Sunday, March 29, 2015

Wolf Quest Part VIII: Why Wolves?

I left off in Part VI once I managed to get the van started again near Mont Groulx and instead of wisely turning around and driving south, I pushed all my chips into the middle and headed north on the only road in all of northern Quebec, Route 389. Labrador City lay like a gleaming emerald on the horizon and maybe if I could sort out all the problems with the van then I could continue the quest further north to Ellesmere Island where I would see the Arctic wolf with my own eyes. But this is a good chance to explore why wolves became the goal of my quest.

Recall that it was on Puta Lobo in Baja California that I had a vision about a trans-continental journey during the dark economic recession caused by land hungry financial consultants. Puta Lobo probably is dedicated to a coyote, not a wolf, as Puta Coyote doesn't have the same ring to it. But coyotes, not wolves, are what live in the desert. I thought, if I've never visited Labrador, the only political boundary in North America that I've yet to visit, then I should have a good reason. And the wolf quest started to take shape. But it actually started earlier than that.

I can track the source and inspiration of the wolf quest to Farley Mowat's 1963 book Never Cry Wolf, that was made into a movie during Oggy's formative year of 1983, before New Wave music and baseball had fully seized my consciousness. Beside taking a realistic look at wolves as an integral part of the ecosystem, the movie itself is like a live-action Bambi, noteworthy for long takes, sparse dialogue, remote wilderness filmed mostly in Western Canada and Alaska, though the book takes place in the less majestic Nunavut province. I'll spoil the plot for those who have not read the book: A biologist researches the declining deer/caribou populations. One theory suggests wolves are killing too many deer. So, he learns the wolves seldom catch deer and then only the old or slow. Wolves, he learns through field research, mostly eat mice and voles and rabbits. Hunters, however, are killing far beyond the numbers reported during hunting season. He bonds with the wolves, pleads their case, plays the bassoon for them, then watches as the mindless government machine ignores his research and proceeds to eradicate the wolves. This book, combined with an odd 7th grade book selection, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, were enough to doom Oggy to a miserable life of non-conformity.

But the important thing is the nature of the movie, which I watched before I read the book and became a fan of Mowat, attempted to advocate for the wolf in romantic terms. Bambi was cute, so an easy poster child for eco-sensitivity. But wolves are vicious carnivores, right? Texans call wolves 'vermin'. This movie was the first example of raising wolf awareness I'd seen and the book was a significant cultural turning point for the wolf as it was a biologist basically saying the hysteria surrounding wolves was pure fantasy. Domesticated dogs are more dangerous to humans and the poaching of caribou by human hunters was a serious problem. It's also interesting to note that Mowat's research in Nunavut specifically involved Arctic wolves. These weren't Timber wolves or grey wolves, these were Arctic Wolves, wolves that lived at the arctic circle, survived the winter. The wolves in the movie were probably all trained Timber wolf/dog hybrids, but the actual wolves in Nunavut are Arctic wolves. But Nunavut is far above Manitoba and I was trying to visit Labrador.

I wrote a few letters to Mowat asking for an interview. I think he lived in Ontario at that time but I'm not sure if I put a return address on the postcards I sent to him. I was living at the group home in Laconia at the time so any return mail would certainly have been opened to check for valuables and then burned in the fireplace before I ever saw it. Well, there's another Canadian author who went under my radar until recently. R. D. Lawrence also lived in Ontario until his death in 2003 and he also lived for a time with wolves and wrote about animals. People say he anthropomorphized animals, but he says it's the other way around, "I see animal traits in humans." Both Mowat and Lawrence were writing in a time of total mechanization and anti-nature and they were both Canadian so it's no surprise I had to work to find their books. Still, I feel 2011 was an even worse year to be concerned for wildlife. For all the work Lawrence and Mowat did to raise wolf awareness in the '70s and '80s, I can say that ten times more was done by Apple and Microsoft and Google to totally eradicate the idea of wolves and ecology since then. 

