During our Yukon trip, I saw a wolf in its own habitat for the first time. I’d seen wolves before – notably someone’s pet wolves who visited the dogyard in Willow and clamped their mouths over my tiny arm in what I was told was a “wolf greeting”, an “I’m bigger than you and you should know it to make things fair between us” kind of hello.
In the years since, I have continued to marvel at the way the 60-dog yard (of sled dogs) was silent – utterly silent – the whole time the wolves were tied out in the driveway. And they – the wolves – were enormous. The mushers had stories of seeing wolves run alongside the team (though the wolves stayed in the trees, or along the opposite side of a river) during night runs. The stories imply a certain amount of curiosity on the part of the wolves, I think.
The day before we encountered the Yukon River wolf, we heard howls. The sound spilled out of the mountains and echoed through the river bed, entering the very water it seemed. The sound rooted me to my seat in the canoe. I felt sure the fish below us knew of the wolves’ presence, although probably that’s ridiculous. Our own dog slept through it, after all.
When I read Rick Bass’s small treasure of a book, The Ninemile Wolves, last week, I felt invited to relive my small encounter – and that very feeling of smallness, and at the same time privilege, for being in the right place at the right time.
“There is an electricity, a tension going on inside the wolves – the actual physics of it probably fitting into some undiscovered formula, if one cares to go in that direction – a flow of sparks across the gap of too much and not enough, between ‘good’ and ‘bad'” (139).
Lately I’ve been a little low, and I often respond to lowness by reading my favorites. For this reason, I try to keep around at least one Rick Bass book I haven’t read. Fortunately, he keeps writing new books as I keep reading, so this arrangement has worked out well.
I was not disappointed with this small book, published in 1992. Bass’s words fell nicely into conversation with those of Canadian writer Farley Mowat, whose Never Cry Wolf John and I read out loud to each other on the Yukon. He brings in other “wilderness writers” I’ve read and respected, like Peter Matthiessen and Barry Lopez.
Most of all, though, I appreciated the snarky voice that snuck through every now and then in The Ninemile Wolves. This is no romance novel to the wolves, and it is not dry science, either. This tale does that thing I most admire in writing: it lives. It brings in biological information, ecosystems, hard facts – as well as a lived experience, the acknowledgement that yes, we humans also think in metaphors and symbols, in dreams and interpersonal connections, and it manages to salvage the integrity of all these modes of thinking.
After beginning with a warning against the urge to anthropomorphize the wolves (to endow them with human attributes), Bass describes a typical wolf kill. He considers the tools wolves have at their disposal: “All they’ve got is teeth, long legs, and – I have to say this – great hearts. I can say what I want to say. I gave up my science badge a long time ago” (3-4).
This irreverent voice, the one that tows the line between science and poetry, never entirely giving in to either, but weighing them, respecting them both – this is what I love. That age-old dichotomy broken down. Friends, we do not have to be scientists or artists. There are hearts and minds in the world sophisticated enough to take in both.
Of course, I tend to prefer the poetry side to the science, myself, as you might notice from the passages I’ve chosen to quote. But writers like Bass have pulled me out of my shell a lot in the past few years.
“[T]he thing that defines a wolf more than anything – better than DNA, better than fur, teeth, green eyes, better than even the low, mournful howl – is the way it travels” (6). Bass follows the wolves in their endless travel, their enormous territories and their tested boundaries, as they drift further and further south into Montana. The journey comes complete with triumphs, devastations, and tangles with cattle.
And throughout the short narrative, Bass diverges from the Ninemile wolves to document other wolf stories, in Alaska, Alberta, Minnesota:
“Ninemile. I need to stick to that one small skinny valley in northwest Montana. But it is not one story. All wolves are tied together. It’s a brotherhood, a sisterhood. You can’t help it. They – the wolves – remind us of ourselves on our better days, our best days. They teach us splendidly about the overriding force of nature, too – about the way we’ve managed to suppress and ignore it in ourselves, or judge it.” (39)
At the close of the book, we end up in a bar in Fairbanks. I wasn’t expecting that, and yet it fits. There’s a story about an aerial hunter – a guy with a gun shooting wolves from airplanes, a contentious topic in Alaska – and he doesn’t quite understand what to do with his own sense of awe, of being connected to something wild – and yet being there (up in the air, at an absurdly unfair advantage) expressly to kill wolves.
Bass is himself a hunter (though not of wolves), and there again is that line to be towed, crossed, examined, respected. In the end, Bass does not demonize the hunters, or the ranchers, or the government, or the wolves. And yet his is a clear case for the reintroduction of wolves to their natural habitats. I find that I must agree.
“We are ‘brothers in the hunt,’ as Ed Bangs has pointed out; but I think we are brothers in something else, too. I am convinced that it has something to do with internal fire, soul, and the creation and pursuit of mystery.
You’ve come too far in this story to turn away now, when I start talking crazy like this. You can’t turn away. We have to follow.” (140)