A few days ago, when I was in Yellowstone National Park, there were dozens of us (even in winter when the park is much less crowded) lined up along the road through the Lamar Valley with our scopes trained on a snowy hillside a mile away where a pack of wolves was frolicking.
February is breeding season, and one good-looking female was doing her best to arouse a mail snoozing in the snow, thrashing her tail and presenting her rear end alluringly.
No dice. She gave up after a while and went off to look for a more willing mate.
This was only one example of the behavior we saw. The morning began with the musical, mournful howling of these wolves, hidden behind a cliff where they may have killed an elk. Not only their howling but the ravens flocking to a nearby tree made this kill seem likely according to Bonnie, out guide, whose knowledge of and absorption in the life of the wild animals at Yellowstone shed light on everything we saw. She’s one of the amazing crew of talented, skilled and dedicated young women who prove to me that the women’s movement of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation has bourn fruit.
But again—why am I and many others fascinated by wolves?
To begin at the beginning, we are—unconsciously, perhaps—recasting the ancient myth of the big bad wolf. In much the same way, we are recasting the meaning of the word “witch,” and now we are moving toward a similar transformation of “bitch.”
Both these transformations offend many people, including, perhaps, the drivers of the enormous trucks towing snowmobiles that roared past us on the road.
As I began to learn something about the wolves, I realized that they (without their consent or knowledge) symbolize core issues of modern identity.
Is it possible to be free, and also an active member of a community?
Wolves seem to be inspiringly free, especially when we don’t factor in the constraints imposed by a harsh climate and the always difficult hunt for food. Foraging here, wolves can be killed by the flying hooves of elk or bison, or pronged by their antlers. They are shot as soon as they venture outside the park, having no knowledge of the boundary. They are killed in wolf wars. They are also afflicted by some of the diseases that kill dogs. One year a whole spring season of wolf pups was wiped out.
But running, strolling and napping on that snowy hillside they still seemed entirely free. Perhaps not having the ability, or the curse, of planning for and worrying about an always-insecure future is one of the clues to their ebullience.
Also, these handsome creatures often mate for life, although sometimes more than one female is included in what, to the discomfort of some scientists, is still called an “Alpha” male. To mitigate that discomfort, there is nearly always an “Alpha” female in that couple—but I think we will see in time to come at least one word replaced with a wordless indicative of toxic masculinity.
So free, but also mated, an ideal few human beings reach.
Wolf packs are cooperative—to see them checking out a herd of elk for a weak one, then circling, chasing and closing in for the kill is to recognize a high degree of wordless cooperating. And when a litter of pups is born, all the wolves in the pack, including the father, pitch in to hunt for food during the six weeks when the nursing mother doesn’t leave her den.
And yet, one female whose mate was killed took off from her pups for a long trek of what we would call mourning, returning to her den a year later to find that her pups had been cared for by her pack mates.
So—interdependent, yet free.
Of course we humans run a risk when we extrapolate the behavior of wild animals as having meaning for us. The pack we saw on the hillside in Yellowstone was completely oblivious of the mass of scopes below them. They were living their lives as they would the day after we left the park and for many days before and afterward.
So—oblivious, and going about their lives. Another admirable quality as we humans seem to become more and more distracted, more and more unable to focus on anything except one rather peculiar form of communication.
There you have it. Maybe….
There are a few women who seem to be wolf-women, in their dedication to their tribe and their determination to survive. One of them, here in Santa Fe, even has the appearance of a small wolf, and that contained ferocity. And she is valiantly fighting to persuade women to breastfeed their babies because of the enormous health benefits for mothers and children—which I know about from my own experience.
Her intensity probably puts off some people, as the sight of wolves devouring an eviscerated elk—they have to eat fast before a grizzly comes and takes over—would put some off, “Nature red in tooth and claw,” as Kipling put it.
But is not this ferocity exactly what we so-called civilized people need?
Along, of course, with the salt of humor.