R.D. Lawrence wasn't an official biologist but he was definitely a practical biologist. I can't say I ever read any of his books about wolves but they get high praise. Mowat is often accused of having stretched the truth quite a bit in his entertaining tales and there's no better defense of that strategy than with the evidence that his book was adapted into a movie which made some attempt to raise awareness of the wolf, while R.D. Lawrence wrote very similar books but no adaptations resulted from them. Maybe it's timing and maybe it's marketability. This is a difficult compromise that all artists wrestle with: success or truth. Mowat presented his books in dramatized non-fiction, not technical research papers. And why wouldn't he, once his experience researching wolves had proven his academic colleagues utterly ignored what he had learned. I'm sure he felt betrayed by science and so turned to drama with a scientific slant. This made his writing entertaining with enough truth to support his conclusions and with enough fiction to keep a teenage boy reading. It's a delicate balance and since R.D. Lawrence wasn't in a position to make academic claims, he merely wrote his experience.

But 1983 is actually not the deepest source of the wolf quest. No, because I remember even earlier than 1983 getting a small box of easy reading classics probably in 1980, maybe earlier, that included Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, reduced/adapted to about 20 pages of easy reading, The Gold Bug, by Mark Twain, which had me digging holes in the lawn looking for pirate treasure, and The Call of The Wild, by Jack London, reduced to a few illustrated episodes of a dog named Buck who moves from one owner to another and finally joining a pack of Timber wolves in the Yukon Territory. The book did have an impact on me as the romance of panning for gold, building cabins, killing Indians all seemed more interesting that bagging groceries at the local market. Jack London in general is a more accessible writer than Thoreau or Melville. The book Martin Eden has to be the greatest autobiography never adapted into a movie. It really makes no sense why Leonardo DiCaprio or James Franco is not starring as Jack London. Jack Kerouac was a college educated hobo who was disenchanted with academia but was aspiring to be the next Thomas Wolfe.  The Road was his classroom, but Kerouac was surrounded by more interesting people than him. Mark Twain's later life, after he was famous, was actually more fraught with poverty than his early life when he always got paid for his writing. Jack London, however, was truly a hobo. He wasn't playing the role of a hobo. Never met his father. Mother went insane. Homeless from Day 1. Sailed to Japan as a teenager. He was poaching oysters to survive. Fighting in the street. No, London had not been born in time for the California Gold Rush of 1850, but he was perfectly aligned for the Klondike Gold rush of 1897. I don't think he wanted to be a gold miner as much as he wanted to experience the gold mining life so he could write about it with some accuracy. He wasn't averse to finding gold, but I think the real treasure he was searching for was experience. And sled dogs are a reality so when he returned to the United States he wrote about sled dogs, hardships, and wolves. Wolves weren't a big part of Call of the Wild, but the whole climax involves Buck realizing he belonged with the wolves. This characterization of a dog, however romantically distorted, resonated with people who felt a similar disenchantment with the mechanization of society. Young Oggy was one of those people.

So, we have an established history of wolves in literature that I had read. And while it might be naive to think a life like Jack London's will ensure a writing talent like his, the truth still remains that we write what we know. If you only know life in a small eastern town, playing video games and Whiffle ball, unplugging toilets, etc, then that's what you can write about. Good luck finding a market for that material. Oh, you can attempt to fake some knowledge of the Yukon Territory and you will hear the laughter of your readers drifting through the air because the gold rush, like an oil boom town, is not something you can fake knowledge of. So, a quest to Ellesmere Island to raise awareness of the Arctic Wolf would also be research of such a quest. See? I could never invent the scenarios such as scavenging my multi-meter for a fuse to fit the ignition circuit of the van's fuse panel...all perched on the edge of a reservoir actually created by a gigantic asteroid impact. Details like that only come from the act of getting your hands dirty. This simple explanation still evades the brain dead detractors who questioned my quest from the outset, but I'm fortunately not persuaded by tired traditionalism. And honestly, what else was I going to do? Once my allegiance to modern culture was completely eroded it really makes no difference what I do with my life. I see traditional lifestyles as an unstoppable tumor that will destroy everything. So, the quest is fundamentally selfish; I want to write about the process of raising awareness about Arctic I go on a quest to raise awareness about Arctic wolves. It's basic research in my mind, but I've also determined that research is like weight lifting: it's only as good as you make it. So, by adopting an identity for the quest, by enriching the quest with manufactured drama, by becoming Oggy Bleacher, from the future, searching for the wolf because it holds the key to human survival, but really I'm a future janitor with no understanding of the science, but I really want to see the wolf, while wearing plaid bell bottom pants...all of those details required me to play act during the research and if I pay attention then I can get a different perspective on what the quest means to other people. Furthermore; my performance art is a statement on what can be defined as insanity. If I'm from the future and tell you that this culture is going to self destruct and you say that I'm insane, then which of us is insane?

