The Voice that Crieth in the Wilderness

Franklin Burroughs

Let me first establish that I am a hunter, and have been for sixty years. So I start with feelings of friendly respect for any alpha predator.
     I live in Maine, not yet a battleground state in the wolf wars. But there’s still hope. Fifty years ago, critters started showing up in Maine’s north woods, and people at first thought they were wolves, or wolf-dogs; then they thought coy-dogs: dog-coyote hybrids. Turned out they were just eastern brush coyotes. That was good enough to raise the usual ruckus: they’ll decimate the deer, slaughter sheep, raid henhouses, cathouses, cradles. No such luck. They’ve now spread into just about every nook and eco-cranny in the east, all the way down to Florida. They have proven totally inadequate to controlling our major pest species, the white-tailed deer.
     I get it that wolves are not coyotes. They are powerful and relentless; a pack of them is the closest thing this country has had to a well-regulated militia since the Revolution. They are strikingly intelligent, and look so much like the finest, truest, doggedest dog ever to grace this planet that you want to make friends with them. Don’t bother; they have already succeeded in being what they are meant to be.
     We settled this country by shooting first and asking questions later: red wolves, gray wolves, wolverines, bears, cougars, coyotes, Native Americans: whatever frightened us. This kind of behavior is habit-forming, so now we shoot each other, wholesale, and fill our gun closets with weapons suited for no other purpose. But we cannot pretend that we’re frontiersmen, competing with other alpha predators for a limited protein supply. More and more of us live in cities and suburbs and cyberspace.
     But a lot of us go outdoors, hunting or hiking or skiing or sledding or surfing. It’s healthy and soul-soothing and so forth, but face it: we also go there in order to experience a trace of fear, awe, loneliness, exhilaration, the chance of going on and on, losing ourselves—each of those possibilities dependent on the others; all of them amounting to a sort of shiver down the spine. Even if we don’t actually do these things, we like to imagine that we do, and watch movies and television shows about them.
Fifty years ago this year, I spent a summer as an understudy to a timber cruiser in northern Quebec. We cruised roadless country that had never been cut. A float plane flew us over miles and miles of conifers, birches, lakes, muskeg, rock; set us down in the middle of somewhere with a canoe, food, a tent, and a map showing us where to go to count and measure trees. My cruiser and I usually traveled with another cruiser and his assistant, staying a week or so in one place, then being picked up, resupplied, and put down in the middle of somewhere else. It was a paid adventure, with just enough responsibility and discomfort to make us feel important, and we enjoyed it.
     In June the twilight had gone on and on, barely dying out to the west before the its first adumbrations began in the east. But by August the dark came early and it came quick. We’d sit around the fire and talk after supper. The loons that had been part of the long evenings no longer had much to say. One of the cruisers had a harmonica, and he might squeak away at that for a while. The fire and the music, such as it was, made the night and the woods and the big lakes all that much bigger, a mighty surrounding silence and invisibility. The four of us were barely out of adolescence, old enough to draft but not to vote, full of the big talk and bravado that come from knowing, deep down inside yourself, that you don’t know a damn thing.
     One night, past midnight, I went out to piss. The moon was down, the sky was utterly black and the stars, numberless as the sands of the sea or the sins of the forefathers, glittered starkly. There was frost in the air, and it was so still that you might have been inside a bank vault, instead of out here, away from the tent, under the mighty vault of the heavens.
     First it was a yip, and then another; then a howl that rose, full-throated and full of power, wavering and quavering on and on. This from our side of the lake, probably not close, although it was so startling that it seemed close. Then from across the lake an answer, the sound carrying over the water and spreading echoes in its wake. It was close. The howling, some of it shrill and puppyish, became general, call and response from one shore of the lake to the other. It sounded more forlorn than frightening, and it seemed, from where I stood, directed upward and outward, toward the merciless stars.
     Now, years of explanations have passed, and I can tell myself that what I felt was that my life had at last become like something out of a book, and that is because wolves—gray, shadowy, just beyond the circle of flickering light where the lost child sits shivering—lurk around the shadows of so many children’s stories, symbolizing the fears we secretly love. But at the time I felt, and I still feel, that hearing those wolves meant something. It had to. It was a variety of religious experience, in the same way that falling in love is: it does not commit you to a creed; it does commit you to trying to be worthy of a gift that came out of thin air.
     As a country, we rely on the bottom line to settle every argument. Or so we say. But we also, collectively and individually, disregard it, and live beyond our means. Wolf hunts won’t generate much revenue; wolf predation won’t have a measurable impact upon Michigan’s GDP. We aren’t going to settle this matter by arithmetic and bookkeeping. Wolves have haunted the psyche of the Northern Hemisphere out of all proportion to their danger. The reason for that is because they are so beautiful, so much like the dogs we have domesticated and yet so superior to them. We ourselves seem a bit small and grubby by comparison. For some people, that is exactly why we should kill them; and for some, myself among them, that is exactly why we should not.