How Barry Lopez Got Me Through a Backcountry Winter

Bryce Andrews on Of Wolves and Men

I first read Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men while living in a tack room in a sheet metal barn, managing a ranch at the confluence of Dry Cottonwood Creek and the Clark Fork River. The circumstances were not comfortable. I cooked in a toaster oven, did dishes at a deep sink in the barnyard, swatted thousands of mosquitoes, and worked when I could at constructing a better apartment on the barn’s far side. When autumn caught me with that project unfinished, I had to weather a Montana winter in my plywood box, sleeping between two space heaters under a stack of blankets and a bison hide, with my cattle dog curled against me for warmth. Once, an old-timer neighbor idled his beaten truck to a stop by my door and said: “I didn’t think people lived like that anymore.” I was proud of that, and also lonely.

Winter’s lit hours were short and full. Every day at twilight, I left the cattle behind, bundled up, and went running through the draws and benches stretching down from the Sapphire Mountains toward the valley floor. I had several habitual loops, most of them following the creek uphill and returning home along the crest of one ridge or another.

My nights belonged to books. I was drafting my first one, Badluck Way, and reading Of Wolves and Men. Sometimes it seemed as if the one went in and the other came out of me at the same rate. Perhaps that was a coincidence. In any case, I read Of Wolves and Men slowly and thoroughly, which I think was right. After dinner I worked on drafts, and after that I would settle into bed with the dog and read until I fell asleep. Because I finished most days exhausted, I had to reprise each paragraph many times over.

I had strange dreams. It couldn’t have been otherwise, because Of Wolves and Men is a strange beast of a book. It starts out as a discussion of natural history, with a section called “Canis Lupus Linnaeus.” In those pages, along with a lot of beautifully written and accurate information on hunting behavior and the species’ resilience and strength, were a few italicized sidebars, including a poem called “Howl” by an Alaskan trapper named Orton:

…It was not a feeling
of fear, you understand, but a sort of
tingling, as if there was hair on my back
and it was hackling. (39)

The poem was unexpected, and I read it several times over. “There was hair on my back, and it was hackling,” I repeated, and slept.

*

Time passed quickly that year. I woke one morning to the start of calving season, a time full of blood, sleeplessness, and new life, which marks early spring on a ranch.

Forging ahead in the book, I read the section titled “And a Cloud Passes Overhead,” a collection of chapters about wolves in the lives and cultures of indigenous tribes from the Great Plains to the arctic. Those pages leave science behind, giving the reader a more complex, less scrutable wolf.

We should not be afraid—although we are, profoundly so—to extend to the wolf and to the animals it preys on the physical and metaphysical variables we allow ourselves. It is, after all, not man but the universe that is subtle. (97)

Calves gamboled in the fields. I watched them closely, making rounds at all hours. There were rumors of wolves in the valley and coyotes howled nightly in the hills, but nothing troubled my herd.

Watching through my rifle scope, I saw the wolves before the elk did.

Summer came and I read “The Beast of Waste and Destruction,” which is about stockmen and the systematic, fanatical extermination of wolves from the American West. Around that time, real wolves showed up and killed sheep on the ranch. It fell to me to go with the government trapper when he came to hunt them. We waited at dusk on top of a hill. He had his rifle and I my treasonous thoughts.

What happens when a wolf wanders into a flock of sheep and kills twenty or thirty of them in apparent compulsion is perhaps not so much slaughter as a failure on the part of the sheep to communicate anything at all—resistance, mutual respect, appropriateness—to the wolf. The wolf has initiated a sacred ritual and met with ignorance. (95)

We sat on the ground under a juniper that had been browsed bare to the height of four feet. The sky darkened. Stars showed. The government hunter was patient. He had a night-vision scope on his rifle and a reputation to uphold.

Knowing the country better than he did, I could have guided him to a likelier place. He played high-fidelity recorded howls for an hour or more, and no wolves showed.

*

When fall brought elk down from higher places, I went hunting. I hunted a lot that year, always on foot and mostly in the evenings. Once, I snuck within two hundred yards of several dozen elk. I sat on one side of a sparsely timbered coulee, hidden, while they grazed along the far slope, every minute coming nearer. It was a good stalk, and all I had to do was wait for the herd to work in my direction until I had a perfect shot.

Watching through my rifle scope, I saw the wolves before the elk did. They came across the brow of a hill—three of them trotting in loose triangular formation, working upwind toward the outermost cows and calves.

They looked dangerous, light-footed, and consequential. Steadying the rifle on my knee, I watched them slip in among the trees and spread into a ragged line.

Heads rose among the elk. The wolves were ruining my hunt. They were, I believed, the same bunch that had killed sheep in midsummer. One stood still in my crosshairs, broadside, scenting the air.

We are forced to a larger question: when a man cocked a rifle and aimed at a wolf’s head, what was he trying to kill? (138)

We killed hundreds of thousands of wolves. Sometimes with cause, sometimes with none. In the end, I think we are going to have to go back and look at the stories we made up when we had no reason to kill, and find some way to look the animal in the face again. (199)

When the elk broke and ran as a single mass, the wolves went after them. None of the animals were sprinting. The hindmost elk had a good hundred yards on the leading wolf, and all parties settled into a fast lope that could be kept up for miles. They ran to the crest of the nearest hill and crossed over. A few minutes later I saw them climb a farther, higher rise, running easily as before. For a moment they were black shapes—first the elk and then the wolves—against an eastern horizon turned blue-green with dusk. Then they were gone.

It hurts like hell, but it is not all finished in the West.

The next day I went running through the same hills in the same failing light. I had something in my mind from one of Lopez’s sidebars, a traveling song collected by Francis Densmore among the Sioux:

A wolf
I considered myself

But the owls are hooting
and the night
I fear (116)

It looped in my head as things sometimes do. Without meaning to, I started moving faster. Without a plan, I left the ridgeline and dropped into a ravine. I ran hard, schussing down one slope, crossing the bare dirt wash, and racing up the other side with my shoes sliding in loose soil. I did three draws that way in the direction of home, the last of them steep enough that I had to use my hands.

A wild strength drove my legs and lungs. I found pure joy in running. Deer burst from cover and sprinted away, white tails up and shaking in admonition.

“It hurts like hell, you know, to see it finished.” (134)

A member of the Crow tribe named Raven Bear said this to Lopez after visiting wolves in a zoo in Washington and being told by the keeper that they were the last of a vanishing species.

Lopez doesn’t give a date but it must have been in the 1960s or 70s, when wolves had been all but exterminated in the contiguous United States.

I agree with the first part. It hurts to see what we have done and what we go on doing to native people, plants and wild creatures.

It hurts like hell, but it is not all finished in the West. There are wolves in the foothills again—in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, and Oregon—and at least one rancher running feral, repeating an old song. I don’t know where Barry Lopez lives, or how he fares, but I’d have him know this: His words endure, and I will carry them through good, rough country until my heart gives out.

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Bryce Andrews
Bryce Andrews
Bryce Andrews is the author of the forthcoming Down from the Mountain. His first book, Badluck Way, winner of the Discover Great New Writers Award, the Reading the West Book Award for nonfiction, and a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. He works with the conservation group People and Carnivores and has lobbied Congress for the protection of grizzly bears and other endangered species. He lives on a farm near Arlee, Montana.





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