Timber wolves still prosper within stretches of the U.S./Canadian border region, mostly with great reluctance to show themselves to human eyes. Coming and going now daily from Duluth, Minnesota in my spry little old hybrid car I look for wolves whenever there's daylight to expose one, just as I peer before me in the night lest anything four-legged, or a rogue car with dark headlights catching the shine of my lights, cross my path or come at me. In years past, only two wolves, to my knowledge, had crossed a road ahead of my car.
On a recent Friday morning with an overcast making all the November drabness a supreme monotone, my habitual searching toward the front found one or more animal forms, tails flowing out behind them, a sort of brown on the deep grey of the road. Beasts the size of big dogs, all with out-held tails, crossed to and fro, north or south in the two blank lanes ever closer ahead of me. The boreal bog land spread uninterruptedly back from the roadway.
I slowed and slowed the car as I quickened with exhilaration. These canines looked at least as big as German shepherds, though some wolves grow as high in the rump and shoulders as a deer. Their response to the car seemed semi-practiced, as though they had an action plan--in case of a car coming the As go north and the Bs head south--which group are you in?--yet at the same time nonchalant like teens making way for a car while they play street hockey. I slowed to a stop. The car, a first-generation Prius, makes no engine noise as it brakes. Maybe the wolves could hear the electric motor or other thin, high non-characteristic car noise.
However that was, one animal remained in sight, shoulder-high in grass and seedlings on my right. It had a picture-perfect wolf face, with blunt muzzle, head and shoulders gold-tinted on white with black tips, a bit of pink tongue forward, ears neat to the head unlike the coyote's tall ears.
The exchange of glances was real yet ultra-brief, a reward from out of the wild, something I had hoped for over all my remembered years. I gathered from that glimpse a fellow-animal's cautious curiosity, mixed with the same nonchalance as that of the pack-mates crossing and re-crossing the road within the past half-minute. The wolf was crouched, viewing me just like a guy inspecting a newcomer at a distance of twenty feet or so for one second, gone like a magician's handkerchief in the next. My foot quivered on the pedal as I got back in motion and left the scene of deeply secret clannish movement.
There is a hunting season in Minnesota on wolves now, with a quota or 'target harvest' of 220 kills for the months included. Recently I heard or read an official with state government talking about wolves with what may be the stock Department of Natural Resources middle point-of-view, that yes, wolves are intelligent, sensitive creatures but that no, they don't merit the bleeding heart defense coming from people who say there should be no wolf hunts. That's just romanticism. They are legitimate game animals. But, making a stretch from out of the wild into human affairs, if you were to ask me I'd say that the point of view that abortion of human fetuses should be made illegal is romanticism of human fetuses--babies, of course, since babies is always going to be the word of choice. Comparing the level of sensory development of most aborted babies with the same in a full-grown adult wolf shot and killed calls into question whether the elective abortion or the wolf kill is the act of greater cruelty to the victim.
I take this viewpoint not out of hatred for babies of my own kind but out of a desperate love for the other creatures whom our endless expansion is crowding out their own territory since we always need to clear more land, dig it, farm it and build over it. We seem not to be able to shake the notion that people should multiply till the whole earth and every possible other place is taken up by our civilization, as if nature could be managed to become nothing but a grand human life support system, or as if we would really want to live in a universe completely of our own construction, with maybe a little relic forest, brush or desert like a decorative border. Taking the religious perspective about either matter is inevitably getting personal; you cannot convert me to your religion.
I would prefer a world that holds the values belonging to only a scattering of people, maybe especially to aboriginal peoples: that human beings have no greater importance than any other species we neighbor with, and that we live peaceably in motley forms and adaptations, sometimes learning and modelling each others' magnificent expertise to each others' greater glorification. The wolf in its solo resourcefulness and social graces, with its muscular power and embrace of landscapes just as those places evolved, makes a fascinating model for possible human interaction with the world.
I'm a great fan of Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf, in which the author worked as a biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service and lived alongside a pack of Arctic wolves in the Keewatin District north of Churchill, Manitoba. His wolf neighbors gained his admiration on a whole series of levels: first of all, their resourcefulness in eating oftenest what was near at hand, especially mice, when their reputation among the white hunter constituency of Canada was that of voracious deer-slaughterers, helping denude the tundra of caribou. But also the wolves had a sense of fair play among themselves and extending to the lone researcher living at the edge of their territory in a tent. An unmated male wolf baby-sat for the mother whose litter of pups had exhausted her with their rambunctious bouncing and biting, letting them bounce all over him. The alpha male, father of the pups, immediately respected the scent boundaries that the man had made, wolf-fashion with squirts of his own urine, along a line of low shrubs. The adult wolves lined up along a ridge to watch the man, with obvious good humor, as he tumbled down the slope of crumbling sand and dislodging rock, overloaded by his own gear. He learned that the native Eskimo people had no wolf prejudices like those of European humankind, and knew each of these wolves as individuals from long acquaintance. He learned to relax and drop the idea that he'd better have his rifle or revolver at the ready when the wolves were near.
Wolves are clever, retiring and seldom seen, by comparison with many of the other creatures that share their realm and their exuberance with the atmosphere that sustains them. We all, it seems proven by people's observations time and again, have emotions of joy, curiosity, respect for others who pass by and do us no harm, bereavement, fear, foreboding, anger and vengefulness when hatred was enacted against us. The northern lands that are hold-outs of today's remaining wolves have their smaller life forms that sing, whirl with unfathomed mixes of passion and enliven the people, probably the hawks and other birds, the foxes, the deer and other four-legged community members who witness them.
Along with the occasionally heard and seldom-seen wolves, I savor the sight of birds everywhere. The gaiety of birds is confused again and again with their evasiveness, a drive to save their own lives from hawks, maybe more than any other predator. In the northern U.S. and Canada one intensively social bird, full of bounding travel-zest and pale wintery tints of white, dawn-pink and dark, is the redpoll, which sorts into at least two distinct species, the common and the hoary. The animus of wolves romping, galloping, lurking and howling is echoed by the redpolls foraging along the paths we travel and swirling into flight, diverging and converging as they leave the scene to re-group somewhere else.
Here is a link to the redpoll note card, a frameable item at 5x7 inches or 12.7 x 17.7 cm. Like most of my others, the card is blank inside with a little descriptive text on the outer back flap. Common and Hoary Redpolls on Take-off