Prairie Dog

by Tricia Orr

In your red clay chamber,
you lift your velvet pincushion
of an ear – what do you hear?

Biologists have recorded you.
If I wear blue
your alarm call will be different
than the day I wore yellow.

Dolphin and chimpanzee
have nothing on you.

The sentinel of your colony
in yips of varying length and pitch
dutifully reports coyote or dog,
vulture or crow.

I hope you know the difference
in tone and intent behind
black oil sunflower seeds
and lead bullets.

But perhaps it’s best you don’t
understand us or our words.

Suspect us all. Even those
of us who bring you Timothy hay
and parsley to the intersection
of Cerrillos and St. Francis.

 

Tricia Orr is a practitioner of community herbalism living in Northeast Ohio. She has taught ESL at the community college level and more recently in a refugee resettlement program.Her poetry and stories have been published in Belt Magazine, The Vignette Review, Pedestal Magazine, Rust+Moth, among others. After 13 years in New Hampshire, she recently returned to her Rust Belt roots, Cleveland, Ohio.

Eavesdropping on Nature

by Amy Fletcher

Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf. – Aldo Leopold, 1949

The twentieth century could be exuberantly noisy. Right from the start, Nicola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi wondered if radio might provide a way for Earth to communicate with populations on Mars.  In October 1927, the movie The Jazz Singer brought sound to the movies.  The Beatles pushed the outer limits of the recording studio in the 1960s, incorporating innovations such as back masking, artificial double tracking, spliced audio loops, and compression into popular music, which then became the glue that bound the Age of Aquarius.  On the political front, the “beep, beep, beep” of the Sputnik satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, heralded an era of national-security driven exploration on both sides of the Cold War that, aided by rapid advances in computer/digital technologies, soon encompassed the oceans, the Antarctic, and inner and outer space.  Guiseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison even urged astrophysicists, in 1959, to listen for the interstellar signals that they believed were indeed out there. Only a few months later, in April 1960, Frank Drake sent the first radio transmission from Earth to outer space, aptly naming his work Project Ozma for a character in The Wizard of Oz who lives in a place “very far away, difficult to reach and populated by strange and exotic beings.”

Yet the modern mind also had a strange fascination for silence, including the question of whether or not such a thing could be said to exist at all.  In 1964, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, scientists at Bell Laboratories, tried to record silence and found that it was technically impossible to do.  Even with the best equipment of the time, cosmic noise, a sort of constant background hum (actually microwave background radiation) could be detected; indeed, cosmic noise may be sounds waves still echoing from the original Big Bang.  This experiment provided scientific legitimacy to what the modern composer and musician John Cage had already figured out on his own; namely, that “there is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time.  There is always something to see, something to hear.  In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

One can concede the point: if you pay close attention, true silence doesn’t exist.  Whether one is in space or in nature or in a concert hall, there are intricate sounds that can strike the ear if one stops to listen.  Yet for environmentalists, who have often lived in an uneasy truce with modernity, things are not quite that straightforward.  The extermination of a species does create a void that can be understood as silence: that particular voice is lost forever.  Think of the quagga or the Tasmanian tiger, as examples:  we can today theorize about how they might have sounded.  We can reconstruct skeletons, in some cases, and make educated guesses about the species’ behavior.  Still, for those species that were lost before audio recording technology became mundane, we cannot truly know what those voices contributed to the environmental chorus.  Perfect silence may never exist, but there are significant gaps in the global soundscape, places where the record skips or goes fuzzy and unintelligible.

By the early 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) galvanized a new generation of American environmentalists with its stark depiction of chemically-degraded gardens and forests that no longer rang with bird songs and animal chatter, due to the ravages of industrial chemicals such as DDT.  Carson asks us to imagine a future nature characterized by only “a strange stillness . . . a spring without voices . . . [where] only silence lay over the fields and wood and marsh.”  The 1960s, preoccupied with the fragile logic of mutual assured destruction (MAD), was a decade obsessed with the specter of a final, irrevocable silence brought on by the very technological innovations that the modern industrial age made possible: does cosmic noise signify if there is no one left to hear it?  Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall’s The Quiet Crisis (1963) brought the weight of the United States federal government and the urgency of Kennedy’s New Frontier to the environmental crisis, while The Silent Sky (1965), a book by Allan W. Eckert on the extinction of the passenger pigeon, asked us to imagine that final micro-second before death, in which the last passenger pigeon “heard the gust of wind which swept through the tops of the trees with a sound not unlike the murmur of a million different wings.”  After that, dead silence.

Today, a new generation of artists, scientists and activists are at the forefront of the discipline of soundscape ecology. R. Murray Schafer, who pioneered the Acoustic Ecology program at Simon Fraser University in the 1970s, launched the concept of soundscapes (which can include industrial as well as natural sounds) in The Tuning of the World (1977).  Recent work on soundscape ecology explicitly seeks to incorporate sound into an environmentalism dominated by the visual and to use sound to make and reinforce tangible connections to specific places and landscapes. The crucial point of soundscape ecology and its strongest link to environmental policy and wildlife preservation is that the systematic analysis of sounds over time allows us to anticipate encroaching gaps that we do not want, to ensure that as many voices as possible are represented in nature’s chorus.

The first environmental sound recordings to break through from science into the mainstream, and to connect with a burgeoning environmental consciousness, were the humpback whale songs released to the public in the 1970s.  The United States Navy had data on whale songs as early as the 1950s, collected as a byproduct of an underwater acoustic surveillance system installed to monitor Soviet submarines and sonar codes.  These recordings were de-classified in the late 1960s, while the scientist Scott McVay published a ground-breaking article on the data in 1971. Since we live in an era in which the slogan “save the whales” has become a green cliché to many (a flashback reference to “whale song” even made it into a The Simpsons episode), it is important for us to try and backtrack to a time when these sounds were new to almost everyone.  Scientists knew that by referring to the whale vocalizations as “songs” they were anthropomorphizing the species; yet it is difficult to know what else one might call them, given that serious listening provides evidence of patterns and intent.  Whale songs also crossed from science into popular culture with relative ease.  The symphonic composer Alan Havhaness, for example, integrated whale melodies into an orchestral work for the New York Philharmonic in 1970.  For music critic Donal Henahan, writing in the New York Times in December 1970, listening to the whale songs was such a primal experience that he wrote, “if, after hearing this (preferably in a dark room) you don’t feel you have been put in touch with your mammalian past, you had best give up listening to vocal music.” The visceral experience these recordings provided became, in essence, the soundtrack of the environmental movement.  As the 1970s came to a close, National Geographic magazine, in 1979, inserted a flexible audio disc of whale song recordings into each of 10 million printed copies that went around the world, putting whale songs on a par with some of the most successful album releases of the era.

