A Wolf’s Eye

I became interested in the history of Oregon’s wolf bounty—a sanctioned act to eradicate—kill off—the wolf population to make way for ranching—while reading and teaching Molly Gloss’s The Jump-Off Creek. I’d just moved to Redmond, a farm town in Central Oregon, and liked the idea of an Oregon author writing the story of the early days of life in that part of the state. Since then, throughout the coursework in my Master’s in Environmental Studies program, I’ve had the opportunity to read much about wolves, and to study the current conflict between the wolves that have migrated back into the state and the ranchers who feel they now own that landscape.

Aldo Leopold is a widely known ecologist. One of the things he’s famous for is speaking out about the necessity for humans to realize, and try to accommodate, the needs of other species. The following passage marks the turning point in Leopold’s thinking, toward that ideal:

“In those days [1920s] we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy…When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks. We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger itch; I though that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
from The Sand Country Almanac, 1966.

Recently, I found myself engaged in a discussion based on the passage—the questions raised were, Is nature ethically and politically silent? Does it have value apart from human meaning? Two huge, philosophical questions, right? Two of the big, essential questions that drive much of the debate about environmental issues. Here’s my answer, or at least my pondering…

I don’t think that nature is silent; however, to hear the messages, humans must listen. Nature speaks in cycles and processes. Clear messages are thus sent about what it takes to maintain vitality, and what it means to live and die within the systems of nature. Leopold’s description of the wolf’s death is a perfect example of nature sending a message that was heard by a human. This passage is also a perfect example of the ethical and political aspects of such messages. The choice to kill for sport and thereby end two generations of wolves is an ethical choice; Leopold’s act then became political when he was motivated to change his ideology as a naturalist and a hunter after watching the light leave the mother wolf’s eyes.

Wolves are not intrinsically cruel. They, in fact, are quite loving and social animals; in fact, some wolf experts suggest that humans can learn much about family bonds, loyalty, and social structure from this species. (Now there’s a message from nature). Leopold meant that he saw a message coming through the wolf’s eyes, some deep, deep meaning in her experience of the event. This message, Leopold realized, was bigger than human experience. He then was left to consider the implications wrapped within. No, in this case nature was not silent. Leopold’s account illustrates that nature has value apart from human meaning.

It’s no accident that this Leopold passage is at the core of Green Fire Production’s film, Lords of Nature. This documentary richly portrays the role of wolves as top predators in nature. And, Green Fire is an Oregon company.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to former Governor Barbara Roberts speak to the Portland City Club. She spoke of coming into adulthood with few women role models in positions of power. She remembered completing a Girl Scout badge on women of significance, such persons as Florence Nightengale. Roberts remembered feeling inspired by the women she researched, but also feeling that they were far away. In her comments to the City Club, she recounted the deep feeling she’d carried with her as she made her way to Governor that it was a time of change, and that she and other women had the opportunity to break ground—if they chose to seize the moment.

Oregonians have a similar opportunity right now to break ground in terms of human progress in relation to the natural world. The days of the wolf bounty are long gone. Will we seize the opportunity to live alongside wolves, who bring health and balance to natural landscapes, or will we continue simply to pump lead into the pack?

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