Finalist for 2013 Work Stew Essay Competition:
I am the publisher of a community news website, which means outsiders understand pretty much zilch about what I do. That’s usually fine. As a writer who has done it all—from a book on climate change to lyrical poetry to websites for guitar makers and people with ADD—I’m used to being in foreign territory.
How do people not understand my job? Let me count the ways.
- I write constantly, very fast, much of it stuff I don’t care a lot about and sometimes things very deeply felt.
- I have strong opinions and strive for fair reporting, but I believe journalistic “objectivity” is a lie.
- Writing has the rare distinction of being something most people think they can do. How many believe at some point they will write the great American novel or, these days, memoir? Perhaps I will take the summer off to become a surgeon.
- Writing for a community news site is its own animal. People know you and hold you accountable in ways most journalists never experience. I am therefore less critical than I would normally be but also more personally invested. When someone gets hurt or an animal needs a home, I really give a damn. After I wrote an account of a woman who killed another woman on a wildly reckless drunken driving spree I got an email from the deceased woman’s daughter asking for a small correction to my story—the fact that her mother had been wearing her seatbelt, a detail the court report had gotten wrong. After a shoreline homeowner shot a mother otter leaving three tiny orphans, I interviewed the wildlife shelter specialist struggling to save their lives. I wanted to cry and scream and rant and seek revenge. I kept calling to check on them. One by one, they died.
- Most people don’t read carefully. However, as soon as I think my readers are simple-minded fools, someone blows me down with their intelligent feedback.
- The anonymity of the Internet makes people nasty. When our news partners, The Seattle Timesand King5.com, link to our stories is typically when we get rude comments—not often from regular readers. Once I wrote a personal essay about a dear friend who shot herself in a moment of despair in her chest wound after radiation treatments for breast cancer. She regretted it and begged paramedics to save her before she died. One unnamed commenter to my article wrote, “Who cares? It’s not the gun’s fault she did that.”
- Contrary to the cutthroat reporter stereotype, when I do a personal feature about someone it is usually because I really like what they are up to, and I work to help them articulate and present their best self.
- I am part confidant, part detective, part manic captain. The confidant encourages people to trust me and tell me their stories. I draw out personal details they may never have told anyone else. Much of what I hear from people is maddeningly off the record. After discussing an incident with drunk kayakers who required rescuing, one police officer said that his job is to “stand in the way of natural selection.” How I wanted to quote him! The detective part just figures stuff out because often there is no clear way to get a story. It is my job to find a way to become The Information Source. Many stories just take good old sleuthing—calling, showing up, asking questions, taking pictures, and thinking through things. And the manic captain? Much of the time I feel I’m at the helm steering the ship—following leads; choosing stories; finding images; editing contributor pieces; balancing “news” and “personal” articles; and monitoring Facebook, Twitter, comments, and a deluge of daily emails.
- I hate my job. I hate being on call 24/7. I hate rewriting boring press releases (people hardly ever know how to compose a good one). I hate covering local politics. I hate leaving the house at night to cover fires and accidents, intruding on people’s tragedies and taking gruesome photos.
- I love my job. I get to learn about people—their passions, families, losses, and achievements. I loved interviewing a blueberry farmer; a 100-year-old woman; a psychologist to traumatized emergency responders; a filmmaker who made a movie about homeless teens.
- I write for a highly educated, upscale community of people who read my website by the thousands every day. I am shaping public opinion, with many of my articles going national. I am also going to our local food bank to feed my family because I don’t make enough money working 7 days a week. Every day I ask myself how and when I will become master of my fate, captain of my soul.
Published on Inside Bainbridge (insidebainbridge.com):
Some three and a half years ago, shortly before the fool’s idea of launching Inside Bainbridge zizzed my brain, something wonderful happened. I drove by a striking scene: A Honey Bucket picked up from an event at Battle Point Park and loaded onto a trailer traveling down the steep hill of Devil’s Dip (Arrow Point Drive) had teetered and plummeted into the deep brush of the ditch at the side of the road.
At the time I did not regard the sight as wonderful. What contorted mind would? It was a mix of, sure, funny, as well as slightly awful, but I was picking up my kid and the driver was okay and had a cell phone. I gawked for a moment and drove on.