Yet, the essential problem persists, indeed has arguably only worsened as we stand at the edge of the Anthropocene:  in the absence of a political commitment to habitat preservation, and a willingness to live with the risks that wild animals, particularly large carnivores, can bring, soundscape ecology becomes a form of archiving rather than conservation, rather akin to the frantic late 19th century attempts to stuff display cases with the relics of vanishing cultures. The experience of soundscape ecology pioneer Bernie Krause highlights the very fine line between soundscape ecology as science and nostalgia.  Forty years ago, Krause, a member of The Weavers folk group, left popular music to order to collect the sounds of nature.  In his 2013 TED talk, Krause urges us to realize that “every soundscape that springs from a wild habitat generates its own unique signature, one that contains incredible amounts of information.”  In the early 1970s, Krause estimates that he gathered, on average, approximately one usable hour of acoustic material for every ten hours of recording: enough data for an album or a museum exhibition.  Yet though the quality of digital recording technology has scaled up dramatically since then (as prices have fallen), the natural sounds on offer have dropped precipitously or disappeared altogether.  Citing factors such as global warming and industrial noise, Krause notes that today it can take up to 1,000 hours of recording to capture the same amount of usable species data as was routinely available in the early 1970s within 10 hours of recorded time.   Approximately half of Krause’s sound archive, amassed over four decades of painstaking fieldwork, comes from habitats so altered or degraded that the original soundscape has either irrevocably changed or is diminished to the point of environmental silence.  In a perhaps inadvertent nod to Silent Spring, Krause noted that his recent recordings in Sugarloaf National Park (California), in 2015, captured “the first spring in my 77 years that was completely silent.  There were birds.  But there was no birdsong whatsoever.”

The soundscape ecologist Bryan Pijanowski, at Purdue University, rightfully asks, “if we disconnect with the sounds of nature, will we continue to respect and sustain nature?” It is a serious question, in fact a crucial one, that brings us full circle to the paradox at the center of soundscape ecology: namely, how can we ensure that the amassing of these sounds, however important in a scientific/ecological sense, won’t finally produce only a Museum of Lost Sounds rather than audibly vital habitats?  This is also the point at which soundscape ecology as science elides into art. Huia Transcriptions, by Sally Ann McIntyre, an Australian/New Zealand artist, asks us to listen to a music box in a forest playing the delicate calls of the huia, a New Zealand species of bird that went extinct in 1907 (due primarily to over-hunting by humans who prized its feathers).  McIntyre’s work makes us aware that we are listening to the huia at two removes: not only is the huia extinct, but the sounds we hear are actually re-mediations taken from the work of Mr. H. T. Carver, who had the presence of mind to notate the call of the huia in the late 1800s.

We also need to consider how soundscape ecology as both science and art takes on a particular cast when placed in the context of so-called “de-extinction.”  Since 2013, abetted by several deeply resourced Silicon Valley advocates and high-powered ambassadors such as the Revive and Restore Foundation, de-extinction, broadly defined, seeks to use advanced biotechnologies such as reproductive cloning (using closely related surrogate species) and gene editing to “bring back” certain extinct species.  Due to significant advances in extracting and analyzing ancient DNA, the idea is not quite as fanciful as it may sound.  In 2003, for example, Italian scientists managed to bring back in the laboratory, for seven minutes, a cloned bucardo, a notable achievement in that the last extant member of the species had died in 2000.  Of course, three-year-old DNA is significantly different in quality from hundred-or-four thousand-year-old DNA, hence the intense scientific controversy attending the notion of “bringing back” such species as the Tasmanian tiger or the woolly mammoth.  Still, biotechnology continues its rapid evolution, and proponents contend that genome editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas 9 may open up the possibility of splicing the DNA of an extinct species such as the woolly mammoth into the genome of a related extant species such as the Asian elephant, thereby technically ‘resurrecting’ this Ice Age icon.

That we can even seriously discuss de-extinction today is indicative of a bio-cybernetic age, an era in which science fiction and fact collide, merge and separate in a constant kaleidoscope of possibilities.  Yet if we do manage to bring back certain long-lost species, they are going to make some noise.  Think back, for example, to the movie version of Jurassic Park (1993).  Director Steven Speilberg knew that the audience needed to hear the T-Rex before it saw it, that the sounds created the suspense. The classic six-minute scene begins with the first visitors to Jurassic Park sitting stranded in their flimsy electric cars (the power has gone out), hot and bored, vaguely irritated by the absence of all those marauding monsters that they came to see.  Then, the precocious kid in the car (our surrogate) hears, faintly but clearly, a distant rhythmic stomping sound that reverberates under the ground and causes the water glasses on the dashboard to shake.  He motions to everyone in the car to wake-up, stop moving, and to listen.  The adult tentatively mutters that ‘maybe, it’s just the power trying to come back on?’  As anticipation builds, we hear a creaking gate and then see a large claw attached to a very large reptilian arm disappear back into the enclosure.  A few more micro-seconds tick by, the gate falls, and then we see it: a T-Rex that lets out an angry dinosaur roar which sounds as if it comes hurtling out of the blackest depths of ancient time itself.  Just the power trying to come back on, indeed.

Of course, it is virtually certain that no dinosaur species will ever be resurrected, due to the near-complete degradation of the DNA over time (as well as the lack of a plausible surrogate or adequate space), so we have the luxury of celluloid dreaming in this case.  But Jurassic Park, a popcorn fantasy, brings us back around to the politics of soundscape ecology in a compelling way.  In the midst of the present extinction crisis, digital sound can be added to these fragments via which we try to hang onto those things that are fragile, that are rapidly disappearing.  From this point of view, soundscape ecology is essential to support, but could, if we are not mindful, finally disconnect us from nature by severing the link between real animals and habitats and the sounds that they make.  This would not be the fault of soundscape ecologists or soundscape artists: their work is intended to force us to pay attention.  Yet technology can have strange distancing effects and we cannot always predict the uses to which data will be put.  If sound can be digitally divorced from place (and from actual species) in our bio-cybernetic age, and repackaged and remixed at will, then soundscape ecology becomes less about a vital future and more about a virtual one.  Still, we are at the early stages of this new discipline, and may yet have just enough time to think this through.  As the great theorist Jacques Attali reminds us, “for twenty-five centuries, Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world.  It has failed to understand that the world is not for beholding.  It is not legible, but audible. . . By listening to noise, we can better understand where the folly of men and their calculations is leading us, and what hopes it is still possible to have.”

 

 

Amy Fletcher lives and works in Christchurch, New Zealand, where her research focuses on the complex relationship between animals, technologies, and environmental politics.

Spinal Tap

by Kathy Miles

He’s a motley, a bag of pick-and-mix.
Black and white bullseyes, caramel,
a splash of raspberry ruffle under his tail.

He’s drumming tree trunks and feeders,
the ground below him fletched with feathers.
And the day stretches out, tethering me

to this silent house while his knocking
shakes the neighbourhood.
He drills my head like a neurosurgeon,

opens up the wormholes in my brain
exposing synapses and neurons;
searches it for grubs or tiny larvae.

He draws the fluid from my spinal cord,
pecks at the edge of the cortex.
Soon he will reach the heartwood.

I feed him ants and grasshoppers,
line his nest with tangled thoughts,
the gristle of my dreams.

 

Kathy Miles is a poet and short story writer living in West Wales. She has published three collections of poetry: The Rocking Stone (Poetry Wales Press), The Shadow House, and Gardening With Deer (Cinnamon Press). She has been placed in several major competitions, winning the Welsh Poetry Competition in 2014, the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2015, and the PENfro Poetry Competition in 2016. She has just completed an MA in Creative Writing, and is a co-editor of The Lampeter Review.

