'Wildmen' bare body and soul to find true selves

March 10, 1992|By Paul Brinkley-Rogers | Paul Brinkley-Rogers,Arizona Republic

TUCSON, Ariz. Twelve male strangers squat naked and sweating in a circle, the desert soil red like blood on their arms, legs and torsos where they crawled across the desert floor.

Their bearded leader tells them to invoke the names of men who could not be with them that Sunday in the Tucson Mountains inside the tarp-draped sweat lodge filled with heat, steam, incense and the smell of perspiration.

The names of their fathers, their sons, their uncles, their friends, spill out in an emotion-charged torrent. And then they chant the names of hundreds of more notable men -- among them Mahatma Ghandi, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimi Hendrix, Malcolm X, Jim Morrison, Emiliano Zapata, JFK, Martin Luther King, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Plato.

The power of these male names makes some of the men shout, grunt, growl, groan, howl.

These mostly Anglo-Saxon, mostly middle-aged males, who might otherwise be carrying briefcases, in fact roll their eyes, burst out in laughter, cry, shake and shudder. Only a couple of them eye their red-faced partners with curious disbelief.

It is Day 3 of the Wildman Weekend at Thor Lane's 40-acre spread, where at dawn waves of quail run across Father Earth -- as the mostly underground men's movement calls the planet -- to the short, bearded man to be fed.

L The emphasis here is on the words man, father, brother, son.

The participants have paid $150 each to be part of this affair.

They have stared the experience in the face and have not blinked, publicly at least. For a whole weekend they will not only have to strip naked and split logs, roll boulders, and engage in back thumping and chest bumping, they will also have to strip themselves of the doubts and anxieties that they believe afflict late 20th century American males.

They would even have to get spiritual.

They were men who had never embraced another man, or never had a male friend to whom they could tell secrets, or who never told their father that they loved him. They were men who had never done "men's work," as Mr. Lane, their "leader" dubs this kind of intense male bonding.

And yet, here they were, using ancient ritual appropriated from several cultures, to become spiritually naked wildmen. Lawyers, tax consultants, engineers, school administrators, students: they had made the considerable intellectual leap required to believe that this experience was an enriching one and not merely hokey play-acting.

Some said they had read the holy books of the new male consciousness -- Robert Bly's best-selling lament for the modern male, "Iron John," and Sam Keen's "Fire in the Belly" -- or said they had viewed Bill Moyer's 90-minute-long televised chat with Mr. Bly on what ails men.

But there is no handbook for the wildman's movement, Mr. Lane explained. "There is no way this is going to end up like the woman's movement," he said. "There will be no male NOW. There will be no dogma. Men are good at building organizations, but it has done them no good," he says.

He scoffed at male support groups that meet at hotels. They are made up of "soft men," he says, borrowing key words from Robert Bly. "They are meeting because of the woman's movement, trying to be more like women. We are men finding our warrior side."

So how was the Wildman Weekend going to work?

This was the question men asked each other Friday as they parked their trucks and cars in the desert and prepared to face the elements. Their first clue was the first statement made to them by the 52-year-old Mr. Lane. It set the tone for the let-it-all-hang-out goal of the gathering.

"Men!" he declared, like a drill instructor. "If you fart or belch here, I don't want to hear anyone say, 'Excuse me,' or, 'I'm sorry.' You don't have to apologize for perfectly natural bodily functions."

There were some chuckles, although clearly this small, muscular man with rolled up sleeves and a black felt cowboy hat jammed down over his skull was not joking. What he was saying, someone said, was that an "I'm sorry" is a soft-man thing.

"We are going to do serious work here men," Mr. Lane continued. "We are going to do very sacred work. We are here for the soul. We are here to gather wisdom."

Mr. Lane lurked in his cabin, assembling a vegetarian dinner, as the "brothers" sawed, chopped and grunted.

Darkness fell.

The 12 men assembled around the fire pit inside the "sacred circle" of stones. Holding hands, and on Mr. Lane's command, they stared intently into each other's eyes, face by face.

They learned that when one of them slips a broad-bladed knife out of its sheath at "talking councils," only that man had the right to talk. It was the duty of the others to listen.

Before the Industrial Revolution, they were told, such men-only councils helped men define who they were in terms of their relationship with other males. But contemporary men often define who they are in terms of the woman in their life, and their relationships with other men are shallow, built around sports, TV, or four-wheeling.

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