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Lone Wolf's Den

Articles of Interest to Weres

"The Guardian Weekend" Magazine, 3rd June 2000


The Siren Howl of the Wolf survives in the imagination, seducing as it terrifies.  And in the Wilds of Wyoming, the wolf, long reviled and culled, is again finding a welcome from the old enemy, man.  Is there not a place for wolves in our island too?

By Jonathan Glancey

Wyoming.  Elevation, 10,000ft.  Gloaming.  Light snow impeding vision of peaks above and the dark ring of pine-fringed tundra below.  Minus 10C, but gusting wind makes it feel much colder.  Cross-country skis iced up.  Snow on eyebrows, stubble, leather jacket.  Numb feet and hands.  And the music starts.  A lone wolf singing the opening bars of a late-winter-when's-it-gonna-be spring blues.  A second lupine voice joins in.  Third, fourth, maybe up to a dozen now, each picking a separate chord, but holding the harmony.  An oceanic shiver runs up my spine as a single voice peaks into a piercing, mesmeric solo.  Siren.  Demon lover.  The call of the wild.  Someone, some American writer I can't recall in this winter Yellowstone dark, described this eerie choral epiphany as "the jubilation of wolves".

They are jubilant, the gray wolves out there in the waltzing snow.  They came back to Yellowstone Park in 1995.  Shipped in from Canada, resented by local farmers and ranch-holders, a battle was fought on their behalf through the federal courts and, just weeks before I set out across the States and the snows to find them, won the right to stay, to den and breed in the world's first and most popular national park.

The gray wolf lived in Yellowstone as it did over much of north America and what is now the US for thousands of years.  To native Americans and the Innuit people, they were brother and sister hunters, revered and celebrated in dance, dress and song.  They featured positively in creation myths.  The wolf is supremely indifferent to human beings, and yet from the cautious dance between wolf packs and human tribes the domestic dog (canis familiaris) emerged probably some 15,000 years ago.  Man and dog have been, for the most part, best friends ever since.  Yet the wolf, to whom we owe setters and retrievers, deerhounds and wolfhounds, mutts, poodles and Pekinese, has been treated by most of humankind as an enemy to be hunted down and killed, or else pushed to the margins of barely habitable wilderness and into the imaginative extremes of myth, legend and fairy-tale.

The farmers and ranch-owners of north-west Wyoming, the territory of Yellowstone Park, were up in arms over the reintroduction of the gray (or timber or tundra) wolf because they feared for their livestock.  Crazy figures were barked about: each wolf, it was said in the case for the prosecution, would impose a cost of $1.8 million on local livestock keepers.  The case for the defence counter-claimed: the Yellowstone wolves would cost the nation half the price of a US postage stamp per head per year.  The truth was hard to pin down.  At first, the wolves lost.  There was an appeal.  In December 1997, a federal judge in Wyoming ordered their removal.  Over the following two years, the case for the wolf was promoted assiduously by Yellowstone Park rangers, by much of the US conservation lobby and by the dozens of wolf-dancing groups you'll find by typing "wolf" into your intenet search engine.  Before the Yellowstone snows melted this year, the wolves had won.

A small step for wildlife supporters the world over, a giant leap for wolfkind.  This is the first time wolves have lived on a regular basis this far south in the US since 1923 when, according to official records, the last wolf den was destroyed near Tower Falls, Yellowstone Park.  Those last wolves were gunned down by the National Park Service, set up in 1916 to protect Yellowstone Park, but also to keep it safe and well-stocked for hunters in pursuit of the game that wolves fed on.  Pumas were exterminated at much the same time.  Although wolves prowled into the park until the 40s, they all but vanished for more than half a century.  Today, many of the three million visitors who come to Yellowstone Park each year come in the hope of hearing and, if they're lucky, seeing a real live wolf There are somewhere between 140 and 180 wolves living wild in Yellowstone today, as wary of those three million visitors as western people were once of the species canis lupus.