Ah, how that dumped Honey Bucket haunts me now. How many times have I rued its timing as I pass the familiar spot.
Here was an irresistible small-town story: exquisitely photographic, slightly sickening as the mind considers the spilled contents, uncomfortable imagining the mortification of the driver and cathartic that it is not you, amusing to envision the creative towing that would have to follow, and ultimately painless since no one actually got hurt.
At the time of my Honey Bucket moment I was still a “regular citizen.” I was a seasoned writer who had experience with journalism, but having my adrenals shift into fifth gear over local news was never part of my life plan. Truth is I found local news trivial and was much more apt to read national news or listen to NPR than pick up a local paper. I didn’t think twice about leaving the house without my camera. If I saw fire trucks or police cars zoom by, I didn’t turn around to follow them. If there was an accident or traffic jam, I was simply glad not to be in it; I didn’t ride my bike at full torque around stalled traffic to get to the scene without delay. I didn’t have the police chief in the contact list of my cell phone. I had never been to a federal courthouse or seen a jail. I had never driven at 4 a.m. to the scene of someone’s home engulfed in flames. And I had never waited hour by hour for coroners’ reports.
When a Honey Bucket lurched across my path, I didn’t grab my camera and notebook with exhilaration. I did not welcome it as a grotesque gift the way I would now.
No, a toppled Honey Bucket on a wooded road of Bainbridge Island isn’t Pulitzer Prize material, but you know you would have read that story.
But now I understand—on a cellular level—that small-town news is the stuff of national news. The human condition is essentially the same wherever you go, and the stories of our lives are too: domestic violence, car accidents, failed leadership, successful leadership, mental illness, unemployment, dedicated public service, corrupt politics, environmental destruction, heroic nonprofit work, bigotry, drunk driving, philanthropy, corporate deceit, the creation and defamation of art, brutality and altruism, good laws and bad, and the list continues. . . .
Across the planet there are buckets of honey and hell—a mess of loss and grace, abuse and redemption. It is all here in my village, and for now I have made it my job to turn my corner of this world’s babble into speech.
Image courtesy of Nicolás Boullosa, not me.
Published on Inside Bainbridge (insidebainbridge.com):
Although our state government already passed marriage equality for lesbians and gays, Washington voters will now get to decide whether equal rights to the myriad legal, financial, practical, and emotional privileges that marriage bestows will be granted to all our citizens. Registering as domestic partners, in point of fact, does not grant many of the 1,100 federal rights married couples enjoy, including the right to file joint federal incomes taxes and receive spousal benefits under Social Security.
For a long time I haven’t cared a whole lot about the right to marry for my partner and me. In my heart and in most “measurable” day-to-day ways we’re already married. We’ve lived together for 22 years, own a house together, often work side by side, and are raising a child together—as well as a small zoological experiment of rescue animals, also our children.
Although we never officially took marriage vows, we are the poster couple for “I take you to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Anyone who knows us will attest to our travails. It’s fair to say that we’ve endured more than our share of sickness and injury and the financial fallout that results from those things. From brain injury (from a collision with a drunk driver), to (surprise!) emergency heart surgery for an anatomical defect and so very very many more hardships not worth belaboring here, we’ve been in hell, looked at each other, and just kept on walking, hoping we’d find ourselves on the other side more times than I care to recount.
Back in the early days we were a model couple for many friends and family, who often told us they aspired to our level of compatibility. Perhaps they idealized our alignment of values and interests and our complementary natures. In some ways it is easier to align with a person of the same gender. You share certain understandings and styles of communication. And yet there are also particular challenges: It’s easy to blend together to the point of losing yourself, making it all the more difficult to assert a healthy and necessary boundary of selfhood. Of course some straight couples struggle with blurred boundaries too, but society tends to guide you into your own distinct gender roles—creating its own tricky terrain for straight couples.
Time and trouble have battered us too much for me to very often feel like the model couple these days, but perhaps that has released us to be more authentic about who we are and who we’re not, together and apart. Any relationship that weathers time is work, a wander in the dark, an epiphany, a series of failures and triumphs. That is the human condition between two people, genders aside.
