remote place was motivated by a passion for galvanic, unmediated contact with wildness—has been sorely tested, as I have confronted both the daunting realities of desert living and also my own weaknesses as a man who is still learning how to be a good father."

 

On the wilderness with children

"I do not subscribe to the notion that wildness is reserved for adult male adventurers who are defined by their escape from the constraints of home and family. Instead, I have come to view childhood as a valuable repository of wildness from which we grown-ups might derive insight and draw inspiration. As the father of daughters, I am also convinced that our association of wilderness and wildness with masculinity is not only archaic but profoundly misinformed from the start. And I am troubled that the so-called retreat narrative—a stylized way of telling the wild that valorizes solitude as the correct mode of encounter with the natural world—authorizes a view of wildness that necessarily excludes children."

On becoming a mindful father

"Much like living in the desert, becoming a mindful father requires an ongoing and often chastening process of attempt, failure, insight, and growth—and then, ever and always, attempt. Practice does not make perfect but rather makes more practice, and it is this practice of reflective parenting and attentive dwelling in place that has led me to discover enriching forms of intimacy within my family and within the wild landscape we inhabit. There is no place I love more than this high desert, no people I love more than my daughters. And yet there is a wonderful sense in which I do not know them yet. Even in the open desert much remains hidden. Hannah and Caroline too are deserts—each an exquisite mystery I have not yet solved. I need one more day, or year, or another decade; just one more walk, another mile, then 13,000 more. I am still learning to pay attention."

On parenting as an art of improvisation

"Parenting, like walking in the desert, is a meandering art of improvisation. The adventure never turns out quite as we planned it, the inner and outer weather remain unpredictable. We are in sympathy but never in control. We take conditions as we find them, putting one foot in front of the other as we navigate a topography of uncertainty, trying to make the most of each day’s pilgrimage back to the heart and to the land. We carry water toward our lovely garden, but end up using it to put out a fire. We set out for the spring but follow pronghorn tracks instead, intend to witness the rise of the crescent moon but are drawn to the huddled glow of the Pleiades. We search for ways to reshape our experiences into narrative, to transform a shared life into a story that can be given to our children, mapped onto the high, dry landscape of their only home.

In this wide open desert there are no trails, which is to say that any route you choose becomes a trail only as it is walked, becomes a story only as it is told. Before our children can fully engage the world they must first learn to walk. As a father I am still exploring the hard beauty of this wild landscape, learning slowly, with the help of my family, how to walk with and within it."

On birth

"Under the pressure of the suction the baby’s skull distended so as to resemble the attenuated, aerodynamic teardrop shape of a bicycle racer’s helmet, and I confess that in that moment I was more frightened than ecstatic. I’m not squeamish, but a close inspection of the scene from my necessarily limited male point of view had momentarily convinced me that the much vaunted miracle of birth was in fact a terrifying mess. The sheer animal physicality of human birth was unexpected and startling, thrilling but also deeply disconcerting."

On humility

"In allowing myself to believe that the replanted and rearmored garden was impenetrable, I had foolishly ignored one of the basic principles of fatherhood, a principle so fundamental that it belongs with such core insights as 'The only people who like change are babies in diapers' or 'When your kid tells you to cover your eyes, do it with one hand and cover your nuts with the other.' Humility is the alpha and omega of both parenting and gardening. I had failed to be humble, and in failing to be humble I was now humbled by failure."

On timeless classics

"As the father of young daughters, I have been subjected—wholly against my will—to musicals too numerous and nauseating to be enumerated. The most frequently repeated of these abominations is the much-beloved 1965 'timeless classic' The Sound of Music, whose perennial popularity confirms every curmudgeonly thing I’ve ever said or written about my fellow human beings."

On crisis and safety

"I’ve called parenting an art of improvisation. Much of the ad-libbing we do involves telling our children that everything is going to be fine when we haven’t the slightest idea whether it will be fine or not. This 'fake it ’til you make it/ aspect of being a parent is imperative, because nothing is more important to a child than reassurance. But the poignancy of our sanguine assertions of security weighs more heavily on me than it once did, because my sense of our perpetual vulnerability is now so visceral. How are we to assure our children that we can keep them safe in a world of perils when there is so much evidence to the contrary? Eryn told the girls that 'Dad always knows what to do,' and it was exactly the right thing for her to have told them in that moment of crisis. But Dad did not have everything under control. Far from it. I was being humbled by the unbridled wildness of fire."