The wolf is an extraordinary creature.
At once man’s oldest accomplice and his oldest nemesis.
There is some evidence that ancient man used ancient carnivores, some distant relative of the wolf, to help him corner large and unruly sources of food, like woolly mammoths, the protein from which, in turn, increased the size of our brains, which led to more improved hunting techniques and eventually the idea to domesticate wolves into more predictable hunting partners.
As species, we traveled two very distinct pathways through history.
Nobody can look at a chihuahua and see a wolf. And yet somewhere in those genes runs the DNA of the second greatest predator in the world. Humans and wolves have been domesticated. Humans from wandering neanderthal hunter/gatherers to agrarians and shepherds. Wolves from packs with alphas and betas to lapdogs and fluffballs with cute names and designer collars.
Recently, a Brazilian photographer captured images of a previously unknown Amazon tribe. The images show what some scientists call a stone-age tribe living in, but not within the modern world. Truthfully, the thatched huts and carefully laid-out rows of manioc and corn, as well as machetes and knives show a stone-age tribe somewhat domesticated but living off the grid.
Of wolves and people, only wolves still are wild.
Wolves ruled much of the same landscape humans have, because both species chase the same prey. Deer, elk, moose, stags and the other heavily antlered, big-bodied ungulates that fueled our protein obsession for centuries.
When man learned how to domesticate that which he formerly chased, the game was over. The need for a code of conduct with the wolf was finished, and because our big brains allowed us to creatively use resources to flourish, humans had the upper hand.
The wolf was removed from our domesticated holdings slowly at first, and then faster as our need for space to multiply our resources increased.
From 1806, the end of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, to 1950, just under 150 years, all of the wolves in the Pacific Northwest were killed off. Settlers fearing the safety of their livestock, cleared the area of wolves to set up a utopia, of sorts, but one where domesticated man was at the center of it.
The land was cleared, the ground tilled, crops planted. Riches were made, and a society began to flourish, where once only small bands of people lived somewhat more harmoniously with nature.
Here we are, after a hundred-year reign of peace and prosperity, wherein we’ve tapped into the rich aquifers to water our desert crops that feed our livestock, which have known an almost complete freedom from fear of depredation.
The actual infrastructure of our state goes hand in hand with the decision to rid the land of our greatest competitor, our most lethal nemesis, not to mention the fact that most white settlers didn’t want black people in Oregon either, and they engineered a way to make that prospect more likely.
Thankfully African Americans persisted, though not in the numbers that would make the state diverse, and wolves, after a half a century’s absence, slowly made their way back into the state, this time as protected endangered wildlife.
And that’s where things get interesting.
Wolves came over to Oregon from Idaho, whose wolves came over from Wyoming, whose wolves came from Canada. But for the mostly rural Oregonians, many of whom had ancestors cross the plains in Conestoga wagons, the culling of wolves from the landscape is as fresh in their minds as the footprints of wolves in the forests of Northeast Oregon.
The narrative they spin about the wolf comes from a deep sense of purpose, one we used to call manifest destiny. There is no exploration in the industrial age. Only exploitation. We have engineered our world like a feeding tube, rather than cultivate it like a garden.
This all ties into something I have wondered for a long, long time. Animals do not see political boundaries. Neither does suffering.
When wolves crossed into Oregon from Idaho, they do not see the sign that says welcome to Oregon, nor the sign that says leaving Idaho. They see the landscape as their home without walls, a place to accomplish the only two things they are any good at. Eating and Breeding.
This is the case with all large land animals. They are driven by the need to find food to sustain them and land enough to contain that food while creating space for their offspring.
The bison of Yellowstone National Park are protected while within the park, but those protections end at the borders. Borders which they cannot see nor understand. So in order to protect livestock from a terrifying disease that allegedly causes domestic cows to abort their unborn calves, bison are culled on the fringes of the great park.
Native Americans in the Northwest call the cougar the great equalizer, or something similar in their native tongues. If the coyote is the great trickster, cougar brings balance back to the forests.
There is a legend that for some 500 years, there were no cougars in the Pacific Northwest. That life was out of balance. Disease and natural disasters destroyed the world and made life difficult for people.
The great floods came sweeping into the valleys from the ice lakes to the north and east. They swallowed everything in their path.
But cougar reappeared and restored order to the world. He took his people to the to top of the highest peak in the Coast Range, the hill we now call Mary’s Peak. And there he saved them from the flood.
I’ve always liked this story, because even though it correlates to historical actions like the Missoula Floods, which gave the Willamette Valley the rich, loamy soil that made it so fertile for future settlers, it shows an understanding within mankind about the need for balance in an unbalanced world.
Those who lived near the end of the last ice age knew only struggle and natural violence as the world emerged from one age into another.
Today cougars thrive in Oregon, having stretched their numbers up and down the spine of the Cascade Mountains. A strong male cougar may command a vast area in which to hunt and to secure a mate. But younger male cougars, unable to dominate their elders to secure their own rural kingdom, venture closer to human settlements, wherein there is an invisible decree stating they may not pass. They may not feed on our small, fluffball wolf remnants nor our domesticated cats or children for that matter.
The problem is, our communication skills are greatly lacking when it comes to explaining this to two-year old male cougars looking to make a splash in the world. Animals, as I’ve explained previously, do not read our signs or see the lines where our cities begin or end.