As I watch so many couples I know, from siblings to friends, get divorced, I find myself caring more about marriage. Maybe it’s because for my entire life I’ve had to endure at best isolation and misunderstanding and at worst judgment and outright persecution of my kind, both within my own family and society at large: my brother telling my nephew real love is only between a man and a woman while his wife was having an affair; my parents violating every law of human compassion in front of me before finally divorcing; my good friend from college not letting me enter her house even to use the bathroom when I stopped to visit her on a cross country driving trip because her mother knew I was gay and “forbade” it; hospital workers assuming my partner and I are sisters and then telling us “oh that’s okay” when we explain we’re a couple; kids getting beaten and killed routinely because of their sexuality; people being murdered by their own governments because they’re “out”; politicians using me and others like me as hate mongering tools; bigots writing absurd editorials about the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. And the list goes on.
Even the black civil rights movement in the United States, to which gays and lesbians often look for inspiration and guidance, has a key difference from our struggle for civil rights: Their families were all in it together, whereas most gay people are alone in their identity within their families, often judged and even rejected by their parents and siblings.
Maybe I find myself caring more about my right to marry because I’m sick of people telling me it’s okay or not okay that I simply am who I am. Maybe I find myself caring more about my right to marry because I realize I shouldn’t accept being disenfranchised anymore just because I love someone. Maybe I find myself caring more about my right to marry because I’m really pissed that my partner and I had to be assessed by a psychologist, pay steep lawyer fees, and go to court so she could become a legal parent to our child. Maybe it’s because my life is nobody’s business but mine. Maybe it’s because my partner and I are still standing where others have fallen and given up on one another, and if anybody has earned the badge it’s us. Maybe it’s because I have the most beautiful child in the world who deserves the right to have parents who have the right to get married.
Photo courtesy of Fibonacci Blue.
Published on Inside Bainbridge (insidebainbridge.com):
Until New Year’s Eve, a few hours from the stroke of 2013, I was 200 percent anti-backyard-chicken-farming. Not that I had anything against other people doing it, but for my family I considered it madness.
Already we have too many animals. Already we spend too much time, frankly, picking up crap, vacuuming hair, and barely managing our zoological experiment of rescued creatures who dearly try to speak human but just can’t (and bless them for that). Plus, I am too busy. I mean busy. And the notion of bringing a flock of filthy flapping floozies into my modest yard and overpopulated little universe I KNEW would be a final capitulation to a point of no return.
What I did not understand (but vaguely suspected, with deeply buried apprehension) was that for two years, perhaps longer, I have been on a chicken trajectory, heading straight for the feathered funny farm.
Riding my bike clear around Bainbridge Island the last two summers to write about the annual Tour de Coop put me on my road to ruin. Gazing at tricked-out coops and fuzzed-up chicks, watching kids swell like roosters telling me about their flocks, seeing the coop pride and envy in people’s eyes, jotting down amusing anecdotes of poultry antics for my articles, and taking hundreds of photos of chickens of every breed in every stance, mood, and hue, I was unwittingly being schooled in the culture of chicken living. I was learning their ways and the ways of their keepers. And, yes, I was weakening to the absurd charm of a species that hitched its fate to ours thousands of years ago. I was weakening to the flavor of fresh eggs and the common-sense Earth-connectedness of a lifestyle common to us not that long ago.
It has its appeal, I was well aware. I see why they’re doing it, I thought. But I was fixed in my opposition, I believed, telling my eager family no way, not in this life.
Chickens are weird. They’re flighty, given to disease, and they need constant clean up of their constant random runny defecating. They’re little dinosaurs, not eating us only because evolution has shrunk them way way down. They look at you sideways, roll in dirt, eat grubs, and make oddly wild noises. They have wings but can’t really fly. They walk funny and peck continuously at anything that catches their fancy, including human eyeballs if given the chance. The only thing we have in common with them is, after a certain age, wattles.
Then on New Year’s Eve my dog grabbed a hen who had gotten out of her enclosure. We had walked off-leash in the same place maybe 40 times without incident, not even knowing there was a pen up the hill. But on this dusky walk, I found myself wresting the hen free of the jaws of death, taking her home (because the owner was out of town), and with my family setting about caring for her. In our house.