Hushed, arthritic tread: The Peregrine and health

by Miranda Cichy 

I remember precisely what drew to me to J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), in an undergraduate lecture over a decade ago. The lecturer was Robert Macfarlane, who I would discover was one of the book’s great champions: largely responsible for bringing it to the attention of this century’s readers. Macfarlane told the story of a man in the east of England, John Alec Baker, obsessed with a dying species of bird, the peregrine, which looked nothing like the red-tailed hawk on the cover of the 2005 New York edition. When Baker was writing, the British peregrine population was in severe decline. Having halved in just 23 years – between 1939 and 1962 – it did not look set to recover in his lifetime. Macfarlane told us how Baker observed and recorded what he saw as the peregrines’ final days. How he pursued them through the winter months with a fixation beyond the meticulousness of the bird-watcher: something closer to desire, to longing, to love. How he wrote in his book about wanting to become the bird.

And then, how he did. J. A. Baker, Macfarlane told us, had arthritis – the exact type of which I would not learn for several years. But I can remember writing down what I had heard in the lecture that day with a small shiver of fascination: Baker’s arthritis became so bad that his knuckles knotted and fused together, and his fingers became like talons.

Three years later I was working in the publishing house that owned the rights to Baker’s work. On an endlessly rolling six-month contract in the rights department, I was far from my dream of sitting amongst the editorial team reading fresh manuscripts. I spent the tube journeys from east to west London writing, and my lunchtimes wandering along the large grey expanse of the Thames, buoyed by its resolute and continuous journey through the city. Aside from the cheap lunches and free stationery, my favourite thing about my job was the book store. Employees could purchase old paperbacks for 20p, hardbacks for 50p. I was using it to build up a collection of cookbooks, but every now and then something in fiction or non-fiction caught my eye.

It was in that bookshop one day that I saw a hardback copy of The Peregrine. I remembered the lecture, and the man whose hands grew into claws, and the focus on literature I’d had back then. I bought it.

It was summer; I read The Peregrine by the river. The book surprised me. I found within it lyrical descriptions of a watery, estuarine landscape, detailed observations of birds I didn’t know (I read “plover” to rhyme with “clover”). I waited for the section where Baker spoke of himself, of his arthritis. As the book went on, it became colder, more brutal: there were herons petrified in ice, the blood of pigeons blooming against the snow. The author’s affinity with the peregrines intensified: there was a passage where he “sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk” (145). But there was no reference to his health, or his fingers, or to talons.

When I finished The Peregrine I wondered if I had missed something. I wasn’t disappointed – its sentences hung round me like threads, some of which I have never shaken off – but my knowledge of Baker from that university lecture felt at odds with what I had read. I wanted to know more of the author, largely absent from the book: his home glimpsed once “through the frosted window-pane at sunrise” (132), his life in the simple dedication: “To my wife.”

Several years later, studying an MA in Literature and the Environment at the University of Essex, I was amazed to learn of the Baker archive. In the Albert Sloman Library, Baker’s life was packed tightly into two clear plastic boxes. I found his Miranda binoculars (it seemed like fate), his scrapbook of cut-out bird images, his early poems, his letters. And then, notes from an interview by the filmmaker David Cobham with Baker’s widow, Doreen, where I first learned the name of his illness: ankylosing spondylitis.

“Pictures are waxworks beside the passionate mobility of the living bird” (19), wrote Baker in The Peregrine. Words can be too. Ankylosing spondylitis. I learned the phrase with the same blankness with which I’d first read plover. I used it in my first MA essay, which I wrote on The Peregrine: on Baker’s obsession with birds, his literary aims. When I mentioned the passage where Baker “crawl[s] across stubble and dry plough”, I wrote that “such images are both less and more heroic when you imagine the author as he was: large, myopic, and arthritic.”

There are sentences you wish you could unwrite. Three months ago, a year after I had graduated from my MA, I heard the words “ankylosing spondylitis” again. This time they were from a doctor of medicine, not literature, as he listened to my symptoms of joint pain, discussed previous doctor visits, x-ray results, booked blood tests that would ultimately show the inflammation in my system. He was ruling out that particular rheumatological condition, he explained, because the worst of the pain was in my knees and ankles, rather than spine, and I nodded; I knew.

I live now, as Baker did, in the east of England. I love the landscape for its expanse; for the heaviness of the clouds hanging above the water; for the endless rise and fall of the estuary banks, like lungs; for the glittering mud. For the godwits, curlews, plover (of which I know, now, there are several types) and sometimes the peregrines, when I am lucky – although we are already so much luckier than Baker ever imagined.

I love the east also for its flatness: for giving me the opportunity to walk, on the days the pain is not at its worst. I spent August and September away from the estuary, a lot of it on the sofa. Having always lived an outdoor life, I watched with desperation as the outside become the backyard, or what I could see of it: the bindweed choking the brambles, the block of sunlight flooding the sweet-peas. Some days the world is shrunk to one floor level. Some days it shrinks to my laptop: to self-diagnosis, self-prognosis, self-pity.

In the first week of October I went to the estuary. In previous months I would have taken a bus to the University, and walked along the river to Wivenhoe, and then beyond. This time we went direct to Wivenhoe. The walk was punctuated by benches. The following day was difficult. I think of what I wrote of Baker. Never less heroic.

It is a small loss that I never read Baker without being aware of his arthritis. Increasingly fewer people will come to The Peregrine without this knowledge, and I am sure that the forthcoming biography from Little Toller, My House of Sky, will further expand on this aspect of the author’s life. Macfarlane has written repeatedly of it, going so far as to say that Baker’s arthritis was one of two details (the second being short sight) that “bear most forcefully on The Peregrine.” He goes on: “Suffering as he did from curtailed vision and a stiffened body, the peregrine stood as both his dream totem and his prosthesis – perfected in precisely the ways that Baker was lessened.” Lawrence Buell has similarly speculated whether Rachel Carson’s “rage at the suffering inflicted on others’ bodies, and on earth’s body” was related to her own suffering from cancer during the latter stages of writing Silent Spring.

A small loss. I think, too, that it is not what Baker would have wanted. His biography on the first edition of The Peregrine was brief and wry and included the sentence: “He has no telephone and rarely goes out socially”. Not that this is going to be a piece about the rights of the author, or the power of the critic or biographer. So much of The Peregrine’s strength lies in the anonymity of the watcher: how we respond to his pursuit of – and increasing empathy with – the bird, his recoiling at mankind. I wonder how this changes for the reader who thinks of Baker in Macfarlane’s poorly-chosen term: “lessened”.

There is one instance in The Peregrine where Baker mentions arthritis. It is January, and he watches a moorhen walk across a frozen brook “with hushed, arthritic tread; the gait of the dying, yet still pathetically funny to watch” (129). I read that sentence again and wonder which part of it Baker wanted us to crystallise: the pathetic; the funny; the dying. Or just a description of a moorhen, carefully stepping its way across the ice.

 

1. David Farrier, “J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine and its Readers”, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, v. 22, no. 4 (Autumn 2015), p. 743.

2. J. A. Baker, The Peregrine [1967] (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), p. 145

3. Robert Macfarlane, “Violent Spring: the nature book that predicted the future”, The Guardian, 15 April 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/15/the-peregrine-by-ja-baker-nature-writing

4. Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 292.

 

Miranda Cichy is a writer and ecopoet with a particular focus on extinct and endangered animals. Her poems have most recently been published in Curlew Calling (Numenius Press, 2017), Driftfish (Zoomorphic, 2016), and the Nature and Myth and Nature and Regeneration pamphlets from Corbel Stone Press (2017). She currently lives in Essex and can be found on Twitter: @mirazc.”

