Jenna London on “The Nine Mile Wolves” by Rick Bass

The Nine Mile Wolves is an activism-driven work in which Rick Bass writes as an advocate for wolf reintroduction in the Nine Mile Valley of Montana. Bass intertwines scene, summary and reflection within the same passage or sentence, enabling the reader to gain the author’s perspective as well as to learn factual information regarding a controversial topic (which was near the height of its debate when the book was first published in 1992). Nature is represented as an entity that is both suppressed and empowered. Empowering aspects include the amount of time and resources dedicated to the survival of the wolf, and the amount of respect the narrator has for the animals. Wolves are a topic of great controversy. But attention—whether it is negative or positive—is an act of acknowledging the species, which is therefore an example of empowerment.

Bass’ book is clearly one of activism with an obvious agenda: the wolf is an important species and deserves to be saved. While Bass doesn’t search for ways in which the species is both suppressed and empowered, these examples are still evident. In at least one instance, Bass represents nature in both aspects in the same paragraph:

“We’re all following the wolf. To pretend anything else—to pretend that we are protecting the wolf for instance or managing him—is nonsense of the kind of immense proportions of which only our species is capable. We’re following the wolf. He’s returning to Montana after sixty years.” (4)

When Bass writes to pretend we are protecting the wolf, for instance, he is empowering the wolf. We’re all following the wolf: this phrase can be both empowering and suppressing—a group of people paying attention to one species is powerful. But again, Bass discusses following a species that wants to live away from humans, which is an act of suppression towards the environment. The above passage is also an example of honest and straightforward writing without the language being either overly sentimental or emotional.

This pack is of particular importance because it is the first to have a territory outside of protected land since the animals were almost extirpated in the early 1900s. Bass describes and analyzes the events, practices and mentalities that led to the near extinction of the American wolf. He writes:

This isn’t all the blind foul-up it appears to be. It’s just the way wolves and humans are, together. It’s like falling through a network of ropes, as if in a circus high-wire act—a slow tumble, bouncing from rope to rope, as if weaving, vertically, from top to bottom, with a lot of things being lost along the way, some wolves, some cows, some innocence… [30]

Nature’s suppression is equally recognizable. Wolf populations have been decimated to near extinction. The animals have been pushed out of their land, poisoned and shot. Even the efforts to re-stabilize wolf populations are an act of suppressing them: humans track, sedate, collar and observe these wild animals whose instincts drive them away from people.

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Wild animals are a rudimentary aspect of The Ninemile Wolves. However, domestic species—cows—are also represented. They are depicted as prey and as the reason humans shot and poisoned wolves. But it is wild nature that exists at the core of Bass’ book. From the first pages, the reader understands that the narrator is passionate about the topic:

“They say not to anthropomorphize—not to think of them as having feelings, not to think of them as being able to think—but late at night I like to imagine that they are killing: that another deer has gone down in a tangle of legs, tackled in deep snow; and that, once again, the wolves are feeding. That they have saved themselves, once again….” (3)

Interestingly, Bass is not actually giving human characteristics to wolves in the quote above. Instead he is using colorful language to describe the brutal reality of wolves on the hunt. In this instance, nature is not romanticized but is instead brutally honest: one creature in nature dies so that the other may live. At other times, though, Bass does seem to anthropomorphize wolves, which can also be perceived as glamorizing or romanticizing nature: “A train’s faint moan reaches us from the next valley, and I wonder what the wolves think of that—if they ever call back to it. Is it outlandish to think maybe that’s one of the things that drew them to this valley—that they were lonely, and like its sound?” [100] Bass gives human qualities to the wolves when he assumes that the animals have the same level of cognitive thought as humans. Specifically, he assumes wolves feel loneliness at all or in the same way a human may experience it. Here, nature’s role is to take on human characteristics. The wolves become lonely and the mountain valley prompts that loneliness.

Assuming the wolves can feel desire, however, does give them human characteristics. Again, Bass seems to be doing so to illustrate the intensity and ruggedness of wolves, which empowers nature (via the wolves). The structure of the reflection—a choppy sentence followed by a fragment and then a long sentence—matches the tone of the passage. The author is frantically trying to understand and protect the wolves. In the background portions, Bass presents scientific information regarding wolf anatomy and pack behavior. Reflection tucked between science adds an element of awareness or validity to the passage.

More often, as in the quote below, Bass takes a spiritual perspective of wolves:

“I like to think that after death, the wolves’ souls keep running, faster than ever, that they rise just to the tops of the trees, where they can get a better view. They glance back down at the person who has killed their life-body but nothing can hold them back, they’re off and running again, still traveling, flowing, like the northern lights.” [108]

Again, these ideas lean more to the romantic aspect of wild animals. Nature’s role here is to be immortalized and for the narrator to again illustrate his infatuation with these animals.

Most often, though, Bass provides scientific information in an understandable manner. In the following passage, Bass again uses a comparison to explain wolves, but he does so in a way that keeps the animal wild and does not glorify the life of a wolf.

Biologists speak with complete conviction of wolves having

“search images, and I visualize a seek-and-destroy mind-set reminiscent of submarine pilots, of computer grid coordinates flashing before the wolves’ minds’ eyes as they cast and weave through the woods, having somehow decided that day to go for a moose rather than a deer or elk, bypassing young deer huddled beneath fir trees, running right over the backs of snowshoe hares—focused only on that one missing search image.” [27]

Bass dispels the idea that wolves are frantic to kill, that they are unable to control what they eat and when they eat it. Bass does not anthropomorphize wolves. Instead, he explains the animals’ innate tendencies in a way that a non-biologist can understand. Nature is represented as simply an element in a machine, bound to itself by instinct.

Bass often inserts a few words of musing within passages of background by starting sentences with phrases like “it’s curious how…” “Of course it’s sad…” and “Never mind that…” These sentences serve to offset the background information with the narrator’s perspective. Bass also includes musing as sidebars in the middle of sentences. This technique serves to provide the narrator’s perspective and to push the reader to be in support of the topic.

Bass uses musing to transition from scene to background, as shown in the following example:

“ …The fifth toe on the front foot, the dewclaw, never touches the ground. Almost never, that is. Sometimes.

It’s hard, almost impossible to say how many wolves we’re following, but my mind won’t shut off, my instinct won’t and even though my logic tells me it’s an impossible task, the other part is still trying to sort it out…

They [the wolves] split and join, split and join, splicing the woods with desire….” (113)

The musing appears to be prompted by the author’s need to educate the reader. In this instance, musing sandwiched between background leads to author discovery and adds depth to the reader’s understanding. When an author uses musing for self-discovery, the reader, too, gains the discovery of an alternate perspective or non-obvious element. Again, this quote is a clear representation of nature writing. The musing serves as a transition from scientific background to a scene.

Most of all, though, The Ninemile Wolves is peppered with phrases and passages that deliver Bass’ most persistent message: wolves are awe-inspiring creatures. He writes: “It wasn’t enough that the Ninemile wolves had beaten the odds and survived, and had shunned livestock. It wasn’t enough to startle; they had to amaze.” (87) Nature’s role in this passage is to demonstrate the resilience of wild nature (wolves) and of the ability of it to not depend on either domesticated animals or on humans themselves. This quote neither anthropomorphizes nor glamorizes wolves. It simply shows another perspective of the human-animal dynamic: wolves amaze the author.

Editor’s Note: For the next issue of “In the Classroom,” we complete our three-part series by Jenna London. The next piece is about Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge, and it would be particularly well paired in the classroom with the analysis on Rick Bass here. You can read Jenna’s piece The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks here.

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

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