I’m reading Once There Were Wolves, by Charlotte McConaghy.
I’m terrible at book reviews, so I won’t attempt one here. Besides, I’m only two-thirds through, although I’ll finish it this weekend. Let’s just say that as literary fiction – with a murder mystery, family dysfunction and possible romance – it ticks a lot of boxes. I’m intrigued with the setting: an effort by wolf biologists to help “rewild” Scotland by reintroducing gray wolves to the landscape. The author is realistically and accurately depicting the challenges of such an endeavor, along with the benefits should it succeed.
She also is spot on when describing the reactions of the local sheep farmers to this bold experiment. Reading, I feel like I’m back in Idaho. Her characters are saying the same things I heard from neighbors there.
But perhaps most compelling, for me personally, is the main character’s mirror-touch synesthesia. I had to look it up, having never heard of it, wondering if it was real or something the author created for her character. It’s real: Mirror-touch synesthesia is a rare condition which causes individuals to experience a similar sensation in the same part or opposite part of the body that another person feels. (Wikipedia)
It’s like being a highly sensitive person (HSP) on steroids.
According to Psychology Today, A Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, is a term coined by psychologist Elaine Aron. According to Aron’s theory, HSPs are a subset of the population who are high in a personality trait known as sensory-processing sensitivity, or SPS. Those with high levels of SPS display increased emotional sensitivity, stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli—pain, hunger, light, and noise—and a complex inner life.
I get it, or I think I do. I fit the description of a HSP. It’s why I burned out so easily when practicing family law. It’s why I burned out as the director of an animal shelter. So for me, the ongoing wolf controversy in Idaho, with accelerated attempts in recent years to kill them throughout the West – to get rid of them altogether – was more than I could bear. Beyond my worries about Conall being mistaken for a wolf and shot, it was knowing wolves were being killed regularly and frequently in the forest where my dogs and I sought solace and peace that was breaking my heart and sent my mind to some very dark (vengeful) places. I had to leave to survive.
Feeling that strong bond and connection to wolves is also why writing about them is so challenging for me, why I avoid and procrastinate. Given the history of man’s treatment of them, to write about them means dwelling in some horrible places.
As I think (a lot), read (e.g., Once There Were Wolves), and write (not enough) about wolves, I can’t escape considering the basic human emotion that has shaped and propelled most individual and public reaction to them (at least among Europeans, including those who came to inhabit North America) in the past few centuries: fear.
It wasn’t always that way. For a significant chunk of their common history, humans and wolves co-existed and cooperated. There was mutual respect. Some cultures (thankfully) still revere that connection.
Oxford Dictionary defines fear as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat. That fear then causes physiological changes that may produce behavioral reactions, such as an aggressive response, or fleeing the threat. In short, the fight-or-flight response.
Fear is closely related to anxiety, which occurs because threats are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable. An individual’s fears (and their resulting anxiety about not being able to control or avoid the thing they fear) are not an aspect of their nature, but are learned, shaped by their social relations and culture, telling them when and how much fear to feel, or how to react to that fear.
I first saw this in action when I moved from Washington state to Idaho in 2005. I had two Alaskan Malamutes then. In my Seattle suburb, people were eager to meet them, ask me about them, and my dogs basked in the attention. In Idaho? People were afraid, avoided us, or if brave enough, would ask me if they were wolves.
Same friendly dogs with same friendly human (me). The difference was cultural. And stark. Learned fear.
Making matters worse, in my experience, is that people fear being perceived by others as fearful – a coward, if you will – and go to great lengths to “cover” their fears.
A coward is a person who lacks the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things. (Oxford Dictionary) As a label, “cowardice” indicates a failure of character in the face of a challenge. (Wikipedia)
Who wants to be thought a coward? Especially in Western American culture, one that reveres independence, rugged self-sufficiency, and bravery in the face of danger?
Yet, in Idaho, it was fear I saw rearing its ugly head whenever the topic of wolves came up. Myths and outright lies about the supposed danger of wolves were trotted out to justify the coward’s reaction to wolves: wanting to kill them, kill them all. Kill what makes you afraid, because that’s how you control it and your fear.
Cowards go to great lengths to kill what scares them, bragging about it to those of similar mindset as a feat of manhood and courage, as if the act of killing is proof of their lack of cowardice.
Just the opposite.
I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five percent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.Varlam Shalamov, Russian writer who, in 1937, was sentenced to hard labor in the Soviet gulag until his release in 1951.
What I’m still trying to work out in my mind is the relationship between cowardice and fear – same side of the coin, I think – and anger.
Is it anger that pulls the trigger when a wolf is in the cross-hairs of the coward’s high-powered rifle? Or just fear? Or a combination?
Because I’m angry. I’m angry that wolves are slaughtered – still, today, in this supposedly enlightened age, when we’re destroying the entire planet and should be doing everything possible to preserve what life remains. I’m pissed.
According to Anglo-Irish author and poet David Whyte, my anger is proof of my compassion for wolves and for nature in general.
Anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt.
…anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being.
…Anger truly felt at its center is the essential living flame of being fully alive and fully here; it is a quality to be followed to its source, to be prized, to be tended, and an invitation to finding a way to bring that source fully into the world through making the mind clearer and more generous, the heart more compassionate and the body larger and strong enough to hold it.David Whyte
So anger – if Whyte is correct – is different than fear, because fear isn’t about caring or embracing a thing or idea. Instead, fear wants to destroy, or at least avoid.
I think, and hope, Whyte is right.
But why does fear so often lead to aggression (e.g., bullying, and killing), and is that aggression a form of anger, or something else? Cowardice? I know my anger about the treatment of wolves is a flame that compels me to advocate for them, to raise awareness. I can’t imagine ever letting that anger evolve into violence. But…?
That “but” is a theme throughout Once There Were Wolves.
I have lots of thinking yet to do.
In the meantime, some apropos quotes.
If you talk to the animals they will talk to you, and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them, you will not know them. And what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears one destroys.Chief Dan George
We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them.Christian Nestell Bovee
There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.Andre Gide
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.H. P. Lovecraft
Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.Winston Churchill
Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.Edward Abbey
Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.Wendell Berry
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.Toni Morrison