In the light of my torch, as wolfish jubilation fades into a snow-muffled echo, I unpack the books I have brought with me, and read of the life and myth of the wolf.  Despite its bad press over the centuries, the hunting peoples of the world have never had a quarrel to settle with the wolf; but those who settled, farmed and kept livestock have.  Wolves are brilliant and stealthy hunters, preying on weak, old or lost sheep, deer, elks, bison, caribou.  They are fast, lithe and strong, yet use their sharp intelligence - they are much brighter than dogs to get food as readily as they can.  Farms were always going to be an easy target, until the arrival of the gun.  Although wolves do not normally attack or eat humans, their reputation for being big, bad and voracious went before them in fright history and folklore.  The wolf represented the wildness from which humankind wanted to believe its gods had somehow rescued it.  From the time humans began to settle and farm, the wolf was perceived as both a physical and psychological threat.

Strangely, when I get to meet a wolf nose-to-muzzle, an Alpha male, his amber eyes looking into the grey-green of my own, equally cautious, equally shy, I can't help but be surprised by his size as well as his extreme beauty.  Size, because this superb animal is much smaller than the imagination expects us to believe.  But not that small.  He is about 6ft long, a little less than 3ft to the shoulder, perhaps, and, I learn later, weighs about 120lbs.  His chest is much narrower than many large dogs: he is streamlined in Nature's fashion.  He can run for several hours at an easy 25mph, and can top 40mph in a sprint to the kill, which maybe over a distance of anything from a 100 yards to three miles.  He can leap vertically and jump up rocks with the agility of a cat.  And, yes, he can dance.  Although I didn't join them - I'm not a Hollywood star, sadly - I watched as a pack of wolves danced in the evening before setting off on a hunt.  And, yes, they sing as they dance.  It is a magic sight, and one that I thought belonged to fairy-tales and the kind of films that make me cry behind ice cream cartons. (Sometimes with embarrassment, it has to be said.)

My wolf looked right into my eyes and, if he didn't wag his tail - wolves rarely do compared with eager-to-please domestic dogs he offered no threat.  Far from it.  As he turned to pad away on his huge paws (much bigger than a big dogs) and long, sinewy legs, silently and with the grace of a natural aristocrat, I called to mind snatches of Jack London's Call Of The Wild, one of the first books I took out of a public library.  "He had done this thing before, somewhere in that other and dimly remembered world, and he was doing it again now, running free in the open, the unpacked earth underfoot, the wide sky overhead."

That was Buck, the half-wolf thinking in London's imagination, yet there is a Buck in most of us.  And maybe a wolf.  No matter how hard we try to get it out with Optrex, to wash it away it with new-formula Flash, to flush it through the odour-trapping u-bends of champagne-coloured lavatory basins, to erect every sort of conceivable barrier to keep the wolf from our door, the call of the wild is still there.  It rings in the ear like tinnitus.  Switch on the electric lights, spray Airwick around the room, put on some nice, civilised music, drench yourself in Mitsouko or CK1, shave your legs every day, marry a nice, safe person who seems as far from the wolf as Little Red Riding Hood thought herself, yet the wolf will still howl.  In you, if not in someone else.

What we have always feared in the wolf is the walk on the wild side that we yearn for, yet fear to tread.  Today, even if it wanted to, the fur and blood wolf can do us little harm.  It has been exiled from, extinguished in, many of its former homelands.  In the US, its legally approved return to Yellowstone Park means that it now roam silently, save for the howling, through the mountain fringes of Wyoming, a high-plains drifter in Idaho and Montana, as well as scratching out a fairly unmolested living in Alaska, parts of Canada, northern Minnesota, Isle Royale and Glacier National Park.  Far from hearth and home.  Protected at long last alongside other predators bedevilled by farmers and wimps - mountain lions, grizzly bears and coyotes - the wolf has taken up its time-honoured place in the natural order of things, culling the weak, the old and the ill from herds of deer, elk and bison.  And bringing epic poetry back into epic landscapes.

Not once in my sub-zero trek across Yellowstone did I expect to be threatened by a wolf. I had written this quote from Edward Hoagland's Red Wolves And Black Bears in my notebook: 'We know that the folklore was exaggerated, that generally wolves don't attack man, which is a relief, but we treasure the stories nonetheless, wanting the woods to be woods.' Dark woods, secret woods, woods where wolves might lurk and howl in competition with banshees.  Woods where teddy bears would not be having a picnic today or any other day. I was brought up not to trust people who don't like dogs, and not simply because dogs are best friends and don't lie about love, but because the only nasty dogs I have ever met have been made so by the kind of human beings you wish a big bad wolf of legend would come and gobble up.  But that would be a crime.

