My interest in wolves may sound strange, especially to those who know me. When I grew up amid the endless strip malls of suburban Washington, the closest I came to wildlife was a visit to the National Zoo. I’m not an urban animal person with an oversize dog in my undersize Brooklyn apartment, and I’m not a rural animal person who likes to hunt. I haven’t owned pets as an adult — not even a goldfish.
I wish I had an exciting story of a wolf encounter in the wild to explain how my passion for wolves began. The truth is much more boring, though it is a testament to how great fiction can transform our view of the world.
“The Crossing,” the second installment of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, opens in the boot heel of New Mexico in the late 1930s, a time when the land was “rich and wild. You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a cross-fence.” Sixteen-year-old Billy Parham is helping his father try to trap a pregnant wolf that has been killing cattle on their ranch. Billy eventually finds the wolf with her leg caught in a trap. Instead of shooting her, he decides to take her back to her home in the mountains of northern Mexico. Along the way, they form an unlikely bond. He cleans her wounded leg, feeds her water and meat, and in a climactic scene in Mexico in which the wolf is forced into a dog fight, he attempts to save her life for a second time.
Reading this story felt like having my own exhilarating encounter with a wild wolf. I was also intrigued by the ecological vision that McCarthy expresses. At one point, Billy imagines the wolf “running in the mountains, running in starlight where the grass was wet and the sun’s coming as yet had not undone the rich matrix of creatures passed in the night before her. Deer and hare and dove and groundvole all richly empaneled on the air for her delight, all nations of the possible world ordained by God of which she was one among and not separate from.” In this and other similarly evocative passages, McCarthy raises the question of the wolf’s place in the “rich matrix” of the natural world, and he suggests that the wolf is an essential part of that order.
When McCarthy wrote “The Crossing” in 1994, there was a raging debate about this very question. A plan to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone pit conservationists against hunters and ranchers. The reintroduction project was meant to help save the gray wolf in America, which nearly went extinct by the 1930s after centuries of hunting and trapping by settlers of the West. Wolves would return to Yellowstone first, where they had been native for millennia and then gradually expand their presence outside of the park.
It’s unclear whether McCarthy had Yellowstone in mind when writing “The Crossing,” but he certainly inspired this reader to think about the ecological question of the gray wolf. I made my own “crossing,” from fictional wolves to real ones, and books led me to another guide, no less than the greatest wolf watcher in modern history.
In his engaging 2017 book about the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, “American Wolf,” Nate Blakeslee told the story of Rick McIntyre, a longtime National Park Service ranger and Yellowstone’s first “wolf interpreter.” While at Yellowstone, McIntyre once logged 892 consecutive days of wolf sightings in the park. He was known for his ability to tell stories that helped visitors understand and appreciate wildlife. Storytelling, in his view, is key to the wolf’s survival in America, and he recently released the first in a planned trilogy telling his many stories of Yellowstone’s wolves.
That book, “The Rise of Wolf 8,” was published in October. In it, McIntyre describes what it was like to watch the first wolves brought to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s. Readers follow him as he wakes each morning at 4 a.m. so that he can get to know the first reintroduced packs. Sometimes his accounts can be repetitive — he really loves watching pups play — but there are great rewards for sticking with him.
The social and hierarchical nature of wolves is well-known, but McIntyre describes powerful scenes of family life, such as the loyalty that alpha males and alpha females have for each other and the contributions of other pack members in raising pups. We join McIntyre as he observes wolves hunting elk in amazing displays of strength, speed and willpower. We witness violent territoriality during fights between packs, but we also discover the playful and gentle side of even the most aggressive wolves. Dog lovers should find plenty to enjoy in this book. Ever wonder why dogs greet humans with a lick on the face or why they love playing fetch? McIntyre shows us the origins of these behaviors in the dog’s ancient ancestor. The main attraction of the book, though, is the storytelling about individual wolves, including the powerful origin story of one of Yellowstone’s greatest and most famous wolves.
The stories of wolves in “The Crossing,” “American Wolf” and “The Rise of Wolf 8” helped me develop what the great conservationist Aldo Leopold called an “ecological conscience.” Leopold was the first to suggest the idea of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone, and he argued in his 1949 classic, “A Sand County Almanac,” that we must extend our ethical outlook to include our “relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” This extension of ethics from our fellow humans to our ecosystem can only occur, in Leopold’s view, with “an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.”
My own experience has confirmed what McIntyre believes about the power of stories. I recently visited the Wolf Conservation Center, 60 miles north of New York City, where I observed wolves for the first time. On this 25th anniversary of the wolf’s reintroduction to Yellowstone, I’m planning my first visit to better understand how the wolf fits into the “rich matrix” of our world. Who knows, maybe there is still hope for me to be an animal person, after all.
Jared El-Osta is a writer and attorney based in New York City.