I was up before 5am today and on the road by 5:30 to do a presentation for high school students – and then two tomorrow morning – first thing in the morning in Boulder, Montana. It was frigid before dawn but beautiful; the stars were out, and as I drove east on I-90 the horizon grew pale, then brightened, until the pines high on the ridges of the canyons were silhouetted against the sky. As the light spread I could see ducks on the surface of the Clark Fork River, also as dark outlines at first, and the glassy water reflected the frost-covered trees and willows that edge its banks. It was gorgeous. I stopped in Deer Lodge to top off my gas tank, then stood with my coffee mug between my hands – while the pump chugged and thumped – and watched the pink light wash across the slopes of the Flint Creek Range to the west. The skies were clear blue and the wind freezing my face was also sending thin, stretched-out clouds scuttling by overhead.
Now it’s evening and I’m sitting in a weird little studio motel suite thing, one eye on the clock to my right in anticipation of when I can justifiably venture out to eat again, and the other on the window to my left, where I watch snow blow around outside in an effort to strand me here. We are supposed to get a foot or more in the next twelve-to-eighteen hours, with even more in the forecast for the mountains. The mountains between me and home, no matter what route I take tomorrow.
I’m also thinking about hate. As in, what is something you hate so much that you would choose to go to extreme lengths to express your hatred of it to the world? I ask this question because of a reflection I’ve been carrying with me for some time now. On the drive north of Missoula, at least a dozen or more miles into the CSKT reservation, off to the left of the highway some person, obviously of means, has a little compound of house, yard, garage, shop, etc. next to a pond at the mouth of Valley Creek Road. I think it is (or was, I don’t know) a taxidermy shop, but where the big, near billboard-sized sign advertising it as such was is now a similarly-sized sign of a wolf in silhouette with the cross-hairs of a rifle sight superimposed on it. If you glance left in passing you can’t help but see it. I’ve considered getting a picture of it but ultimately decided against it; you get the idea.
I ask again: What is something you hate so much that you would choose to go to extreme lengths to express your hatred of it to the world? Like, billboard-sized lengths? I can’t think of anything myself. Certainly not anything part of the living world. So one has to wonder what this person who put the sign up has against wolves? He couldn’t possibly be old enough to have experienced any first hand difficulties with them in that particular spot, seeing as how people like him (of course it’s a dude, right?) eradicated them from the area decades ago. So what could it be besides macho-white-guy-with-a-rifle bullshit?
Wolves were pushed to the brink of extinction before being pulled back. Now that they are allegedly “recovered” broad swaths of the macho-white-guy-with-a-rifle community would like to see them eradicated again. In January, Science published an article detailing how more than 500 wolves have been killed across Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. “Researchers and conservation groups are calling on government officials to rethink the hunts,” author Virginia Morell writes, “which have eliminated about 16% of the wolves living in the three states.”
A long list of organizations, including Indian tribes, have called on Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to user her authority to protect them, and while she has spoken out on the issue, last I checked she has yet to do anything about it.
Calling on government officials in these states is about useless. Forget about Idaho. And in Montana, our soulless governor was apparently so aroused by killing a Yellowstone wolf that he decided to do the same thing to a mountain lion. Meanwhile, just last week two senators – one from Montana and one from Idaho – wrote an op-ed spewing garbage about how Haaland’s editorial was “devoid of facts but flushed with alarmist rhetoric, perpetuating the false narrative that Idaho and Montana’s wildlife management policies are driving gray wolves to extinction.” These are men who wouldn’t know truth, love, or kindness if all three crawled up their asses and laid eggs that burst out on Easter Sunday as bunny rabbits.
I have loved wolves as long as I can remember. They are commonly listed by the kids I teach poetry to as favorite animals, animals they love, animals they would like to be, etc. I’ve only seen them once in the wild, and that was at Yellowstone Park half-a-dozen years or so ago. I was hoping to see them again, or hear them at least, when I returned to Yellowstone last February to facilitate a workshop. That was just after the Science article came out, when such a huge percentage – entire packs! – of wolves who traveled outside the park had been killed. The woman who lives at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch told us she’d heard them howling the night before our arrival as they moved across the valley, so we had high hopes they would be around. Here is an excerpt from a journal entry I wrote while I was there:
Lamar Buffalo Ranch 5 Feb, 2022
We spent the day in workshop, broke for lunch, then resumed our discussions. At 2:45pm we broke, geared-up, then piled into a bus to pursue an opportunity to see wolves. The word was that a pack had taken down a bison the evening before and might still be visible. So off we went.
No wolves were there. Or at least that were visible. The two guys who had witnessed the action the night before had spotting scopes up, knew the wolves were there, but they were bedded down on rocks that made them invisible in the flat gray light. However, they had video of the hunt the night before, which they showed us, passing around their phones. It is stirring ... a lone bison is chased to its death by maybe a dozen wolves strung out behind; the final kill happens in a timbered area, so the actual death is not shown. Still, it is beautiful and terrible, this drama, and it felt meaningful to know that it had all played out only a dozen hours earlier, just below where we were standing.
In the comfort of my cabin now I am troubled. To the credit of the men who shot the video it is not their intention to share it with the world at large via social media or anything. Out of a sense of kindness, I suppose, or excitement, they shared it with us, texting or air dropping the file from one phone to the next. As I sit now in reflection I don't believe I should have it. I haven't earned it because I wasn't there. Anyone I might show it to hasn't earned it either. There is no honoring of the sacred nature of the hunt by exploiting it for wow factor. It is no different really than the stupid hunter-with-prey, grip-n'-grin photos I loathe so much.