As for the Yellowstone wolves, they've been on trial legally and scientifically for crimes that they may or may not have committed against sheep and cattle.  The original Canadian settlers were fitted-up with radio collars to see if and where they would settle, and whether or not they would attack livestock.  The radio collars fall off eventually and, as each season passes, the wolves are increasingly free to follow their own secret, richly scented lives, free, too, from the prying eyes of humankind.

Just for now, though, some of us have sought the privilege of knowing roughly where the wolves are and - as far as this is possible with such a shy animal - to meet, if not going so far as to dine, with them.  The only creatures who feel confident enough to do this are the ravens who help guide wolves to the kill; to sick animals, for the most part.  The wolves do the killing with suddenness and lightning speed, and while they scythe through the bone and muscle of their prey, the ravens get to peck away at the side-orders and relishes.  Unwelcome dinner guests may include the smaller coyote and, sometimes, the very much smaller fox; wolves, however, will attack and kill both of these in certain circumstances, as they will members of rival packs who stray into their clearly-marked territory and show no sign of leaving when threatened.

It's best not to sup with a wolf, not least because it will make mincemeat of a dish that you couldn't begin to tackle without a chainsaw and a cookbook.  A wolf's 42 extremely large teeth are ideally suited to slashing and cracking through heavy bones and dense muscle.  Their jaws can exert a pressure of 1,500lbs per square inch, twice that of a large dog.  Diner, beware.  Especially the Red Riding Hoods among you.

Red Riding Hood was, of course, the sexual innocent, who allowed herself to be devoured by the big bad wolf on a day, presumably, when he wasn't trying to huff and puff and blow the little pigs' house down.  The wolf was said, in legend, to be sexually predatory, as well as unpredictable and treacherous.  My dictionary defines "wolf', aside from the obvious, as "a voracious, grabbing, or fiercely cruel person or thing ", and as "a man who habitually tries to seduce women" It reminds me that men "wolf-whistle" after women walking past scaffolding, that "lupa", the Latin and Italian for wolf, signifies a prostitute, that a wolf-note is "an unpleasant sound produced in some notes played on the violin", that to "cry wolf" is "to give a false alarm" There are so many bad connotations attached to the name wolf that we seem to have met with the devil himself And, if we look through a translation of a 12th-century bestiary made by T H White, this is just what some our forbears thought: "The devil bears the similitude of a wolf, he who is always looking over the human race with his evil eye and darkly prowling around the sheepfolds of the faithful so that he may afflict and ruin their souls...its eyes shine in the night like lamps because the works of the devil are everywhere thought to seem beautiful and salubrious..."

But the wolf is not a sexual predator.  In fact, for 10 months out of 12, it is effectively celibate.  Packs - usually around a dozen animals, but occasionally as many as three dozen - celebrate their sexuality over a two-month period between April and June, when they den and produce cubs that are much-loved not only by their parents but also by the pack.  Wolves are devoted parents.  Mothers are spoilt by the pack, which brings them not only food (much of it freshly regurgitated, liquidised, babyfood-style, for the cubs) but toys, too.  Wolves are playful.  They play games of tag, Frisbee with bones, tugs-of-war: all these doubtless help to develop hunting skills, but no one seeing wolves in the wild will ever doubt that they enjoy playing as much as humans do.  The two teenage males that loped alongside me for several hundred yards as I ski'd, accelerated at one point into a sprint, their tales wrapped across one another's tawny flanks.  They were having a ball in the fresh fall of snow.

Wolves may or may not mate for life.  During most of the year, however, they live contentedly with one another - although there are occasional squabbles and fallings-out when lone wolves leave to find new mates and adopt a new pack.  The affection that wolves show one another is quite magical compared with much human behaviour.  It is, of course, humans who are sexually predatory, and humans who have unloaded their fears and inadequacies on the wolf Just as minority races have been blamed and persecuted for war, pestilence, famine, unemployment and general malaise, so too the innocent and good-natured wolf.