Golden Eagle

by Garry MacKenzie

Ravens have him out of his depth,
daring collisions until he’s forced
to break his soar. They tumble him

round the cliffs and out of sight:
I’ve caught this drama’s middle act
that started minutes or an hour ago.

An adolescent, still more white
than gold, perhaps he’s reached the point
where confidence’s mooring line

has snapped and sent him spinning off –
perhaps he suffers this heckling because
there’s nothing yet to lose.

But this is not a play. Its meaning
is its happening, its time
is measured by a clock of blood.

It blows across the border
of my life as if I wasn’t there.

 

Garry MacKenzie has won poetry awards including the Wigtown Poetry Competition and a Scottish Book Trust New Writer’s Award. His poems have been published in journals including Dark Mountain, The Scores, Northwords Now and Southlight. His non-fiction book Scotland: A Literary Guide for Travellers is published by I.B. Tauris.

Shallow Names

by David Lukas

When we look out at the natural world around us it might feel like everything is known, or at the very least that everything is named. And while it is true that all known organisms are named, even down to the most obscure mushrooms and microscopic worms, how many of us look closely at these names?

Nearly all the labels for tens of thousands of plants and animals in North America have been given to us by scientists. This lends the names an air of authority and legitimacy, but the surprising fact is that much of this terminology is poverty-stricken: these names are mere place-holders, shallow names with shallow stories behind them.

I say this because the vast majority of these names were concocted by scientists who had little to no experience with an organism’s life or character when they named it (species are typically named first and then studied in detail only if someone later takes a special interest in that new species). In the case of North American birds, for example, this has led to anomalous names like Hermit Warbler and Solitary Vireo (birds that were named before their social tendencies had been studied).

An astounding number of names have been created by scientists in museums who have never seen the organisms in their living forms or in their native habitats. There is a sizable degree of arrogance encoded in these names, and they often leave real-world observers scratching their heads. Names like Ring-necked Duck, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow describe features that might be visible on dead museum specimens but are obscured in real life.

Many other names merely denote superficial features such as colors or shapes, or the geographic locations where organisms were first collected. At an even greater remove are the huge numbers of names that commemorate the male-based system of scientific reciprocity, men naming species after other men as a way of legitimizing each other’s “greatness.” The list of North American bird names bearing men’s surnames is daunting: Cassin’s, Cooper’s, Hammond’s, Harris’s, Heermann’s, Swainson’s, Townsend’s, Wilson’s, and so on. It is telling that out of some nine hundred North American birds, only three are named after women, and all by their first names only (which was never done for men): Anna’s Hummingbird, Grace’s Warbler, and Lucy’s Warbler.

And sadly, at least in the case of birds, there are very few names that signify spiritual, mythological, or poetic properties. The closest I can find are goatsuckers and ibis, although there is a kind of poetry in names like starling (‘little star’) or crane (‘to cry out’).

So does it matter if these names are shallow, and should anything be done about this? There are no easy answers, but it will be difficult for any of us to rethink the natural world when the entire system of knowledge is bounded by a coded language controlled by a single committee of scientists. (All naming rules and choices are decided by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature, a group of twenty-eight scientists, only four of whom are women as of this writing.)

When all is said and done, these “technical” names are at best placeholders, rapidly created according to preconceived rules in order to keep pace with the furious rate of discovery (15,000 new species are named each year). The proper role of a scientist, after all, is to discover natural “facts” and keep moving with the frontier of discovery, not to double back and fill in human meaning. So here we are, looking at a world of placeholders, and the question is whether anyone wants to double back and fill in the places these names are holding.

One solution might be the radical re-creation of new names that arise from a deeper understanding of each plant or animal’s life, or that arise from a richer cosmology of the natural world. It is understandable, however, if a writer feels unable or unwilling to propose radical new names, so another choice might be to rename species through the less radical linguistic processes of clipping or blending. Thus, rather than entirely jettisoning common names like Brewer’s Blackbird or Douglas-fir (both of which embody the old practice of naming species after prominent men), you might end up with “new” names such as brewbird or dougfir. In fact, a handful of abbreviated names like these are already used colloquially by field biologists, but I know of no examples that have become commonplace in written communication.

Clipping is a common word-forming process whereby parts of words come to stand for whole words or phrases. Clipped words may look strange when they first appear, but some become so familiar that users forget or no longer use the original words. Examples of clipped words would be binocs for binoculars, flu for influenza, hyper for hyperactive, phone for telephone, or radio for radiotelegraphy. Clipping is not an exotic linguistic process; in fact it is a modern phenomenon that picked up steam in the twentieth century through the media of magazines and newspapers.

Blending is a process of forming new words from the parts of two or more words. Common examples of blended words include brunch (breakfast+lunch), motel (motor+hotel), and smog (smoke+fog). This process seems to be particularly successful where components from the source words overlap in pronunciation or spelling (e.g., motor + hotel). Blends are similar to and can include clipping to the extent that blends contain clipped words that have been joined to form new words. Another option is to blend the first letters of words to form acronyms, as in UNESCO, NATO, YMCA, UFO, or snafu (situation normal all fouled up).

Clipped and blended words typically arise in social situations where shared, long-term usage makes it possible to communicate clearly even when using parts of common words; this would make these words ideal within a community of people who share a passion for speaking of the natural world. Clipped or blended words are often faulted for having an air of frivolity, but they serve a vital social function by making communication within a group of people more succinct and efficient.

The processes of clipping or blending the common names of plants and animals opens up some intriguing ways to think about naming, though admittedly these processes may work well only for charismatic and widely referenced species. Examples already in common usage include colloquial names like redtail for Red-tailed Hawk, coop for Cooper’s Hawk, sharpie for Sharp-shinned Hawk, and coho for Coho Salmon. Creating other new names will require a sense of playfulness, but examples of how these processes might work could include sneg or snegret for Snowy Egret, cavi or cavire for Cassin’s Vireo, weki or wekibird for Western Kingbird, gianquoia for Giant Sequoia, polepine for Lodgepole Pine, and osapine or pondo for Ponderosa Pine.

It should be clear that clipping and blending are infinitely creative processes, so there is no reason to feel limited by these examples. Ultimately, these processes may or may not prove to be productive ways of responding to the issue of shallow names; they are simply one potential solution for taking ownership of the names you use.

 

David Lukas is a naturalist and writer based on the west coast of North America, where he has spent his life teaching people about the natural world and grappling with questions about how words and names shape our relationships with the natural world. His most recent book Language Making Nature (www.languagemakingnature.com) is an exploration of these same questions. This excerpt is part of his extended argument that we reclaim these vital relationships by playfully (and creatively) renaming the things of this world that matter most to us.

Dung Beetle

by Ann Drysdale

Here he comes, dribbling singlemindedly,
concentrating, keeping control of the ball.
And there he goes down the wing,
the wing actual, the wing ephemeral,
beating half-hearted defenders who don’t really go for it.
Nobody wants possession of his ball
only the cheap thrill of the actual tackle,
the nom-nom nourishment stuffed up his shiny shirt.
See, off he goes, on he goes, while the ball swells and slows,
gathering unto itself the shit of its conception
the aim of its only begetter
as he dribbles, dribbles, heading head-down for the line.
And he scores!

 

Ann Drysdale is an expatriate Englishwoman living and writing in Wales. Born near Manchester and brought up in London, she has lived on a narrowboat in the Midlands, a smallholding in Yorkshire and, for the last twenty years, in the highest terrace of a small town in Gwent.  Along the way she has published six poetry collections as well as memoirs, essays and a guidebook to Newport.

