Thoreau famously said, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” I’m familiar with that quote. But until today I hadn’t bothered to read what came before and after those words in his essay on “Walking.”
The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind.
Our ancestors were savages. The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every state which has risen to eminence, have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It is because the children of the empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the northern forests who were.
Thoreau is right. We need wolfish wildness to remain vital, whether the “we” be a nation of millions or an individual of one. Our heritage demands it. Wildness is embedded in our innermost being.
For we are animals, just like wolves. Even more: the science of evolution tells us that some tens of millions of years ago wolves were us. Or rather, we shared a common ancestor from which sprung the mammalian branch of life that now includes wolves and humans.
Today a HinesSight reader pointed me toward a Los Angeles Times story, “Wolves Thrive but Animosity Keeps Pace.” It’s a disturbing tale of irrational lupine fear. In North America a single person has been killed by wolves in the past 100 years. Wolves account for a miniscule fraction of livestock losses, as noted in my “Ranchers overly afraid of the big bad wolf” post.
So there’s no good reason to fear wolves. Nor any wild animal. Respect, yes. Fear, no.
I grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains where rattlesnakes are common. As a boy who ran wild around those foothills I had a healthy respect for rattlesnakes. I certainly felt a chill up my spine when, crawling through a rocky passage, I heard an unmistakable rattle and made the hastiest exit of my young life.
But I never heard anyone calling for the killing of every rattlesnake in California. Yet quite a few wolf-fearers believe that the only good wolf is a dead wolf, even though domesticated dogs are a much greater danger to both people and livestock. In the LA Times article a Defenders of Wildlife spokeswoman opines that wolves are irrationally feared because of deep-seated myth (such as the tragic tale of Little Red Riding Hood).
That may be. My own theory, though, leans more toward the fear of wildness as the causative factor behind irrational wolf-phobia. Hillary Rosner says in her thoughtful piece, “The Big Bad Wolf and the American Mind”:
American attitudes toward wolves are tied up in the strange relationship we have with the idea of the wild more generally: we want it, but only in places where we designate it, only as decreed and managed by us. So, too, wolves are fine, but only if they stay within certain boundaries and keep their wolfishness to a minimum. Keeping wolves in check is a sign, somehow, that we’ve triumphed as a civilization; let them get out of control, and you never know where else nature might come insidiously creeping back in.
We’ve gotten to a point where anything allowed to retain its stamp of “wild” – whether animal, plant, or landscape – must be rigorously managed down to the last detail. Perhaps there’s no way around it. But it undoubtedly has an impact on the American psyche, perhaps subconsciously altering the way we interpret words like “wild” and “wilderness.”
Yes, absolutely. I don’t think this is necessarily a conservative vs. progressive divide, for my highly conservative mother held the old-fashioned Republican belief that the word meant just that: conservatives conserved, whether it be money or wildlife. Yet nowadays it is the radical right that is the most afraid of wildness, as evidenced by steadily increasing pressures to cut out the “wild” from our remaining wilderness.
Wolves are a strong symbol of wildness. Hence, the irrational hatred of them by those who fear the wild that can’t be controlled. These same people, I strongly suspect, also fear homosexuality, for sexual proclivity falls in the realm of the uncontrollable. Likewise, almost assuredly they distrust non-dogmatic spiritual paths such as Buddhism and Taoism, for these encourage an independence of action and belief that breaks the bounds of conventional religiosity.
In the same sense global warming, I suspect, is looked upon as an accomplishment by most fearers of the wild. “We have tamed nature,” they think—consciously or unconsciously. “Human technology has altered the course of natural climate change. Mankind rules! I like my weather fried.”
Far be it from me to deny anyone their chosen fear. Fear of God, fear of wolves, fear of living in harmony with nature, fear of gays. If you want to live a fearful life, be my guest.
But please, don’t impose your fears on the rest of us. Keep them to yourself. I’d like to hear the sound of a wild wolf howl someday, just as my wife and I have enjoyed listening to nearby coyote song. Those of us who embrace the wild aren’t, well, wild about having it torn away from us.
If you want to try to keep your life’s garden perfectly manicured behind a psychic fence that repels even a hint of wildness, go ahead. Just remember that outside the walls you choose to hide behind lies the world where wild-lovers roam.
Take a peek. Try a howl. You might find an inner wolf yearning to run free.