She had a puncture wound but no other injuries, and after the holiday she was stitched and already feisty. But sweet too. She began singing to us. She perched on our arms. She called for our company, lonely in the room where we kept her safe from the dogs, to whom she clucked epithets whenever she caught glimpses of them. Then one day she settled into a towel on a cozy chair in the corner and laid a beautiful egg. It was huge. It was an attractive tan. It was a thank you gift. And then each day she did the same thing—gave us more gifts.
It took us a few days to come to our senses and actually realize we should eat the eggs. The whites were bright, and the yokes were deep delicious yellow. They put factory eggs to inedible shame.
But it wasn’t her eggs that won my affection. It was her singing, and coming to understand how much she craved our company. I felt her lonely heartsong, so like my own, and it made me love her.
When I shared my story with my chicken farmer friend Alli, she laughingly, affectionately pronounced me a chicken sucker and set about giving me much-needed advice.
My family arranged to buy our hen (a young Golden Comet) from her previous keeper, who has a large flock and was amenable. We set about building a coop. My daughter gave her blessing to convert her backyard playset, which she had outgrown, into a home for Rosie, and the other chickens soon to follow. Oh yes, other chickens. Because, by god, the hen needs a family. Besides us.
[Note: We now always leash our dogs in the area of Rosie’s former coop. But, sadly, another chicken recently escaped from that same pen and was nabbed by another dog. Amazingly, that hen survived too, and now she lives with guess who.)
Photos by Julie Hall.
Republished by The Seattle Times:
The day my partner and I first arrived on Bainbridge in our rental home, Katy B. sent her husband Dan B. across the street to our house with a plate of freshly prepared fried oysters she had made. It was July 3, and Dan explained the music in the neighborhood was the brass band practicing for the July 4th parade in Winslow. With the oysters and the music, we felt like it was our own welcoming party.
Being neighbors and kindred spirits, Katy and Dan quickly felt like extended family. We were younger and probably somewhere in between good friends and surrogate kids for them, as their older son was homesteading in Alaska and their younger son was just off to college. We talked at the mailboxes everyday and took care of each other’s animals when we went out of town. Having lived on Bainbridge “forever,” they schooled us in the ways of Island life, but never with the condescension and territoriality that some other people we knew exhibited. Thank goodness, for example, they told us how to pronounce geoduck.
A few years later, Katy was diagnosed with breast cancer at 50. She went through a mastechtomy, chemotherapy, group cancer counseling, and finally radiation. Katy was private and prone to depression. The counseling made her feel more depressed, and worries about money were mounting. Before her diagnosis, she and Dan had recently launched a kitchen remodeling business out of their house, and it was hard for Dan to run things alone.
They never had much, but they had plenty. I loved that their house was still decorated in 1970s thick shag carpeting and dark wood panels. They were “old Islanders,” with no pretension of or interest in keeping up with the Joneses. Katy loved her garden and hummingbirds, and both of them adored their cat, named Cat. He was nearly 20 pounds and close to that in age, yet he chased home our terrified golden retriever whenever she ventured across the street to happily greet Dan or Katy.
I loved feeding Cat when they went away, even though he was one of the rare felines I am hideously allergic to. I broke out in hives when I touched him, and my eyes would seal shut. Yet he was such a fiend for affection and so charming I always let him sit on my lap and gave him the rub down he knew he deserved.
The radiation had left a literal hole in Katy’s chest that seemed not to be healing. Katy was falling into a figurative hole of despair. In the meantime, a heavy winter snow revealed that the sinking roof of our rental house was riddled with rotting beams and, as the contractor put it, “held together in some places by paint.”
We had to move immediately. And while we were in the throes of reconfiguring our life and continuing to run our writing business, something horrendous happened. Katy picked up a loaded gun they kept in the house and shot herself in the hole in her chest. Her son and Dan were home, and when they ran to her she was already saying she regretted it and wanted to live. An ambulance rushed her to the emergency helicopter, but on the way to Seattle Katy died. The EMTs told Dan afterward that she was asking them to save her life.
We tried to support Dan. In time we encouraged him to move forward, but he was alone, lost, and succumbing to despair. To numb the guilt, anger, loneliness, and grief, he was drinking constantly. About a year after Katy died, one day he passed out drunk, hit his head, and died of a brain hemorrhage.