Day Nineteen

by Gina Bright

Day One

All six eyes fixed on him after he turned on the lights. They trusted him in spite of his masked face.

“Good morning, little cancer fighters.”

Ned was excited because the doctors, not the non-human primate ones he was more comfortable working with, believed they might have found a cure for cancer this time, or at least something like they had for AIDS. Death would be rare.

After a few years of assisting with dog and cat exams, blood draws, and vaccinations, Ned had joined the research team at this start-up pharmaceutical company. That was after his father died from lymphoma. That was before anyone really knew how to use the body’s own immune system to fight disease.

Ned was honored when the scientists selected him to be the animal health technician for these special cynos who would receive SIM001, the first ever “super immune modifier.” Killer T cells would multiply and crush cancer cells while B cells would halt them in their desperate desire to proliferate into infinity. That was how Ned understood it.

He just knew today’s infusion would annihilate the lymphoma cells he injected into his three patients weeks ago. If only Dad was still here.

He needed to feed them before the treatments began. Sassy was his favorite, Subject AF1, the first female monkey who would receive this drug. She had arrived here months ago from the big breeding facility in the Philippines. That long and dark trip did nothing to deter her from biting Ned when he lifted her out of the filthy box she could barely turn around in.

It took him weeks to train her not to go after him every time he opened her cage. He learned mangos were her favorite. Today he hoped a plum would remind her of the lipotes back home and allow him extra leeway with the infusion.

He handed her the mango. Sassy devoured it and then held out her arm. She knew the routine for blood draws, but now Ned needed to leave in the needle. He secured the needle with some tape and gave her the plum. Success.

Ned changed his gloves and unlocked Subject AM1’s cage, the first male in the study.

“Hey, hey, Slick,” Ned said as he placed a large amount of monkey chow in his bowl. Slick learned a few days after his arrival how to unfasten his cage door from the inside. He was usually found wading in the pool in the next room after one of these great escapes. Ned found a little padlock with a key only he carried while on duty.

Slick was not a big fruit eater, unusual for a cynomolgus monkey, but he sure did like the fruit loops Ned gave him every time he needed to draw his blood.

“You’re a good one, my little Houdini,” Ned said as Slick extended his arm in exchange for a Kong toy filled with the sweet, round delights.

The third subject, AM2, was next in line for Ned’s needle. When Ned unpacked this little monkey from his shipment box, his eyes had a longing for comfort so deep Ned had no choice but to just hug him. There was no fight or escape in this one.

Sad Eyes, as Ned named him, was not a big eater; a little chow here and there and the occasional mango was it for him. He always extended his arm without a special treat, but Ned thought a papaya today would lift his spirits. Sad Eyes seemed to enjoy the fruit after the big stick. He even licked his fingers long after it was gone.

All three of them sat still in their cages for the hour it took to receive SIM001. Nate noted, “No adverse events observed during or after the infusion” in each of their charts.

Day Eight

Ned only recorded his observations on the days required by the study doctors, even though he cared for the monkeys the rest of the time. He knew the human doctors were only interested in their responses to the drug at key time points.

Today labs and EKGs were scheduled. It did not take Ned very long to collect a tube of blood from Sassy, but when Ned applied the little pads with wires to her chest to measure her heart’s function she showed him some teeth. Another plum allowed him to complete the procedure.

Ned entered “No adverse events observed” in each of their charts.

Ned was relieved his patients were doing well and he took all of them to the pool. The veterinarians encouraged activities for the monkeys that they would normally engage in in their natural habitats. Ned knew cynos loved the water. He read about the rivers they occupied deep in the forests. The water saved them from the high temperatures and unbearable humidity.

The sauna-like poolroom mimicked their native land and all of them seemed to love it. Slick groomed Sassy as they basked in the cool water. Sad Eyes was not too far away but did not participate. It had been that way since their second time at the pool a few months ago.

Ned knew, the vets had told him, Sassy, Slick, and Sad Eyes were perfect subjects for this study because of their youth, really their sexual immaturity. The males were only two and Sassy was just a year and a half—too young to mate or to have any other illnesses. Nevertheless, Ned was warned to watch Sassy for any sign of estrus, just in case the breeding facility was not completely accurate about their ages.

They stayed at the pool for hours. The cynos succumbed to sleep as soon as Ned placed them back in their cages.

Day Fifteen

No EKGs today but more blood work. Ned knew they had one more week left before the second infusion. He hoped they would not experience anything too severe so the study could continue and no one close to him would have to die from cancer again.

Ned remembered his father’s awful abdominal pain near the end as he turned on the lights in the cyno room. His Dad spent most of his time in the only chair in his workshop that provided any comfort. At least he was surrounded by the scent of the wood he once crafted into cabinets and bookshelves.

Sassy was still sleeping when Ned approached her cage. Slick was all too happy to receive some fruit loops in exchange for his arm. Sad Eyes expected his papaya now on blood draw days.

Sassy was sitting up in her cage when Ned returned to her. Her eyes were a little glassy. Ned removed the sheath from the needle. She did not demand a mango. Strange.

“My good Sassy girl, enjoy,” Ned said as he handed her the mango when he was done.

She set the fruit on the floor and then rubbed her tummy.

“Subject AF1 appears to have some fatigue, loss of appetite, and maybe nausea or stomach pain,” Ned wrote in her chart.

Day Nineteen

Ned did not expect to record any observations today, but he had no choice. Before he even turned on the lights, he heard the terrible “Kra, Kra, Kra” from Slick who then rattled his cage as soon as he saw Ned. Sad Eyes had plucked so much hair from the top of his head it looked like he was wearing a little white hat.

Ned ran to the middle cage. Sassy was far away from the opening and her back faced Ned. She was bent over and seemed frozen in that position. He placed his right hand on the front of her neck and his left one on her lower torso to support her as he tried to straighten her out.

The scream was excruciating. More “Kras” came from Slick and now Sad Eyes joined in on the commotion. Ned turned her around. He almost dropped her. Sassy’s greenish-brown eyes were filled with blood.

Ned set her down and ran to the wall to sound the alarm. It was still early but he knew some doctor would be in the building. Thankfully, the veterinarian Dr. Walker arrived first. He took one look at Sassy and asked Ned to get a stretcher.

Next came Dr. Becker. “What has happened?” she said. And then she asked Ned, “Have you not been monitoring her since Day 15?”

He told the doctor Sassy had no new symptoms since then. Yesterday she seemed slightly more tired but she even ate two mangos in addition to some chow. Dr. Becker rushed along with them as they wheeled Sassy to the sick bay. She asked with concern in her voice, “What will I do without Subject AF1?” But Ned knew she really meant, “How can my study continue with one of the three cynos unable to receive the next infusion?”

Dr. Becker examined Sassy in order to observe all of the side effects from SIM001, or what Ned knew she would term “dose-limiting toxicities” if the study ever made it into humans.

Dr. Walker covered Sassy’s eyes so the ceiling lights did not hurt her. Ned started an IV in her right arm and infused the fluids ordered by Dr. Walker. Dr. Becker offered an explanation for Sassy’s condition, “It seems the ‘super immune modifier’ was a bit too ‘super.’ The drug might have attacked more than the lymphoma cells she received. Her central nervous system was a victim of T cell fire.”

