Again from his brumal sleep: Josh Ritter’s Wolves

It’s the dead of winter, and if not dead, sometimes it feels like the world’s asleep. We’ve had a lot of snow: gorgeous first-night wonderlands give way to majestic snowdrifts that gradually blacken and decay to reveal fossilized trash. We’re used to suiting up to go anywhere now, but we’re tired. Plans get broken, errands fall off the list, we want to be home. Or we just don’t want to be out. We’re—ok, I’m—restless.

There’s a huge, lone Christmas tree in the center of the tundra that is the square, in the shadow of a famous church. It’s strung with white lights, and when illuminated one can see that it’s listing. Tipping right over, as though trying to lay down for a nap. I will it to hang on as I hurry by.

[L]ate at night I like to imagine that they are killing: that another deer has gone down in a tangle of legs, tackled in deep snow; and that, once again, the wolves are feeding. That they have saved themselves, once again. That the deer or moose calf, or young dumb elk is still warm (steam rising from the belly as that part which contains the entrails is opened first), is now dead, or dying.

They eat everything, when they kill, even the snow that soaks up the blood. (NW, 3)

It’s a fine time to talk about winter-loving wolves, who are often photographed with a snowy backdrop. Their muzzles attract the flakes a little like cake crumbs, I’ve thought, which can make them look—for a fleeting moment—silly. But then there’s the pictures where teeth or nose have been dipped in a telling red, and I remember what they are. What they do. They love winter because their big paws allow them to run over the surface of deep snow. The long slender legs of their prey—deer, elk—poke through, slowing them down.

The wintry weather is likely just another challenge of a hard existence wolves seem thrillingly and incredibly willing to embrace. Imagine if instead of closing a menu and announcing your choice, every meal meant risking a broken skull, broken ribs, getting kicked or trampled. Sifting and sorting tirelessly through a herd, looking for the weak link, locking in, running oneself to exhaustion, darting in from behind, eyes wide, biting down—

They don’t have thumbs. All they’ve got is teeth, long legs, and—I have to say this—great hearts. (NW, 3)

That quote and the one above is Rick Bass, the Montana resident and writer, taken from his 1992 book called The Ninemile Wolves. He’s tells a good story; he’s a great fan. But I’m getting ahead.

There’s an intriguing song called Wolves on Josh Ritter’s fine record The Animal Years. It’s about a guy having some trouble with wolves, possibly Canis lupus irremotus, roughly translated as “The Wolf Who Is Always Showing Up.” The wolves in the song show up in a big way, zeroing in on a tender scene. Going in for the kill, leaving the speaker with only a vivid, persistent memory.

Here’s how it goes:


I still remember that time when we were dancing
We were dancing to a song that I’d heard
Your face was simple and your hands were naked
I was singing without knowing the words
But I started listening to the wolves in the timber
Wolves in the timber at night
I heard their songs when I looked in the mirror
In the howls and the moons round my eyes
So long, so high

Then winter came and there was little left between us
Skin and bones of love won’t make a meal
I felt my eyes drifting over your shoulder
There were wolves at the edge of the field
But I still remember that time when we were dancing
We were dancing to a song that I’d heard
Your face was simple and your hands were naked
I was singing without knowing the words

So long, so high

Then one day I just woke up
And the wolves were all there
Wolves in the piano
Wolves underneath the stairs
Wolves inside the hinges
Circling round my door
At night inside the bedsprings
Clicking cross the floor
I don’t know how they found me
I’ll never know quite how
I still can’t believe they heard me
That I was howling out that loud

So long, so high

At times in the frozen nights I go roaming
In the bed you used to share with me
I wake in the fields with the cold and the lonesome
The moon’s the only face that I see
But I still remember that time when we were dancing
We were dancing to a song that I’d heard
Your face was simple and your hands were naked
I was singing without knowing the words

So long, so high

~Wolves by Josh Ritter

I love that blissful, impromptu-feeling opening image. A few muffled bars overcome the static and someone leaps up from the dinner table, darts across the kitchen, cranks up the volume on the stereo. Or a new CD—purchased for that one intriguing, unforgettable, unfamiliar track—is crowbarred open and a lover called in from another room to hear. Suddenly—before there’s time to pick up what we carry—there’s dancing, a few precious moments where face and hands are stripped clear . . . of resentment, burden, judgment, whatever. One enters a place where words can’t follow, and finds that actually, you don’t need them.

We know they’re coming, though. There’s that galloping drum beneath even the vocals of the first words. It beats an ancient song of pursuit; I see a furious spray of snow, the skidding tracks. He starts listening to another song, a howl so long, so high, and things go south with the girl. They’re starving by the second verse, the wolf pack massing at the border. Then he wakes up and the wolves are in the house—everywhere—and it’s curtains. It ends and he’s alone, lonely, telling us for the third time about that time when we were dancing.

