Sunday, October 14, 2007

Call of the Wild

A nice thing has started to happen for me because of blogging. Until recently my blog reading and writing has been limited to people I already know and love, and that has been great, since geography or circumstance prevents me from seeing them most of the time, with the occasional exceptions of Melissa and Brian. Recently though, I've been getting to meet some wonderful people whom I only know through the blogosphere. It's always fun getting a glimpse of other people's lives, but it's particularly appealing when they seem to be living one of your alternate fantasy lives. The first time I came across this is Cooper's Corridor. Cooper lives in British Columbia, so he's already living my fantasy of being Canadian. He lives and works -in forestry, I believe - in what I know to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, and he recently adopted two young sons. I chose years ago to pursue acting as a career, and thus far that has required me to live in cities on the edge of poverty most of the time; the only living things depending on me thus far are houseplants. I am ambivalent to say the least about this, so visiting Cooper every once in a while is like walking through the wardrobe to meet Mr. Tumnus. Cooper is very grateful for the life he has worked so hard to create, and he never seems to take it for granted. What's more, he tends to notice and appreciate the same sorts of things I do, which only enhances the feeling that he is living one of my roads not taken (yet). His personal entries range from nature observations to epitaphs for lost loved ones, and they often end in prayers of gratitude. It's been good for me to read the thoughts of a glass-half-full person on a regular basis. He's also introduced me to some other fun folks, like Tornwordo (who is living my fantasy of marrying a Canadian) and Somewhere Joe (who works as a writer/photographer, and seems to be living my fantasy of living on the beach), but we're still getting acquainted, so I know less about them. They are all fun reads, go check them out if you haven't already.

As the title of this entry suggests however, I started off intending to write about something else that Cooper reminded me of. I've told the story of my encounter with timber wolves so many times that I had to go through all my blog entries to make sure I hadn't written about it already. I didn't find it, so I'm hoping I didn't already tell it. I guess it's a good thing I only have 76 entries to check, as lame as that seems after a year and a half of blogging.

Boy howdy do I find some weird things to feel lame about.

Okay, focus Patrick, timber wolves. As long as I can remember, another one of my fantasy lives had me living in the woods or jungle as a wild animal. I wanted to be Mowgli, basically, as I discovered when I first came across the Jungle Books. As a child I blissfully ignored the drawbacks of such a life, the infestation of fleas and other parasites, the constant near-state of starvation and exposure to the elements, the relentless physical and emotional grind, yada yada yada, but of course I grew out of this fantasy over time (didn't I? I did, right? Right?).

I never lost my love for wolves though, so it was especially exciting the summer of '85 when I worked at an adventure camp in Tennessee, where a trio of timber wolves were being housed temporarily. A local veternarian had rescued them somehow - I don't remember the specifics, seeing as how timber wolves are not native to Tennessee- but since she lacked the space, she asked her friends to put them up. Most environmentalists would probably find this whole story rather sad, and I completely understand that. The pen was not that big, probably only about thirty feet square, so the wolves weren't able to run at all. The camp leader used them as educational tools for the campers, teaching about ecology, the dangers of extinction, the lies perpetrated about wolves, etc. The kids loved it. Everybody loved it, but I doubt the wolves were happy.

Aquila, one of the two females, was almost a dog, friendly, affectionate, unafraid of most people, she even wagged her tail. She let people pet her through the fence, which we all did eagerly. The other two, Tasha and the male, Illich, were very scared of most people and tended to avoid them. They had started to become comfortable with the family caring for them, but were most comfortable with the vet and the daughter of the family, who both happened to be petite blond women.

For the 4th of July weekend, we were all on vacation and the camp was rented out to others, who, unfortunately, decided they needed to let off a gazillion fireworks. They were well up the road at the camp, quite some distance from the wolf pen, but this didn't make a difference to the wolves' sensitive ears and skittish personalities. No one knows how it happened, but it's assumed that the noise so terrified Tasha that she was able to jump or climb the high fence to escape. As far as I know, she was never found again. I hope roaming the in the Smokey Mountains was too her liking, and she didn't starve to death, or end up shot.

This left Aquila and Illich, and I think that change in dynamic might have shaped what happened later that summer. One day off I was down at the wolf pen watching the son of the family play with the wolves. He invited me in, and we all assumed I would get to play with Aquila but that would be it. I deliberately stayed slow, calm and quiet, no sudden moves, and believe me, no loud noises, and began romping with Aquila. At one point I was sitting on a log scratching her behind the ears while she tussled playfully with my shoelaces. I was in heaven. Suddenly I realized Illich was behind me, snuffling in my hair. I pretended not to notice, didn't turn to look in his eyes -which believe me, was hard because they were a beautiful silver - and kept rubbing Aquila's ears. By the way, I think petting dog or wolf ears has got to be one of the best tonics in the world. I can feel the stress drain out of me anytime I get to do it. Back to Tennessee though (boy I do like tangents, don't I. Also parentheses), I'm petting, Aquila is tussling, Illich is snuffling when suddenly WHOOMP, he jumps on my back, throwing paws the size of dinner plates over my shoulders. No, he wasn't attacking me, nor was he trying to mount me (you pervs), evidently he had decided I was all right and it was time to play. I've occasionally wondered if the fact that my hair had a texture similar to their fur, helped the situation. I wonder too if Illich wouldn't have taken this step if Tasha was still around (but maybe she would have liked me too, and we all could have played). Whatever change occurred, I was thrilled and, I'm sure you'll understand this, deeply honored. I always am honored when an animal (or a child) takes an instant liking to me, but having it be this noble, enormous, shy creature was overwhelming.