Sassy’s face was clenched. Dr. Walker gave her some Demerol and her pain subsided after a few minutes. Dr. Walker also started steroids, Dr. Becker’s suggestion before she left. They might help dull the extreme immune response and even the pain coming from her spine. Usually the doctors would put the animal out of her misery at this point, but Dr. Becker wanted to see if the steroids would reverse this severe adverse event. Not for Sassy’s sake, Ned knew, but for the unfortunate human in the future.

By now Ned was two hours into overtime, but he did not care. He wanted to see Sassy turn around, and he did not have anything better waiting for him at home. He removed the cloth from her eyes. A little snippet of her irises started to peep through the bleeding. Maybe the steroids were working.

After another hour, Sassy seemed relaxed and Ned thought it was safe to go home. But then she started to shake. When Ned tried to stop her writhing he noticed she was burning up. He reached for the thermometer on the table next to her head. He removed it from her rectum when the reading started to pass 106 degrees.

He ran over to Dr. Walker’s office next door. Dr. Walker ran back to the sick bay with Ned. “She’s probably septic. Let’s try some antibiotics through the night.” Then Dr. Walker told Ned to go home. “Sally came on duty hours ago, Ned. Sassy will be her only patient tonight.”

Day 20

Ned read the night notes in Sassy’s chart as soon as he arrived before dawn. Dr. Walker stayed the night. Sassy’s temperature came down around 4 AM but by 6 AM she was unresponsive. Ned knew euthanasia was inevitable now.

She did not require the propofol usually given for sedation before the barbiturate committed the final act. Ned handed the pentobarbital to Dr. Walker and Sassy was no more.

Ned tried to have a normal workday after Sassy’s death and so he went to take care of Slick and Sad Eyes.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” he said with a somber tone as he turned on the lights.

Slick had now joined Sad Eyes in plucking out his own hair. Sad Eyes had now resorted to biting his arms throughout the night. They were stressed, indeed.

Ned did not have any fruit for Sad Eyes but he knew there were plenty of fruit loops to be had in the cabinet. Sad Eyes joined Slick in a good-sized helping on the floor. Ned felt good letting them out of their cages for some breakfast together.

A few hours later, Dr. Walker came into the cyno room to ask Ned if he would like to assist with Sassy’s necropsy. Ned always hated that term. Why isn’t the dissection of the dead monkey, or dog or cat for that matter, called an autopsy? They’re individuals too.

Ned was the one with sad eyes now when he saw Sassy’s body lying so still on the table. Dr. Walker inserted the knife in her upper chest and moved it until it reached her bottom end. It was just a matter of seconds. Sassy was only 16 inches long.

“Oh Lord!” Dr. Walker exclaimed when he opened her lower abdominal cavity. And then he lifted a tiny, black cyno from Sassy’s uterus. “Just two more months and Sassy would have had her first. Well, probably not with that SIM001 in her system.”

Ned remembered the first day he took all of them to the pool about three months ago after they completed their required quarantine. Ned watched them so closely for any shenanigans as they sat in the water for hours after displaying their talent for splashing. Ned got soaked.

How could it have happened? That was the day though of the last emergency before this one. He was the only tech on duty and he had to run to Dr. Walker’s aide when the alarm sounded. A cyno in an Alzheimer’s study was having unstoppable seizures and Ned had to get Valium for the doctor from the locked cabinet.

He might have been gone ten minutes, fifteen tops, but it was long enough. Now he understood why Slick groomed Sassy every time they went to the pool after that. He knew she would be the mother of his firstborn.

Dr. Walker determined the cause of death was encephalitis due to the study drug.

“You know, Ned, they want me to euthanize Slick and Sad Eyes now. Dr. Becker said the study is too unsafe to continue.”

“I can’t do it.”

Ned could not bring himself to say goodbye to the two males on his way out of the cinder block building. The mid-day air was thick. It’s no wonder they spend so much time in the water back home.

Ned looked up at the cyno floor as he unlocked his car door. He would not return tomorrow. He never would.

 

Gina M. Bright has a doctorate in medieval English literature and is a registered nurse. She is the author of Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic: A Story of Discrimination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and the short story, “The Poet’s Wife; The Mistress’ Sister” (The Copperfield Review, July 24, 2017).

 

Choughed

by Mark Totterdell

Thrift and soft grasses have made me a mattress
beneath the high overhang’s dark rocky buttress.

Two choughs are feeding, each crimson bill probing,
describing an arc round its centre of being.

Each has been bound with a band of bright plastic
to keep them from floating off into the mystic.

‘This pair’ said the birder ‘are brother and sister’,
tut-tutting his fear of genetic disaster.

No bird is blacker, but when they fly over
the cliffs in late sunlight, they turn a pure silver.

 

Mark Totterdell lives in Devon. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and have won competitions. His collection This Patter of Traces was published by Oversteps Books in 2014. A second collection is due from Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2018.

In the Eyes of a Wolf

by James Roberts

I remember an encyclopaedia of animals with a green cover, faded gold lettering, a loose spine cracked at each end, the pages bent at the corners and warped from damp. Not an old book but badly worn by the daily handling by my younger sister and I over six or seven years. The illustrations inside were still as bright and bold as the animals themselves. I would flick through, reading the names of species that seemed so exotic that they could have been inhabitants of other planets: Portuguese Man o’ War, Pit Viper, Lammergeier. I remember double page spreads of big cats and whales, photo-real illustrations of a badger and fox that conjured them from the woods beyond our city edges. Most of all I remember the image of the timber wolf with blazing eyes that stared out of the page, watching me intensely, the way a predator watched its prey. The image terrified me, more with every visit to the book. I had a notion that I would get to that page one day and the wolf would no longer be there. It would have stepped out of the book and into the house. At first I memorised the page number so I could always flick five or six pages past it, but this method was open to error. In the end, I cellotaped the spread together, sealing the wolf in so it could never watch me again.

Even in young adulthood images of wolves could make my spine freeze. In my twenties I still refused to untape those pages in the old encyclopaedia despite having an unusually intense passion for all other forms of animal life and little fear of even the most dangerous of them. I had by then lain in the dark, inches away from a grazing hippopotamus. I had walked through the Congo rainforest with men carrying sticks of dynamite to throw at charging elephants. I had sat around campfires listening to lions roaring in the night.

I have another memory – the images are real enough to be a memory – of a family stranded in a cabin buried in deep snow, in deep night. There is howling in the surrounding woods. A boy pushes his face to an ice fogged window. There is a slap on the glass. A wolf appears only inches away. Its eyes are glowing. I can see every white tooth pushed through scarlet gums coated in froth. It could have been a story I was told too young. It could have been an ancestral dream. Many of us have an unreasonable fear of the wolves. It could be translated as a fear of the wild or reduced to a fear of all that is beyond our control. I was a child who didn’t like surprises, change or transition. I needed fixed routines, structure and control. I was made for a life within industrial society. The wolf was the great predator who shared our lands as we began our development of western culture. As our reach grew, our fear and intolerance of the uncontrolled also grew and the presence of the wolf shrank. As our culture grew to almost completely cover the European and North American continents, the presence of the wolf almost completely disappeared. It was driven out of many countries entirely. In Britain, where every acre of ground is managed, there is not a single wolf outside the confines of a zoo. Elsewhere it is now one of many refugee animal species. It survives in controlled numbers by permission of the landowner and that permission can be easily revoked.