The ruthlessness with which the wolf was driven from Europe and then much of North America between, say, 1450 and 1950 was extraordinary.  And the way in which we could even damn the wolf's peerless song - calling an ugly note a "wolf note" - shows just how deep the gap between our disinfected lives and the natural order had grown.  Only the most gifted musicians, the greatest singers can match the near unearthly beauty of wolves in full song.  Unearthly, not because they are out of tune with nature - few animals are so well adapted to the many habitats they have been forced to survive in and enjoy - but because they sing at their best when the moon is full and on nights when the stars, especially Sirius, shine their brightest, which in Yellowstone - away from the smoke of two-stroke snowmobiles and the plumes of steam shot up to as much as 1,000ft by 300 or so geysers - is very bright indeed.

The full moon is also the time when lunatics bay and lycanthropics howl into the night sky, when werewolves prowl, banshees wail, witches are abroad and vampires flutter under eaves, hoping for the jugular.  There are genuine cases of lycanthropy, in which victims go on all fours, howl, desire raw meat and lacerate themselves, but these are far rarer than reports of werewolves.  Werewolves were believed to exist not only in the mind of Peter Cushing, professors and puritans in Hammer horror films, but by the clergy and faithful of medieval Europe and after.

The last religious study treating werewolves as dangerous fact was written by the clerical scholar Montague Summers in 1961.  "A werewolf," he wrote, "is a human being, man, woman or child (more often the first) who either voluntarily or involuntarily changes or is metamorphosed into the apparent shape of a wolf, and who is then possessed of all the characteristics, the foul appetites, ferocity, cunning, the brute strength, and swiftness of that animal." Werewolfery, he suggested, is either hereditary or acquired, a horrible pleasure born of the thirst to quaff warm human blood.  The beast's appetites were "depraved beyond humanity", its greatest desire was to rut bestially, offering "foul sacrifice" to the Monstrous Goat who sat upon the throne of worship and adoration".

The werewolf has been a popular theme in horror novels and films since the late 18th century.  From Bram Stoker to the world of celluloid nightmares - The Howling, An American Werewolf In London and beyond - this fear of the wolf, of the wild in us that might suddenly kidnap our rational mind, continues to haunt our most gothic dreams.
Yet the real horror has been active in the minds and expressed in the acts of those who have adopted the satanic view of the wolf without understanding anything of the mind of the altruistic animal they adopt as a symbol.  Most notorious of these was Adolf Hitler.  To his niece and lover, Geli Raubal, he was Herr Wolf.  His eastern command headquarters in the Silesian forest was the Wolfsschanze (wolf's lair), from where German forces were ordered to commit many of their greatest atrocities.  Beware the wolf that's foe to man.

Hitler was affected by the Nordic legends in which wolves played major roles.  Perhaps he identified with Fenris, the giant wolf of destruction whose sister Hel, goddess of the underworld, was bound for aeons - kept in waiting in Hitter's terms - by a magic rope spun by dwarves (imperial and Weimar politicians) until unleashed at Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods, when the sun and moon were devoured by wolf giants.  Fenris swallowed Odin, chief of the gods, before himself being slain.  The world was consumed by fire, but reborn to a new (and hopefully better) human race.

Curiously, though, there are counter legends through history that tell of the noble nature of the wolf.  The most famous of these is. Of course, that of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome in 753BC.

The twins were born the sons of the god of war, Mars, and Rhea Silva, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa.  Exposed to die, they were suckled by a she-wolf and discovered and then brought up by the husband-and-wife peasants, Faustulus and Acca Larentia.  Perhaps they would have done better staying with the wolf.  Or, at least Remus might have.  As Cain slew Abel, Romulus slew Remus.  Far from being punished, he went on to found Rome, and when he died in 716BC he ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire sent by Mars and drawn by wolves.  He then became the god Quirinus.  Not bad for a wolf-suckled murderer, but whoever said the gods were fair?  And the wolf?  Well, she was probably nothing more and nothing less than a good-hearted "lupa", a lady of the night who may or may not have howled at the moon.

More touching is Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, in which Mowgli, the naked man-cub is adopted by a pack of wolves.  "'Is that a man's cub?" said Mother Wolf.  'I have never seen one.  Bring it here."  A wolf accustomed to moving his own cubs can, if necessary, mouth an egg without breaking it, and though Father Wolf's jaws closed right on the child's back not a tooth even scratched the skin as he laid it down among the cubs."  Kipling drew Mowgli from stories of feral children supposedly brought up by wolves.  There have been several ewes, all rather dubious, but in some of our dreams at least wolves, who are model parents, would be a lot more fun and very much more caring than all too many of their human counterparts.

