Barry Lopez, “Of Wolves and Men”–Karen Babine

In my own head, wolves already occupy a significant space, from a 9th grade publication in the High School Writer (a monthly newspaper publishing high school creative writing), a short piece on wolves that I had submitted to a contest sponsored by the International Wolf Center in Ely, MN—to reading Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem last fall. Fenris Ulf, from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—a name that comes from Norse mythology, found in the Poetic and Prose Eddas. Wolves in the wild, wolves being legally hunted. And more. This book is necessary—as it is written—because wolves constitute one of the animals considered “charismatic mega-fauna,” along with the big cats, elephants, bison, and others. They’ve been mythologized so often, throughout fairy tales and Twilight and elsewhere, that we think we know, when we know nothing at all.

Immediately I noticed a curious tendency towards imperatives. The first paragraph itself, situates the persona of the writer as well as his physical location. The reader is given a glimpse into what Lopez can do with his language—“The cold sits down like iron here”—and because it starts off like this, yet that kind of language is rarely used afterwards, the reader knows that Lopez is choosing not to use this lyrical language, rather than being unable. But the second paragraph is a one-sentence paragraph: “Go out there” (1). The first line of the first chapter is also imperative, and perhaps the most telling moment of the entire book: “Imagine a wolf moving through the northern woods” (9).

The level of detail here never rises to the level of oppressive, yet even as Lopez moves through the detail, the information, never does he stray far from his authorial purpose, which is to make the reader understand the wolves. Just when the detail nearly becomes too much to digest, Lopez steps back and puts the detail in context. The human view of the wolf is already well-established, even if most of it is false. Just to tell the reader about wolves will not change their view. As I started with my own view of wolves and what I think I know because of things I’ve read or places I’ve lived, every other person already thinks they know wolves too. Human metaphors pervade wolf studies, like the paramilitary terms Lopez discusses (32). We consider their social structures and activities in terms of ours. Most often, Lopez ends a section in a chapter, before moving through white space to another topic, with a comment that puts the information in context. After discussing wolves’ howls, he writes, “Our attempts to understand wolf language are crude and based not a little on the belief that the animal is simple-minded and therefore speaks a simple language. As we begin to put vocalizations together with a more fluid and careful description of body and movement, we are bound to discover considerably more about the wolf and his language of gesture” (48). The tone here is slightly chiding, not too much, but enough to make the reader aware that he or she may have been slipping back into preconceived notions about wolves. Lopez cautions his readers to avoid thinking of wolves in human terms—and as he concludes Chapter 3, he also cautions his readers to avoid thinking of wolves in terms of domestic dogs. Just when we think we can, when we put wolves into a metaphor or knowledge system that we already do understand, it’s still wrong. The true success of this book is that for all the detail and information here, Lopez’s point is to emphasize what we don’t know.

That moment, that last sentence of the previous paragraph, is an excellent place to begin the second section of the book, which develops different ways of knowing the wolf. The form that the book takes, in and of itself, with the photographs and paintings, poetry and anecdotes, promotes simply in its form different ways of knowing this subject. Lopez himself admits that he is “distrustful of science,” that both the wildlife biologist and the Nunamiut know the wolf equally well, but in different ways. Lopez writes, “Some wolf biologists are possessed of the idea of binding the wolf up in ‘statistically significant’ data. They want no question about the worlf not to have an answer” (80). The movement that Lopez is making through this particular section is deft and subtle—and for the most part only available in hindsight. As Lopez discusses the wildlife biologist James Gibson, he mentions that Gibson writes of “not just one but thirteen kinds of depth perception” (87). This is an excellent metaphor for the wolf—and understanding the roles that the wolf and human have to play in relationship to each other. The relationship is not just between predator and predator, or predator and prey. It is not even between plant eater and meat eater. From the descriptions of the “conversation of death,” as Lopez describes several encounters between wolves and prey that do not fit expected patterns—and how domestic prey animals like sheep and cattle have had this conversation bred out of them—I begin to understand more of this relationship. There is much more that is extremely complex here than I can understand—which is entirely Lopez’s point.

As Lopez continues, to discuss different Native American tribes and their wolf mythology—and literal wolf relationships and ceremonies—he again establishes that there are many ways of knowing (and not knowing) and everything these tribes are doing to understand the wolves varies significantly, as well it should. Each tribe will understand the wolves differently and they will have developed relationships and ceremonies unique to that group of people and the particular bioregion they inhabit. In this section, as Lopez recounts the story of Nitaina and Laugher, I recall similar threads to Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, which takes place in Inner Mongolia. Wolves have a very universal quality about them, no matter where they find themselves in contact with humans.

What happens in Section 3 was difficult to read, the details of human cruelty towards the wolves. Some of this is centered in my own perspective, with the wolf as charismatic mega-fauna, but cruelty is cruelty. I come from a hunting culture myself, where deer season is a near sacred event. I understand the need to hunt, to keep the balance of the ecosystem, to hunt the food that will feed us through the winter. But what I noticed growing up is that nobody I knew hunted merely to kill for the sport of killing. Talk of racks and such was common, but nobody I knew killed just to have an immense rack mounted over their fireplace. The context that Lopez brings up in this section places humans and wolves in a sphere that it’s nearly impossible for us—or me—in 2011 to fully understand. I don’t know what it’s like to try to carve out a European existence in a land that is not designed for it. The religious hatred for the wolf shows up in many different types of stories, not just Scriptural texts or the tales that Lopez tells, but also in Norse mythology and fairy tales (I’m watching Once Upon a Time these days, on ABC). What’s interesting to me about Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is that the story pits two different charismatic mega-fauna against each other—cat and wolf—and we root for the cat. Why is that, when the cat has never been fully domesticated (mine would certainly argue that they are not domesticated) and dogs have?

But in terms of ways of knowing, Lopez draws a line here between ways of knowing the wolf—and having no desire to know the wolf. If you only see the wolf as an obstacle to the American Dream, to Manifest Destiny, then it’s going to be perfectly natural to destroy it—and since it is a foe to be beaten, not even a worthy enemy, it deserves no honor in death. However, as Lopez ends Chapter 7, a theme that continues through the statistics and descriptions of poisoning and destruction, he is sympathetic with those he has interviewed for this book, those who have no apologies for trapping and destroying the wolves. He ends the section itself (Chapter 9) by trying to understand the old Minnesota trappers and how they need the wolf to feel needed themselves. It’s an interesting paradox and Lopez is comfortable inside it.

What I have to say on the literature section could fill its own section, but it does underscore Lopez’s overall premise to explore all ways of knowing—and all the ways we will fail knowing—the wolf. The stories of the Inquisition, to how wolves fed the fear of the Dark Ages and most of the wolf stories I was familiar with, even to Bruno Bettelheim’s interpretation. I’d taken a Norse mythology class in college (the benefits of going to a school founded by the Norwegians—it had an active Scandinavian department), so I knew the stories of Fenris and Tyr and Ragnarok. These days, I’m hooked on ABC’s Once Upon a Time, which has made me think of Red Riding Hood and the wolf in a different way. And it makes me wonder if we, the civilians, better understand wolves in fiction, rather than real life. If that is so, I wonder what it is we know in fiction that is as true as what Lopez knows of wolves.

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