NB: This post is a transcript of a reading from July, in which I revised and combined pieces from the preceding blog post, other speeches, as well as my lengthy research and writing on the history of wildlife management in the west.
In Washington today, the remaining adults of the Profanity Peak wolf pack are shot and their cubs begin starving to death. I don’t like to write those words – to melodramaticize or theatricalize or exploit the sentimentality of violence. But I must say it, because we can’t forget how long it sometimes takes to kill things, and how much it will hurt.
In North Dakota today, 19 hours and 20 minutes from where I am, tribal members stand with their bodies between bulldozers and grass. Much as with the success and the return of the wolf, everything depends on this. Everything depends on this. These stories are connected.
The plight of the gray wolf and its demise at the hands of the federal government has been well documented –From the 19th century through the 1940s, the forest service carried out massive predator extermination campaigns, effectively ridding the lower forty-eight of almost all apex carnivores – but wolves, with particular fascination. Exterminations were conducted with gleeful ingenuity and nauseating display – ritualized, sadistic, torturous, long, and, most importantly, wildly public demonstrations that twist my organs to think about. You can read about it elsewhere, but I can’t look at the pictures anymore.
The connection between the development of wildlife management systems and the project of frontier-nation-building, however, has not been so thoroughly explored. After the establishment of Plymouth Colony in 1620, it took only ten years for colonists to draw up a bounty system for wolf hides. As the frontier moved across the United States, a pattern developed, where new governments in far-flung territories were consistently created and convened by the new invented “problem” of the local wolves.
In Oregon, the first-ever governmental meetings of European-Americans occurred in Champoeg and Gervais in 1843, where a gaggle of propertied men agreed on a bounty system for predator mammals. At these gatherings, Known colloquially as the “wolf meetings,” it was decided that wolf furs fetched the highest pay-off, regardless of how dangerous, or not, they were to new herds of sheep. The haunting, hunted figure of the wolf thus gained prestige, and special status as an enemy of propertied people. And the absence of wolves marked the civilization of former wilderness, and the arrival of a new dominant culture.
Concurrent with the eradication of the wolf in the west, European Americans established a system of private property ownership that disavowed the humanity, society, culture, history, and laws of the people who already lived on the suddenly occupied territory. Parallel to this violence, the symbolic spectre of the wolf as the savage, cruel, unsettlingly persistent beast that lingers on the borders of known worlds took shape. It’s impossible to ignore this connection. It informs us that decisions about land use are inextricably mixed with the politics of race, community, and identity, and the power that decides what kind of land use is prioritized above others.
The wolf is, now, the stranger in our midst: conspicuously foreign, oblivious to local custom and courtesy, and marked with criminality. Our new wolves are the descendants of the re-introduced Yellowstone pack, and their opponents are not going to forget it. The claim persists that those animals, brought in from Canada in 1996, were in fact totally different from the “real” native wolves that used to occupy the lower forty-eight. When one visits the forums and message boards of folks who oppose wolf existence, phrases like “stop the importation of Canadian wolves!” or “Stop the invasion of these foreigners!” are commonplace. They are accused not only of violent destruction and causeless obliteration, but of criminal otherness. People say that these “new” wolves are different from the ones that used to live in Oregon – a bigger, bloodthirsty, dangerous, pack-hunting cruel breed that kills for pleasure indiscriminately – that should be dealt with immediately, lest they infest the countryside and take over the world as we know it.
These syllables are haunted with the traumatic memories of the west we live in.
It’s one thing if a coyote kills a dog, or a neighbor’s dog kills a sheep, a duck, or a calf. But when the wolf – this “newcomer” – to a country claimed righteously and obdurately by the century-old boot prints of blustering white men stomping down fence poles on the prairie – takes livestock, it’s an active threat to the white-supremacist capitalist containment of property, and the ultimate idol of productivity above all else.
Lobbying groups and movements like the Oregon Outdoor Council cry out for the defense of the “rights” of people whose rights, you might think, were not currently being assailed. The story of the wolf as a danger to children, deer, cows, elk, and the purity of daughters invokes the image of a scourge of invading, insidious criminals, swarming safe American homesteads and dragging their claws along the precious liberties of brave white hunters. It repeats the droning whines about the terrible oppression of “political correctness.” How dare you come in here and threaten my rights, my liberties, my freedom? It’s something different coming in, to a place where we already got rid of it, and now it is trying to take something back.
Famously shy and skittish of humans, biologists will tell you that wolves are unlikely to cross roads, live close to people, or stay if they’ve been seen. But that story is often revised in the narratives of people who live or hunt in wilder country, and don’t want any wolves around. They say that the danger of the wolf is actually massively underestimated. They are dangerous to people, report countless internet comments, forums, personal blogs, and activist websites with sections on “dispelling the myths” outrageously spread by the conservationist animal-huggers. Wolves aren’t afraid of us, these sources warn. It stood on the crest of the hill, and looked right at us. It saw us. But it didn’t run.
