Monday, November 12, 2012

Wildness and Balance

In 1906, a young Danish lad named Peter Freuchen arrived in Greenland.  Tired of city life, he had signed up to spend the winter alone in a remote meteorological research station, far from anyone — an experience he never forgot.  The plan was that a sled would come every month to deliver food, coal, mail, and other supplies.  Much to his dismay, the sleds never arrived, because wolves stopped them, and ate the sled dogs, every time.
Freuchen had seven dogs at his cabin and, one by one, the wolves ate them all.  This made it impossible for him to escape.  He soon used up his coal, and had to spend most of an arctic winter with no heat, including four months of endless darkness.  The wolves tormented him: “I have never been so frightened in my life.  After my last dog was killed there was nothing to warn me of their approach, and often I wakened to hear them pawing on the roof of my cabin.”
There were wolf tracks everywhere, and he frequently heard them moving around in the darkness.  “As the winter wore on, the unnatural fervor of my hatred for the wolves increased.  My food was running low, and the darkness and the cold and the constant discomfort set my nerves on edge.  I jumped at the slightest sound, and the moan of the wind peopled the dark corners with evil spirits.”  He didn’t see another person for six months.  This tale is from his book Arctic Adventure.
It’s an important story, because it reminds us of the days before humans eliminated most of our predators, before we came to dominate the land almost everywhere.  Freuchen was nothing more than walking meat, one mistake away from becoming a feast for hungry wolves.  This was the normal mode for almost all of human history — the natural world was far from safe.  In my lifetime, I’ve walked countless hundreds of miles alone in the woods, almost never feeling like meat.  Something vital is missing, in this world of seven-point-something billion humans, and growing.  We’ve lost our brakes.
Lions and tigers and bears keep us humble, and we have a huge need for humility — deflating our grand illusions, and bringing us down to actual size.  To our sacred predators, we look like a tasty lunch, not the almighty masters of the universe.  They force us to pay sharp attention to the land around us, fully tuned in to all of our senses.  They make us feel alive.  They help us remember our long lost wildness.  This is good. 
I once lived alone in a remote forest for nine years.  I spent far more time in the company of wild animals than with humans.  The gorgeous red foxes always impressed me.  During long, cold winters, when the snow was waist-deep, I would watch them chase snowshoe hares across the pond and through the bushes, yelping and shrieking.  They lived outdoors all the time, they satisfied their own needs, and they lived well — without clothes or tools or fire.  This was their ancient sacred home; this was exactly where they belonged.  They did not have the slightest interest in being my friend.
I spent much of my time indoors, close to the wood stove, bundled up in clothing from Asia, listening to an Asian radio, typing on an Asian computer, and eating store-bought food from faraway lands.  I could not survive a winter out in the snow.  I was not wild and free, but I had immense respect for my relatives who were — the deer, coyotes, owls, and weasels.  They were so lucky!  They had never forgotten who they were.
Before Europeans commenced full-scale genocide upon wolves, the forest was a place of genuine danger.  Grimm's Fairy Tales is a collection of stories from old Europe, and the word “wolf” appears 72 times in this book.  Wolves were a significant fact of life in those days — no one dared to wander around in the forest staring at a cell phone, oblivious to their surroundings.  A wolf swallowed Tom Thumb, and another killed the grandmother of Little Red Riding Hood.  Humankind was not yet the unchallenged master of the world, but each conflict in these tales was resolved by the death of the wolf. 
In his book Man-Eaters, Michael Bright cited a number of stories of wolves killing humans.  Wolf packs in Paris killed 40 in 1450.  British sources noted 624 humans killed by wolves in Banbirpur in 1878.  In Finland, 22 children were killed in 1880-1881.  In the 1960s, wolves in the Ural Mountains attacked 168 and devoured 11.  Wolf attacks in Kyrgyzstan in 1999 made people afraid to go outdoors.  Today, our conversations rarely include the word “wolf.” 
Going back to an earlier time, the wolves once enjoyed a great victory.  In the stories of heathen Europe, there was a pantheon of gods and goddesses.  Odin was the chief god, and his animal allies were two ravens and two wolves.  During the battle of Ragnarök, in which the human gods were defeated by the forces of nature, Odin was swallowed alive by the mighty wolf Fenris.  Modern school kids plead for mercy because “the dog ate my homework.”  For the old Norse folk, the issue was “the wolf ate my god.”
Many years later, Jesus warned his followers: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:15).  We’ve been on the warpath against wolves ever since. 
Our wild ancestors saw wolves as sacred relatives, beings of great power.  Our domesticated ancestors, who were obsessed with having absolute control over nature, developed a pathological hatred of wolves that continues to this day.  A pack of wolves could exterminate your livestock or poultry overnight.  Battlefields always attracted crowds of ravens and wolves, who feasted on the fallen.  Wolves sometimes dug up fresh graves in the cemetery.  None of this was acceptable to domesticated humans.  There was no room for wolves in their worldview.  It’s time to reevaluate that worldview.

A note to readers.  After 14 months of writing weekly book reviews, it’s time to take a break.  The reviews will become the bulk of my second book.  Now it’s time to write some rants that will precede and follow the section of reviews — rants like the above rough draft.  Stay tuned.

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