Because I often write about the outdoors, schoolchildren are quick to ask, “What’s your favorite animal?” Since cave painting days, humans have regarded animals in individualistic terms. We give them names, we seek to celebrate the biggest, or the most powerful, or the most beautiful. We see in them, as the poet Pattiann Rogers writes in “Animals and People: The Human Heart in Conflict With Itself,” that which we wish to see in ourselves. (This seems to me an impossibility, a desire destined for heartbreak and confusion; for how can we, a few hundred thousand years young on the planet, truly expect to integrate with any degree of grace to the logic, order and function of ancient systems and species that have been here so many millions of years longer?)
Still, we persist. We name our sports teams after them, Rogers points out, we name the subdivisions that displace or eradicate them after them, we name ourselves after them. Our view of the world — still so new to us — is uni-centric, self-centered: one person, one animal. Habitat — what’s required to survive, and what’s required to prosper — tends not to be at the forefront of our thoughts.
When I try to tell the children this, they give me funny looks, as if I’ve scolded them. “I don’t have a favorite animal,” I say. “Not a wolf?” they ask. “Not a lion, not even a bear?”
No. What I love most is the landscape that produces the animal — the elk, the badger, the wolverine. Robinson Jeffers famously queried, “What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine/The fleet limbs of the antelope?” For each creature does not exist isolate, but is the sum of all the many moving parts: geology, vegetation, temperature, moisture, aridity, sunlight, nutrients, the shape of the land, the cycle and timing of the seasons.
I have favorite places, I tell the children, not favorite animals; and Yellowstone, one of the world’s first national parks, is certainly one of them. Each living thing, no matter how charismatic, is always but one part of a fuller mosaic, in constant swirling motion. And few places are more in motion than the volcanic geyserworks of Yellowstone, with glaciers melting and fires raging and sage prairies combed by migrations of bluebirds, mudpots and fumaroles gurgling and waterfalls and wild rivers tumbling. It seems impossible to pinpoint where Yellowstone begins and ends. With the croak and prattle of sandhill cranes? The bugling of elk? It’s all so much larger than any one thing, larger even than the howl of the wolf.
To this end, Nate Blakeslee’s “American Wolf” does a good job of portraying the mosaic that is the up-and-down existence of Canis lupus, the Rocky Mountain gray wolf. They were mostly exterminated in the continental United States by the early part of the 20th century: trapped, poisoned, shot, as detailed in Barry Lopez’s classic, “Of Wolves and Men.”
“American Wolf” is the story of individuals, too, however; most notably, of two National Park Service employees, Laurie Lyman and Rick McIntyre, driven by a ceaseless passion for wolves — and of the female wolf known as O-Six. She became a media star, one of the most visible wolves in Yellowstone at a moment when the rise of social media coincided with wolf-watching as a pastime in the park, where it generates an estimated $35 million annually for the region.
In “American Wolf,” Blakeslee does a fine job presenting the wolf’s basic biological requirements, from abundant prey source (in Yellowstone, the overpopulation of elk) to secure denning sites. But he also illustrates the far more complicated and ever-dynamic human elements affecting the wolves. The politics of ranchers — some for wolves, others against — and antigovernment zealots, hunting outfitters, Congress, courts and judges, and tourism operators all exert a sculpting pressure on where and how and if the wolf can live.
Yellowstone National Park is the one place where a person has a good chance of seeing a wild wolf. Beyond its boundaries, this is no longer the case; they can be hunted. The same holds true for any Yellowstone bison that stray beyond the invisible dashed line of the park in winter’s deep snows and, it is feared, soon the iconic grizzly bear, whose federally protected status has been erased and is currently being debated in court.
“American Wolf” takes its place in a long lineage of wolf books. And there are cherished, striking images here: a winter-killed bison bull, stalled out in snow so deep it couldn’t even fall over, but died standing up and was frozen in place, while the ravens and wolves circled, investigating. Many readers might find the shifting cast of characters hard to follow — wolves named Shy Male, 21, 42, 754, 755, 776, Middle Gray, and so on. This is not the author’s fault, but rather testament instead to the ever-flowing life force that is the wolf, to which so many are attracted, while others, repulsed.
Regardless of how one feels about wolves, they “draw an audience,” Blakeslee writes — “as good a reason as any to begin telling a story.”