Over everything else, the wolf’s storied refusal to scatter in terror is the thing that is too much to bear. Its final, unforgivable crime – a fiction, invented by its enemies – is its lack of submissive deference to a noted greater power. It’s one thing to joyously and contentedly gaze out at the wild through the rearview mirror in a truck, the scope of a rifle, the lenses of binoculars, or the window of a cabin in the rain. Pleasure can be experienced with the feeling of stable human dominance firmly set in place. But what unsettles the hierarchy, and terrifies the dominant establishment to its core, is when the wild thing suddenly looks back. With this history, and its present reverberations in mind, we need to think about how the past has informed our current conversations regarding wildlife, public land, natural resources, people, capital, and what responsibility we owe to the pieces of dirt we live our lives on.
The cry of the ranchers and hunters, who don the regalia and bask in the fantastical, fanatical imagery of the white vigilante and outlaw of the 19th century, is a cry of violent production and fear. But the contradictions of being anti-government and anti-establishment, while invigorating the supreme righteousness of the range-land property owner above all others and else are more stark. The powers of the state – in this case, the Department of Fish & Wildlife – are not only singly invested in supporting the needs and desires of this very tiny, specific class of people, the state was designed for it. And because the foundations of the state of Oregon itself are likewise comprised of a substitution of wildlife regulation for state power, that structure is relevant and prevalent today. The Oregon Cattleman’s Association and the county commissioners of rancher-owned districts must carefully balance the irony of being the historic and present establishment, while propagating their power via anti-establishment positions, and they do this by trying to monopolize the discourse of violence.
In an essay composed some-time in the mid-1940s and published posthumously in the collection A Sand County Almanac, conservationist and ecologist Aldo Leopold writes a famous chapter. He describes a moment, when, in employ of the United States Forest Service, he gleefully shot an “old wolf” and a “half-dozen grown pups” (138) with the help of a gaggle of other USFS men. He explains how reasonable it seemed at the time, but then, upon watching the living creatures fade into corpses, notes his immediate regret. This moment, he clarifies, transformed his ideas of ecology, humans, and “natural resources.” “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” Writes Leopold. “I was young then, and full of trigger-itch. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view”
This passage illustrates the beginning of a dramatic shift in wildlife management ethics, and a transformative instant in the social perception of “nature,” the environment, and the function of ecosystems – in which humans and wolves both happen to exist. The co-existence that I look forward to is not the cozily empty Subaru bumper sticker, but an upheaval of tectonic plates. It depends on upon the recognition of the dirt we live our lives on, and the disruption of the endless swaths of white on forest maps, connected by private roads for ATV riding camo-men to roar up spitting threats between their teeth – this is trespassing, stay off of my land.
When we re-imagine wildlife management, we are imagining revolt. The terror ridden power of the wolf comes from the radical insanity of their extirpation, and then, the unthinkable turn of public opinion that’s started to bring them back. Those who oppose their return wish to bury their faces in the 19th century and ignore the fact that the water tables have dried up and the deserts are crumbling underneath us. And no matter how much they fight it, We’re not going to wipe out wolves from the United States with governmentally mandated strychnine poisoning and pit-trapping ever again.
From now on, We are going to look the ground in the eye and see – stretching long, deep and wide, where lava flows met oceans, where the Miocene and Pliocene epoch stretched out to the volcanoes of the central west, where grandparents kept their woven sandals in caves 10,000 years ago, to be found by sheepherding boys throwing rocks into hollows and we repeat that
When you tread upon the ground and mistake the soil for rocks, your feet apply force to the world you stand on. When you tread upon the soil or dig your hands in and mistake trillions of teeming, squirming, reaching grasping micro-bacterial-organisms for solid still broken bits of old granite you invade the world you stand on with force.
And we can ask the big men who think that natural law governs all when their natural law is just you crushing my history wiith your belly and your version of equality is saying
The world is my body and my feet are everywhere. I penetrate everything with my body parts and my corpulence covers the earth, But we can say back:
Do you want to know about Ewing Young, who stole his cows from Mexico, abandoned his wife with babies on a mountain in Nevada, and brought the private – praise be ! – private hallowed private stolen property he stole from mexico. The conflicts of colliding cattle horns and the millenim old cracking fissures of basalt pours and lava coursing out and over dinosaur bones and brittle, breaking grasses.
Do you know where the graves are by the ferries on the river? Do you know how the land went from held to a power mill to a broken swamp with bridges rotting in the wet? Do you know where the graves aren’t, where the tunnels caved in, in the silent, screaming dark? Do you know where the bodies are buried? Do you know where the men were hung? Do you know about the men who were shot and their bones and braids sold by bits to tourists from New York City and we’ll never know if some jolly collector’s great grandchild has a basement in Brooklyn with someone else’s body-longing memories locked up in dust? Do you know about the wolf that bit Pryor’s hand? Have you heard about the wolves that were spotted on the crest of the hill at dusk? They are numerous in this country, I have heard.