Wolf Lessons


There are wolf objects scattered throughout my house: a canis lupus Beanie Baby named Howl, a carved wooden ornament, a snowglobe with a wolf pup suspended in sparkle-studded liquid. A National Wolf Awareness poster, featuring statistics on subspecies of North American wolves, is on my bedroom wall; it’s taped underneath a photograph of a tawny sleeping pup. In my kitchen there’s a print with a poem by Muriel Leung. “true that knowing is another form / of not letting and then there is the other / red seam of my life where I love / with such impeccable bigness,” reads part of the poem, lines situated above and below a drawing of a person with a wolf head, and a tail wrapping string around their fingers.

My affection for wolves is hardly unique: the once-maligned lobo is fashionable these days to the point of being cliché. Packs howling at the moon are printed onto t-shirts, and wolves show up with profundity in tattoos and band names (Wolves in the Throne Room, Wolf Parade, Wolfmother). When I did a quick search for “wolves” on VICE.com, that arbiter of hipness, 244 articles popped up, some of them related to wolf conservation, and others, like “10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Soccer Hooligan,” simply referencing canis lupus’ cultural popularity (the Wolves are a British soccer team). It’s easy to dismiss this 21st century, commercialized wolf reverence as just a trend but, at least for me (and probably for others, too) it’s rooted in something deeper: the wolf lessons I learned as a child.

As a kid, I was at first terrified of fairy tale wolves, and then obsessed with actual wolves, collecting many of the items that now decorate my apartment. This shift from alarm to ardor illuminated the discrepancies between scary, scheming story book wolves and the endangered gray wolves of the U.S. West, teaching me that things aren’t always as they seem, that the myths we tell about others frequently don’t represent who they actually are, that our human words and actions have consequences.

These lessons feel pertinent in this political moment, as well-researched news competes with “alternative facts”; as racism and xenophobia run rampant throughout the United States, and dangerous cultural stereotypes about non-Western cultures abound; as Trump’s executive orders retracted asylum from certain refugees (and, despite federal judges blocking his first travel ban, have continued to make the United States less safe for immigrants) and lay the groundwork for a wall that will further fortify the United States against Latin America; as reproductive, queer and transgender rights are eroded away.

The first wolf I ever saw lived between the pages of Berlitz French for Children: The Three Bears and Little Red Riding Hood. The volume belonged to my father when he was a kid, growing up in a family with Francophone roots, and it was clearly well-loved: by the time it was read to me, three decades later, the book’s edges were scratched off, its spine taped back together. Still, I adored the volume, in part because of Dagmar Wilson’s colorful illustrations. In “Little Red Riding Hood”—the text alternated between French, phonetic French pronunciation, and English—Little Red wanders through woods full of wildflowers and bluebirds, her eyes wide at the vernal beauty all around her. By contrast, the “big and very wicked” loup has pointy teeth framed by an elongated snout and buggy yellow eyes—more like the product of some nightmarish imagination than an actual canis lupus. It lurks and prowls and stands bipedal as it knocks on poor grand-mère’s door.

This phantasm was echoed by the wolves in Beauty & Beast, the Disney film of my childhood—I always watched the ambush scene with my eyes half closed, praying that those snarling, thrashing canines wouldn’t drag Belle to her death—and the cut-out of the Big, Bad Wolf that my parents’ friends kept in their basement. Their children and I played in that basement often, and I remember being too afraid to even look at the cartoon wolf—as though, if I did, it would blow my house down. Then there’s the year my neighbor came to the door in a werewolf mask, his terrifying visage ameliorated only by the candy he poured into my pumpkin basket. The storybook wolves of my childhood were evil, cunning, to-be-avoided. They frightened me, made me want to cover my eyes and avert my gaze, crept into my nightmares.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the shift happened, but by the time I was in third or fourth grade, I had stopped being afraid of wolves. Instead, I was obsessed with them. I wanted to save them from endangerment, to run with them, to be adopted by them and learn to howl at the moon. In fifth grade, I started Wolf Club—I’d gather weekly with other school-aged enthusiasts to talk about the plight of canis lupus in the United States and collect money for the World Wildlife Fund’s Adopt a Wolf program (sympathizing with the underdogs but not ready to bet all my money on the Omega, I insisted that the Beta in the pack get our funds—I still had some learning to do). An anxious and, sometimes, overzealous kid with few friends, wolves gave me an excuse to socialize with my peers and to be, for once, knowledgeable3 instead of laughable.

A year later, my parents took me to a wolf demonstration at a local high school, where caretakers from a nearby rescue talked about the challenges of their work and a wolf, raised in captivity as a pet and eventually relinquished to the rescue operation, walked across the stage. It was coy, a little frightened and fragile, not anything like the remorseless predators of Western European fairy tales. I imagined working with wolves on the Great Plains, tagging them for data purposes and watching them run free. This, I decided with a child’s firm resolve, is what I would do when I grew up.

I also collected books about the species: Wolves by children’s author Seymour Simon and a chapter book I found at a gift shop on a family trip to Ontario. In fifth grade, the same year as Wolf Club, my teacher gave me Jim Brandenburg’s Brother Wolf: A Forgotten Promise, a coffee table-sized volume about wolves in northern Minnesota. In Brandenburg’s photographs, smiling wolves bound through forests and howl at the moon, and pups so young they can’t yet open their eyes huddle in a den. But Brandenburg isn’t just interested in portraying friendly canines: He photographs packs pulling apart deer carcasses with snarling teeth, and wolves chasing ravens through the snow.

