a crazy-avid reader, I devoured dozens of wolf books as I researched canis lupus and its history on our continent. though I learned from every tome–as an example, jim and jamie dutchers’ book living with wolves is not only informative but filled with breathtaking photography, and comeback wolves is a compelling literary collection–the following books made my top 5 list as a result of what lay beneath the words and pictures. a book that leaves you somehow different is the kind of book that resonates, and remains. the books I’ve listed below are powerful in not only the storytelling, but in the understandings both stated and alluded to.
of wolves and men, barry lopez. lopez is a master, so exceptionally talented and committed to his craft that reading anything of his will transport you. this book is the ultimate compilation of all things wolves, as experienced by mankind.
a society of wolves, rick mcintyre. beautiful photographs interspersed with facts and stories: reading mcintyre’s book will leave you not only feeling like you understand these wild creatures, but that you should quickly plan a trip to go see them.
among wolves, marybeth holleman. holleman shares wolf researcher gordon haber’s story, some of his findings, and his enthusiasm for canis lupus. beautifully told, this book brings back to life a fascinating man who lost his life doing the work he loved.
decade of the wolf, douglas smith & gary ferguson. place the top yellowstone wolf biologist together with an exceptionally thoughtful and elegant writer in a canoe, in the wilderness, and in the presence of wolves, and the result is this insightful glimpse into the lives of yellowstone’s wolves. together they point a lens on specific wolves, and widen the view to encompass man’s history with wolves.
howl: of woman and wolf, susan imhoff bird. (how could I not include this one?) returning balance to ecosystems requires perseverance, even when it is difficult. as does life. give it a read: maybe you, too, will see yourself in a wolf.
if your favorite wolf book isn’t on my list, let me know.
and two elbows.
forearms, hips, teeth, wrists. five toes on each forefoot, and four toes on the hind.
twenty months ago I knew almost nothing about wolves. today I know a great deal, but I didn’t learn they have knees until yesterday.
and something about this matters to me.
wolves, canis lupus, are the long-ago forebears of man’s best friend, the dog. everyone knows this. we humans love our dogs. twenty or more are walked past my windows every day. one, a jack russell terrier, runs out in front of his master, who rides his bicycle behind. labs, boxers, bulldogs, mutts, shepherds, and little teeny yippy dogs trot past, tugging their masters. it’s difficult to envision the evolutionary process that led from wolf to shih tzu. inbreeding, mutations, selective breeding: the answer to how (and from where) today’s dogs actually came to be are still being studied, and argued about.
the connection between man and dog, though, is rarely fodder for argument.
and it’s part of what draws so many of us to wolves.
but there are also those who fear wolves. who consider them vicious and violent, an unnecessary, destructive species.
the marshall family, in the 1950’s, spent years living with a tribe of kalahari bushmen, in southern africa. the bushmen lived, at that time, basically as their ancestors had lived for the past thousand years. the apex predator in africa is the lion, and the bushmen had an understanding with it, as one explained to the marshall’s daughter elizabeth: “where lions aren’t hunted, they aren’t dangerous . . . we live in peace with them.” lions and bushmen had coexisted for so long, they “knew” each other, and appeared to respect each other. bushmen were cautious and protective–they stayed in community at night, and didn’t place themselves at risk–knowing that lions were capable of ripping them to shreds. but the two groups shared the land, each recognizing and accepting the other’s existence.
the bushmen hunted with poisoned arrows, and by the time the poison took effect, the animal was often far away from the hunters. at times, the bushmen would reach their prey only to find lions already at feed. the bushmen would neither shoot arrows at the lions nor abandon their kill; instead they would calmly tell the lions to leave, that the animal wasn’t theirs to eat. reluctant lions might be encouraged by handfuls of soil, tossed lightly in their direction. and this was enough to make the lions leave.
it is possible for man and beast to share the land. what’s required are firm boundaries, and respect.
wolves are not dogs, and they shouldn’t be treated as such. however, they are animals that belong on the landscape. it is our job to determine how to set and enforce appropriate boundaries, and to respect the wolves’ nature, behavior, and right to exist.
like all top predators–lions, tigers, great white sharks, grizzly bears–we share many traits with wolves.
among them are that we like to choose our territories, we will defend them. we reproduce and raise families. we like to choose our own meals.
and we both–wolves, and man–have two knees.
Photo Credit: The Wolf Almanac by Busch, Robert H.
last may I began a project, a book about wolves. since that time I’ve traveled to montana, yellowstone, wyoming, idaho, montana again, yellowstone again. I’ve read a towering stack of books, and perused articles and op eds galore. I’ve interviewed dozens of people, from hunters to ranchers to conservationists, attorneys, retired schoolteachers, biologists. I’ve written, I’ve listened, I’ve reflected, I’ve written more. and more, and more, shaping and crafting it into something worth reading.
and yesterday, I took my manuscript–after giving it a thorough polishing–and put it down for a nap. it’s going to rest, now, for a few weeks. I’m going to leave it alone, no checking to see if its breathing, for I’m going to trust that it’ll be just fine without me.
a small period of dormancy is good for both of us. I’m going to focus on other projects, other areas in my life that might need a little attention, and I’m purposefully not going to think about wolves. I’m going to tidy up my living spaces, maybe go for a walk. catch up on all those things I’ve let slip to the bottom of the pile. maybe sing a little bit. sweep out a few corners. think about the cover of the published book, envision it on people’s tables and nightstands, in their hands, in their minds.