It’s been a long time, and I rarely speak of these events to anyone. When I think of them, I like to turn my mind to a story Katy told me. She was gardening, and Cat was sitting nearby. He yawned, and a hummingbird, apparently attracted by his red tongue, flew into his mouth. Katy was too far away to do anything but watch. Cat blinked in disbelief, and before he registered that his lifelong dream had come true, the bird flew off.
I like to think of Katy relishing that story—Cat’s frozen shock, the bird’s escape. I like to think of her—and Dan—as hummingbirds who got away.
Photo courtesy of Coconino National Forest.
Republished by The Chicago Sun Times (chicago.suntimes.com):
Beyond Climate Change 101: Discovering a Life of Purpose Along the Way
by Julie Hall, published August 20, 2008, on ProgressiveKid
As with all meaningful change, there is no simple fix for our climate change crisis. There is no pill, band aid, 12-step formula, or “expert’s” advice to heal Earth or its life forms. There is no “clean” nuclear power that will preserve our current luxuries without risking even more environmental disaster, no green product that will redeem generations of overconsumption, no fluorescent light bulb that will reverse the excess of our industrialized systems, no recycling process that can restore forests, no zoo or seed bank that can preserve our world’s biodiversity, no replacement planet we can relocate to. For worse and for better we are stuck here with our mess and our weakness, our solutions and our strength.
Not that you shouldn’t install those fluorescents if you haven’t already. Yes of course cut out the plastic, switch to reusable bottles and bags, recycle and reuse, buy less, eat less meat, trade your grass for trees and plants, conserve water, ride your bike, buy locally and organically. Each step toward sustainability counts. But these are merely first steps, and we can’t stop here. As we take the next steps to restructure our local communities toward more sustainable self-sufficiency (as they once were), commute less, conserve more, transition to renewable energy sources, and regreen our environment, there are deeper changes we face.
Our climate problem isn’t merely an overdose of CO2. Global warming is fundamentally connected to overpopulation, pollution, industrial manufacturing, industrial farming, capitalist media manipulation, exploitation of natural resources, poverty, corporate abuse, and governmental abuse. We’ve had evidence for a long time now that these are unsustainable situations around the globe. Climate change is merely one more, albeit the most radical, reality check in a long series of warnings that have gone largely unheeded.
So as the weather around us turns strange, as drought, fire, floods, and storms reach unprecedented proportions, let’s hope we ask ourselves the right questions: What matters? How should I live? What should I teach my kids? What do I actually need? How can I take less and give more? What can I contribute to heal the damage around me? How can I help other living species?
There are more specific questions that may follow. How does the food I eat make me feel? How does television affect my thoughts and emotions? How do my specific choices and actions affect the world around me? How am I using my time? Am I connected with my family and friends? Are my kids receiving positive messages about themselves and their world? Are my kids confident, humble, connected, empathetic, resilient, capable of joy, and awake to the world around them? Am I?
These are not easy questions to ask or answer, which is why they must be addressed. As Rilke reminds us, “Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it. . . . That something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.” The power of difficult challenges in our lives is why millions of us around the world are watching the Olympics right now. We admire the athletes for achieving something profoundly difficult. Although the media would have us ignore the athletes who do not win medals, we are impressed nonetheless with their accomplishment of making it there and trying. And this is why we are disappointed when athletes take the easy route with drugs.
Most of us know intuitively that when it comes to taking care of our extraordinary home planet there is much more we need to do. We know that there is no easy fix to solve climate change and no easy fix to solve the related environmental problems we have wrought. Although we may have lost sight of it, we know in our wisest hearts that life is to be honored, not exploited, squandered, or taken for granted; that one by one we must each take responsibility and not look to others for answers; and that in the process of saving ourselves we might just recover our own dignity and sense of purpose along the way.
Image by David Goehring, 2006, Creative Commons license.
Republished by Reuters (reuters.com):
A sweet-looking older woman with a cloud of hair and an oxygen machine at her side told me a story recently about a friendly squirrel that lives in her yard. “It seems to want us to adopt it.” I love hearing about interspecies connections, so I listened eagerly. She went on to describe how it comes on her back deck, eats nuts from the tree there, and walks right up to her and her husband as if to say hello every morning. Getting to the point, she then explained that they were going to kill it, either by poisoning or trapping, because it just didn’t respect their property. “I’ve had enough of them [animals]. We [people] are so generous, and they don’t respect it. We are the ones who know how to share, and they just abuse it.”
