Sunday, June 1, 2014

at long last, wolves

For several nights I had been falling asleep to the music of barking. The barking was mixed with soft yelps and howls set against a background of yodeling peepers.

In the middle of the night I would wake to the same, though less of the peepers and more of the barks, yelps, and howls. Then, one morning, behind the birdsong, still, there was the barking.

One evening I heard the barking and walked to the river. The barking seemed to come from directly across the river where there are woods and a neighbor I have never met. If you cross the river via the road you’ll see a dirt drive with a thick steel cable strung across it. Also, there is a “For Sale” sign on a post, but not now. It was knocked down by a snowplow this winter. A “No Hunting” sign is tacked to a tree. Several hundred yards farther up the road you come to a dirt road and down it there are a few houses.

I returned to the cabin, got in the van, drove across the river, stopped at the driveway barred by the cable. I heard the barking. It was faint. I drove up to the dirt road and down it a bit, stopped, could not hear the barking. I turned around and drove back to the barred driveway. I pulled off the road, left the van, stepped over the cable, started walking.

Woods grow tall on either side of the drive. It is a thick, tangled woods of mostly maple, birch and poplar, just now leafing out, and cedar, spruce, with a bit of pine. As I walked, the dog continued barking, and the barking grew louder.

I had decided it was a dog because it sounded like a dog. Maybe it was a coyote, but it was different from the crazy howling and yipping I often hear and assume to be coyotes. I have seen coyotes loping through my fields, and people tell me if it’s yipping you hear, it’s coyote. Wolves howl. If you hear a wolf, people tell me, you know it. So I always think: coyotes. But this was sounding more and more like a dog. And dogs have been much in my life lately, on my mind. I walk a few at the shelter each week (and, by the way, “Alfie” has been adopted; I wish her all the best), and the other day Louis sent me an email describing waking up that morning with three dogs in his bed. One had her head on his chest, one lay across his feet, and one was pressed up against his side. I was so envious I forgot to make a crack about it being a three-dog night in Las Vegas. But with dogs on my mind, maybe this is why I was sure this barking in the woods was a dog, not a coyote, certainly not a wolf.

The south edge of the drive was gooey with mud. I noticed a large dog print in the mud, a print maybe four inches across. Big enough to be a wolf, I thought. I continued walking, continued hearing the barking. There were a few mosquitoes, but not enough to bother me. If it had been the following night, I would not have gone out. The mosquitoes the following night were so thick I was nearly catatonic.

I kept walking. I saw a clearing up ahead, a white rail fence, some hay bales in a large, mowed field. Then, on my left, a “For Sale” sign and a clearing. I turned into the clearing and kept walking. The barking seemed to come from the far end of the clearing, about 50 yards away, where there was a large clump of spruce. I kept walking, toward the trees, toward the river, then a large dog ran out from behind the trees, looked at me, ran on, away from me, into the woods. The dog was a wolf, and I think it is true that you know a wolf when you see one.

I have been one of these people intrigued by wolves since I was a teen-ager in the 1970s. Anything that had to do with saving animals was for me. Save the wolves, save the seals, save the whales, save them all. But wolves had more of a hook. They were, in a way, dogs, and they were the ancestors of the dogs I fed and walked and played with and loved. Wolves were wild dogs. Wolves were beautiful. They had strong families, though some were alone. They lived in woods, they lived on mountainsides. They were the stuff of mythology, but they were also just dogs. They lived by instinct and wit. They howled and sang to the moon. They played in the snow. They were elusive, but they could be captured. They could be killed. People seemed to love them or hate them, to label them either holy or evil. They were supposed to be scary, but to me they were not. I never confused the big bad wolf of fairy tales and nursery rhymes with real wolves. Real wolves did not blow down houses to get at cute little pigs, nor did they dress up in my grandmother’s clothing to get at me. Unlike people, wolves never dressed up in anyone else’s clothing for any reason, rather, they were just what they were, wolves. And I remember thinking that to see a wolf would be to see something pretty magnificent.

When the wolf ran out from behind the spruce, I stopped walking. A second wolf appeared. She looked at me, dashed back behind the trees. She reappeared, disappeared. Reappeared, disappeared. I began to realize where I was. I was in the presence of wolves, for the first time in my life. I turned and walked away.

I did not hear the wolves that night, or the next, or any night after. After seeing them, all the night noise stopped. I would lie in bed after turning off a ballgame and just listen to quiet. No peepers. No wolves. No coyotes. No dogs. Just mosquitoes. I would watch thousands of mosquitoes latch onto the screen door, like a quilt, their tiny bodies backlit by the lingering evening light.

One morning after an overnight temperature in the thirties, the mosquitoes were not so bad. I took my camera down to the river. (The camera is not broken after all, it was just a battery problem.) I took some pictures from atop the bank, then walked down a gentle sandy slope where fiddlehead ferns are coming up and took more pictures from the river’s edge. Behind me I heard a splash. I turned, saw a wolf leaping up the opposite bank. I snapped a shot. I walked up the bank, returned to where I had first been standing, across from where the wolf had been, and took a picture of where the wolf had been, and the wolf, who apparently had stopped still at the top of the bank, ran off into the woods. I never saw him, or her, standing still, just moving. It seems to me the wolf should be in these pictures, but he is not.

The first shot after I heard the splash.

The wolf is somewhere there, on the top of the bank.

Last year, amid much protest, Michigan held a wolf hunt. Gray wolves had been protected in the state since 1965. In 1974, they became protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act. All that began to change in the early 2000s, and finally last year in Michigan a wolf hunt eliminated, harvested, killed (choose your own word) 22 wolves, all in the Upper Peninsula, 19 from the western U.P., where I live. In an interesting twist, one of the farmers who had had the most trouble with wolves, thus adding support to the argument for the hunt, was charged with cruelty to animals. It had to do with how he treated the donkeys the state had given him to help protect his cows from wolves.

It seems to me everybody thinks they know all about wolves. They are evil. They are good. They are innocuous. They are a menace. All my neighbors have seen one or more, and most have a story to tell, though it is often a story they have heard from someone else. After seeing the wolves across the river, I was curious about what my Animal Energies book had to say. Among other things:
Wolf medicine can teach you to have a balance between your family’s needs for you and your needs for you. Wolves are totally loyal to the pack, but do not give up their identity to the pack. If Wolf has come into your life in some fashion, you are being asked to look at where you are being too dependent and where you may be too independent. In both family and community, there needs to be a balance between me and us. Wolf can help you learn this.
I took my camera down to the river again the next morning. Temperatures were climbing and the overnight low had done nothing to deter the mosquitoes. I hunkered down, covered in protective clothing, but the little bugs bit through my jeans and socks so I soon gave it up. Back at the cabin, Elliott was waiting on the porch. We went inside, and I got back to making candles.

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