This piece is excerpted from WOLFISH: WOLF, SELF, AND THE STORIES WE TELL ABOUT FEAR. Copyright © 2023 by Erica Berry. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Downstairs in the guest room of the house my grandparents built in the Montana woods sits a pillow painted with a familiar scene. Framed by dark trees and a hunk of granite, a girl and wolf face one another in the dappled sun. The girl wears a red cape, hood pulled over her short dark curls. She carries a brown umbrella like a walking stick and a basket lined in white linen. The wolf stares at her, but looks more like a panting dog than a menace. The girl too looks curious, something like a smile tugging her cheek. If you did not know the story, you would think they could be friends.
How many summer nights did I lie in the hot, insect-clicking quiet of that room, tossing and turning toward and away from the girl and the wolf? If I thought twice about the pillow, I forgot it. Only in the last year, on a forty-eight-hour visit back, did I glance at the cushion while lifting it off the bed and feel the snap of connection. I had come through the woods to grandmother’s house, and this was the story I found. A story that had always been waiting for me. Like Little Red, I was raised in a family that believed in letting me walk alone through the trees. Looking at the pillow now, in my early 30s, I felt less like its bumbling, wandering heroine than like the person who nudged her out the door. When I asked my Grandma Sally about the pillow, she said she didn’t know who had made it, but it had been passed down from my grandfather’s mother. You should have it when I die, she told me. Ha ha.
Outside, we sometimes heard wolves howling from the porch. They had regained stable populations in the Bitterroot Valley after dispersing from Yellowstone in the 1990s. One snowy childhood morning their tracks appeared in circles around the barn. It was just the one mule and horse in the stable by then, skittish but safe. Mostly wolves were a thing to wish for on their motion-activated wildlife cameras, which so often just picked up deer. Seeing a predator was like finding beach glass on the shore. Eventually I accepted the wolves and bears and I would share the forest at different hours, the way a friend of mine once lived with two flight attendants who came and went sporadically, and often in the night. Just as with the hills of lupine and balsamroot that spread beyond my grandparents’ house, and like the family that gathered inside, I eventually took the wolves for granted. Because I could not see how our lives intersected, I told myself they did not.
Wolves are territorial, and generally skeptical of outsiders. One study of dispersers in Alaska found only twenty-one percent of those young wolves who leave their packs were later adopted into new, preexisting packs. Still, in an uncanny mirror of human groupings, biologists studying captive wolf packs have observed a diversity of family structures, including those with “immigrant” wolves. Many packs start as “nuclear families,” with two unfamiliar breeders producing a litter. “Extended families” include parents plus at least one of their siblings, while a pack with one or both of the original parents missing is a “disrupted family.” One that welcomes an outside breeder is a “stepfamily,” or a “foster family” if the outsider doesn’t breed.
In a chart of findings published in David Mech and Luigi Boitani’s Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, the least observed pack formation is labeled a “Complex family.” In the case of captive wolves, perhaps pups have been hand-raised elsewhere, and adopted in. It is the name for a unit where history is not easily mapped between its members, where community will exist independent of blood. It’s not a prototypical wolf pack by any measure, but as I thought about how I wanted to run into my own future, it was the image that lingered in my mind.
Nearly a thousand years ago, Pliny the Elder extolled the pharmacological benefits a wolf’s body held to a woman. “A wolf’s fat, applied externally, acts emolliently upon the uterus,” he wrote, “and the liver of a wolf is very soothing for pains in that organ.” These alleged healing properties were thought to extend to children too. “A wolf’s tooth, attached to the body, prevents infants from being startled . . .” he wrote. To make your child brave, he suggested, you had only to kill a wolf.
Whenever I used to tell my mother about being afraid of this or that, she would look worried. Guilty, maybe, that she had passed something toxic down to me. I knew we were both apt to wake at four a.m. and worry about the world, but I never blamed her. I told her my worries not because I felt she should take responsibility, but because I felt she could absorb them. Because I thought my mother so strong that, with a few minutes of conversation and a hug, she’d kill the beast inside my head.
Three weeks after giving birth to my mother’s younger brother, my biological grandmother Lorna lay down with a headache. What was she thinking that day? She was twenty-three. Several days later, in a Missoula hospital, she died. The hematomas that bloomed within her, eventually flooding her brain with blood, had lurked quietly until her second childbirth. Back at home, smiley under a sandy halo of hair, my mother was only two years old. If their unit had been a wolf pack, they would have been classified as a “disrupted family.” When Sally—the woman I call grandmother, and my mother calls Mom—married into their family a few years later, they became, in both wolf and human lingo, “a stepfamily.”