I still remember, he keeps saying. I still remember, like a mantra. Does that memory haunt him or hold him fast—mercifully—to a thing that’s gone?

I first read this piece as metaphor for the end—the depredation—of a relationship. You do often see it coming—once glimpsed it can feel inexorable, like that drumbeat. The good times loom up with such temptation—you keep remembering, remembering, thinking you’ll get it back. Then comes the unavoidable end. You go down fighting, like the deer.

But there are other clues, the most telling that glance in the mirror, and the lines I still can’t believe they heard me / I was howling out that loud. In the last verse he wakes from a dream in a field, staring at the moon. Who—what—is he, exactly?

Are the wolves indeed coming to kill? Or are they coming to claim him?

Old longings nomadic leap

There’s a prominent American author who was a little obsessed with wolves. He printed them on his personal stationary and bookmarks, named his dog Brown Wolf and his house Wolf House. He referred to himself as Wolf and asked others to too, and he wrote, extensively, about wolves. I’ve read that he is the most widely read and translated American author in the world. I’m not sure how to corroborate this, but it could be. He published a beloved novel in 1903 that was commemorated in 2003 as America’s Greatest World Novel. Beloved—I have to say this—especially by my seventh-grade English teacher. I still remember the look in his eye when we read the story about the guy and the fire.

The man—the writer, the wolf lover—is Jack London. Do you know the story of Buck? The dog who, captured in California and enslaved as sled dog in the Yukon gold rush, answers The Call of the Wild.

That book begins with this brilliant poem called Atavism by John Myers O’Hara:

Old longings nomadic leap
Chafing at custom’s strain;
Again from its brumal sleep
Wakens the ferine strain.

Brumal is an archaic word meaning indicative of or occurring in winter, ferine a synonym for feral, ie having escaped domestication, wild.

It’s the story of Buck’s waking up to a stirring, primal call, the one of his ancestors. Like our speaker in Wolves, Buck falls in love, and it complicates things:

[Buck] was older than the days he had seen and the breaths he had drawn. He linked the past with the present, and the eternity behind him throbbed through him in a mighty rhythm to which he swayed as the tides and seasons swayed. He sat by John Thornton’s fire, a broad-breasted dog, white-fanged and long-furred; but behind him were the shades of all manner of dogs, half wolves and wild wolves, urgent and prompting, tasting the savor of the meat he ate, thirsting for the water he drank, scenting the wind with him, listening with him and telling him the sounds made by the wild life in the forest, dictating his moods, directing his actions, lying down to sleep with him when he lay down, and dreaming with him and beyond him and becoming themselves the stuff of his dreams.

So peremptorily did these shades beckon him, that each day mankind and the claims of mankind slipped farther from him. Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest. But as often as he gained the soft unbroken earth and the green shade, the love for John Thornton drew him back to the fire again. (CW, 65-66)

Buck dreams a lot of his ancestors hunting with our human ones. I like that Wolves uses sleep and dream too: the wolves show up on a day when the speaker just woke up, and at the end he wakes up—dreams of waking up?—beneath the moon in a field. As wolf or man? Not clear. That’s the thing: I think this song is about what happens when the purest forces act on us, how we do or don’t reconcile the calls that humans hear. On one level I do think the wolves come to claim him, that it’s not just fear he’s feeling when he’s looking over her shoulder—It’s thrill. I think the song’s about how we’re part wild—some more than others, perhaps—like the wolves. Like Buck.

The refrain So long, so high, So long, so high, it occurred to me, might capture a wry farewell (So long) to that blissful time (so high) that he keeps remembering. For I think that listening to our call sometimes leads to sacrifice of even the the happiest, most life-giving things. It’s the conundrum we live with; it’s why we break our own and each other’s hearts over and over. It could be why he’s alone in the end, having made a conscious or unconscious choice. He’s so lonesome, but I wonder: is he also the slightest bit relieved?

Too far, I hear you saying. You’re right, there’s no textual evidence for that. Still. If not relief, I wonder if he’s looking up at that moon, some part of him knowing it was never going to end up another way. As dear as that memory—that girl—is.

I still remember, he keeps saying, and I wonder whether it’s to tell us, or to keep reminding himself. That he’s capable, that it’s out there, that it could happen again.

I won’t tell you how it ends for Buck, other than to say it does so with a song. (And you were right, Mr. Versluis: It’s lovely. I’m sorry your great enthusiasm went to waste in a junior high classroom. We just couldn’t get it.)

