On Saturday, J and E and I found ourselves waking up at 4:30 a.m. in a motel room in Gardiner on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. Our friend Ilona, who is a poet, wolf advocate and font of knowledge about all things wild, collected us well before dawn to take us into the park. We drove for an hour along the northern range of the park in pitch black drizzle towards a pack of wolves known to wolf-watchers as the Junction Butte pack.
We stopped where other eager wolfers had set up their scopes. Ilona introduced us to ‘Rick’, the biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project. Rick has spent more than 14 years observing wolf behaviour and pack dynamics and is locally famous for chalking up more than 5,000 consecutive days in the Park watching wolves at dawn and again at dusk. Much of what we know about pack behaviour comes from his observations. He knows these animals intimately. After setting up scopes in two different locations without any sightings, we got lucky the third time.
We scaled a small hill and set up our scopes in the rain. Ilona had thoughtfully brought a small one for E to look through. After some patient scoping of the landscape and observing a few bison lazily grazing, we managed to spot an alpha female nonchalantly watching five wolf cubs play around her. I wasn’t expecting to have an emotional response to these animals. I had been reading about the reintroduction of wolves to the park in 1995 and about the various points of view surrounding their presence. Ranchers don’t like them. They see them as a threat to livestock. Hunters feel the same. Conservationists see these apex predators as essential to restoring balance to the land.
Since their introduction almost fifteen years ago, the debate still rages as to the extent of good and/or harm these wolves effect. With wolves in Yellowstone hunting and killing prey, the elk population has been reduced, thus increasing the growth of young willow trees. These trees provide food and habitats for a lot of animals in the park. By bringing back the apex predator, some scientists and conservationists believe that a balance has been restored. I have also read that another knock-on effect of wolves in the park has been an increase in bear populations. Vegetation has generally improved as a healthier balance of predator and prey is achieved. The doomsayer in me who sees ecology as something that doesn’t move in straight lines, and rarely has a happy ending, sees this issue as one that is so complex that our limited human brains cannot comprehend it. I fear this solution – although wonderful – is not the full answer. But with conservation in an area where tourism also thrives, there really is no answer. In fact, I am not even sure of the question anymore as we humans have simply meddled too much with our planet.
The story of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone is like a reverse fairy tale. It is a story you hear recounted in Montana with pride by some people and with derision by others. But what interests me beyond the facts is the gut reaction people seem to hold for these creatures. Their portrayal as villains in fairy tales, as ravenous beasts, as creatures of the night, as agents of a dark subconscious is one we accept unchallenged. Humans vilify them in a way that feels irrational. I was thinking all this as I watched through Ilona’s scope, these gorgeous animals nipping each other on the ear, diving on top of each other, rolling in the grass the way puppies do. I really was mesmerised. I felt I was watching something forbidden. Their play felt intimate and private – something between them and the land that really I had no place witnessing. But the more I watched, the more I wanted to watch. I started to be able to tell them apart, to see these cubs as individuals. Later that night, I lay in bed glad that these wolves were there in the wild, protected, mostly unseen and yet living and breathing all around me. And as I fell asleep I couldn’t help feel that we need them, and I wished that they didn’t need us for their survival.
After our wolf watching expedition, Ilona took us to another part of the northern range of Yellowstone: the Mammoth Hot Springs. Geothermal activity here has created a landscape that made me think of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. It is apocalyptic. All sense of scale disappears as trees are buried in growing deposits of calcium carbonate, and hot gases make their way upwards from a deep magma pool under the park – a remnant of the super volcano that created some of this landscape – to form boiling acidic pools. Being here is like watching nature make a hot, toxic sculpture.
After our time in Yellowstone, J and E and I drove to Livingston, a small town on the banks of the Yellowstone River, surrounded by three mountain ranges: the Crazy, Absaroka and Bridger mountains. It looks like something from a Sam Peckinpah film. Which is no coincidence as he lived in a suite (now called the Peckinpah suite) in the Murray Hotel in downtown Livingston toward the end of his life.
More recently Livingston is the home of the writer Walter Kirn, whose book “Blood Will Out” I happen to be reading at the moment. It is a true-crime piece of non-fiction about Kirn’s relationship to the murderer and fraudster ‘Clark Rockefeller’ which is completely gripping. Kirn’s prose is addictive. Although it has only 7,000 inhabitants, Livingston has an amazing bookstore. We accidentally met the owner at supper one night as we asked him (not knowing who he was) if he could move his hat so we could sit down. Which, this being Montana, he did with grace and charm. The next day when we went into Elk River Books, where I bought a copy of the Whitefish Review (this one edited by Rick Bass, another local writer and activist), the owner of the bookshop recognised us as the people who had asked him to move his hat. He had just printed out the final page of his 220-page memoir/travelogue which sounded like a pretty amazing piece of work. Yet more intense chat about writing and publishing. It feels as if Montana is bursting with writers who are having conversations I want to be part of. The town is also incredibly beautiful with that light that comes at you from miles away across a huge sky. Like a snowball, the light seems to increase and gather speed as it travels. And Livingston, like so many places in Montana, is a sign-lover’s dream (yes, I hold my hands up high).
Our motel in Livingston was an odd place run by the husband and wife team of John and Tillie Lamey. Tillie is a keen wildlife photographer and her work is displayed all over the motel as obsessively as any outsider artist’s environment. The motel is great, but I did have reservations about a series of photos they took of a grizzly called Adam lying in bed asking for morning coffee, standing by the sign reading “Pets Welcome” and leaning at the counter waiting to check you in. I asked about this series of photos and John told me how they have friends who work with wild animals for film shoots. These friends decided it would be fun to let Adam loose in the motel in order to photograph him, for laughs. Those of you who get wobbly at the sight of wild animals being tamed for the sake of human folly, look away now:
On our way from Livingston back to Missoula, we decided to make one stop in Drummond, Montana, home to the self-taught artist Bill Ohrmann. He is 95 now and began life as a cattle rancher. He has only been painting since his early eighties and stopped just over a year ago as his eyesight is beginning to fail. His work is a searing indictment to human folly, to organised religion, to corrupt politicians, to the rape of the planet, to the mistreatment of indigenous people. He would hate the thought of a grizzly watching TV on a motel bed, which is part of the wonder of places like Montana: the extreme contrasts. Right next to Bill Ohrmann’s home is a museum dedicated to his work. We pitched up on a slightly overcast day and as we pulled up, a woman came sprinting out of his house with keys in hand. This turned out to be Bill’s wife Phyllis who was utterly beautiful, kind and charming.
We spent a long time looking at Bill’s work. Sadly he is too frail now to greet visitors. But we chatted to Phyllis for some time and talked about his life as an artist and his life as a rancher. E was fascinated by the paintings and her attention was rewarded with Phyllis giving her a reproduction of one of Bill’s paintings of the original Eve.
We headed back to Missoula for dinner with some new Missoula friends who had kindly organised a meal in order to introduce us to more Missoulians. Our day ended in the Lower Rattlesnake area of town, eating wonderful food and drinking wine under the stars with an absolutely amazing bunch of people. I was feeling overwhelmed by this point and also quite tired from our early start the day before. Montana is so vibrant and full of contrasts and contradictions constantly at play. It feels as if every corner brings up a dilemma requiring one to think about land and about its conservation and about our relationship to wild animals who are protected in parks and yet only a few miles way are paraded around the halls of motels for ‘fun’ photo shoots. And in amongst all this are some incredible people who are letting me get a glimpse into places and ideas I never even knew existed.
PS: In reading about wolves, I have come across a book by Emma Marris called Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Note to self: Sounds like something I should get my hands on.