No one knows all the motives for howling. We know howling is social, keeping the pack intact. We know wolves answer each other, echolocating over vast tracks. Howling attracts a scattered pack or a mate. Howling is long distance contact: a stroke for or against—a caress, a shove. Because all sound is vibration, we know the howl is a form of touch that overcomes distance. The air consolidates cravings as it trembles on your skin. Howl hurtles out of sublime vistas, out of fairy tales, out of the dark, out of your nowhere. Follow your thought or follow an animal path, a sonic thread out into the open. We know one howl can travel 140 miles. To hear it is to feel yourself heard by the wolf. A howl encircles, it saturates and demarcates. We know and we don’t know: howl shapes the world.
A howl is language without words. It gives voice to alkali reaches, magnetic and sensuous. But howl also makes listening a priority. When wolves howl, they induce responsibility in its literal sense of responsiveness, receptivity; and its ethical sense of answerability. It is a call.
Most of us will hear a wolf rather than glimpse one. Listening involves an experience different from seeing—more porous, less complete. Hearing a howl, we are taken in and taken away, filled with animal otherness and mesmerized by it (sight keeps things at a distance and in perspective). Howl converts our plasma to primal intoxication with the living; our bodies were made with its spectral incantation. Howl runs through us threatening dissolution; it passes through us and we recognize it. Howl calls us out.
But the reverse is also true. We know wolves respond to human imitations of howls more than they do to stranger-wolf howls. We know that hunters howl in unison with wolves and wait for the animals to come to them.
What is set off in a howl and what is set off toward us?
Rather than a single, pure tone, a wolf chorus modulates and wavers. Listen. Rapid shifts in tone and pitch surround you. First one, then another, then a third joins in, a stippled suggestion of latent territories overlapping. Oscillating between ritual and improvisation, the chorus comes at multiple velocities, it careens off trees and rocks, it resonates in valleys, it scatters and reconstitutes in harmonics. You hear the howls echo and radiate, slipping into orchestrated intensity—the pulse of shadows rolling fast over hills at dusk express themselves in the precise rhythm of a chorus howl. One wolf channels multiple voices. Galaxies churn out trillions of stars. Your body teems with intensities, too. As one wolf becomes many, a chorus of three might sound more like thirty. This perceptual magic, called the Beau Geste Effect, introduces uncertainty enough to scare off rivals. In the 1924 adventure novel of the same name, Beau Geste of the French Foreign Legion successfully defends a desert fort by propping up the bodies of his dead comrades at the battlements, thereby conveying the illusion of indomitability to his attackers. In French, the phrase beau geste suggests a fine but futile gesture.