The she-wolf

Do you ever find that when you start to pay attention to a thing, all sorts of coincidences line up to help you hone your focus? Keep you from letting it go? It’s almost as if the universe is saying “Finally! I can’t believe it took you so long!”

This happened to me recently with wolves. If you’re a loyal Gydle reader, you will know that while we lived in Switzerland I was extremely bothered by the relationship that Europeans seem to have with wolves and other predatory mammals. That may be an understatement. It would be fairer to say that it drove me batshit crazy. The presence of wolves (or lynxes or whatever) is not acceptable to most Europeans because 1) these critters are inherently evil and 2) it might jeopardize the number of prey animals available for humans to hunt down. The fact that wolves will, if given a chance, kill sheep, cows, and goats and that they do not respect national and state borders is taken as evidence that we are not meant to co-exist.

The first coincidence was a movie about how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has changed the physical geography of the river valley. It’s a tribute to the incredible complexity of natural ecosystems and the delicate balance between creatures and the landscape they inhabit. Watch it here:

The second coincidence is that I have been thinking and reading about myths and symbols lately. Wolves seemed like they might be that kind of a thing, since people get so worked up about them.

It was a she-wolf who rescued and nourished Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Some cultures even consider wolves as descendents of men, or men as descendents of wolves. The wolf is of central importance to many Native American myths as well. The Chechen people have a “wolf-mother” founding myth. Wolves are often considered warriors, and are feared, revered, and respected.

The book of Genesis in the Judeo-Christian mythology tells us that humans are the central point to all creation, and animals are brought into existence solely to further human purposes. In this view, nature is only acceptable insofar as it can be controlled by man. The wolf is a frequent symbol in this mythology as an evil force preying on the faithful, who are represented by flocks of sheep.

From a Jungian perspective, the wolf is one of those major symbolic anchors that tie humans together across cultures and time – an archetype. I first ran across this idea while reading Women who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkol Estes.

Healthy wolves and healthy women share certain psychic characteristics: keen sensing, playful spirit, and a heightened capacity for devotion. Wolves and women are relational by nature, inquiring, possessed of great endurance and strength. They are deeply intuitive, intensely concerned with their young, their mates and their pack. They are experienced in adapting to constantly changing circumstances; they are fiercely stalwart and very brave.”

Intuition, devotion, playfulness, bravery. Estes develops a case for what she calls the “Wild Woman Archetype,” and said it first crystallized for her in the study of wolves.

Both have been hounded and harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious, overly aggressive, of less value than those who are their detractors. They have been the targets of those who would clean up the wilds as well as the wildish environs of the psyche, extincting the instinctual, and leaving no trace of it behind. The predation of wolves and women by those who misunderstand them is strikingly similar.”

I will say for the record here that I love the way this woman writes. “Extincting the instinctual.” But all floweriness aside, I think she’s on to something here. Wildness, playfulness, deep instinct – these things make us uneasy, especially in a woman. We value tameness, order, submissiveness and predictability in our women and our landscapes. In contemporary culture women are increasingly (and alarmingly) idealized as waiflike and fragile, not strong and thick and fierce like the she-wolf. It’s fine for men to have a sense of humor, but in a woman? That’s not “attractive.”

But like any essential part of ourselves that we bury, this refuses to stay in the shadows. It occurs to me that perhaps my reaction to the Swiss attitude towards wildlife was just a massive projection of my own buried instinctual nature onto an entire country. It’s so easy to externalize things that bother you about yourself.

See, Switzerland is the epitome of the beautiful, orderly place that Europe strives to be. It has been human-centered for centuries. The wildflowers on the flanks of the Alps are there in a balance dictated by the presence of domesticated animals; the trees are monitored and classified, rivers and streams carefully channeled into pre-determined beds, hidden military bunkers carved into the rocky hillsides, trails carefully signposted so you would have a tough time getting lost even if you tried. I loved all this when we first arrived – and to some extent I still find it deeply reassuring. It’s all so tidy, tame and unthreatening.

And there’s nothing really surprising in this attitude towards nature —  it’s consistent with their mythology, after all.

But I still feel called to places that have some wildness left. Maybe it’s because I grew up in New Mexico, exposed to more animistic Native American influences, in a relatively untamed landscape where wildness is still part of the equation, but I am not comfortable with the wisdom that says humans are meant to rule the earth and that nature exists in service to us. I am certain the microbes that inhabit our guts will be here long after we’ve managed to wipe ourselves off the face of the planet. What happened to our humility? Our respect for balance? Why aren’t our big brains able to grasp that we’re doing ourselves in? Or is it just a thing that is beyond our control, like a rock that’s started rolling down a hill and won’t stop until the entire mountainside has joined it in a heap at the bottom of the valley?

Maybe all these coincidences are telling me it’s time for me to step back and take stock of the balance in my own inner ecosystem. Maybe it’s time to let my inner wolf reclaim her habitat and work her magic. Maybe part of my path involved going to Switzerland so I would have to see and confront this head-on.

Hang on, you’re thinking. When did you go all woo on us? Can we please go back to science and the microbiome?

Okay. I admit though that it makes me happy to think that everything happens for a reason. Call it the placebo effect.

The third coincidence, which you will recognize by now that I don’t see as a conicidence at all, was the kundalini yoga class where I saw the embodiment of the Wild Woman Archetype and thought about Estes’ book for the first time in years.

Today is #WolfDay, a day designated by conservationists and wolf experts to urge the US Fish & Wildlife Service to extend the Endangered Species Act’s protections for the gray wolf, which is in jeopardy because the ranchers are once again chomping at the bit to hunt and kill them. Why can we not live in balance, either externally or internally? Why must we always be dominant, controlling, calculating? It was just the extra push I needed to write this post.

Happy #WolfDay. Hug a wolf — or better yet, a wild, strong, loyal and funny woman in your life.

One thought on “The she-wolf

  1. Love this blog. My American brother sent me “Women who Run with the Wolves” in 1993 and it became a corner stone for my own development. It’s wonderful that you know both sides of the Atlantic and how each deals with nature.

    But just a reminder about comparisons. Europe has been overrun by people for centuries so nature and human kind have had to find a modus vivendi that the American continent has yet to encounter. In Europe ecologists are trying to reintroduce creatures that once lived here naturally. On the American continent people want to save creatures that have not yet been ejected by human beings.

    Also, Swiss myths are just as terrifying and helpful as all human myths. In fact, I think the reason the Swiss like order and stability is because their fore bearers were so often defeated in their fight to survive in such difficult territory. It is hard to imagine now, but for centuries, the Swiss survived only by selling their men as soldiers to other countries and sending off their girls to work as housemaids. Fortunately many were able to begin new lives in the new world, thus becoming part of the American myth.

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