Brother Wolf taught me lessons about canis lupus behavior: Packs hunt and care for their young cooperatively. In struggles over territory, “they avoid violence whenever possible,” using signals and scent-marking instead. Domesticated dogs—that canine species so often referred to as “humanity’s best friend”—probably descended from ancestral wolves, splitting into a distinct genetic line thousands of years ago.

In the book, Brandenburg also theorizes about why wolves have been so maligned in history and folklore: “Wolves have a wonderful talent for howling at different pitches. This ability gives humans and, I suspect, other wolf packs, the impression that other wolves are present.” The discordance is more than their voices, however: “Look into the eyes of the wolf. In its yellow stare you will see, among other things, great intelligence. It is precisely that intelligence that makes the wolf a great hunter. And its great hunting ability has led humans to first admire, then loathe, the wolf.”

Of course, not every culture views wolves negatively: In Japanese tradition, wolves are revered as protectors of crops and guardians against calamity. The Lithuanian goddess Medeina—huntress and protector of the forest—is escorted by a pack of wolves. The Nez Perce were an integral part of wolf reintroduction in Idaho in the 1990s. In an LA Times article, Jaime Pinkham of the Nez Perce Executive Committee was quoted as saying, “The Nez Perce and the wolves are a mirror of one another. We were both displaced to make space for settlers. And now, we are both trying to find our way home. In a sense you might call it a recovery mirror; and as the wolf comes back, it is a reflection of the tribe’s strength.”

In “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger writes, on the topic of fauna in contemporary photography and picture books, “In the accompanying ideology, animals are always observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance.” One of Wilson’s images in the Berlitz French for Children book shows the big, bad wolf hiding behind a tree, watching as Little Red Riding Hood prances along, bread basket in hand, eyes fixed on a chirping bird perched on a limb. I learned early that the wolf—at least the fairy-tale wolf—is a watcher of humans, not just a creature to be observed. This taught me that the world is not simply a terrarium, something I can peer into from my position of privilege as a white US citizen. It taught me that I, too, can be seen, that my actions have consequences.

This lesson–along with others I learned from wolves, lessons about stereotypes and things not being quite what they seem–never fully existed in my conscious perception of self. But looking back, I can see how this accidental education catalyzed my path: In high school, I became interested in feminism and anarchism, two ideologies that question the underpinnings of society and continue to guide me today (“What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, and this emphasis on thinking carefully, on actions having consequences, loops back to Berger’s words and Wilson’s spying wolf.) In my early twenties, I worked on campaigns to end mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. There, I learned from knowledgeable people too often maligned as “ignorant hillbillies” and, though I have left, I recognize that I still have a responsibility to that place, to what Appalachians are fighting for and what they taught me. These days, I volunteer at an aid station just south of the US-Mexican border. I spend weekend mornings chatting with Mexican and Central American migrants and deportees—people fleeing violence and poverty, and taking huge risks to do so; people who have been ejected from their home communities in the United States for lacking papers; people that Trump and his cronies have dangerously stereotyped as violent criminals. These travelers tease my mediocre Spanish, tell me where I can hear the best mariachi in Mexico City, and share stories about their children and partners in the United States, from whom they’ve been separated. My poems and essays frequently focus on what lies beneath the surface, from the folkloric roots of revolutionary figures to the militarization that undergirds life in southern Arizona.

My work—like my wolf obsession—isn’t exceptional: There are hundreds of people I know, and millions more that I don’t, who have dedicated their lives to fighting resource extraction and borders, to writing bravely, to struggling against injustice and oppression. The Lakota and Dakotah people of Standing Rock and their allies spent nearly a year on the front lines of opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline—and their struggle is hardly over. Black Lives Matter organizes fiercely against anti-black racism and the evils it propagates—including, but not limited to, oft-deadly police and vigilante violence directed towards black communities. In the first few weeks of the Trump administration, people who had never protested before took public stands against xenophobia, racism, bans, and walls; for healthcare and in defiance of misogyny. The Women’s March brought millions into city streets across the United States and beyond; and when green card holders and asylum seekers from banned Muslim-majority countries were denied entry into the United States in late January, thousands showed up at airports in protest. Nationalism is on the rise, and capitalism continues to kill, but the millions who work against injustice and oppression–throughout the past many years or just over the last couple months–are wolves charging at the doors of empire.

While writing this essay, I discovered that Dagmar Wilson, who illustrated Berlitz French For Children’s Little Red Riding Hood, was a founder of Women’s Strike for Peace, a group that fought to end nuclear testing, the Vietnam War, and wars in general. Two years after the Berlitz book was published, in 1961, Wilson—who lived in Washington, DC with her husband and children—“started a telephone tree, urging her friends to call their friends to marshal support for a one-day demonstration in support of peace and disarmament,” according to the Washington Post. The strike mobilized 50,000 women living in sixty different cities and catalyzed a movement. A year later, Wilson and other WSP organizers were called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, where they, “approached their testimony with irreverence, humor and creative resistance.” Women’s Strike for Peace was slow to ally with Civil Rights organizers, but in the late 1960s Wilson and a few other WSP activists joined the Jeanette Rankin Brigade, a coalition for peace, and against poverty and racism, that counted Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King as members.

Yes, Wilson’s big, bad wolf in Berlitz French for Children is stereotypical, but she was working for a major publisher and seems to have had more on her mind than recuperating the mythic representation of canis lupus. Still, her roles as a fierce activist and celebrated illustrator make me curious about the relationship between her life and art, between nuclear disarmament and cherubic children wandering through enchanted woods. If Wilson’s “Little Red Riding Hood” images had such a big impact on me, what tales and legends impacted her? Were there fairy stories she heard as a child that informed the way she lived her life, the way she stood up to war and poverty? I’ll never know—Wilson died in 2011, at the age of 94—but there’s something inspiring in the simple act of wondering.