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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Wolves, Women, and Children (p. 129)

From chapter "Breaking Out"

During the massacre at Sand Creek (“I can hit the son of a bitch. Let me try him”) two women and their children were able to escape, but they soon realized that they were lost. They took refuge in a cave too shallow to hold off the cold. Late at night a large wolf entered the cave, and lay next to them. At first they were frightened, but at least they were warm. The next day the wolf stalked with them, resting when they rested.

Finally one of the women said, “O Wolf, try to do something for us. We and our children are nearly starved.” The wolf led them to a freshly killed buffalo. They ate.

Walking with them for the next few weeks, the wolf found food for them when they were hungry, and protected them from both humans and nonhumans. At last he led them to their people, the Cheyenne, and after receiving food, he disappeared.

Things don’t have to be the way they are.


The story I’ve recounted is merely an anecdote told by a nonscientific people. Who are the witnesses? They are irrational people making nonscientific observations.

If we decide the story is a metaphor, we need not call them liars, but we also need not reconsider our worldview. The women and children took on the qualities they observed in wolves, huddling together in a shallow cave, perhaps even finding an old wolf skin to wrap around themselves to stay warm. They stalked buffalo, and found a fresh kill. Maybe they even chased away wolves. They avoided white men as the wolves, too, had learned to avoid them, and eventually found their way home. Our perception of physical reality must be based on solid scientific evidence, not fairy tales.

I once asked a scientist friend of mine what it would take to convince her that interspecies communication is real. She said, “If an animal were to act against its nature after you asked it to, I’d reconsider.”

Leaving aside the question of what defines an animal’s nature, I asked, “Like a pack of coyotes not eating chickens?”

“Not good enough.”

I suppose that was a polite way of saying she didn’t believe me. I told her how the Chipewyan Indian children frequently found wolf dens in order to play with the pups, and told her that we don’t even have to take the Indians’ word for it: the eighteenth century explorer Samual Hearne, the first white man to explore northern Canada, described it: “I never knew a Northern Indian [to] hurt one of them; on the contrary, they always put them carefully into the den again; and I have sometimes seen them paint the faces of the young wolves with vermillion, or red ochre.”

She didn’t say anything, so I pulled a book off the shelf and told her about an incident at a wildlife refuge in New Jersey. A population explosion of whitetail deer prompted managers to allow hunting there. Many people opposed the hunt, so some areas of the refuge remained off-limits. “A funny thing happened,” stated a manager, “and I would not have believed it had I not seen it happen. For a couple of days prior to the hunt, we spotted numerous deer leaving the area to be hunted, swimming the Passaic River into the area that was closed to hunting. It was as though someone had tipped them off. And hunting season hadn’t even begun.” I told my friend that every experienced hunter I know often witnesses this same thing: bucks feed openly in fields a few days before the season opens, then disappear before the shooting begins.

She continued to look at me, her face blank, and I could tell she was losing patience. I pushed ahead, and told her about the Gaddy Goose Refuge. In the mid-1930s, a North Carolina farmer named Lockhart Gaddy began feeding Canada geese at his farm. Soon, there were so many that tourists began to visit. The geese felt safe: at neighboring farms they wouldn’t allow anyone within a quarter-mile of them, but at Gaddy’s they allowed tourists to touch them. Both birds and visitors continued to increase until there were nearly 30,000 Canada geese, and as many human visitors. In 1953 Gaddy died of an apparent heart attack while feeding the geese. His wife, Hazel, said there was silence among the 10,000 birds there at the time. Gaddy was buried on a mound fifty feet from the goose pond in a grove of trees. Witnesses commented that on the day of the funeral the geese were silent. After it was over, they paraded to the grave, walking all around and over it time and again. The number of geese visiting the refuge continued to increase until Mrs. Gaddy’s death in the early 1970s. A relative of the Gaddys’ took over, but the geese apparently communicated to one another that the Gaddys were no more, and by 1975 the refuge had to be closed because the geese were gone. Although large V-shaped formations continue to fly overhead during their autumn migration, they never land anymore.

“Nice story'” she said. “What’s your point?”

I closed my eyes and thought, then, told her the story of the wolf taking care of Indians after Sand Creek.

Exasperated, she said, “This is not evidence. These are just stories. They don’t mean anything. Give me hard science. Give me something reproducible.” A long silence between us. She crossed her arms and looked down. She reached with her right hand to stroke her chin. Finally looking back up, she said, “You know, there is nothing you can say that would convince me.”

I was exasperated, too. I was angered by her dogmatic faith masquerading as skepticism. I thought about saying a lot of things, but instead grabbed some other sources, and said, “Okay, I’ll give you the only sort of reproducibility our culture can create with regard to human-wolf relations. 1630: `It is ordered [in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay], that there should be 10 shillings a piece allowed for such wolves as are killed.’ 1645: `Mr. Bartholomew, John Johnson, Mr. Sprauge, Mr. Winsley, & Mr. Hubbard are chosen a committee to consider the best ways and means to destroy the wolves which are such ravenous cruel creatures, & daily vexations to all the inhabitants of the colony.’ 1854: All hands were preparing meat in pieces about two inches square, cutting a slit in the middle and opening it and putting a quantity of strychnine in the center and closing the parts upon it. . . . One morning after putting out the poison, they picked up sixty-four wolves. . . . The proceeds from that winter’s hunt [sic] were over four thousand dollars.’ 1872: `Before proceeding to skin the dead wolves, the Mexicans [hired by an outfit in Kansas] captured this old fellow [a wolf “who was exceedingly sick”] and haltered him, by carbine straps, to the horns of the buffalo carcasses, near which he sat on his haunches, with eyes yellow from rage and fright. . . . Man never appreciates the wonderful command that God gave him over the other animals until surrounded by the wild beasts of the solitudes, in all their native fierceness.’ 1871: `Not far above this [temporary village built by wolf and buffalo hunters] was a road going thro the swampy creek valley, about 75 yards wide, and this had been artistically and scientifically paved with gray wolf carcasses.’ 1900: `I can not believe that Providence intended these rich lands, broad, well watered, fertile and waving with abundant pasturage, close by mountains and valleys, filled with gold, and every metal and mineral, should forever be monopolized by wild beasts and savage men. I believe in the survival of the fittest, and hence I have “fit” for it all my life. . . . The wolf is the enemy of civilization, and I want to exterminate him.”‘

We stared at each other for a long moment, then, she looked away. I should have stopped, but I didn’t. I told her that after killing all but one of the pups in a den, government officers would chain the last one to a tree, and then shoot all the adults who tried to rescue the frightened pup. After being trapped, wolves would be collared with a leather belt, tied to a stake, and – jaw wired shut – either left to die of dehydration or to be dismembered by the hunters’ dogs. Wolves were lassoed and then dragged to their death. I told her that even today, wolves are shot from airplanes, poisoned with strychnine, cyanide. Killed.

Is it any wonder, I asked my friend, that we do not observe them coming to us in the dark, that they do not feed us, care for us, and lead us home? Is it any wonder they run frightened from us?

It should be clear by now, I said, after all these years, all these extinctions, all these lost opportunities for redemption and community, that somewhere along the line, to switch from Latinate to Anglo-Saxon roots, we fucked up. And today? We’re still fucking up. We still believe we stand alone atop the world. But it has to stop. At some point we will finally have to look around and see if anyone is still able, and willing, to lead us home.

She shifted uncomfortably in her chair. I wondered if I had said too much.