My long-time friend Miki visited for a few days this past week. In the days before the start of her visit, I had a writing breakthrough, an insight about how to enter the world of my new book – what I refer to as the “wolf book” – or, more precisely, the (likely) opening scene from which the rest of the book will flow. That epiphany was huge, and I was excited, eagerly working on writing the scene.
I was still on a bit of a high as Miki’s visit approached. I warned her that I might pick her brain in the same way I did during a beach vacation in 2013, when Miki asked if I wanted to share a cottage on the ocean for a couple days. I had just finished the draft of my book Growing Up Boeing, but I was still unsure of the sequence of my chapters. I arrived at the ocean cottage with several sheets of white butcher paper, chapter names and synopses written out, ready to be arranged and rearranged. One afternoon I spread them out on the floor and asked Miki for help in figuring out which chapter should go where in the overall structure of the book. Ultimately, we agreed a clear chronological approach made the most sense, and that’s what I went with.
As before, Miki was game to be a sounding board during this recent visit.
Every writer needs at least one Miki in their life. I’m fortunate to have two, my long-time editor and friend, Susan, being the other. (I mention just one of her encouragements about this wolf book in my recent post, It’s Time to Write About Wolves. Susan also periodically sends me books she has read that always offer me insights and/or inspiration.)
It turns out that this past week Miki offered insight into something altogether different than the wolf book’s opening scene.
The last morning of her stay, Miki was baking pumpkin-spice scones for our post-dog-walk breakfast. She brought a Sticky Fingers scone mix with her, after reading my Seeing Red blog post about the pumpkin-spice smell of the autumn leaves. (The scones were excellent; I highly recommend them. Just add water!) We were riffing on stories about family, growing up, animals. I shared a story about the time when I was eleven or twelve and my cat, Blue, was caught in a wire trap my father had set in the wooded lot next door in an effort to remove a skunk. I had no idea he’d set the trap; I just heard my cat screaming, found him struggling and added my own screaming until my father came running and removed the wire from his hind foot. I was traumatized, as was Blue, although his minor injury healed eventually. I was also furious. At my father. I didn’t speak to him for days. (I’d forgotten that part until he reminded me, decades later.) My father apologized and swore to me he’d never set another trap.
That story led to a similar one about my Idaho neighbor Leonard. Not long after I moved into my house there in 2005, Leonard stopped me to chat as I drove past his house toward mine. I rolled down my window. With a smirky grin on his face, Leonard asked if I had a cat. When I replied that I didn’t, he said he’d shot one earlier that morning, and pointing to a tall tree in his front yard, said that his chihuahua-mix dog Muttley had treed the cat. Because Muttley wouldn’t stop barking, Leonard shot the cat. It took me a moment to understand what he’d just said: rather than bring his small, five-pound dog inside to give the cat a chance to climb down and get away, he’d chosen to shoot and kill the cat. Worse, he was proud of how he’d solved the problem. In an instant, I realized he hoped I’d praise his ingenuity.
Boy, was he wrong.
“Leonard, you don’t know whose cat that was. It could have been mine, Shelley’s, or some other neighbor’s cat.” I rolled up my window and drove away, furious. For the next few days, I neither waved at Leonard if I drove by him nor stopped to chat, as I commonly had. I was so disgusted I was ready to never speak to Leonard again. But about a week later, I found myself walking my dogs on a nearby country road and saw Leonard doing the same, approaching from the opposite direction, walking on the other side of the road. I mentally prepared myself to be civil, saying hello but otherwise walking right past him. Leonard, though, did something unexpected: he crossed the road to stand right in front of me and my dogs, looked me directly in the eye, and said with remorse in his voice, “I’ll never do that again.” Knowing instantly what he was referring to, I nodded, then reached out and gave him a hug.
“Thank you,” I said.
Without another word, we both continued with our walks, in opposite directions, but with our relationship repaired. Because bottom line: as much as I disagreed with some of Leonard’s views, and especially with what he’d done to that poor cat, I valued and respected him as a neighbor who had lived his whole life on that land.
Marveling at both of these stories, Miki said, “You changed the behavior of two men important to you.”
Suddenly I saw those stories in a new and different light: their behavior changed because they valued their relationship with me.
But Miki’s insights continued. “You can change how people think about wolves with your book.” She elaborated that if readers respect me enough, I can change attitudes, just as I did with my father and Leonard.
“I might save a wolf,” I replied, nodding and thinking about what Miki had just said.
“Save a wolf” is my shorthand for the idea that saving even one wolf’s life through my writing is a success I would be proud of. After years of telling myself I’m not a wolf expert, therefore I shouldn’t or couldn’t write about them, I had at least recently arrived at the conclusion that if I’m writing memoir, I can certainly share my own experiences with wolves – and the dogs that are their direct descendants – along with my insights into how humans react to wolves based on my time living in Idaho.
Miki asked how many times I’ve seen a wolf in the wild. I ticked off each encounter, and surprised myself when it totaled five, plus hearing one howl in the nearby forest soon after I moved to Idaho. I had seen wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Yellowstone/Wyoming. Miki – who has never seen a wild wolf – was amazed. “It’s like they find you,” she said. “I feel like they’re my totem animal,” I replied.
Memoir mixed with historic context was the approach I ultimately took with Growing Up Boeing after struggling for years with how to tell the stories of the test pilots I interviewed. Ultimately I realized that the only approach that made sense for me as a non-pilot, a non-expert, was to tell the stories from my own perspective as a child growing up among the pilots and their families within the greater Boeing/Seattle culture. On that, I was an expert.
My own perspective about wolves, as someone who lives with Alaskan Malamutes (wolf-like in appearance and some behaviors) and spent 16 years in Idaho – an area where wolves naturally spread after reintroduction in Yellowstone in the 1995, leading to intense push back from Idaho ranchers and hunters – is a unique perspective. Only I can tell this particular story, in my voice. If sharing my experiences and what I’ve learned from years of research enlightens some readers, changes some attitudes and behaviors toward wolves…?
A big win.
Miki’s insight has given me the courage to believe that maybe I can “save a wolf” with my book.
The key? Respect.
Respect, also called esteem, is a positive feeling or action shown towards someone or something considered important or held in high esteem or regard. It conveys a sense of admiration for good or valuable qualities. It is also the process of honoring someone by exhibiting care, concern, or consideration for their needs or feelings.Wikipedia, borrowing from Merriam-Webster and Cambridge Dictionaries.
Mutual respect, between writer and reader, with the ultimate goal of fostering respect for wolves and their critical place in the ecosystem.
If, through my stories and my writing, I can create a connection with readers that helps them see and understand wolves in new ways, perhaps that will translate, first, to one less wolf killed and, ultimately, to an end to the fear-based killing of wolves altogether.
I may fail.
But maybe I’ll succeed.
All it takes to succeed is one mind changed, one less wolf killed.
I won’t know unless I try.
Respect is the key.
Feature photo: sun setting over recently hayed field, bales wrapped in plastic to preserve against moisture. October 23, 2021.