The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 20 May 2008

Of Wolves and Men

by Barry Lopez

In 2008, after spending a lot of taxpayer money over many years for careful and sensitive re-introduction to the wild, wolves were again removed from the protections of the Endangered Species Act and opened up to the hunting rules of the various states where the 1500 surviving wolves could be found. These majestic predators were immediately subject to a propaganda campaign that exaggerated their threat to livestock, wild animal herds, and people. This is the same campaign that resulted in many thousands of these creatures being hunted to the point of needing Endangered Species Act protection in the first place. There is something about the wolf that makes humans just plain mad. Despite the macho image of the lone wolf, this great lone hunter of the wild west, this picture of American individualism, we feel some need to kill as many of these creatures as we can. What are we hunting? Is there something about the wolf to which we relate? Is there something in the wolf that we're trying to destroy in ourselves? At its heart, man's problem with the wolf is man's problem with himself. We are determined to separate ourselves from our environment, to use it and destroy it at our will. We are determined to quash our interconnectedness with the other animals, and even plants, that once surrounded us in a dizzying array of diversity. The willful campaign of destruction of the wolf is centered in some hatred of that interdependence. These rugged individualists, the wolf hunters, may simply be trying to destroy our dependence upon each other. That none of this is news is demonstrated by Barry Lopez's compelling book, first published over thirty years ago, and illustrating thousands of years of the vilification of the wolf.

Lopez begins with the wolf himself. The animal that plagues our imaginations, from Little Red Riding Hood to An American Werewolf in London is, after all, a real animal, with real behaviors and environmental needs. He lives a mysterious life on the Arctic tundra or the forests of the Appalachians. Biologists know a thing or two about them, but nevertheless project much of their own expectations on the creature. What is clear is that the wolf is a highly-evolved and sophisticated social animal. Much of what the wolf does is still a mystery, as wolves have been only characterized by their most common behaviors. Lopez gives us some sense of what is missing from our interpretations, and what we should realize about our own prejudices and projections. He goes on to describe the relationship between native men and the wolf with whom they shared their environment. Perhaps this is a conceit of the late 60s and 70s, but he is convinced that the Indians had a more balanced and understanding knowledge of the wolf than Western man. Given the European-American preference for anihilation, his argument is convincing. This is especially so after he spends a couple chapters documenting our lust for wolf blood. These are disturbing passages, ones that make the reader question what kind of animal man, himself, is. The path of destruction is broad and deep. Lopez then goes on to talk about the mythical wolf, the creature that nurtured Romulus and Remus or that played pivotal roles in Western myths and fairy tales. In the end, the finished portrait is of the interaction between the wolf and man. The final picture is of an efficient killing machine and its prey. But it isn't like what today's hunters say about the wolf, justifying the hunt of an endangered species. No. What we have here is man the hunter and the wolf the hunted. Their fates are intertwined in ways mankind refuses to understand or acknowledge and against which the wolf can not defend himself. It's really a heartbreaking tale, told by one of our finer writers on nature and man's relationship to it. A sobering book.

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Also by Lopez: [The Rediscovery of North America] [Winter Count]