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What is the wolf experience?

Wolf hunts are going on right now.  I recently read that in Montana you can shoot a wolf, tag it, and walk away, leaving the carcass to rot on the ground.  In Idaho, the wolf hunt is practically year round with no legal limits.  Idaho’s first legal wolf trapping season is about to begin.  They want to reduce their population from about 1000 wolves down to 150. Wolf haters always like to talk about dogs being prey for wolves.  The amount of dogs killed by wolves is miniscule–mostly sheep dogs watching their flock in open country. Traps for wolves, on the other hand, will certainly kill or maim a lot of dogs.

Last winter my dog almost got caught in a leg trap intended for a bobcat.  Luckily, I say almost.  The trap was set close to a large tourist pull-out that houses one of the only toilets along a major road.  Although not illegal, I considered the trappers’ choice of placement highly unethical, and frankly lazy.  People stop there for a rest and let their dogs out for a break.  

When I was a kid growing up, my parents impressed upon me the two taboo subjects you should never talk about in a social setting–religion and politics. These were surely the firecrackers that would ignite a fight when you just wanted peace and a good time.  Why? Because religion and politics are the stuff of emotion, not logic.  Today, living in the West, I add one more subject to that list–wolves.

I’ve pondered why wolves are on this list.  Really, they are just an animal doing what they were born to do. There are lots of other predators that we don’t place in the same category.  Eagles, weasels, mountain lions to name a few.  Only wolves have that magnetic polarizing effect.

Why?  I’m going to venture a wild hypothesis:

On a warm June night, I’m returning from a meeting in Cody.  It’s dusk and I’m beginning my drive home.  The massive up-tilt of red rock, called the Chugwater Formation, forms the cornerstone of the grassy large ranch that sits at the base of the mountain road.

Chugwater sandstone

The land slopes gradually upward, then with increasing steepness the views widen of this deep impressive drainage.  I’ve always loved this part of the ascent.  I can sense the specialness of this place, where once buffalo grazed.   Indians used this area as a drive, the ancient cairns stand as sentinels where they hid as the bison rushed through.

As I climb up the road, the view of the valley is most exquisite.   A cattle guard on the highway marks the boundary between the private lands below and the Shoshone National Forest above.  As my car crosses the grate, like a shot, three wolves run like hell across the road.  I press hard on the brakes to let them pass,  Full of life and energy, in my imagination, I see their excitement as the anticipation of their upcoming evening hunt.

The vision of those wolves will stick in my mind forever.   It was as if the Force of Life itself flew past me in a vision.

A wonderful chapter in Henry Beston’s The Outermost House describes a trip he made by boat to a rock full of birds.

The tiny island was so crowded that chicks were falling over the cliffs, eggs were being stepped on by birds and breaking, the energy of Life, and Death, one entire cycle, overwhelmed him to a point where he was almost sickened.  Raw creation.

I read that book as a teenager.   In it I understood that Life itself, that teeming, raw, primal energy of our Existence, permeates everything.  In fact, that energy of Life is so powerful that even death can not nullify it.

“There has been endless time of numberless deaths, but neither consciousness nor life has ceased to arise. The felt quantity and cycle to death has not modified the fragility of flowers, even the flowers within our human body.” **

And in a flash I understood what I, and all those who are traveling with me in this modern world, are afraid of.  We are afraid of life, which is a strange thing to say considering how hard we try and hang on to it.  But really, we are constantly suppressing it, attempting to harness and control it, create little niches where we feel safe and comfortable.  That is why it is easier for us to destroy, tear things apart, sullen our environment, attempt to control the forces of nature, and create the illusion of predictability, than to embrace Life.   To be in life implies being overwhelmed, swept away, carried like a raft in a great ocean, humbled, acknowledging our smallness and our connectedness.

I once made a trip to the Charlotte Islands, a land that even Canadians call “what Canada used to look like”.

A maze of small inlets and calm channels, the cold waters are so clear you can see over 50′ down riding in your kayak.  You are tide pooling without waiting for the lowest tides.  The waters were alive with life in a way I had never seen tide-pooling in Northern California.  Instead of dozens of sea stars, you saw hundreds on a rock. Masses of jellyfish small and large swam by you.  Everything I saw in the Northern California shores were multiplied one hundred-fold here.  These were the remnants of waters we still hadn’t polluted, a glimpse into the original primordial oceans that birthed us.  Life at this level looms on a mind-boggling yet fearsome scale.  Somewhere in us we say that this amount of energy must be controlled.

And that is where I come back to these wolves.  The vision of my wolves, running ecstatically across the road, in total abandon to their Existence, is an affirmation of that immense, wondrous, yet terrifying Power that is the Universe itself.  Wolves, in their ceaseless energy, their joie de vivre, their deep intelligence, embody the purity of   Life.

Maybe that is why humans have spent so much time and effort trying to control, even eliminate them. They are the emblem of true, unabashed, Freedom.

**Da Free John


6 Responses

  1. Leslie – great piece! They are the essence of Wild … untamed, uncontrolled, what we once were, what we most fear … and desire.


  2. An interesting hypothesis, and worthy of our consideration. I live in Butte (except this winter, when I’m touring the southwest and southeast), and I hear all the various opinions on wolves. What strikes me is the one in which “the wolves are killing our elk and deer”. When I say “Huh, didn’t know we owned the wildlife.” I’m met with frowns.

    I also think of Bill Kittredge’s book “Owning it All”, he throw’s considerable light on the subject.

    I enjoy your blog.


  3. Thanks Mike. Ah yes, the ‘killing the elk and deer’ argument. I’d say that is a much more prevalent argument these days than the killing cattle argument. This, of course, is just not true and is borne out of the lack of understanding of the need for top predators in an ecosystem.

    Really, I think its because elk are now acting like elk and harder to hunt. From what I see around here, most hunters are a lazy lot and just like to drive the roads and road hunt. You see a lot of hunters who take down young deer–the ones that haven’t enough experience to live long enough. Wolves don’t prefer deer, so its the elk that are getting culled and the ones that live are more intelligent, thus harder to find for hunters. Thanks for the read. I’ll check that book out.


  4. The killing the elk and deer argument is one I have no use for. It has no scientific foundation, and in my opinion just is another example of humanities egocentricity. We can’t have wolves killing and eating elk, as we need to save them so that we can kill and eat them. As you pointed out, Leslie, elk are now acting like elk use to behave, which makes it harder to hunt them.


  5. You are right that, in part, fear of life = fear of wolves. But there is a deeply utilitarian, materialistic dimension as well. Many ranchers see nature as meant for them to use as they will, wildlife be damned (literally). And if wildlife threatens their material interest directly, as wolves do, then it must be eliminated. Many hunters are much the same way: wolves kill & eat elk that God intended for them.

    I hunt elk and find wolves an essential deeply spiritual part of what makes life worthwhile. One year, wolves chased elk in a way that brought them directly to me. When they howled (after I’d shot one of the elk) it was thrilling, and a clear communication between a non-human and a human animal. This year, a wolf pack drove elk from the forest out onto the prairie (where I killed and packed out a bull).

    To understand the rancher point of view, see this film: http://www.cryingwolfmovie.com
    I don’t agree with anything about it, but it is interesting as a sort of artifact of cultural anthropology.


  6. Great points ecorover. And what a great experience you had, hearing those wolves howl. As you know I’m sure, Wolves followed Indians and vice versa, sharing in their kills. You had an experience that must have touched you in a primal, deep, non-verbal way. Wish I’d been there!


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