this period of enforced hibernation is a trick used by many writers, a way to view something with fresh eyes. it’s crucial to be able to step away from your work, to be able to see it from a witnessing viewpoint. to read it as if you were someone else. and this is impossible to do when you’re engrossed in the writing, the creation of it. some parts of my manuscript I wrote 6, maybe 7 months ago, and during my most recent full-manuscript assessment and edit, I had no memory of writing them. some parts I’d written just 2 or 3 months back, and I read them as if for the first time. I know when I pick the manuscript back up a few weeks from now I won’t have forgotten it all, but hopefully the time away will have dulled my memory enough to let it speak to me in a different way. perhaps parts will be less clear, perhaps new ideas will jump out at me, different ways to organize, to express thoughts, to make the story better hold together, intrigue, delight.
when I return to the manuscript a few weeks from now, I will read it from end to end, I will try to forget that I wrote any of it, I will let it speak to me. and hopefully it will howl.
I am writing a book about wolves. about people and wolves. about what people think, feel, and believe about wolves. about what it’s like to be a human in a world where there are wolves. it is an awesome book, one I’m extremely grateful to be writing.
currently I am working on a section about nature and its impact on us humans. richard louv has written a book about children and nature titled “last child in the woods” in which he suggests that much of our population suffer from what he calls nature deficit disorder, especially our children. this resonates with me. in a sentence I find particularly meaningful for its insight he states:
“Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion.”
it isn’t only children who benefit from that time in the woods; we adults, too, can take our confusion, wash it in the creek, and explore nuances and understandings we hadn’t yet discovered. the only one who won’t benefit from time spent alone in nature is the one who isn’t yet ready to face oneself. children–blessedly–are naturally open to this kind of exploration and will remain so until the world convinces them they’re not. the answers, the solutions and understandings, rarely come as lightning bolts ~ though they may ~ more often adjusting us minutely and softly, helping us to breathe more deeply and corral the strength that resides within.
often we aren’t even able to articulate a question, but have an awareness that we’re unsettled. taking that to the woods, to the river, to the mountain, is important therapy, inexpensive and wildly effective.
much can be learned from studying wildlife, and the way wolves live is especially instructive for us humans. they form bonds with others, and are extremely loyal and protective of the space they share with their family. they nurture and teach and play with their offspring. they persevere; they only give up when it’s necessary to give up. they roam and explore but always come home. they howl.
it’s possible they take their confusion to the creek, splash around a bit, and come away better.
when we listen to our hearts and souls and remember who we truly are, we are drawn to the land, to the wild. and it is there that we can embrace our truths and let nature work its magic on us.
I believe in a higher power, and I typically call it “God.” I am quite amenable to anyone calling him/it/her by whatever name or title he or she chooses, and I am supportive and compassionate to those who have decided to not believe in such an entity, as well. but I write this today from inside my own belief system, in which a higher power has created a (benevolent) universe in which we are subtly guided and supported along our journeys, especially when we’re headed in the “right” way.
clarity, you ask? and, what does this have to do with what I’m reading? simply this: if one pays attention, one is gifted with the recognition of myriad little clues, guides, synchronicities along the way toward achieving one’s goals. paying attention is key, being aware. some of these will jump out at you, but some will rest, casually, along the edge of the road, where you may or may not ever see them. you must learn to be aware of what’s around you, you must learn to look. and allow yourself to listen to and be guided by your impulses.
still didn’t help? okay, here’s the connection. I was in the library last week, looking for a dvd I’d been told of. on the way out I perused the “new in fiction” section, instantly discounting most by title or cover, until a small, hardbound book with an unusual sketch on the cover caught my eye. ways of going home. hmm, interesting title, let’s see what it says on the inside flap. Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home begins with an earthquake, seen through the eyes of an unnamed nine-year-old boy who lives in an undistinguished middle-class housing development in a suburb of Santiago, Chile . . . okay, good enough, I’ll check it out.
the dvd I’d gone to the library for is about wolves: I’m researching wolves in preparation for a project I’ve committed to working on. I’ve been reading scholarly and scientific and romantic and lightweight articles, books and treatises on wolves, and my head is literally swimming in wolf facts and lore. I need fiction breaks, and this small book set in chile sounded perfect. a few days after bringing it home I opened it, flipping through the first few pages–title page, copyright info, dedication, also by–and then reached a fore-page with two quotes on it, the second of which was this:
instead of howling, I write books. ~r. gary
now, if you don’t make the connection, then you probably won’t need to read any more of my posts or writings, ever. if you do, you might possibly understand the little tickle that ran through my system. of all the books I could have possibly picked up at the library that morning–how many thousands and thousands do they stock–I was somehow guided to choose Zambra’s book with Romain Gary’s quote. which I love. because I believe he exquisitely captures my need to write: because I’m unable to (for societal and cultural and evolutionary reasons) howl to express myself, I must write. and apparently the universe is reinforcing my decision to write about wolves.
one could say the two things have nothing to do with each other; one could throw “random” and “coincidence” at my story. and I will let one. but I know the truth, my truth. which is that the universe is willingly supporting my journey, and will continue to gift me with small synchronicities and occurrences that–if I’m paying attention–will perform like tiny lights along my way, guiding and reinforcing, helping me find my own unique way to howl.