synopsis and excerpt
Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the reintroduction of wolves to the West, Howl is the story of Bird’s experiences traveling, exploring, and conversing with people who care about, work with, or are neighbors with wolves. Journeying to Yellowstone, the wilds of Montana, and ranches in the West, Bird uncovers stories of nature’s powerful influence on human lives. From wolf watchers, landowners, and biologists to conservationists to hunters, people share their beliefs and understandings of what matters most, which almost always is their connection with the natural world. Exploring issues broached by hunters, ranchers, and politicians, Bird utilizes science, facts, and ethics to support her contention that wolves must be allowed to live again on our lands. Along the way Bird works on unleashing her own wild nature, encouraging the reader to join her in learning to howl.
Yellowstone, November 22, 2013. Midday.
Around the bend, I pull up behind Rick, park and unload the scope. Rick points out where the elk cow carcass is—just south across the road and east twenty yards, perhaps sixty yards away—and then turns north again to point to where the wolves are beginning to come down along a ridge. A gray comes first, then the white female, and we track them down the hillside. They’re moving east, away from us, to a spot where the ground slopes and eases them out to cross the road.
They circle back west to the carcass which lies beside a leafless tree upon which three or four ravens perch, waiting. Ever wary, the wolves examine wind and landscape, noses quivering, ears and tails alert, before dropping their muzzles to the dead cow elk. The wolves are so close their bodies nearly fill my scope, and I watch them tug and devour meat, the alpha female’s nose quickly turning pink with blood. They grab chunks of flesh then lift their eyes and heads, searching the area, lowering them again to eat.
“Susan,” Rick says, sotto voce, gesturing to the hillside where the white and gray descended, and I see more wolves. “That’s the alpha male, 712, can you see how he’s turning gray? That’s typical, they tend to gray as they age.”
The black wolf is trailed by another gray, and we watch them work their way down the hillside but instead of continuing east as the white wolf did earlier, the black cuts back to the west, and is moving through the grass directly to our left.
“He’s going to circle around us,” Rick whispers, and I stand firmly planted, watching the black wolf come closer and closer; I don’t need a scope for this.
He’s within fifty feet of us, forty, as he moves through the grass, cutting across the road on the west, the gray yearling trotting a dozen yards behind. They cross the road and circle still, leery, not hurrying to reach the carcass. There are four wolves now, all across the road, all within seventy yards of where I stand, all visible as I move my scope. More ravens have joined the few in the tree, and I lose count looking at them. Ten, maybe twelve. I center my scope back on the wolves. The white female continues tearing at the carcass, and then backs off, the gray moving with her, eventually loping back to where they crossed the road, retracing their steps back up the ridge.
Rick quietly talks with me about alpha males, how they appear to do less disciplining than the females, suggesting that they might hold back for fear that their strength is too much for the pups. They play with the pups, though, don’t they? I ask, and he tells me that an alpha male is out searching for food so much of the time, working hard to make the kills he does, that when he’s back with the pack he often just needs to sleep. In step the yearlings, the older siblings, who often fill the role of pup-watcher and playmate. Pups are nursed, weaned, fed, nurtured, and taught the ways of the world by the entire pack. It takes strong, healthy alphas to lead and guide a pack, and the Canyon pack is led by two who have years of experience.
The white female and accompanying gray wolf are moving back along the northern hillside now, sated. The black male moves in, the yearling gray with him, and they spend ten or so minutes working the carcass, tearing and chewing. The alpha tugs the carcass hard enough that the entire body moves, and I see the paucity of flesh and meat left on the bones. When the two are finished, they together move away, at which time the ravens swoop down for their turn and the naked tree is once again barren and lifeless.
The black and gray wolves return to the ridge by the same path they used on the way to the carcass, and once again I stand and watch the wolves move past me, less than fifty feet from where I am. They are studiously avoiding us, focusing on the path before them, but I sense that they know everything about us. How many of us there are, how many narrow circular tubes are pointed their way, how many large metal vehicles there are. How we feel in our hearts about them, why we’re here; possibly, who we are deep in our souls.
advance praise for Howl: of Woman and Wolf
“The brave writers of natural history understand both the technical and the spiritual sides of ecology; and they don’t shy from either. Susan Imhoff Bird is one these.”
Michael Soule, evolutionary and conservation biologist, author, and advocate for wild nature, cofounder of the Society for Conservation Biology, currently serving on the boards of Round River Conservation Studies and The Wildlands Project.
“Bird couples an investigation of America’s complicated relationship with wolves with enormously personal and perceptive reflections on her life as wife and mother.”
Bird’s search for her own soul led her to the wolves, and literally, back to herself. This is an intimate look at that search, through an exploration of the Yellowstone packs, the history and the mythologies of the wolf, especially in the West. Bird does a thorough and accessible job telling the story of the wolf. She adds a deeply personal touch by sharing her own life journey. We are the sum total of all of our experiences. Bird makes that same point about the wolves and how their well being reflects the state of our natural environment. Evocative and compelling, and maybe ultimately, a challenge to see each other, and our world with more empathy.
Margaret Brennan Neville, The King’s English Bookshop
“In Howl, Susan Imhoff Bird takes us on a double-layered journey. In mid-life, she forges a new sense of identity in intimate relationships while inquiring deeply into the world of the wolf. With humor, sensitivity, and probing intelligence, Bird’s quest brings her to many of today’s wildlife elders, the iconic author Doug Peacock and Leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Pack Doug Smith among them. She joins Wolf Project teams at Yellowstone to observe the animals for herself. Weaving outer journey with inner way-finding, Bird’s inspiring book is about being more than human – it’s about being alive.”
Mary Ellen Hannibal, author of The Spine of the Continent: The Race to Save America’s Last, Best Wilderness and a Stanford University Media Fellow.
“Wolves are tough. To coexist with them takes coming at the issue with everything we can muster and think of –Susan adds vitally to this conversation. With wit, emotion and passion, she thinks like many who have pondered the issue do not. This opens the eyes of the initiated and uninitiated. It’s well worth the time reading this preciously fresh look at an ancient conflict.”
Doug Smith, author (with Gary Ferguson) of Decade of the Wolf, senior wildlife biologist Yellowstone National Park.
“Susan Imhoff Bird has written a terrific book. Here is a well-rounded wolf tale in the best sense of the word: From Leopold’s notion of the Round River of life, to the circumscription of human and canine behavior in the core of Yellowstone Park. This story, told by a writer who is comfortable both inside and outside her human skin, speaks with an unsheltered heart that reaches beyond loss for a wilder tether, free to return Bird’s most intimate howl. The narration hauls no arrogance, just the unfolding of that ancient yet enduring story of man and beast. We should celebrate her victory.”
Doug Peacock, author of Grizzly Years, Walking It Off, The Essential Grizzly (with Andrea Peacock), In the Shadow of the Sabertooth; co-founder of Round River Conservation Studies.
“Susan Imhoff Bird and I had many memorable experiences watching and studying wolves in Yellowstone National Park and I really enjoyed reading her account of her quest to find the heart and soul of the wolf.”
Rick McIntyre, author of A Society of Wolves and War Against the Wolf, wolf researcher for the Park Service in Yellowstone.
“Bird takes you through blizzards and mountain country, with plenty of wild critters and a redneck or two. Pull on your boots, hold onto your hat, and settle in for a great read!”
Dan Haggerty, animal trainer and handler, actor, “Grizzly Adams.”