Mike, at our local wildlife shelter, on his fourteenth hour of tending the 90-some animals in his care, most of whom were hit by cars, told me the other day that he sees the same kind of attitude. People call the shelter regularly, angry about “trespassing” animals and insisting that they be removed. Too tired and mild-mannered to be appalled, as I was, he just shrugged and went off to feed the barred owl with the crushed foot.
There have been five mass extinctions on our planet in the 3 billion years since life blinked into existence. A mass extinction is defined by at least half of all species on Earth dying out in short order. The biggest of such events was the Permian-Triassic, when upwards of 95 percent of species were snuffed out. The time of dinosaurs’ demise was less dramatic, with about 50 percent of species disappearing. Right now life on Earth is enduring its sixth mass extinction event. The normal rate of extinction is about one species every four years. Today it is about one species every ten minutes. And many of the ones that are still hanging on are not doing well. From honey bees to Atlantic salmon to black rhinos, Earth’s menagerie is faced on all sides by an increasingly uninhabitable world.
The mass extinction happening now, in which 40 percent of species will be gone by 2050 and far more by the end of the century if carbon-belching business as usual continues, is unique. This is the first of such catastrophic planetary events to be propelled by a single species—homo sapiens—through relentless hunting, developing, and polluting. And as we turn up the global thermostat, things are getting much, much worse for already beleaguered Life on Earth.
I am fortunate to live in a place where there is still wildlife: woods, birds, deer, raccoons, rabbits, and a few frogs, salamanders, foxes, beavers, otters, and coyotes. But my home is changing too, and as wild land is cut and burned for human housing and business, fewer and fewer animals are surviving in the dwindling remainders. The people here are more “green” than most. Many say they moved here for the trees, water, mountains, and bald eagles, and many are distressed to see development run amok.
Yet even among the “enlightened” there is a persistent species-centric narcissism like the old lady with the oxygen tank. As bee populations crash around the world, overwrought parents hire exterminators to get rid of hives in their yards. Dog walkers unleash their dogs at the park on rabbits that have managed to survive having been dumped by human captors. People trap and “relocate” hungry raccoons prowling for food. To kill mosquitoes, people are buying carbon-dioxide emitting electrocution machines that happen to also kill pollinating moths. To kill “weeds,” people are poisoning the local water supply and entire food chain with pesticides. A thriving wasp hive was destroyed just last week at our local park because it was thought to pose a risk to kids, though it was distant from play equipment and easily avoided. The list goes on. And these are relatively mild examples. People do far, far worse things to wildlife.
If we do not heed the warnings that are everywhere around us, we are on our way to making a very lonely planet out of the rich and wondrous one we were lucky enough to have been born into. During summers in the woods of Michigan, as a kid I would commune with porcupine, black bear, tree toads, deer herds, crayfish, trout, kingfishers, hawks, and too many trees and wildflowers to count. Even in the quasi-urban world on the northern border of Chicago where I spent most of my time, there were plentiful butterflies, frogs, and fireflies.
Now the animals that live in or visit my yard feel like fleeting blessings: the doe and spotted fawns that ate my attempt at a shade garden, the red squirrel that disrupts my thoughts with is neurotic warning call, the old raccoon with half a tail that climbs the bird feeder and stirs my dog into a frenzy, the spiders that string their ghostly webbing around my ceilings, the starlings nesting in my rafters that poop on my siding, the indignant mallards that impatiently await their morning ration of corn.
I’d like to have my perennials back. I’d like for the squirrel to pipe down. I’d like for there not to be poop on my house or webs in my corners. I’d like a relaxing morning without traipsing outside with corn in the rain. But, really, I don’t care about any of these inconveniences half as much as I love having the hungry deer family, shrill squirrel, marauding raccoon, pooping starlings, messy spiders, and demanding mallards near me. We share an ecosystem, and we are a family. Compared to me with my energy-sucking house, loud polluting car, and comparatively obscene appetite for stuff, they ask for so little.