To keep the peace, we cull the lions and the bears from our midst, both wishing they would learn to stay within the land we’ve allotted for them and realizing, as the same time, they won’t. They can’t.
We have engineered our society to exclude, rather than include the difficult parts of nature. We want to live in it and yet remain protected from it.
Therein lies the dichotomy within the theory of the wolf. The parallel lines of evolution that have brought us to this point in history.
We want it all or nothing. Wildlife as is. Or Wildlife as it was. Because as much as wildlife cannot see political boundaries like state lines or where National Parks or cities begin and end, humans cannot see beyond our own engineered existence.
Humans carve up the landscape as if it were truly paper, sometimes following natural boundaries like rivers or mountains spines, and sometimes just to cordon off a group of like-minded individuals.
Then we put people in charge of those geo-political landscape pie pieces by voting for the best person to insure that we have enough resources to survive. At least in theory.
We further carve up those plots into smaller values, which we obsess over in the form of resources like timber, gold and grazing land, which helps us further carve it up into plots on which we can build a home and a two-car garage.
We engineer our landscape in the same way we engineer our social lives, keeping things neat and orderly, preserving our culture and our heritage through more theories like democracy.
And we spread, lord do we spread. Like a virus through history.
We spread so fast and so furiously, that we no longer know the stories of the ones we killed off in order to be able to engineer a society.
Waves of people spread across the globe, taking advantage of tumultuous periods in earth history to cross land bridges. We’ve walked to the far corners of the globe, settled into new homes, wiped out resources, moved on, re-settled, killed off the locals, got killed off by the locals, who, in turn, got killed off by newly arrived invaders, who brought new diseases, which killed everyone off, until someone else arrived and found a shard of pottery and started surmising about what might have happened on this spot for the last 10,000 years.
Humans are unlike anything the world has ever seen, unless you count the dinosaurs, which were, in turn, unlike anything the world had ever seen. Of course the first multi-cellular creatures were unlike anything the world had ever seen.
The development of humans is an arms race.
The first to stone, the first to bronze and iron, the first to create efficiencies within our environment. The first in space, the first on the moon.
Within those historic waypoints, is a network of failures. The Neanderthals and Denisovans were, from the looks of our most current research, failures. The Mongols were failures. Hitler was a failure.
In our quest for what I can only call perfection, we have killed off any sign of weakness. As the tides of immigration or invasion have swept across the shores of the world, strength, ingenuity and brute force have largely destroyed anything and everything that did not add to the quest.
What we conquered became our identity. Where we landed, our inheritance.
If it moved, it died. If it did not look or smell or act like us, it died. If it refused to assimilate, it died.
Back and forth the tides of change.
And then we entered the modern age, wherein things solidified, somewhat into currencies, which we exchanged for services, which needed the protection of a government, which we placed over us in exchange for protection from marauding enemies.
We looked around and determined that all of this was ours, never mind who was here before us or before them. We planted our flag in the ground and made laws to keep our enemies, and our friends out.
When we tired of doing the work of building our nations, we invited in those less fortunate but still willing to do the hard work of constructing the physical attributes of a society. Then we closed the doors again for a time, until we needed more.
At some point, we discovered wind, which took us to newer shores with more of what we liked in shiny metals, which we could exchange for things like food and peace.
We set up shop in new places, among people who didn’t look or sound like us. And we discovered that exploration was profitable, which led to exploitation.
And to make a very, very long story short, we soon found ourselves responsible for people who looked and acted very different from ourselves, because we chose to govern them in order to make exploitation easier to manage.
So we brought them through the doors and educated them and sent them back home pumped full of our values and our obsessions.
And as the resources were drained down, we slowly withdrew, slinking back to our islands and our castles.
We industrialized and then made that efficient, so that we could live within our boundaries, which we walled off, invisibly at first, and then with barbed wires and eventually walls.
We spread like lava from the steppes, from sea to shining sea, and we filled in all of the gaps in between.
So much wealth was created.
And those who were behind us saw that, and they were jealous. The wanted what we had.
So they came knocking, at first. And later, they came in waves, running from economic downturns and famines and religious persecution.
We tucked them here and there, allowing them a bit of our culture but making sure they accepted all of ours, which was the winning culture.
As our seaboard, the welcome mat or our new nation, began to fill up, we felt the urge to move west into the still unknown lands, so we stretched and pounded stakes into the earth and laid down iron rails.
We explored some, at first, then we exploited, sending the riches of the west back to the east in train cars, which made us dizzy with value.
So we packed our bags and set out to follow the setting sun to our destiny.
When we arrived, we saw them.
And something in our memories flared, briefly. And then, as we had learned to do over the centuries, we hardened our hearts and squeezed the trigger, sending the metal projectile deep into the heart of our oldest nemesis.
What it must have been like to kill the last one, to silence their call from the landscape. It must have felt like such a huge accomplishment, the final bell in the conquering of the wild world, in which there can only be one victor.
The world where we started off, two predators in search of a meal.
A look. And then a realization of opportunity. A chance to ease the burden of having to expand energy in order to gain energy.
Our eyes met across the grass and rocks and flickered in the flames from the torches we carried.
And I wonder if the wolf understood treachery in the same way we saw the potential for a loyal companion?