Cry Wolf

17 Dec

Lupine. It’s a splendid word to describe a magnificent creature. These days, almost everyone loves the wolf, an animal so like and yet unlike ‘man’s best friend’, its domesticated cousin. It hasn’t always been the case. Traditionally, the wolf has been the subject of loathing. Thoughts of this came to mind as I watched two pigeons, creatures held in similar contempt, pecking at an item of detritus in the street. Would we really wish them gone? Such was the case with the passenger pigeon, which went from super abundance to extinction in a matter of decades.

I’ve recently been researching into extinct mammal species for one of my writing projects. In so doing, I chanced upon one of Wikipedia’s numerous lists. This one was called ‘Timeline of extinctions’ and listed species that have become extinct during modern human times (going all the way back to 10 000 BC). I’d known about the three species of tiger that we’d lost in the 20th century, the Bali, the Caspian and the Javan. I had no idea about the wolves. In the last century and a half, wolf species have suffered an appalling rate of destruction. I knew, of course, about the disappearance of the Thylacine, the so-called Tasmanian wolf or tiger, which was actually a marsupial and therefore neither of these things. I’d known also about the persecution of the wolf. But for me, that list made shocking reading. It begins in 1876 with the loss of the Falkland Islands wolf. Over in Japan, the Hokkaido wolf was last seen in 1889, the Honshu in 1905. 1911 saw the disappearance of the Newfoundland wolf, 1925 that of the Kenai Peninsular wolf. 1935 was a grim year as both the Mogollon Mountain wolf and the Southern Rocky Mountains wolf became extinct, followed in the early 1940s by the disappearance of the Cascade Mountain wolf in 1940, the British Columbia wolf in 1941 and the Texas wolf in 1942, all hunted to extinction. The list ends in 1952 with the loss of Bernard’s wolf. Most of these extinctions were brought about deliberately.

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Cover image from Einar Østvedt’s book about my friend’s grandfather, the sculptor Dyre Vaa, illustrating a mythological specimen

‘Cry Wolf’, sang the Norwegian band, A-ha. Cry wolf indeed. That song was preposterous, of course (quite unlike its sublime predecessor, The Sun Always Shines on TV, but that’s another matter…). Wolves divide Norwegians. At my great friend’s wake in Asker (coincidentally, the hometown of A-ha’s singer, Morten Harket), the future of the Norwegian wolves was being debated. Opinion appeared pretty evenly split between those who saw their return as a menace and who wished to see them eradicated and those who saw the creatures as integral to Norway’s majestic wildernesses.

The creature has played a supporting role, almost always cast as the big, bad wolf, in Northern European literature. Think of The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and The Wolf and the Seven Kids… They embody our primeval fear of darkness and the forest. Their yellow, unblinking eyes stare out at us from between the trees. For us, the wolf’s howl signifies only desolation. ‘Howl! Howl! Howl!’ Shakespeare wrote as Lear lamented the death of his faithful daughter, Cordelia. The fantasy revivalists, Tolkien and Lewis perpetuated the negative image. Perhaps it’s unsurprising. England claims the dubious distinction of having exterminated the wolf five hundred years ago. It hasn’t all been bad press, though. Think of Romulus and Remus reared by the she-wolf, and of Mowgli too. Herman Hesse redeemed the creature to a certain extent in The Steppenwolf and Angela Carter captured its mystery and magic in The Company of Wolves. The current vogue for all things vampiric and werewolfish has brought the creature to greater prominence than ever.

The destruction of the inhabitants with whom we share this planet is humanity’s greatest shame. Let’s hope no further species or subspecies of these beautiful animals are lost to us in the future. Please do take a look at Extract from a War Novel (1), for my own take on the wolf’s tale…

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Wolf country?

Text and photo of Slovakian mountains © PSR. Book image © Dreyer, Oslo.

