Authors: Jim Crumley
OTHER TITLES BY JIM CRUMLEY
The Winter Whale
Something Out There
A High and Lonely Place
The Company of Swans
Gulfs of Blue Air (A Highland Journey)
The Heart of Skye
The Heart of Mull
The Heart of the Cairngorms
Badgers on the Highland Edge
Waters of the Wild Swan
The Pentland Hills
Shetland – Land of the Ocean
Glencoe – Monarch of Glens
West Highland Landscape
The Mountain of Light
The Road and the Miles (A Homage to Dundee)
Portrait of Edinburgh
The Royal Mile
This eBook edition published in 2012 by
West Newington House
Copyright © Jim Crumley, 2010
The moral right of Jim Crumley to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-85790-520-8
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Of all the native biological constituents of a northern wilderness scene, I should say that the wolves present the greatest test of human wisdom and good
– Paul Errington,
Of Predation and Life
The author gratefully acknowledges a grant from the Society of Authors that greatly assisted the cause of this work.
Thanks to the publishers of the following works for permission to quote from them in the text:
Decade of the Wolf
by Douglas Smith and Gary Ferguson, Lyons Press, 2005
edited by Gary Wockner, Gregory McNamee and SueEllen Campbell, Johnson Books, 2005
by Catherine Feher-Elston, 2004
On the Crofters’ Trail
by David Craig, Cape, 1990
Of Wolves and Men
by Barry Lopez, Touchstone, 1978
by Erik Zimen, Souvenir Press, 1981
The Company of Wolves
by Peter Steinhart, Vintage, 1996
The author is also grateful to the late Aldo Leopold (
A Sand County Almanac
), Margiad Evans (
) and Seton Gordon (
The Charm of Skye
) for books
which had a profound influence on his life and work, and to J.E. Harting (
British Animals Extinct Within Historic Times
) whose book did no such thing, but without which this book would have
been much tougher to write.
Particular thanks to my friend and landscape painter of distinction, Sherry Palmer of New Hampshire, for choice examples of American wolf literature and for countless cuttings of American
journalism on the subject of wolves; and to Molly Pickall and Sarah Deopsomer of the Yellowstone Wolf Project who were extremely helpful and encouraging.
THE THING about the mountain after the wolves came was that it started to change colour. We noticed the change the second year, in the spring. All along the level shelf at the
foot of the screes where the deer used to gather in the evening there was a strange haze. We had never seen that haze before. It was pale green and it floated an inch or two above the ground, a
low-lying, pale green mist.
We had only ever seen the red deer there, deer by the hundred, deer browsing the land to a grey-brown all-but-bareness, all-but-bare and all-but-dead. It is, we thought, what deer do. They
gathered in the places that sheltered them, places that accommodated their safety-in-numbers temperament. And every morning, once the sun had warmed the mountain, they climbed to higher pastures.
They commuted up and down the mountain. But their days routinely ended browsing the level shelf to the bone, to the almost-death of the grasses, mosses, lichens, flowers. When there was nothing
left to eat they moved. But as soon as new growth began they returned because they liked the comfort of the shelf under the screes, and the browsing to almost-death resumed. In the long wolfless
decades they forgot how to behave like deer. Then the wolves came back, and overnight they remembered.
We looked out one evening and there were no deer. None. We scoured the lower slopes, all the ways we knew the deer came down the mountain in the evening. Nothing.
We saw no deer for weeks without knowing why, until on the stillest of evenings a wolf howled. We had never heard a wolf howl. Not even the oldest folk in the glen held the memory of wolves,
only the handed-down stories that grew out of an old darkness. That howl, when it came, when it sidled round the mountain edge the way a new-born breeze stirs mist out of stillness, when it stirred
things in us we could not name because we had no words for what we had never felt and never known . . . that howl sounded a new beginning for everything in the glen that lived. Everything that
lived, breathed, ran, flapped, flew, flowered – and all of us – were changed from that moment.
And in the spring of the second year after the wolves came, we saw the mountain start to change colour. Where the deer had been, where they smothered – suffocated – the growth, bit
and bit again the heather-high trees (twenty years old, twenty inches high and going nowhere until at last they were bitten to death) . . . in that second spring we saw the evening sun illuminate a
green haze, low on the land. At first we didn’t understand its meaning, so we climbed from the floor of the glen to the old deer terrace, and we found its meaning: fresh, sweet, young, vivid,
green grass. The wolves, by keeping the deer constantly on the move, had restored to the mountain a lost meadow.
