Of Wolves and Sensemaking

Walking composition

“While many will agree that colonialism is wrong, they cannot imagine a future without it.”
—Nick Estes,
Our History Is the Future

Last weekend I took a kiddo to Yellowstone National Park with the hope of seeing wolves. We hedged that hope, knowing that wolves are human-shy and the park is big, but a 5 a.m. wakeup was rewarded and we got to watch the Junction Butte Pack through borrowed spotting scopes for over two hours. I will never forget the look on my kid’s face, or my own feelings, when we saw a wolf for the first time, and later when we heard them howling. If I hadn’t had my hands and attention overly busy, I would have cried.

What is it about wolves?

I asked my older sister that question last winter, when our state legislature was passing bills in what felt like a frenzy of cruelty, among them newly permissive “limits” on the amount and variety of wolf-hunting. Allowing poisoning of wolves on private lands was just one method recently approved; use of snares another. There are plenty of other predators around, but only wolves (and coyotes to some extent) seem to evoke this level of hatred. And yet at the same time they have an attraction that’s almost primal, even the very idea of a wild wolf pack prompting a sense of awe and wonder, their howl enough to make twenty or so people on a frozen hillside fall instantly silent.

Other predators don’t attack livestock in the same way, my sister pointed out. It might just be as simple as that. When you’re raising sheep or cows or other meat/wool animals to support your family, losses to predation are a blow, a stewing pot for conflict. I can only guess here (based on our recent experience losing chickens to a grizzly bear), but it might feel as uncontrollable and as frustrating as water damage, or relentless wind.

Yet underneath that is the millennia-old urge to control nature, to quash it and bend it to our will. We should be able to do what we wish to and with the world and hang the consequences, right?

We used to visit Yellowstone to camp and fish when I was growing up (we didn’t live far), but wolves weren’t reintroduced until 1995, when I was in college. I don’t know if there’s a difference in how the place feels, if the ecosystem’s interoception of itself has shifted. But after watching and listening to those wolves, I don’t want Yellowstone to be without them again. I don’t want the world to be without them. How to make that a reality for the future is a purely social problem.

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Yesterday I went for a walk with a friend, and asked if she minded picking chokecherries with me. I’m late on preserving and canning anything at all this year. I’ve only this week got a batch of pureed plums dehydrating for the winter’s fruit leather, haven’t canned any tomatoes or pickles, and for the first time in over a decade have made exactly zero jars of jam. Walking past the chokecherry trees that happily populate the town in any random spot makes me feel guilty and overwhelmed, even though almost nobody in my family eats very much jam. Here’s this food, nutritious and free and forage-able and there’s plenty of it, and aside from the bears’ obvious consumption (it’s not just that lower branches are stripped clean; finding piles of bear scat full of chokecherry seeds is a dead giveaway) it’s just going to waste. Even the birds don’t seem to touch them much.

So we climbed fences and pulled handfuls to fill my Costco-sized M&M container and now the chokecherries sit in the fridge waiting for me to finish the plum fruit leather and perhaps get around to freezing the piles of shishito peppers collected from our farm shares. And then turn the cabbages into sauerkraut before they wither away.

I didn’t start canning and preserving stuff until about the month my first baby was born. He’s now a teenager, and still the process of skinning peaches and stewing tomatoes and wondering what I might be able to do with the ubiquitous mountain ash berries brings me back to that tenuous time, recovering from emergency surgery and near-liver failure, a premature baby spending weeks in neonatal intensive care. The ways in which care and husbandry and self/preservation began to define my days and then my life.

Before going walking and harvesting with my friend, I’d been listening to a podcast interview with Jamie Wheal, a writer and thinker (aren’t we all thinkers?) among several aiming to bring shape and sense back to what’s sometimes called our collective epistemic meaning crisis. Or something. Epistemology always confuses me. Making meaning of meaning. Of life. Isn’t that what we’re all attempting all the time?

Listening to “sensemakers” generally leaves me a little irritable—as any of my family members can attest to, I hate being told what to do, and that extends to how to make sense of the world, even as I’m constantly searching for ways to make sense of the world—but I do appreciate the way that people like Wheal and Daniel Schmachtenberger frame problems, if I don’t always find their proposed answers very practicable.

Somehow Wheal’s ideas blended into an interview I’d heard earlier with Eric Laursen on anarchy and the modern state. The way he presented anarchy—which I’ve never been attracted to but he made a lot of points I’ve never heard before—gave me a new frame for libertarianism as basically anarchy except with private property and all its attendant oppressions as a prime religion.

Both anarchy and libertarianism seem to be dependent on what Kate Raworth calls the unpaid or terribly underpaid caring economy, and the sensemaking crowd often seems to add the same as more of an afterthought, if at all (Wheal has been better than most on that front): the people who care for children and elderly people who need it, who teach and clean and nurture. The people who think about how to do each of those jobs better, to provide more not in material goods but in love and attentiveness. On whose backs and shoulders are built others’ personal empires.

But maybe all of our personal empires are to some extent, no matter how small. I might have picked my own chokecherries, but bees made the honey that someone else harvested for sweetener and the Mason jars and lids are manufactured somewhere, by someone.