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6 Responses to “Cry Wolf”

  1. Cindy Brown (@hiyacynthia) December 17, 2012 at 5:26 am #

    Paul, I think that there is too much emphasis put on preventing extinction sometimes. I feel that there is a natural order to things and parts of our planet and its components dying off for various reasons is part of that, whether we like it or not. In the wolf’s case, it may be due to man, but perhaps cavemen hunted things to extinction as well. The media just didn’t cover it as well then and Greenpeace wasn’t on the case. Sometimes, I feel that by preventing a species from becoming extinct (especially by nature’s own hand), we do a disservice to the planet. Perhaps it is supposed to be that way and we are unknowingly playing God. But what do I know? I’m just a humor blogger. My most recent piece is about a pubic hair. I suppose I need to redeem myself with a more intelligent piece next time – or perhaps some cute pics of my pups (kind of wolf-like themselves) on my puppysnuggles site, eh? Oh well, at least I feel smart when I read your posts.

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves December 17, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    Hi Cindy and thanks for your comments. And thanks for lightening the mood! Can’t agree about extinctions being a service of any kind to the planet, though. Homo sapiens is a part of nature, of course, and thus can be seen as a natural force. As the dominant and most intelligent species, though, and the only one capable of shaping the planet’s future, we have a responsibility. There seems to be plenty of evidence that actions of our cave-dwelling forebears contributed to previous extinctions. We ought to be sophisticated enough by now to put our club-wielding behaviour behind us and act with collective morality toward our fellow species.

    Humour is what you do well, Cindy, so don’t stop! The world needs light and shade. I’m off to cheer myself up over on your blog right now…

  3. franny Lloyd December 17, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    Nice piece of writing. I just hate to see a species becoming extinct. The whale was in danger a few years ago and have made a comback due to the ban on killing. We must preserve as much of nature as we can but unfortunately that may result in those rare occasions when a human is attacked by a bear, shark of crocodile. Killing these doesn’t make us ‘safe’ to any great extent, not relative to the killings that are continually taking place in the troubled parts of the world.

    You have some interesting friends Paul and I’m sure a great deal to write about in relation to them and their countries. You probably make friends easily and that’s a great asset for a writer.

    We are, above all else the killer, species, and I’m sure, without check, would empty the seas as a food resource; so I’m mostly in support of the conservationists but rising population is a constant worry for humans as the ‘limits of growth’ have been reached by now, as Habermas, the sociologist tells us. With troubles such as the damage to the Ozone and the Greenhouse effect causing sea levels to rise, constant observation on our activities is really needed.

    I’m quite intrigued by Cindy’s pubic hair theme and must make it over to her blog to please my curiosity soon.

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves December 17, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    Hi Franny and thanks for your comments and compliments.

    Man’s destructiveness is a constant that it’s hard to put out of mind. My most recent work – the ‘blockbuster with a World War 2 setting – is all about that, really, with particular reference to man’s destruction of his fellow men and their cities. You’re right – as a species, we have to exercise restraint or we’re going to destroy pretty much everything of value on the planet.

    I do find it easy to talk to people and they to me, I think. And you’re right, it does help with understanding of character and with dialogue in my writing. I have known some very interesting people over the years, some of whom I’ve privileged enough to call my friends.

    You should definitely check out Cindy’s blog.

  5. Mari Biella December 18, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    Nice post, Paul. I love wolves; for me they are suggestive of the wilderness and mystery – but then I am a soppy romantic at heart. Here in Italy the wolf has (happily) managed to survive, along with the bear and wild boar. I seem to remember my mother-in-law telling me that wolves regularly put in an appearance in her home town down in the south. In contrast to their bloodthirsty image, they generally did nothing more than raid a few rubbish bins before trotting off back into the countryside. They were quite timid too: you could usually send them packing just by shouting at them.

    Love the extract from the novel, by the way!

  6. Paul Sutton Reeves December 18, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

    Hi Mari – thanks for visiting and for your kind words.

    Wolves have been demonised, for sure. The extermination of them makes about as much sense as the mass cull of badgers here in England. The only animal that is a really threat to other species is man himself. And, yes, I know exactly what you mean, there is a romance to them!

    I’m sure I came across something while reading about them saying there were a couple of thousand wolves in northern Italy and that they’d never been persecuted in the same way that they were elsewhere. Lucky you – perhaps you’ll see one!

    I’m glad that you liked the extract. As you know, the novel was the result of many years’ labour.

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