That afternoon is one of the most glorious times of my life. The three of us romped, wrestled, and played for hours. I've wondered sometimes if my retelling of the story has warped my memory some. Did Illich really take three quarters of my head in his mouth? Was he really that big? Did I really know I was safe at that moment? In my memory it all happened, and it was all amazing. I ended the day covered with scratches. Both wolves had a very intuitive sense of how hard they could bite; they used their teeth on me a lot, especially tugging me around by my hair, but never once did they break the skin. I wonder if they were treating me the way they would have treated a cub. They couldn't help their claws though, of course, which is why I had all the scratches. I didn't care.

From that day on, Illich became more and more like Aquila, gradually letting campers pet him through the fence. I am obviously ambivalent about the role I played in domesticating a wild animal. I don't know what happened to them after that summer; I hope they were eventually taken somewhere with lots more space, ideally to a national park or some such, where they might even have been able to join other wolves (though that is tricky), but I suspect they were too dependent on humans by that point, and lived the rest of their lives in some form of captivity. I hope it was at one of those wolf sanctuaries where they at least had space to run and roam.

None of that diminishes the joy I feel when I think about that afternoon, though. It stands as one of the peak experiences of my life, awe-inspiring and humbling. I feel like nature blessed me somehow. I feel the gratitude to this day.


Cooper said...

Oh Patrick, I am so humbled by your words. Thank you. I am very grateful to have found you, too. Joe and Torn are both wonderful men! You couldn't have chosen finer examples. I am glad you have connected with them through my little blog. I am constantly amazed by how enriched my life is through the connections I have made on here.

I love your wolf story! A few days ago I bought the movie Jungle Book for my boys and we all watched it together. It brought back memories of when I, too, saw myself as Mowgli dancing in the jungle with the wild animals. My 5 year old adored the movie, although his primary observation was a giggling several times mentioned "He is wearing just his underwear, right!?" (What can I say ... he's at the "toilet humour" stage).

Jess said...

Your taste is excellent. Cooper is a wonderful young man!

And being a dog person (my partner and I have three of them), I can relate to your joy at connecting with the wolves.

By the way, Tasha is fine. She's still living a happy, healthy life out there. (Okay, I don't know that, but I hope so, too!)

tornwordo said...

Wow, that is an honor. I love that instant affinity from animals.

Will said...

Good morning, Patrick-

I found your blog this morning via your comment on Cooper's Corridor, the writing of a very dear, very special and much-loved young man, as you obviously know.

I've read several of your entires and will definitely be back for more. Since I bake my own bread, I'll also be trying your recipe--it's exquisite simplicity is very appealing. By the way, when you change out white flour for any amount of whole wheat, you can guarantee that the dough will rise by adding gluten you can purchase in the baking needs aisle instead of adding extra yeast. This way, the dough will not only rise but knead better and become more smooth and elastic as well.


Joe Jubinville said...

"Paws the size of dinner plates...", lol. What a wonderful experience. You passed the wolf-test, brother Patrick. Welcome to the tribe. ,oD

Mowgli somehow got past me, but I think the hearts of boys all long for some jungle or wilderness, our idealized shangri-la beyond the reach of civilization. For me it was the American west. "Take me with you Davey, please, please, please... I wanna shoot a 'bar too!" Do we ever really outgrow it? Seems Cooper actually found a way to stay close to the source.

Patrick said...

I hadn't thought of the underwear angle. How would Dario react if he learned that Mowgli was actually naked? I read the full book to the ten year old and twelve year old I lived with in Ireland, so I know that's a good age for it as a bedtime story. There is another animated version (more true to the book) of just the first Mowgli story, when he battles Sher Khan, and has to return to humanity. I loved it as a kid, it was on TV every year, I wonder if I could track it down. It is probably too scary for the boys just yet. The tiger and Mowgli's battle with him are both pretty scary, as I recall.

Jess, Will, welcome, I look forward to reading your blogs more too. Ah, Will, building a green home... yet another fantasy of mine. I'll have to read the archives to get the full story. And thanks for the info on the gluten, I've always wondered.

So, Joe, a fellow wolf, huh? I actually got to play one a few years ago, in a stage adaptation of Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George. That was another of the books that made me want to go live with the pack when I was a kid.

Greg said...

(I was wondering when I was going to come across something about wolves.)

They are such amazing creatures. What an honor to be named an honorary wolf by those two...

sweetsalty kate said...