In the mountains of Alaska there are wolf dens estimated to be thousands of years old. One site, still in use in the 1990’s, and which had been recorded as continually in use by biologists since the early twentieth century, was measured at 10 acres in area. A wolf village if you will. Interior Alaska escaped glaciation in the last ice age and wolves have been occupants there for tens of millennia at least. It is entirely possible that a structure created by wolves is older than any human made structure. These sites have switched ownership among species occasionally, having been used by wolves, foxes, bears, and also humans. Wolves den in areas that are close to sources of food like rivers or game trails. Archaeologists have found relics of human hunter gatherer habitation in some dens and believe they would have been used as seasonal hunting camps or even permanent habitations. The sites are living evidence of our wild roots and our shared history with wolves. Our dogs also remind us of this old relationship. I once had a cocker spaniel who used to sit up in her sleep and howl for several minutes at a time, her head tilted up at the sky, her mouth puckering. When she did it I was taken somewhere far beyond the edge of the city. It was the kind of experience that makes the hairs on the back of your neck bristle. Long ago our soundscape would have been filled with those howls. We would have been gathered around fires, listening intensely as the wolves located each other and moved across their hunting grounds. They would have been “special moments of living a perfect balance between danger and survival, fear and a sense of protection. Can one hope for more at any time?” wrote John Berger as he studied the animal art at Chauvet, probably the greatest artistic expression of the relationship between humans and wild animals ever created.

Wolves live in close family groups. Wolf mates usually partner for life. Young members of the pack look after pups, play with them and feed them. They patiently teach them how to hunt, a process that can take years. Before a new litter of pups is born young wolves help the pregnant female to clean out the den chamber. They pluck fur from their underbellies and line the floor, making it soft for the newborns. Wolves play as much as human children. Adults do not just tolerate the rough and tumble of pup behaviour, they encourage it and join in with it. Crossing a trail of deep snow single file in mid-winter, the leader of the line will sometimes stop and turn around, go down on its front paws and pounce on the wolf behind. A game will begin. They will chase each other in circles, bowl each other over. Wolves howl to let each other know their location, they also howl to celebrate their return to the pack after hunting trips. Wolves develop hunting cultures, some specialise in stalking mountain goats, others ambush caribou. If a pack loses its lead members these cultures can disappear. In one case of an alpha male and female being killed, the remaining pack of yearlings and cubs survived only due to a glut in snowshoe hare numbers that year. They hadn’t learned the skills to hunt larger species.

The wolf biologist Gordon Haber recorded a photo sequence of wolves crossing a fast flowing river. Two pups were too nervous to cross and a yearling wolf spent many minutes trying to encourage them, walking into the middle of the river, going down on its haunches, trying to turn it into a game. Eventually one pup made the attempt and was swept downstream to a place where the river bank was steeply undercut and the pup could not get out. The full grown yearling then used its own body as a bridge for the pup so it could climb out, before rushing back upstream to tend to the other youngster.

Wolves mourn their dead. Some wolf mates return over and over to the place where their partners were trapped or killed. Others leave the pack and spend the rest of their days wandering in a state of growing starvation before they too die. Some wolves, when relocated by helicopter in an effort to shrink pack numbers, travel many hundreds of miles back to their home territory, risking being killed by other packs or by starvation. Some have even been caught again, then again relocated and this time have simply given up and died in their transport cages. Wolves create their own cultures. There is much we humans have forgotten we share with them. There is much we still have to learn from them. Haber, after thirty years in the Alaskan wilderness studying wolves on the ground, believed that wolves should only be culled in cases of definite risk to human life. He wrote:

“Of all the arguments considered in how to manage wildlife, perhaps the most important has to do with diversity–the variety of life about us. For full expression of its marvellous potentials, the human mind needs to grow in as varied an atmosphere as possible. Variety of all forms–not only biological, but cultural and social–are needed to stimulate our thinking and to sharpen our powers of imagination; it freshens our ability to find new solutions to old problems and leads to higher levels of creativity. Variety nurtures the mind and the spirit and is as vital to our well-being as the food we eat. In short, it helps make us more human.”

We turn off the tarmac, cross a bridge that spans a fall of white water where three streams converge. We start the climb to the lake thousands of feet above, obscured by thick pine forest, traversing switchback after switchback. We have travelled from Calgary into the Rocky mountains, through Banff, Kootenay and north to Jasper. We have seen a few ravens, a few red squirrels, a small herd of elk. We have walked down forest trails calling “Hey bear!” and seen only American robins. There have been the remains of beaver lodges but the beavers were not at home. The impression, for two people from a land without wilderness, is that these forests and mountains are empty. When the ravens call their voices are muffled as if the trees are trying to silence them. “Hush!” the forest says. “Don’t tell them anything.”

The car skids a little. My eyes are fixed on the middle distance. The twilight beneath the trees, that I am sure is richly inhabited, is a horizontal blur. Then the wolf steps out of the book I thought I still had him trapped inside. He strolls out into the middle of the road, turns towards us and sits down, blocking our route. I stamp on the brake pedal and we come to a halt only feet away from him.

Close encounters with wild wolves are rare. There are biologists, who have worked in the field for decades, who have only ever had a handful of face-to-face sightings. The writer John Haines, who hunted and trapped in the Alaskan wilderness for a large part of his life, only saw them once as they crossed the ground outside his cabin at dawn. Binoculars and unlimited patience are a requirement when observing wolves. I have mentioned our close encounter to several wolf experts. Few believed me.

A wolf’s stare is as intense as a hawk’s, an owl’s or a snake’s. There is a spear point inside the stare, a penetration that freezes its subject. Sometimes a wolf approaches its prey head on. The two creatures stand face to face, eyes locked for several minutes. When the lock breaks, the prey flees, the wolf begins the chase. Or both give a creaturely shrug and amble off in different directions. The wolf’s stare is an assessment. It has an important question to answer: will this being die today?

We stare at the wolf. The wolf stares back. He is curious. He is enjoying the late autumn sunlight glinting off the vehicle in front of him. He wonders at the shapes of human faces floating behind glass. We are pictures in a book. No other wolves join him. He is probably not a member of a pack. Perhaps he is a young loner recently dispersed. He could have come from far away in search of a mate. He could be trespassing on enemy territory. Or he could be forcibly displaced, having lost his pack mates to trappers or hunters (This is a free fire zone). Could he be one of the few remaining wolves who have never encountered a human being, never witnessed a member of their family tagged or collared, snared or gunned down? Is that why he is so calm and curious, so fearless? Over 2 million of his kind have been killed by humans on this continent in the past 150 years. He seems blissfully unaware.

My wife wants to grab the camera but it is in the back of the car. If we open the door the wolf will surely flee. If we climb into the back and dig through the luggage, when we emerge with the camera our subject will have disappeared. This is not a moment to capture, it is a moment to be captured. If we take a still of this the experience will be as deep as the skin of gelatin and silver halide suspended on the surface of a piece of paper. Fifteen years later I don’t regret not taking a photograph. The Canadian forests and mountains have long faded from my memory. But the wolf is still with me, even though the encounter probably lasted only a few minutes before he stood, turned and loped back into the shadows, no longer a dark fantasy lurking in my imagination, but one of those miracles that happen occasionally to startle us awake.