I have taken the lion’s share, an expression that should change, and they coexist literally in my enormous shadow. It is embarrassing to me that they require so little, and I feel I require so much. I admire them, and they tolerate me, taking what I give because they depend on it for their survival. I worry that the next time I see the deer one of the fawns will be gone, hit by a car. I hope the fact that I haven’t seen the old raccoon lately is because she is finding plenty of food elsewhere this summer. I pray that cats don’t get the squirrel and that the old mallard pair is managing to bring some ducklings into the world this season. I hold onto them desperately in my heart. They are most likely too busy to think much about me other than as the driver of the dangerous car or the provider of seed and corn.
But, unlike them, I have time to think. I think about how both fragile and resilient we all are and how beautiful and excruciating that is. I think about the foolishness and destruction wrought by my species and what it means for all the other species. I think about the lonely planet they are leaving us as they go. I think about how lonely we are becoming, the billions of our kind alone with each other.
Image by Gilles Gonthier 2007, Creative Commons.
Published by ProgressiveKid:
For me, wolves are easy to love, and hard not to cry about. For starters, they are beautiful animals—strong, smart, fast, muscular, lean, furry, and at times they smile. As a friend (and fellow pack member) of dogs, I feel a natural affinity with wolves too. Dogs are, after all, the likely descendants of wolves who became friendly with humans, to our mutual benefit (you toss me a bone, and I’ll guard the cave). But besides their aesthetic appeal and doggish familiarity, they reflect what I like best in me, and what I and the rest of my human clan exiled from our nature a long time ago—our free, clear, and purposeful animal selves.
In Praise of Wolves
Wolves are family animals, usually loyal to their mates and committed to their pack and pups, offering playful, affectionate, fierce, watchful, dedicated, and at times tough love. They are fastidiously clean, good den architects, and clever hunters who only take what they need and no more. They are highly intelligent and aware, with a sense of smell about 100 times more keen than our own, the ability to hear 6 miles away in the woods and 10 miles away in the open, and excellent eyesight trained to detect even minute movement. Their adaptive fur coats keep them warm in harsh winter and cool in hot summer, creating an almost impermeable insulating shield of warm (neither cold nor hot) air. They adapt to feast or famine, capable of eating 22 pounds of meat at a time or going for days with no food. Their lives are at once simple and complex. They live and die for their pack, following the herd with the seasons and avoiding people as much as they can.
Wolf: The Creator, Hunter, and Healer
Long before Europeans brought Small Pox, guns, and wolf-hating to North America, indigenous Indian tribes revered the wolf. They admired the wolf’s hunting ability and recognized the important role wolves play in ecosystems. The Cheyenne credited their tribal survival to the hunting skills they learned from wolves. Other tribes ascribed healing abilities and creationist stories to wolves, believing wolves made the land and the living things upon it. Such beliefs are not surprising given that wolves help keep herds healthy by feeding primarily on sick, old, and injured animals and that they sustain biodiversity by providing crucial food for animals such as ravens, coyotes, vultures, eagles, and foxes who feed on the remains of their kills.
The Werewolves of London: A Brief History of Wolf Persecution
The fact that there is no recorded case of a wolf killing a human in North America has long been eclipsed by an irrational fear and hatred of wolves that stretches back to the time of the Inquisition. The fear-mongering Roman Church exploited sinister images of wolves and a widespread belief in werewolves in Europe at the time to exert secular control. Tragically for wolves worldwide the legacy of such superstition nearly led to their extinction by the early twentieth century. In The Ninemile Wolves, Rick Bass describes in painful detail how in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wolves were hunted for bounties, poisoned, trapped in metal vices, and fed meat laced with crushed glass. Understanding The Call of the Wild describes still worse wolf extermination methods, including setting traps that caught wolf pups on giant hooks outside their dens, injecting captured wolves with mange and releasing them to spread the disease to their pack, drowning them in their dens, using horses to pull off their limbs, and burning them alive. With the help of the U.S. and Canadian governments, the estimated 2 million wolves in North American had been reduced to the brink of extinction by the 1930s, with only a few hundred remaining.