Well, that's a question for another day. This chapter does not move me closer to my goal but pauses to reflect on some of the sources of my interest in the wolf, the place the wolf has in literature history. I think the wolf of Little Red Riding Hood was a representation of those who would exploit the young, and also a warning to those gullible kids who ignore their suspicions. But readers took the old folk tale literally as an indictment of the wolf species. IDIOTS! The book, Never Cry Wolf, I should point out, gets its title not from the Little Red Riding Hood folk tale, but from Aesop's 2000 year old fable, The Boy who Cried Wolf. In that fable a boy is charged with the duty of watching the flock of sheep. He falsely claims a wolf attacks his flock and the town comes to save them and learns the boy was lying. He does this a few times and the townspeople cease to trust him. Finally, a real wolf actually attacks the flock of sheep and the boy 'cries wolf' but the townspeople don't believe him and so the wolf kills all the sheep. The phrase "cry wolf" is a substitute for raising a false alarm. Mowat brilliantly turned this phrase around to indict the wildlife biologists who were "blaming the wolf" for the the decline in caribou population. See, it was not the wolf that was causing the decline and the wildlife biologists who were blaming the wolf were literally "crying wolf" because the wolf wasn't to blame. That was a false alarm. Unfortunately, the eradication of the wolf was determined to be the solution so the metaphor doesn't hold together. Mowat's title ultimately restates the 2000 year old moral that one should not make false accusations or raise false alarms.

So, the wolf is an intriguing character and I think my choice of the wolf as a poster animal of my quest was strongly influenced by the fact so many famous cultural artifacts involve the wolf. So I chose the goal that had resonated with people in the past, hoping it would resonate with people in the present. Star Trek IV chose whales as their quest and for about a month people cared about whales. By choosing the wolf as my spirit animal I was really betting on the clear favorite. There are animals more imperiled by climate change than the wolf, such as the Musk Ox or Puffin, but that would mean I would not only have to raise awareness about an animal who had no cultural heritage, but I would have to convince people this animal also is much desired in the future. Using the wolf meant that much of the work had already been done by writers like Aesop, London, Mowat, Lawrence and Barry Lopez, to name a few. Another influential book that I just remembered was The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen that I read in the early '90s. That book demonstrated a refined quest for an animal that is knowingly doomed, although a different species from the wolf. Works like these invited me to participate in/contribute to the catalog of wolf-related quests, I could add another chapter in wolf/man relationships. That's my hindsight analysis of my quest. Don Quixote may have influenced me also but that's for others to decide.* My quest was admittedly derivative, with some original twists, modern, doomed to fail, but would still be research into something, maybe only an examination of myself.

I will continue with that examination in the next chapter where I may or may not arrive safely in Labrador City.

*"He [Cervantes] lays down the melancholy burden of sanity and conceives the strangest project ever imagined.... to become a knight-errant, and sally forth into the world in search of adventures; to mount a crusade; to raise up the weak and those in need" 

Here are links to the installments of the Wolf Quest

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.