Jay Griffiths soared away on a seven-year pilgrimage to forage for the knowledge that illuminated her book Wild. She spent a lot of time with wild tribes, and with conquered people who still had beautiful memories of wildness and freedom. As she bounced from place to place, both modern and indigenous, she became aware of a glaring difference between wild people and the dominant culture — their children.
This presented her with a perplexing riddle. “Why are so many children in Euro-American cultures unhappy? Why is it that children in many traditional cultures seem happier, fluent in their child-nature?” Her dance with this riddle gave birth to her book, Kith.
Griffiths is English, and the book’s title refers to the old phrase, “kith and kin.” Kin means close family. Kith originally meant knowledge or native land, the home outside the house. When peasants lived on the land, their knowledge was rooted in the living place around them, not in mysterious juju like mathematics, economics, or engineering. In recent centuries, most peasants have been driven out of their home, and their traditional knowledge has been forgotten. Today, the meaning of kith has been reduced to extended family and neighbors.
Like “sustainable,” kith was once a beautiful word of great importance, now reduced to a toothless ghost. Both words are lifesavers, if we could just remember them. They are not forever lost. Griffiths reminds us that “the past is not behind us, but within us.”
In this book, kith is used in its ancient form, a sacred word of power. Why are kids so unhappy? They have no kith. They are dreadfully impoverished. In our society, kids (and adults) are unwell because they have largely been exiled from nature. They live indoors in manmade environments. Nature is an essential nutrient for health and sanity. Kith is life.
Griffiths and her brothers spent much of their youth playing outdoors, wandering across the land, getting wet and dirty, without adult supervision. They rarely watched television. She fears that her generation may be the last to experience the remaining vestiges of a normal childhood. But I think that the game will change radically after the lights go out. Mass insanity may not be our closing act. After the plague comes healing.
Evolution prepared our species for a life of hunting and foraging. All infants born today are wild animals fine-tuned for thriving outdoors in a tropical climate, surrounded by wild flora and fauna. Being surrounded by nature is what all animals require for a normal and healthy life. Like all other animals, young humans need to explore, play, learn. Children need nature like fish need water. They need a place where they belong, a home, a land that will be “mentor, teacher, and parent.”
They need to grow up in lands that still have their original parts — deer, birds, snakes, frogs, coyotes — our relatives who have not forgotten how to live. They have so much to teach us. Pets are unacceptable replacements for our wild and free relatives. Cities are unacceptable substitutes for healthy places to live. Zoo animals have miserable lives. Confinement in industrial civilization is devastating for tropical primates of all ages.
Several centuries back, Griffiths’ ancestors lived in villages near commons. The commons were open lands where the people could hunt, fish, pick berries, gather wood, and graze livestock. Today, the commons are nearly extinct. They have been eliminated by a process called enclosure, whereby wealthy lords fenced off the commons, replaced forests with sheep pastures, evicted most peasants, and burned down their humble cottages.
Enclosure is the diabolical anti-kith. Modern kids no longer have abundant open spaces in which they can mature in a healthy manner. Space has been enclosed and denatured. So has freedom, the essence of childhood. They are no longer free to spend their days wandering where whimsy leads them. Modern childhood is now rigidly scheduled.
Community has also been enclosed. Kids used to be raised in villages where there were no strangers. Kids were mentored and parented by neighbors and extended family. Modern kids grow up in a world of automobiles, strangers, and nuclear families. Outdoors, behind every bush, are tweakers, psychopaths, perverts, and predators. Kids spend much of their lives under house arrest.
Kids have immense interest in learning, but we give them “a school system that is half factory, half prison, and too easily ignores the very education which children crave.” They major in obedience, punctuality, self-centeredness, and the myths of civilization. They spend their childhood years indoors, in classrooms, and graduate knowing nearly nothing about the ecosystem they inhabit, their kith.
This is quite different from how children in traditional societies are raised. Wild children are in constant human contact until they learn to walk, some sleep with their parents for the first five years or so. They are never left alone to cry themselves to sleep. They are never scolded, beaten, or given commands. They are socialized, respected, treated like adults. Socialization teaches them to be respectful of others, and nurture good relationships. They develop confidence and self-reliance.
Importantly, wild cultures do an excellent job of guiding youths through a healthy transition into adults. Every person is born with a unique personality. We all have different gifts, interests, and destinies — trackers, herbalists, counselors, scouts, singers, dancers, drummers, shamans, storytellers, healers, slackers, morons, lunatics.
Elders carefully help youths find their paths in life. “Every child needs their time in the woods, to find their vision or their dream. Yet most children today have no such rite, no way of negotiating that difficult transition into adulthood.”
The first generation of enclosure victims were painfully aware of all they had lost. Their city born descendants have little or no awareness of the lost treasure of kith, and the harsh poverty of their consumer prosperity. They are “denied their role as part of the wildlife.” Many may go to their graves without ever experiencing the beauty that is the sacred birthright of tropical primates, and every other living thing.
Griffiths learned to talk and read at a very early age. She has a great passion for words and learning. You get the impression that she has read 10 or 20 books a week since she was crawling around in nappies. She writes with flourish and flamboyance. Kith is not an instruction manual for childrearing, but it provides a wealth of important insights for tropical primates who live in modern society. It’s an excellent companion to Jean Liedloff’s masterpiece, The Continuum Concept.
Here is a 20 minute video of Griffiths talking about her book.
Griffiths, Jay, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2013.
NOTE: The U.K. edition of Kith is now in print. Australians can get the Kindle version only. The U.S. edition will be published by Counterpoint Press, and released by the end of 2014, they say. Non-Europeans can buy the British edition from Amazon via third party vendors. Amazon U.K. is forbidden to sell the Kindle version to Yanks (they’re still sore about the Revolutionary War).