Another encounter, this time not my own: A mountain slope. A small pool surrounded by brush and boulders. The camera shakes, the focus comes and goes, blurring out then sharpening. A cow moose is standing in the pool drinking. Next to her is her calf, no more than a few weeks old. The camera suddenly pans, a rush of grey. Clouds come into focus, then the horizon and against it a shape silhouetted. The camera zooms closer. The twitch of an ear. A wolf is watching. It stands and its four companions come into view. The camera pans to the pool, then back to the wolves who have already started to approach. Some are heading to the north side of the water, others to the south. The moose sees them and instantly stands over her calf, her four pole legs and long dipped neck like the remains of a broken cage. The lead wolf moves first, leaping at the cow’s head, then quickly retreating. As the cow responds with kicks from her front legs the other wolves dive at the calf and bite. The cow spins. Water rips up and scatters. A wolf has a hold of the cow’s tail. She spins again, stamping, tossing her head, almost connecting with a stab from her front hoof. But the calf is now out from under her and three wolves are on it, biting at its back legs and neck. It almost loses its footing. The cow splashes over and stands guard again. The wolves casually move back, switch positions, start the attack again.

The camera microphone cannot pick up anything of the sound of this scene. Instead human voices are heard. The photographer is in a hide with a group of several families. There are squeals and shrieks, children urging their parents to do something to save the baby. A woman is crying. The photographer is cursing under his breath. The scene plays out over several minutes. The wolves outmanoeuvre the moose. The calf is upended, dragged out of the water and suffocated with a jaw clamped to its throat. The five wolves haul the body beneath a low tree, out of reach of the desperate cow, where they calmly tear it to pieces. The watchers stare in wonder, then they look away.

 

grey wolf

Why do we find the sight of animals preying on other animals so uncomfortable? Is it because we are civilised? Our culture has taken death away from us. Our bodies are boxed, burned and buried when we die. The creatures we prey on, the billions of cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens killed every year to sustain us, are hidden from our eyes as they are killed. They are cut into pieces, hard to recognise as body parts. Their pieces are cleaned and placed in brilliant white trays as if they had been created by machines.

Seven hundred miles south of the place of my wolf encounter two men are standing beside a truck on a mountain road. They are drinking beer, taking a break on the way home from a camping trip. As they drink and talk a shape appears out of a clump of forest above them and stands silhouetted on an outcrop. It’s a shape they have never seen in this place before, too big to be a coyote, unmistakably not a dog. One of the men quickly climbs into the back of the truck, shoulders his loaded rifle and puts his eye to the scope. He centres the crosshairs on the wolf’s chest and pulls the trigger. The wolf has not heard the shot when he is thrown up into the air. He lands sideways. He tries to get up but he cannot. The life pours out of him. By the time the men reach him the green fire that Aldo Leopold witnessed has already died. What the hunters see is the cold stare of a corpse. “Pretty neat!” the hunter says. He takes his knife and starts to skin the animal. He cuts off the head and removes the telemetry collar that was only attached a few months before when the big male wolf had been relocated from Jasper, seven hundred miles north, becoming a member of the first pack of wolves to inhabit Yellowstone National Park for seventy years.

Is there a single place on earth where wolves are not persecuted? Even in protected areas like Yellowstone, a shining example of wolf conservation, they have not been safe. In the half decade after their reintroduction fifty wolves were killed by trappers and poachers. In several other western states, which wolves have started to recolonise in recent years, control policies have been introduced giving hunters licenses to kill, even though wolf numbers are a tiny fraction of the carrying capacity of the landscapes they inhabit. The hunting and ranching lobby dominates US environmental policy and is growing in force under the new Republican administration which is rapidly stripping away protections. In Europe the situation is worse. The huge forests of Sweden are home to less than four hundred wolves. In 2016 twenty percent of them were killed by hunters. In the French Alps, which wolves have only recently started to re-inhabit, crossing over the border from Italy, hunting is on the rise already. It is a sad indictment that the only place where wolves are relatively free from persecution in Europe is the sixteen hundred square mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl. There is science to show that the random killing of wolves causes disruption to packs which leads to dispersal. The consequence of this is that livestock predation, the usual excuse for wolf killing, actually increases. Still, the killing continues. According to ranchers and farmers, there is no place for wolves in landscapes dedicated to the rearing of livestock, even on public lands and in national parks. For many, the only place for the wolf is in a zoo.

The fire in a wolf’s eye disappears when it becomes captive. I have watched wolves from the other side of a chainlink fence and the overwhelming impression was one of boredom, like dogs that are never walked. They still play, they still howl, there is still a part of the wild wolf inside, but they know they are trapped and they know they will never get out. There is a sadness in them that is easy for us to recognise, because it is also in us.

In a British wildlife park in the summer of 2017 two European wolves were rearing pups. The pups were healthy, playful, doted on by the parents. Thousands of visitors came to stare in the days they emerged from the den. Thousands of photographs were taken, on mobile phones and cameras, of them in their dim, half acre enclosure with its pretend wilderness decoration. The information boards provided snippets about the history of their wild cousins, their range and natural behaviour, their perilous conservation status. Daily talks were given at feeding time. And then, somehow, the mother wolf found a way to escape the compound. She was outside one morning, in the area where only humans are allowed to roam free. Perhaps she felt that the pups were hungry and she needed to find food for them. Perhaps she was trying to get a break from their nipping and brawling. Whatever the cause, she would almost certainly have returned to them. The keepers were alerted. An emergency decision was made. The wolf was shot dead. Sad announcements were broadcast in the following days, the story spread widely by news organisations and on the web. It was as if some natural event had taken the mother wolf, some tragedy unfortunately frequent in the wild. Few questioned the wildlife park’s actions. The damage limitation exercise was well planned and successful. Visitor numbers stayed healthy, the park shops and snack stands kept selling.

Are we civilised enough to share our land with the wild wolves? Will we ever be wise enough to realise it is a condition of wildness that it be unmanaged? At the very least, wildness requires us to step back and preferably to withdraw. At a time when rewilding is on the agenda of every conservation organisation it should be a priority that we redefine our relationships with the wolves whose return is essential if many landscapes are to come back into natural balance. Will we let the hunters and trappers create a landscape in service to their anachronous and bloodthirsty hobby? Will we give the wolves to the scientists to tag and collar them, record their every step form birth to death, to decide when they are to be culled or relocated, which, in essence, puts the wolves back into the scopes of the hunters?

Perhaps a time will come when, as a society, wisdom will be acquired and we will see the wolves return in their natural numbers, even to the tame and over-managed lands of western Europe. Perhaps, on a darkening evening, a child will stare at an open book and see a wolf staring back while outside a mournful howl will carry for the first time in centuries across rewilded hills. Instead of fear, the child will be filled with wonder that such strange and exotic neighbours have come to live among her kind. And perhaps with her delight there will also be a tinge of sadness. She will hear a trail of song that hovers and drifts and thins like smoke, the voices of the newly arrived mixed with the song of their ancestors who were never given time or ground, the ones who were dragged from their dens or caught in wires, all torn from the earth years before their natural end.

Sources and recommended reading:

Among Wolves – Gordon Haber and Marybeth Holleman (University of Alaska Press).
Wolf Nation – Brenda Peterson (Da Capo Press).
Shadow Mountain – Renée Askins (Anchor Books)
Of Wolves and Men – Barry Lopez (Simon & Schuster)
The Wolves of Mount Mckinley – Adolph Murie (University of Washington Press)
Wolves: Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation – Editors L.D. Mech and Luigi Boitani (University of Chicago Press)

 

James Roberts is co-editor of Zoomorphic.