[Marxism] How the wolf became bad

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 13 12:41:29 MST 2006


H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Environment at h-net.msu.edu (October, 2006)

Jon T. Coleman. _Vicious: Wolves and Men in America_. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 2004. 270 pp. References, index. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN
0-300-10390-5.

Reviewed for H-Environment by Tim Lehman, Rocky Mountain
College.

How the Wolf Became Bad

One winter morning in 1814, the famous naturalist John James Audubon
went out with an Ohio farmer to check the pit traps that the farmer had
set for wolves. Having baited the traps with venison, the farmer caught
three wolves. The farmer surprised Audubon by jumping into the pit with
the wolves, armed only with his knife. While the wolves cowered in
submission, the farmer cut the hamstring muscles of each wolf, then
lifted them one at a time out of the pit and set his dogs on them. After
the dogs had chased and fought each wolf, the farmer then shot the
wolves, pronouncing that he was "paying them off in full" for their
depredations of his livestock (p. 2).

Jon Coleman starts his marvelous new book with this anecdote, which is
the springboard for the questions that guide his work. Why did
Euro-Americans hate wolves so much that they resorted to such ingenious
methods as pit traps to destroy them? Why, especially, did they treat
the animals with such vicious cruelty? Given this hostility, how is it
that Americans came to value and, eventually, to reintroduce wolves?
Coleman blends an intriguing mixture of history, biology, and folklore
across four centuries and three time zones to explore answers to these
questions. Like the wolves he studies, Coleman is a brave traveler who
is not afraid to cross conventional boundaries. In his case, these
boundaries are of genre, region, period, and methodology. He follows a
stream of settlement from Puritan New England in the seventeenth
century, to Ohio's Western Reserve in the eighteenth, to Mormon Utah in
the nineteenth, and pursues wolves as they appear in travelers'
descriptions, literary references, local histories, and bounty records.
He moves from the specific--each chapter begins with a story similar to
the one above--to explore larger concerns that should give this book a
wide audience.

According to Coleman, wolves roamed the mental and ecological landscapes
of colonial New England with an almost ghost-like presence. Wolves and
people avoided each other out of mutual fear, so much so that one
Puritan in 1637 described wolves as "fearfull Curres" who would run from
a person just as would a "fearfull dogge" (p. 9). Wolves howled in the
night, which Coleman concludes was a biological strategy to maintain
distance from other wolves but which colonists interpreted as a menacing
threat. Colonial New Englanders may have seldom seen an actual wolf, but
metaphorical wolves abounded. Although the magical and supernatural
wolves of European legends apparently did not cross the Atlantic, the
Biblical wolf certainly did. The pastoral imagery of the Bible,
reinforced by the colonists' own experience in protecting livestock from
predators, led to the view of wolves as "skulking criminals"
characterized by greed, corruption, and theft (p. 42).

Coleman is especially insightful in his descriptions of how wolves
played a role in the miscommunication between colonists and Native
Americans. Both societies understood the wolf in much the same way.
Algonquians hunted wolves, usually only during the fall when they would
sometimes eat the deer that the Indians had trapped, and valued black
wolf skins as a gift that symbolized friendship. The colonists viewed
the gift of wolf skins as an admission of fealty. Both societies
understood well that the public display of wolf heads at the edge of
colonial towns was a sign of domination over nature, or an enemy.
Coleman's description of the complex relationships between colonists,
Indians, and wolves is both ethnocultural and environmental history at
its best.

The next section of the book follows these New Englanders as they moved
into Ohio's Western Reserve in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries. The cruelty towards wolves continued. As in New England,
wolves were hunted with guns, dogs, and traps of all sorts, often
tortured as they were killed. Coleman's analysis of bounty records shows
that most who collected a bounty were part-time hunters and full-time
farmers who killed wolves during the spring planting season, the time
when farmers were most busy but wolves were most vulnerable. Here
Coleman is especially interesting in juxtaposing two ways of
understanding wolves: the community circle hunt and the traveler's tale.
Some variation of the traveler's tale is familiar in popular folklore
and was retold in many local histories throughout the Midwest. A lone
traveler is lost in the woods, as night approaches wolves begin to howl
menacingly and close in on the traveler, who is saved by cleverness or
the timely intervention of others. The story plays on the fears of an
inverted moral order with wild nature beyond the control of humans, a
world in which animals eat people. The circle hunt, a common community
event during the winter season, reverses this tale. Community members
would surround large sections of forest and, at the designated time,
gradually walk towards the center while making great noises and killing
all wild animals in the circle. Feasting and merriment, paid for by
turning in the wolf heads for bounty payments, often followed the hunt.
Thus the human domination of nature was symbolically and actually
restored, and the community could celebrate a world in which people eat
animals rather than the reverse. The viciousness attributed to the
wolves of folklore justified the human viciousness practiced against
animals in community ritual.

This blend of folklore and history, according to Coleman, helps to
explain the particular animus that humans directed at wolves. Killing
them was not enough, because wolves not only threatened livestock in an
economic sense but, Coleman argues, wolves as portrayed in these folk
stories represented a morally upside-down world that threatened
Euro-American settlers in a fundamental way. In Coleman's history, the
biological wolf suffers for the sins of the folkloric wolf.

Coleman next follows these settlers into the West, focusing on Mormon
Utah. Despite the Mormon's many innovations in religion, they brought
their wolf-killing habits with them unchanged from the east. What
changed was the number and apparent variety of wolves that settlers
encountered in the West. Coleman recounts how wolves followed the
buffalo herds and even learned to come to the sound of a rifle shot
because it meant fresh killed meat. Perhaps Coleman's most original
assertion of this section is his argument that Mormons began using the
term "coyote" to refer to what they had previously called "prairie
wolves" so that they could feel safe about taming the difficult land and
safely put wolves in their pioneer past. "Wolves" were thus extirpated
in this part of the West, Coleman asserts, by a mid-nineteenth century
nomenclature shift, while "prairie wolves" or coyotes became more
widespread than ever.

Probably the most famous wolf story among environmental historians is
Aldo Leopold's encounter with the "fierce green fire" in a dying wolf's
eyes that, as he tells it, served as his environmental epiphany.
Coleman's treats this moment of "extinction and enlightenment" (p. 192)
in the context of the "last wolf stories" that became common in the
early twentieth century as the government's professional, scientific
hunters replaced the amateur folk hunters of the bounty years. This new
breed of hunters, notably Stanley Young, told sentimental stories of
wolves that were noble adversaries with names. This nostalgic, sometimes
even affectionate, treatment of wolves undermined the traditional folk
hostility towards the creatures and, according to Coleman, laid the
groundwork for the sympathetic reappraisal that is the basis for wolf
reintroduction.

_Vicious_ deserves a wide audience. The storytelling is superb, the
analysis fascinating, and the descriptions of both science and folklore
bring clarity and life to what can be technical and arcane. Coleman even
adds a dash of humor to the mix, making this the sort of book that
undergraduates and general readers will appreciate. Coleman asks exactly
the right questions, frames his answers with the right mix of historical
evidence, wolf ecology, and traditional folklore, and suggests much
about the sources of our cruelty and kindness towards predatory animals.

--

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