Friday, July 31, 2020

"The Wisdom of Wolves," by Jim & Jamie Dutcher--Nonfiction Review

This Friday, let’s tune into our wild side, hear the call of nature, and talk about “The Wisdom of Wolves” by Jim & Jamie Dutcher. A short nonfiction nature book, it’s about the Dutchers’ time studying a wolf pack they dubbed The Sawtooth Pack. 

Jim & Jamie Dutcher

What I love about this book:

The Dutchers make you fall in love with the wolves of their study. They make them come alive in the narrative of their lives by highlighting their differing personalities. Each wolf becomes a character who feels real and familiar. From the magnanimous alpha wolf—leader of the pack—Kamots to his stalwart but kind-hearted right-hand wolf Matsi, and Kamots’ aloof mate Chemukh and with various others, the Sawtooth pack was filled with dynamic individuals. My favorite wolf being beleaguered Lakota, Kamots’ brother and the largest of the wolves, but as a gentle giant, he often occupied the lowest rank in the pack. He, above all the other wolves, seemed to value play and harmony with his pack mates, even when they picked on him.

“The Wisdom of Wolves” clears up a very human misconception of what it means to be a good “alpha.” Too often, young men, and sometimes women, believe it to be synonymous in meaning to aggression, a never take “no” attitude, and put yourself first before everyone else and if they don’t like it fuck ‘em. A genuinely successful alpha wolf isn’t just a leader, but also a caretaker, a diplomat. He cares for the wellbeing of the pack before himself, putting himself between his pack and danger every time. Tyrants sow resentment, which comes to harvest as defiance and rebellion, but wise and fair leaders reap respect and loyalty.    

Structure wise, “The Wisdom of Wolves” is only ten sweet, short chapters. The language choice is direct and eschews most scientific terms to keep the message of the prose crystal clear—like water from a mountain spring. 

In “The Wisdom of Wolves,” the Dutchers decided to center each chapter around a different particular quality or value of wolves or wolf society that we as people should share or, at the very least, admire. Things like: trust, family, kindness, loyalty, recreation, curiosity, compassion, et cetera, which means that the book doesn’t flow chronologically. It creates a feeling of being unbound by time. Every moment in the narrative is present and past. 

What I don’t love about this book:

Honestly, my biggest problem with this book is it’s too short. When I finished it, I found myself wanting more and to spend more time with the pack. On the other hand, I can appreciate that maybe the point of its brevity is to underscore how short wolves’ lives are, which creates the necessity to pack as much passion into a brief period of time as possible. 

I worry that this book flirts with the line of over anthropomorphizing the members of the Sawtooth pack, which is something they say in their introduction that they sought to avoid. It is incredibly difficult to not ascribe some human-like emotions on them, just like how people—myself included—do with their domestic dogs as though they're furry little people. 

Hearing the plight of the poor omega wolf Lakota is heartrending. He seemed like such a gentle giant who just wanted everyone to be happy only to get bullied a lot of the time. Of course, intervention is out of the question. The point of the Dutchers’ wolf camp was to study wolves in a way that was as close to natural as possible. It is nice to know that Lakota doesn’t spend his entire life as the Omega, but still, a lot of his life seemed marked by unfairness, which is tragic.    

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Parting thoughts:

When environment change and destruction are discussed, typically, what is being discussed in the current zeitgeist is global warming, which is an important topic that desperately needs to be taken seriously. However, I feel that we as a species tend to forget that we share this world with not just each other but a whole host of various creatures that, for the most part, have little autonomy here in the age of the Anthropocene—the age of humans.  

To me, our capacity to take, and take, and take, seems incredibly unfair to the other creatures that share Earth with us. Even if I were to acknowledge the idea that we were divinely appointed to be stewards of this planet and all its inhabitants, I’d still argue that we are very poor stewards indeed. It isn’t just that American ranchers go out of their way to shoot wolves, either. There is plenty of blame to go around for the whole human family and not just Americans. We kill elephants and rhinos for their ivory to use it as decoration. We cut down forests and jungle that several large cat species rely on as habitat. We drain swamps, and sometimes whole lakes, destroying whole small ecosystems, which doesn’t even compare to the staggering amount of garbage we’ve thrown into the oceans.

The big game hunters who slaughter rare and often endangered species are just the most galling aspect of the supreme callousness toward not just animal life, but the concept of life itself. Every time one of them shows up on social media, having killed a rare albino giraffe for no better reason than to say they did—disappointment and rage are too soft of words to capture my reaction. 

Visceral emotions aside toward those awful human beings, we’re all guilty of a far more monstrous crime at various points in our life—apathy. Douchebag poachers aren’t actually causing the mass extinctions—sure they aren’t helping, and every time a lion eats one of them, I root for the lion—but what is really causing the most significant loss of life is our collective refusal to care for the natural world. Why this happens is because, like with everything, we exploit it to make a buck, which in itself is a phrase about shooting a male deer to make money. Everything, from our language to our creature comforts, to our society presumes that the natural world will always be there to provide us with more and more stuff, except for one problem, everything is finite in the end. You and I should care about what we do to our planet because what we do will be how we’re remembered, and history is the only form of immortality that’s been proven to work so far.