Of Wolves and Words
Western civilization has had a hysterical fear of wolves for over a thousand years, projecting onto them all kinds of superstitions, phobias, and bad press, rooted in Western man’s inability to feel comfortable with himself and his inability to see himself as part of the Earth rather than stomping on top of it. Wolves have been killed on sight throughout history. Even now, in Alaska a state-sponsored private air force is blasting wolves from fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
In Western Europe, the continent was wiped clean of all but a small handful of wolves. Settlers arriving in North America brought the same trembling fears and wars on wildlife with them. In the New England colonies, Cotton Mather quaked about “the waste and howling wilderness.” Bounties were issued for the scalps of dead wolves and Indians (because Indian people were considered a form of wolves and not actually human). The plague of hatred swept westward across the continent, paralleling the rise in popularity of folk stories about the big bad wolf, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and Little Red Riding Hood’s poor ol’ grandma supposedly getting her ass eaten by a wolf in one big (“what a big mouth you have!”) gulp. (Wolves will never be Fifi the poodle, and certainly they have the capacity to take humans as prey, but to date there hasn’t been a single recorded case of a healthy wild wolf killing a person in North America.)
As the natural prey of wolves – first deer, and then, further west, buffalo -were wiped out by market hunters, in desperation the wolves turned to the domestic livestock by then ravaging the landscape. The popular phrase “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” might read better as “a sheep in wolf’s clothing,” because wolves are the native, pure, and natural part of the landscape. It’s the sheep and cattle that are the alien invaders.
A final, epic showdown ensued. Chunks of poisoned meat were scattered indiscriminately across the American West, setting off waves of death in the food chain and killing millions of animals and birds. At the same time, government agents and ranchers mounted an all-out offensive to shoot, trap, and den (the process of hooking pups out of dens and smashing their skulls) the remaining wolves. Out in the Texas Panhandle, an eerie gathering of some 3,000 wolves, something never seen before or since, began an exodus northwestward into New Mexico and dispersed, fleeing their End Times. Wolves caught in traps were often burned alive, or pulled apart by two horses whipped in opposite directions, or dragged to their deaths. Barry Lopez, in Of Wolves And Men, writes: “And sometimes, I think, because the killing is so righteously pursued and yet so entirely with conscience, killing wolves has to do with murder.”
Today, Texas’ 167 million acres don’t shelter a single wolf, though we once had red wolves in the south and east, Great Plains buffalo wolves throughout the state, and Mexican (or Lobo) wolves around the Big Bend area. In Fort Worth, when workers were running the streetcar out to the new bourgeois settlement of Arlington Heights, cooling its engines with the waters of Lake Como, wolves were often heard howling somewhere out there in the yellow prairie grass, under the cover of darkness.
Wolves are extremely complex, sensitive, intelligent animals. They are also native. How about us? When will we become “native” to this land? How we as people use language reflects upon us as a culture.
Maybe 50 years from now, long after the 20,000-acre Fort Worth Prairie Park that my organization is working toward has been created and ecologically connected through viable corridors to other protected lands further to the west, folks living in the shining eco-city of Fort Worth will have a gleam in their eye about the western wilderness at their doorstep and know they can at last truthfully call themselves home to this land:
Baby, can you get the kids and meet me at the SolaRail station after work? I heard that a family of wolves – with three pups – was seen out on Limestone Ridge, near Mary’s Creek, right near where we saw that burst of hummingbirds last year. Our boots and water bottles are still in the HV, but let’s take the Rail. It lets us off a mile from the trailhead. We can refill up at the creek. … You know, at lunch today I was thinking about how back at the turn of the century they couldn’t even drink from the creeks or rivers, or anything. Damn, that must’ve been an ugly time. I can’t imagine it.
Jarid Manos is executive director of Great Plains Restoration Council. His memoir, Ghetto Plainsman, will be published early next year by Temba House Press.