People often ask what prompted my journey working for wolves. I've had a lifelong love for nature that led to countless hours alone in the woods watching birds, catching tadpoles and horned toads, and dancing in rainstorms. Dogs, horses, and hamsters filled my need to connect with animals at home. It was an unexpected encounter, however, in the middle of the night on a dark Texas highway somewhere near Austin that set my path. I was a senior in high school, a passenger in the front seat of the car heading to San Antonio where I was living between the years growing up in Idaho and Colorado. The headlights glowed on the road ahead while Jim Morrison wailed Roadhouse Blues on the stereo. Suddenly an animal emerged in the light from the head beams. A very large dog was standing in the center of the lanes staring back toward the car. The driver slammed on the brakes so hard that it threw the car into a sideways slide toward the canine. If you have never been in an accident in a moving vehicle before it is hard to explain but time takes on a different dimension. It's like suddenly entering a slow motion video. From the front passenger seat, I locked eyes with the creature and realized almost instantly that it wasn't a dog or even the common coyote. Large golden eyes, the reddish brown coat, long legs, massive feet and its thick low hung tail belong to the West's most persecuted species: a wolf. And the red wolf was thought long extinct in Texas. Another long moment passed before the wolf slipped out of our path and we slid to a safe stop on the side of the road where time resumed its normal motion.
That moment would stir me for years. It led me to search for more information about wolves and there wasn't much at that time. The book that would finally inspire my path was published that year - 1979. Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez is still the wolf "bible" in my opinion. And the first time I read the chapter containing the essay "Thinking Like a Mountain" by Aldo Leopold, my future was determined.
Thinking Like a Mountain
"A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.
Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.
My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. 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.
Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.
I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf's job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.
We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men."
Thinking Like a Mountain : Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests. Columbia :University of Missouri Press, 1974.
My friend, if this essay doesn't bring a tear to your eye or a recognition of the deeper truth in your heart, I will never be able to explain to you why I love wolves - the other question that especially those in the ranching business tend to ask. And that chance encounter was the first of many times that wolves would show up in my life, often unexpected, but always as a way to lead me forward.
Suzanne Asha Stone
January 8, 2020
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