And as the spring advanced, flowers! Splashes of white and yellow and blue, and the grass ankle-deep. And with every new season after that, the new growth summoned others to the change:
butterflies, moths, berries, berry-and-butterfly-eating birds; then the first new trees.
It has been ten years since the wolves came back. Their howls have become the mountain’s anthem. The deer still come back to the old terrace, of course, but in much smaller groups, and
only for a few days at a time. Then they vanish, and we know they have moved on to the rhythm demanded of them by the wolves. The trees are many, and tall, taller than the biggest stag. The oldest
memories in the glen do not remember trees before.
Now, every year at the first hint of spring, we watch the low sun in the evening for the first illumination of the new green mist.
The wolf that was handed down from the old darkness was a slayer of babies, a robber of graves, and a despoiler of the battlefield dead. The wolf that howls in our dusk is a painter of
Clearly, this is an animal less likely to offer scientists irrefutable facts than to lure us on a long and crooked journey of constant learning.
– Douglas W. Smith and Gary Ferguson,
Decade of the Wolf
I MET A MAN in Norway who told me this true story: ‘A friend calls me one Saturday morning . . . he has sled dogs, and in the night these dogs had been very upset and made
much noises. He was going out to shout at the dogs, and he doesn’t have nothing on him, and it was winter. And he was standing there shouting at the dogs and then they were quiet. And when
they were quiet he heard a concert from wolves 200 metres from his house. And he was standing there pure naked. Can you imagine that feeling? Nothing on you!’
I said, ‘That’s got to be the ultimate wilderness experience.’
My Norwegian friend said, ‘Yeah, he thought so too!’
Ah, but then the story grew legs, became what the Norwegians call ‘a walking story’. My friend heard it again two weeks later from a completely different source. The ‘concert
from wolves’ at 200 metres had become a slavering pack that confronted the man and threatened him so that he had to drive them off, and was lucky to escape with his life.
‘That was in 14 days,’ he said. ‘What about 140 days? Or 140 years?’
The process of wolf-legend-making is far from extinct, but that is what happens with some people and wolves. The truth is never enough for them. The man who told me this story is a wildlife
photographer and film-maker. He and a friend had just completed a TV film about a pack of wolves that had taken eight years to make. That particular pack’s territory is around 1,000 square
miles. They find the wolves by tracking them in the winter when the pack uses frozen rivers and lakes as highways and the wolves write their story in the snow. The film-makers read other clues,
such as the behaviour of ravens; ravens are forever leading them to wolf kills.
‘Tell Jim how many ravens you saw on one wolf-killed moose,’ one Norwegian film-maker urged the other.
‘Seventy,’ he said, and to make sure I had understood his heavily-accented English he elaborated: ‘Seven times ten.’
Both men were openly hostile towards biologists who fit radio collars and transmitters to wolves after first firing tranquilliser darts into them from planes or helicopters so the collars and
transmitters can be fitted. They raged against the stress the darting causes the wolves. One said: ‘The uncollared wolves are the real wild wolves. These people who use the radio collaring .
. . it seems to be the wolves are only things. It’s like a computer game.’
I smiled and told them of Aldo Leopold’s observation in his timeless landmark in the literature of the natural world,
A Sand County Almanac
: ‘Most books of nature writing
never mention the wind because they are written behind stoves.’
They smiled back. ‘It’s the same thing! And it’s very exciting to not know everything. If you know everything, it’s not exciting.’
The Norwegian Government permits four wolf packs in the country. When I met the film-makers, three out of the four packs, and all the packs in neighbouring Sweden, were collared and tracked by
computer. The film-makers were fighting a rearguard action on behalf of the Koppang pack, the one they had filmed. They spoke about the need to allow the wolf to retain its mysteries. Their
language surprised me, because, historically, Scandinavians have not made the wolf welcome, and here they were using the kind of language I associate with indigenous North Americans. I liked them
because they spoke my language too, and because historically, Scots did not make the wolf welcome either.