The bison gave its life to the survival of the pack. That is an honoring because god knows these wolves need it right now. The spirit of that bison's sacrifice deserves better than any energy I might raise in sharing that video, or even continuing to look at it for my own benefit. It feels entirely like a “taking” with no “giving back.” I am reminded of my own photograph of the Cooper's hawk and the sparrow it killed; my sharing of the photograph. Reminded, and regretful. I wish now I hadn’t done it.
If I truly believe these animals are my relatives, then what gives me the right? To bear witness is one thing. To dishonor the relationship is wrong. I won't do such again.
We discussed this the following morning. I think I was the only one who felt the way I do about sharing the video. I stand by it, and probably feel even stronger about it now. The argument made in favor of sharing it with others was to stir interest in wolves, to rally people to their cause, etc. I think the opposite is just as likely. Who can say. I can only speak for how I feel, and it isn’t my intention to convince anyone one way or the other.
It is a spiritual issue to me. I realize now my love for this animal has been based on a spiritual connection all along, only now it is magnified by my plunge to as animistic a version of Anishinaabe spirituality as I can find whiffs of. Because the wolf – ma’iingan in Ojibwe – is also one of the relatives referenced in the Seven Grandfather Teachings that I continue to mention again and again. Wolf represents Humility, or Dbaadendiziwin.
Humility is represented by the wolf. For the wolf, life is lived for his pack and the ultimate shame is to be outcast. Humility is to know that you are a sacred part of creation. Live life selflessly and not selfishly. Respect your place and carry your pride with your people and praise the accomplishments of all. Do not become arrogant and self-important. Find balance in within yourself and all living things.
“Humility is to know that you are a sacred part of creation.” That is the Truth that I think is lost on these murderous, bloodthirsty cowards who line up at the boundaries of Yellowstone hoping to kill something majestic. They are the ones who should be outcast, not those of us who are trying to pursue lives of loving kindness. The way we interact with our non-human relatives is utterly out of balance, in every thing we do. It is a struggle, isn’t it?
A final related point since it isn’t quite dinnertime yet. After my talk this morning I stopped for a late breakfast/early lunch here in Boulder. I sat down, got situated, placed my order, and started looking around. I’d already noticed that the guy seated nearby reading on his phone was an older fella with a ball cap with a patch that displayed, “Joe and the Ho Have Got to Go!” Nice, eh? But as I looked around, there was quite a bunch of Jesus stuff around. Pictures, etc. It felt weird, but whatever. Then getting up to leave I passed the display in the photo.
I don’t get the mixed-message. It’s common. That dude with the anti-wolf billboard likely views himself as a Christian, doesn’t he? Who knows. The guy with the cap broadcasting his misogyny and racist by calling our VP a “ho” probably views himself as Christian, doesn’t he? Who knows. Most dudes of their ilk do and vote accordingly. But of all the things I just don’t get about Christians it is this: I’m pretty sure Jesus wasn’t down with the military or cops. Unconditional support and loyalty to either is about as Jesus-flavored as an electric chair. Is Jesus about peace and love or violent control and heaps of brown bodies? The more I think about how so many of us are living on occupied territory, the more uncomfortable these associations make me. I support our vets too, but I’m not down with the machine that chews them up and spits them out. And I loathe cops. As soon as the uniform goes on they are no longer human to me. They are automatons empowered by the state to make life or death judgments on me and people I love and I don’t trust a single one for an inch. So a wall like that in that restaurant is threatening to a vast swathe of the people I care most about. It freaks me out and I will never ever go back.
Even if that matters to no one but me.
I cheated. I looked up the taxidermy online. It is white-guy-with-a-rifle bullshit. The kind of guy who poses with dead lions, dead elephants, etc. Probably wanks off to photos of Teddy Roosevelt, the High King of macho-white-guy-with-a-rifle toxic masculinity bullshit. Ugh. So much anger consigned to a mere footnote.
Not unconditionally, though.
As happens too often with your essays, I feel like I want to have a day-long conversation about every thread within. The snowstorm (hi from Missoula!), that horrible guy with his sign (I want to take a photo *every single time* and never do--also he has a Gadsden flag above his entrance), the meaning and relationship of wolves, the recording of the hunt, and death in general, and also other people's lives and stories; and also the responsibility that the Christian churches have to start taking in all of this. The more I think about it, the more I think they do -- I am often reminded that Jesus was never a Christian; he didn't have the opportunity to be one.
My daughter has a passion for wolves that seems inborn. To make her look at wolves differently I would have to crack her soul, she feels so much a part of them. I can't explain it, it's just there and therefore I feel obligated to do what I can to care for them, for their sake as well as hers.
"The more I think about how so many of us are living in occupied territory, the more uncomfortable these associations make me."
Man, you got that right! Occupied territory is an 'on the money' description of what it's like living amongst these Dark Age zombies. I have an expression I use, but not in polite company, trust me, it ain't 'Big Sky Country'.
As soon as I hear the name Fielder, there's a vein in my forehead that pops out and my teeth start grinding. I'll hazard a guess and say Chris knows what I mean.
One thing's for sure, on Darwin's tree branches there's something way-way lower than a wolf and that's a wolf hater.
One of my fondest memories from almost twenty years ago: I helped wrangle on a trip into the Bob Marshall with Rick and Susie Graetz so they could photograph the Chinese Wall for a Montana Wilderness Association poster commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, and to take some updated photos for Rick's second edition of his book "Montana's Bob Marshall Country". The last morning of our trip was at Gates Park; we were up at 4am saddling the horses and mules and watching the spectacular shooting stars and fireballs of the Perseid meteor shower, all the while listening to the Red Shale Butte wolf pack howling their approval.
Several times in my life I've been granted the privilege of seeing and or hearing these remarkable and necessary animals.
Falling asleep to the sound of wolves in the wild … may it forever be.