Wolf Recovery: Success and Broken Promises
With protections under the Endangered Species Act beginning in 1973, gray wolves and red wolves began a slow recovery in parts of the lower 48 states. Dedicated wolf advocates continue to work hard to reintroduce wolves to wild areas and monitor their progress. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics, in September of 2008 U.S. wolf populations were as follows:
- 4,002 in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin
- 1,513 in Northwest Montana, central Idaho, and Yellowstone
- 52 in Arizona and New Mexico
- 6,000-8,000 in Alaska (not protected by the Endangered Species Act)
Although scientists have come to understand the vital role of wolves in the wild, and many of the prevalent misconceptions about wolves have been proven to be patently false, the species’ survival remains precarious. In Alaska, where wolves are not protected by the Endangered Species Act, aerial shooting of wolves is legal and encouraged by the government. Wolves and bears are chased by plane to the point of exhaustion and then shot at point blank range. According to Defenders of Wildlife, Governor Sarah Palin offered a $150 bounty for the severed forelegs of wolves and has consistently used state funds to fight initiatives to protect wolves and bears (including pregnant bear sows) from a systematic aerial hunting program of extermination.
In 2007, the Bush administration issued a License to Kill plan to delist wolves from Endangered Species Act protections and again encourage the extermination of wolves in the Northern Rockies, supposedly to protect elk herds and livestock. In fact, elk herds have been overhunted by humans, not wolves. Cattle, too, are seldom attacked by wolves. Coyotes, whose populations skyrocketed as a result of wolf extermination, kill far more livestock than wolves do, as do domestic dogs. A 2005 study by the National Agricultural Statistics Service cites the following findings for that year:
- Only 0.11 percent of cattle losses were due to wolf predation.
- Coyotes killed 22 times more cattle than wolves did.
- Domestic dogs killed 5 times more cattle than wolves did.
- Vultures killed twice as many cattle as wolves did.
- Human thieves took 5 times as many cattle as wolves did.
Just this week on October 14, 2008, some much-needed good news arrived for wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally withdrew the rules that would remove Northern Rockies wolves from Endangered Species Act protections, officially placing them back on the list. This is great news for Yellowstone wolves and the Yellowstone ecosystem. Unfortunately, wolves in Alaska are still under continual threat from aerial hunting, diminishing their numbers and endangered their survival in that region. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, approximately 800 wolves have been killed in Alaska in the last four years. And wolves everywhere face the constant threat of illegal hunting, habitat loss by human encroachment, and climate change.
Wolves: The Path to Ecological Integrity and Our Redemption
Recent studies in the Yellowstone area provide further evidence of the ecological importance of wolves. According to Defenders of Wildlife, through what is known as the cascade effect, wolves, as large predators, exert far-reaching influence over a wide range of species in their environment. By keeping the elk population in balance, the reintroduction of wolves has resulted in less grazing pressure on the plant base, allowing, for example, stream bed vegetation such as aspen and willow to regenerate. These restored trees in turn have reduced soil erosion and created better habitat for native birds, fish, beaver, and other species to return and flourish. The return of wolves to the area also has reduced the coyote population, which had exploded in response to their absence. By reducing the coyote numbers by as much as 50 percent in some places, the presence of wolves has led to an increase in species such as pronghorn and red fox.
But supporting wolf recovery is about more than reinstating ecological balance and biodiversity. Ending the persecution of wolves is a path to our own redemption, both environmental and moral. They have a rightful and necessary place in the environment that we share, and it is in our best interest to acknowledge and respect their vital role as fellow predators. Contrary to European wolf lore, the wolf is not a vicious monster. The evil we saw and still see in wolves is an image of ourselves we projected onto them. If we don’t like what we see in the mirror, saving the wolf is the best way to change the human face staring back at us.
How You Can Help Wolves
Here are five things you can do to help the plight of wolves right now:
- Join Defenders of Wildlife to support their efforts on behalf of wolves.
- Sign a petition asking Governor Sarah Palin to ban aerial hunting of Alaska’s wolves.
- Adopt a wolf at Wolf Haven International so they can expand their wolf habitat areas.
- Vote for Earth-aware politicians who will fight for wolves, climate change solutions, and environmentally sound policies.
- Volunteer at a wolf-advocacy organization or wolf refuge. Here is a comprehensive list of wolf organizations so you can find one in your area.
Image by Keven Law, 2008, Creative Commons license.