Lorna was not my mother, but the eggs that created me developed inside her, blooming in my mother’s fetus through those months Lorna’s belly swelled. If I was partially formed by Lorna, I was also formed by her loss, which hung around my mother like an aura only visible in certain light. When I was a child, my mother volunteered one night a week at a nonprofit that offered group-counseling for grieving children. My sister and I had fun with my dad on those evenings—cooking “skagamagoosh,” his everything-in-the-fridge tortilla-speckled stir fry—but I always missed her desperately, more than when she left on other nights. It felt like too much to feel her absence while also being reminded that for some of the children she was with, there would be no loved one coming back. As with so many kinds of grief, the sadness I felt for Lorna metastasized into fear. Sometimes I feared naps, fearing I too might not quite wake up. Mostly I feared this would happen to my mother.
I had been researching wolves and the stories people tell about them for years when, one bright morning, U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFW) biologist John Stephenson let me tag along with him while checking traps on the east side of Mt. Hood. April was the heart of denning season, and somewhere nearby there were wolf pups. He didn’t want to risk catching the breeding female—a mother was too critical to risk slowing her down if, say, her foot became sore from the ankle trap—so he had laid the traps far from suspected den sites, and now we were going back to check them. If he caught a wolf, he’d collar it, which would assist in monitoring the movements of the pack.
As we crossed from asphalt to gravel, then onto a narrow, rutted dirt road, branches whacked the windows of John’s pickup, occasionally poking through and brushing my arm, snagging my hair, pulling me along. We hadn’t found a wolf yet, but I was feeling a tingle I didn’t feel back home, not unlike the curiosity I once felt standing beside Emily Dickinson’s old desk. What had the wolves been thinking when they walked this route, just days earlier, as the trail cameras had shown? Maybe it had been the mother the biologist knew was nearby, heading toward or away from her pups. Had she thought of them when she was away? To assume an animal feels nothing is to negate what Dr. Carl Safina classifies as the North-South-East-West of sentient emotional range: “happy,” “sad,” “fear,” and “love.” A wolf knows those four feelings; surely a parent knew their combinations. In the 1980s, scientists found evidence of wolves burying their own dead wolf pups. Sadlove.
As we rattled down the road, I imagined plotting my own emotions on those poles. Like a color wheel, it seemed important not just to register what I was feeling, but what lay opposite it on the emotional compass. All the times I had felt most overwhelmed by fear: Wasn’t that really being overwhelmed by love? I didn’t want to die, and I didn’t want the people or land or animals around me to either.
I had recently heard in an interview that in the face of expanding wolf populations, livestock producers should “rekindle the herd instinct.” Early studies showed that mother moose who survived encounters with wolves were beginning to teach their fear to their calves, putting the next generation further along the learning curve. Fear of wolves, in other words, was not manifesting solely as anxiety in their prey, it was something useful, teachable. The animals were evolving, and now their handlers were beginning to as well. In the face of stressors, the best way to find safety was to reimagine social bonds. What did this mean for my own anxious life? A web brought strength, but with a heightening of care and responsibility, it brought fear too. It illuminated all the bonds I did not want to lose.
Growing up I imagined life after high school would follow a bell curve, swelling with exploration and new friends only to winnow down when I found a partner, staked a home, settled into an insular family unit. Society had told me the nuclear family, with a husband at the door, was the thing that would keep me safe. Not just from nighttime intruders, but against floods and fires, my own angst. I wasn’t opposed to cultivating the domestic—I am a nester, a true bowerbird—but I had become skeptical it would deliver me the security I chased. I didn’t want to grow older in a box, I wanted to grow older on a web, one that stretched to friends outside of my house, city, state, and country, swaying in the breeze.
This was what I thought of when I read about one wolf pack recorded at the turn of the millennium, seven years after the species was reintroduced into Yellowstone, the most unusual pack ever recorded, according to Mech and Boitani. Three packs formed, each one with at least twelve dispersers. Individuals moved between the packs sometimes daily. They produced multiple litters in separate dens, and then, in midsummer, many of the wolves merged, staying together through the winter.
What explains such a unique formation? Canadian researchers have found that “intense harvest” of wolves by humans—whether poached, hunted as game, or killed strategically by government officials—may increase the number of unrelated individuals adopted into packs. When biological family bonds are disrupted, or not allowed to flourish, family is forced to sprawl outward. I thought of human families I knew fractured by incarceration, immigration, abuse, death. In both humans and wolves, disruptions create tremendous stress, but in the right circumstances, new strength can emerge.
I felt lucky to grow up beside two sets of great-grandparents on my mother’s side—both Lorna’s parents, and Sally’s. Lorna’s brother and his wife, who we called Mimi and Papa, were something like surrogate grandparents, but so were the Maine couple my undergraduate college had paired me with when I answered a survey saying I had no family on the East Coast, and also my high school friend’s grandmother, who hosted me in Boston on various layovers and flight cancellations until one day I started planning trips to see just her. My list went on, forking in and out of different generations and time zones, until I realized the people I had met while traveling and living far from home had joined my extended family and old friends in becoming, through constellation, home itself. A pack that could weather the winter and rising tides. A home the big earthquake could not shake.
TagsFamily, Literature, Nature
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