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We were very fortunate to meet Rick McIntyre, author of The Rise of Wolf 8, The Reign of Wolf 21, and the forthcoming The Redemption of Wolf 302—none of which I’ve read but my kiddo is halfway through Wolf 8. McIntyre took the time to chat with us for a while about the Junction Butte Pack and their behavior. (I love meeting generous, down-to-earth writers.) We met other people who had come from all over the U.S., who caught the wolf bug decades ago and in some cases spend their vacation time every year going to Yellowstone to watch wolves. It was the first time I’ve ever been in a large group of people who unflinchingly share my kid’s adoration of wolves.

I haven’t told her yet that the shivers we got listening to the pack howl coincided within a day to hunters killing three members of the pack just outside the park boundaries.

McIntyre told us about a movie we might like but because I hadn’t brought pen and paper with me up the hillside, I didn’t write it down. When we got home from a six-hour drive in the rain, I poked at my laptop with variations on the keywords “wolf reindeer herding Siberia story” until hitting on the result—a French movie titled Loup, which tells the story of a young boy responsible for a reindeer herd in Siberia, but who risks betraying his people by forming a relationship with a wolf family.

While trying to find the movie, I came across several papers and stories about wolves in reindeer-herding territory—the problems that Indigenous reindeer herders in Finland have with predation, and how financial compensation can’t always make up for the mental stress, along with a totally-lacking-nuance-or-much-context-but-still-informative story about “super packs” in Siberian herding areas (caution: graphic photos) and a science article from Norway on the outdated notion of wolf “alphas” and hierarchies. Reminders that “how do we live with wolves?” is more complex than I’d like it to be.

None of it fully answers the question of the cruelty and the hatred. Like with bison in cattle-ranching areas of Montana, you can probably boil it down to an identity that has its own form of care, its own notion of how our world should function. One that doesn’t include wolves.

But it does. For now. I’m grateful for that.

Bonus photos: Just a couple of iconic Yellowstone shots to add to the bison above (they were in a huge herd but I neglected to take any herd photos because the male here was acting hilariously trying to get the female’s attention), among bugling elk and mazes of thermal pools, springs, and geysers. I’d forgotten how amazing this place is.

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Some stuff to read or watch:

  • For anyone interested in learning more about “induced demand,” the reason that widening roadways doesn’t reduce traffic (discussed in my last essay), David Zipper’s recent piece in Bloomberg CityLab has a good explanation—more importantly, it explains why the answer of widening highways seems to be so intractable, no matter how many times it fails to solve the problem. One reason: “The federal government doesn’t penalize states for getting their congestion mitigation estimates wrong, as TxDOT did in spectacular fashion with Houston’s Katy Freeway, widened in 2011 to as many as 26 lanes at a cost of $2.8 billion, half of which came from federal funds. The next year, an article in the Houston Chronicle declared the project a success: ‘What was once a daylong traffic jam is now for the most part smooth sailing.’ But by 2014, most peak-hour commutes on the Katy took even longer than they had before the expansion. . . . Gas taxes further distort decision-making, because collected revenues often go straight to state departments of transportation — just as they did 90 years ago.” (Emphasis added.)

  • One of the lovely things about my day job copy editing children’s textbooks is getting sent trade books with stories I might never have come across. A recent one I really liked was Tani’s Search for the Heart, by brother and sister author/illustrator team Keith and Chenoa Egawa, of Lummi and S’Klallam descent. A short video on Vimeo gives an overview of the story and their process.

  • Full Grown People is back! I’m guessing many of you have never heard of this online magazine, which publishes personal essays on the messy adult years and is edited by Jennifer Niesslein, original co-founder and editor of Brain, Child Magazine, which saved my sanity in many ways in the early years of motherhood. FGP has been on hiatus while Niesslein wrote a book about American nostalgia, but has returned with an essay by Jody Mace, on dementia and mysteries and the loss of her father: “When is the exact moment that it’s best to make someone measurably safer but at the cost of making them immeasurably sadder?”

  • A restful 18-minute video via Aeon on a Japanese dye and fabric producer outside of Kyoto who has spent the last few decades rediscovering natural plant dyes and their processes.

  • I had to read Faisal Devji’s essay in Aeon, “What is ‘the West?’” a few times. It reminded me of a comment on a book that a colleague recommended to me a few months ago about how colonialism never ended; it’s just that it’s finally starting to affect white communities. Devji writes of Gandhi’s ideas regarding the colonial project as one that would be ultimately self-destructive: “Modern civilisation, in other words, was a kind of parasite that would grow strong and spread via its European host. Europe would enable it to globalise and attack other parts of the world. Its driving logic was not European domination: that was just a means to an end.”

  • Shannon Mattern’s wide-ranging essay about the need to start truly thinking like trees, and learning from them, rather than relying on shallow algorithms to dictate our choices, in Places Journal: “Just imagine! Wouldn’t that be grand? An algorithm that could calculate how many trees would atone for the historical and contemporary inequities of urban planning and environmental injustice, that could undo processes of deforestation wrought through centuries of colonial violence, that could heal a landscape destroyed by clear cutting? . . . Or maybe not. As trees become data points, they are all too readily cast as easy fixes for profound problems.”

  • We were far across the valley from the Junction Butte Pack, so photos weren’t even an option, but I found this 1-minute video from artist George Bumann of the same pack running and frolicking. It’s like prayer in motion.