We do a lot of diving beneath allegories to peek around metaphors only to try (and try) to pry the lid off symbols around here, so I might as well say I like pondering what sounds the call. I mean, it’s the wolves here, but it could be anything. In Wolves it’s a song (that I’d heard) that prompts the joyous, cozy opening scene, and also a song (in the timber) that ultimately lures him away. Seems fitting for a musician. Such is the double-edged nature of a calling—of passion—I think.

“I mean, it’s just—they like to move.” ~Biologist Mike Jimenez

It’s an interesting time to be learning about wolves. I read Rick Bass’ The Ninemile Wolves, published way back in 1992, when an important chapter of an ever-lengthening story was being written. The book follows the fate of a pack in the Ninemile Valley, located in northwestern Montana. They were the first known pack in Montana to try and settle outside protected national park territory. The hope back then was that they’d make it to Yellowstone.

Why weren’t they in Yellowstone already? Because we killed them all. Well, first we killed all the bison, which were an important source of prey for them, then as Bass has it, we “tam[ed] the dry rangelands of the West into dusty factories of meat.” (NW, 35) The wolves turned their attention to the livestock, we turned our attention on them—

The wolves preyed on the [livestock], without question, but ranchers and the government overreacted just a tad. Until very recently, the score stood at Cows, 99,200,000; Wolves, 0. (NW, 5)

—and from the 1930’s to the 1990’s there were no wolves left in not only Yellowstone, but the entire American West. I mean, we really got into it, with government-issued bounties and everything. Hunters brought in their ears as evidence of a kill. Whether you love or hate them, you’d have to admit it was horrible. In 1974 wolves were put on the Endangered Species List. And in 1995—three years after Bass’ book came out—fourteen Canadian wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, amidst controversy. You can follow that extraordinary story in the National Geographic film Wolves: A Legend Returns to Yellowstone.

The fate of wolves, and our ongoing relationship with them is a hot topic, as we say in my family. I said it’s an interesting time because the twisting tale is about to get another chapter: the federal government seems to be on the brink of removing wolves from the Endangered List. It could happen this month. If it does, states will take control, free to set individual hunting seasons. Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming seem keen to do so. If the wolf population drops below a certain threshold, they’ll go back on the List and be protected. Two weeks ago seven conservationist groups filed a lawsuit over the setting of the population threshold.

I don’t feel informed enough to enter the fray, but it’s quite tempting to share Bass’ enthusiasm after reading his book. My favorite part is when the pups are orphaned, and Mike Jimenez, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist, is working like a madman trying to save them without their knowing, howling to them in backyards, dragging in road-killed deer (wearing gloves to mask his scent), hunting deer when there is no road-kill, protecting the meat from bears, propping dead deer up against trees in a running position to try and teach the pups how to hunt.

I won’t tell you the fate of the Ninemile—Bass will, in the 2003 Preface—or that first pack from the Yellowstone reintroduction, other than to say wolves seem to favor surprise endings, which I rather love.

They’re also fiercely territorial, hierarchical, family-oriented:

[W]olves are not about individuals, or green eyes, or howls, or big feet, or the kill. The story of wolves is about packs, about societies. (NW, 127-128)

And perhaps most important, they roam:

[T]raveling, and movement, seems to feed the wolf’s soul, as well: it’s nothing for them to cover twenty miles overnight on a hunt. (NW, 13)

Only one pair—the alpha male and female—in the pack mates each year. If a wolf is particularly aggressive or ambitious or feeling like an outcast—or hearing a call, I like to imagine— it will disperse. They roam, sometimes huge distances, looking for each other. For a mate. Bass spots lone wolves from his Montana window and is moved by their lonesome demeanor. If the disperser finds a mate, the pair roams some more to find an unoccupied territory. If they find one and mate, they’ll likely do like other wolves, and take an extra extra long ramble before the birth in the spring. According to the National Geographic film, all wolves—aunts, uncles, siblings—love and take part in the raising of puppies.

I wonder what it is to be so hard-wired for the pack, the society, and yet heed the call to disperse. I think about the speaker in Wolves. I think—I worry—about me, sitting at a desk day after day, looking into this screen. It’s not just the males that disperse; females do too.

I think about singing without knowing the words, how those inexplicable times really do imprint on our memory, how we call on them over and over, even after we’ve left them behind.

Forever trying to remember the time we forgot:

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf cry . . . He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he . . . (CW, 39)

The Call of the Wild
by Jack London

The Ninemile Wolves by Rick Bass

Wolves: A Legend Returns to Yellowstone (DVD)

“Where I’m Calling From” by Ray Carver (Short story)

The Debate
The Grey Wolf according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Best quote:

Biologists have identified a few of the reasons that wolves howl. First, they like to howl. . . .

Fear dominates wolf delisting debate (Plenty, Jan. 31, 2008)

Rocky Mountain wolf killing rule goes to court (Environment News Service, Jan. 28, 2008)

Your thoughts most welcome.

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