There's something else, though, something more important.  The wolf, as I always knew and now know better from looking into the infinite depths of those amber eyes, not only shares a kindred intelligence with us, but teaches us that it is possible to live a lively, playful, fully engaged and thoughtful life in tune rather than detached from nature.  Our claim, as humans, to be somehow superior to nature has always been specious.  "A mountain with a wolf on it stands a little higher," wrote Edward Hoagland.  And it does, just as a great engineer can improve a landscape with a beautiful bridge, working with the sweep, the curve, the torso of the landscape and not against it.  The image of the bridge shows that we can have our rational-scientific world and respect nature.  The wolf on the mountain, out there in the Rockies, in the Apennines and Spanish Pyrenees, represents a state of natural grace that we do not know or cannot obtain, yet yearn for in our bones.  A wilderness that we beat away from ourselves by persecuting the wolf.

It has been extraordinary to sense just how hostile or plain fearful so many people are when the words "wolf" and "reintroduction" are mentioned.  Recent discussions about the possibility of wolves being re-released into the Scottish highlands have been hampered not just by local livestock owners, but by those who seem to imagine that a walk across the glens in some lupine feature would mean ramblers being torn to pieces by wild dogs absurdly craving the e-number blood of hikers.  Or that conservationists are about to clone Sue, the star American Tyrannosaurus rex and set her test-tube offspring clumping through the heathen.  A wolf would be all but invisible to man in the wilderness of the Highlands.  More wild animals are killed by socially ambitious dimwits with guns in Scotland than a sustainable number of wolves ever could, even if they were greedy, which they are not, or stupid, which they aren't either.  Just the thought that the wolf was out there could be enough to make the Highlands, special as they are, feel that bit closer to already.

There are wolves in the distant provinces of Siberia, China and India.  There are wolves, in fact, in small numbers hiding from human beings wherever they can, in the interstices of the belching, farting, besmirched and fouled world we smugly believe is better than that of the wolf, which is so light on its feet that the only mark it leaves of its passing is the gentlest imprints of its big paws in the Wyoming snow.

I sit in the snow and watch my gray wolf ripple into the forest.  I won't move until the cold is too much to bear because I want him to stay in view, to imprint himself on my mind's eye, for as long as possible.  He'll run if I move, and as he can hear me up to six miles away, pick up my scent from at least two, he'll know if I do.  As he pads into the dark of the wolf woods, I imagine a time here when the Tukudika (sheep-eater) Indians were the only residents of what is now Yellowstone Park.  Their ancestors were here for 12,000 years.  In the 1870s, they were finally driven from their land so that president Ulysses S Grant could declare the world's first national park open, free from its wolf-loving indigenous people and, within half a century, of the wolf itself.

I'm not saying life here was all that great for the Tukudika people.  The Crow, Blackfeet, Shoshone and Bannock passed through only in the summer, like today's Winnebagoed, baseball-cap wearing tourists.  No, this was the empire of the wolf, which it shared happily with eagles, bald and golden, ouzels, osprey, magpies, trumpeter swans and Canada geese, bison, badgers, wolverines, red foxes, coyotes, yellow-bellied marmosets, ground squirrels, elk, deer and raven.  With icicle-hung spruce and whitebark pine (a favourite snack for grizzlies), sagebrush, buttercups and Old Faithful, and all those other geysers, blowing superheated steam high into the Rocky-fringed sky.

He must have rejoined the pack.  It's time for me to join humankind.  The cold has bitten through to the bone marrow.  Just as I stretch up to go, the howling starts again.  A choir not of devils, or of things that go bump in the night, but of angels.  A hymn to the universe.  I'm not an American or a tree-hugger, so I can't join in the howling.  But I can mouth these words, known since age seven: "Every man who is pure in heart/and says his prayers at night/could become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms/and when the autumn moon is bright".  Or these, from Jack London, learned a year later: "And when, on the still cold night, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose and star and howling down through the centuries and through him".  Through man and wolf and the wolf in us.

Article Jonathan Glancey, 2000
The Guardian, June 2000
Artwork Chris Wormell, June 2000

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