In 1890, the last wolf in New York State was reported killed. Nevertheless, when a white, Ivy-educated woman was raped and left for dead in New York’s Central Park a century later, in 1989, the New York Times likened the Black and Hispanic children wrongfully accused of the crime to a ‘savage… wolf pack’. At the time, Donald Trump—a man since caught on tape advocating for sexual assault, and recently on civil trial for rape—published full-page ads calling for the boys’ execution. Although the boys were only exonerated after lengthy stays in prison, Trump went on to become president of the United States in 2016—the same year that a group of five adult men, including a policeman and a soldier, gang-raped a teenager during the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. These men called themselves la manada: ‘the (wolf) pack’, leading Spanish media to begin referring to groups of rapists as wolf packs. Worldwide reports of rape—by manadas or otherwise—are rising markedly, yet wolves remain locally extinct across the majority of their historic range. How is it that while real wolf populations have receded, two-legged ‘wolves’ proliferate? What is the connection between these living, breathing creatures and the popular, metaphorical, and imaginary uses we give them?
In his essay ‘Why Look at Animals’, John Berger notes that as living animal populations dwindle, their symbolic counterparts surge. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that there has been a boom in literature addressing earth’s vanishing creatures and ecosystems just as they cross vital thresholds in the ongoing climate breakdown. While many recent works of both fiction and nonfiction grasp at the interior life of nonhuman beings, Erica Berry’s ambitiously sprawling, cultural-history-cum-personal-narrative Wolfish takes a different tack: reconciling living animals—in this case, wolves—with their symbolic shadows. Berry’s central premise is that ‘we cannot untether the biological wolf from the stories told about it without also examining those associative, metaphorical stories—picking them up, holding them to the light, examining their seams’. Stories about human ‘wolf packs’ and declining wolf populations feature wolves as the object of human fear and a stand-in for human grief about the destruction of ecosystems, and Berry explores these alongside many others: tales of wolves as guardians, thieves, relatives, deities, and symbionts. Her approach is intuitively interdisciplinary, spanning self-writing, history, ecology, anthropology, fairy tales, idioms, indigenous cosmologies, and feet-on-the-ground investigative journalism. At times, Berry’s inquiries into wolf ethology seek to dispel misconceptions within our metaphors: for example, human ‘lone wolves’ are characterised as antisocial, but ‘while it is true a wolf who is alone has left his pack, he often does it in search for companionship’. Mostly, though, she eschews any clear argumentative arc, and instead artfully gathers together scientific knowledge, indigenous wisdom, and Anglo-American conceptions of wolves in freewheeling prose. The book practices a kind of ‘carrier bag theory’ of nonfiction, to adapt the term coined by Ursula LeGuin to refer to stories as collections of elements rather than ‘hero’ narratives of conflict and triumph. This loose approach allows Berry to forgo casting champions and villains in favour of a more nuanced, multi-layered analysis: there are no brave, wolf-killing woodsmen here, nor saintly conservationists. But there are wolves.
One wolf of particular interest to Berry is the ‘disperser’—a wolf who leaves their pack to establish a new one. She returns again and again to the story of a ‘disperser’ known as OR-7—named after his birthplace in Oregon, although famous for unexpectedly roaming as far as California—whose wide-ranging journey mirrors her own peripatetic life and writing. Like OR-7, Berry sometimes strays far from her point of origin, wandering through stories only loosely related to wolves’ metonymical wilderness or fear. The book lives up to its catchall subtitle’s promise to investigate ‘the stories we tell about fear, ferocity and freedom’, encompassing everything from interviews with ranchers and wildlife workers to an account of how Berry accidentally poisoned a co-worker (she felt remarkably free of fear while unsuspectingly harvesting mandrake greens in Sicily, but very afraid once the mandrake poison took effect). The result of her decade of lupine investigations is a richly detailed socio-ecological landscape which brought to mind anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena’s conception of ‘cosmopolitics’: a politics that can account for humans, nonhumans, and what, in the West, we might refer to as supernatural beings. ‘We don’t exist with wolves in a boxing ring’, Berry concludes, ‘but on something like a crowded dance floor, our shadows overlapping as we come in and out of contact with other species and one another, touching lives in nearly untraceable ways’.
This holistic, cosmopolitical view builds especially in the later chapters of Wolfish. Earlier chapters, though, focus more on the ‘stark binaries’ buttressing settler colonialism in her native Oregon and around the world: nature vs. culture, civilised vs. wild, predator vs. prey. The book returns again and again to violent histories of the extermination of wolves and Native peoples, both of which intended, in the words of Chickasaw writer and environmentalist Linda Hogan, ‘to rid the continent of heathens, to civilise and cultivate the land’. Even Berry’s choice of ‘wolfish’ over ‘wolflike’ gestures to such antagonism: the connotation here is the wolf as a metaphor for human predators, voracity, and sexual rapaciousness that will be familiar from the stories of Perrault and Grimm. Her chapter titles heighten the sense of antipathy, as all follow the pattern ‘X v. Wolf’, as in ‘Girl v. Wolf’ or ‘Country v. Wolf’. In each case, she deftly untangles the threads of the constitutive stories in order to break down these binaries; the titles are points of departure, not conclusions. This oppositional framing, though, seems intentionally at odds with Berry’s more holistic lens on the more-than-human world.
Take the chapter ‘Girl v. Wolf’. Here the point of departure is the European folk tale ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as well as ensuing tropes about sexual predators and victims’ supposed responsibility for their assaults. Reasoning that if she ‘just untangled Little Red’s story’, she could perhaps ‘free us from it—free the women, free the wolves’, Berry examines several different versions of the tale. These include the 1697 first print version by Charles Perrault, in which Little Red is summarily devoured (ostensibly as a lesson for young girls to not speak to strangers); the 1812 Brothers Grimm version in which a huntsman appears, ex machina, to cut open the wolf and save Little Red; and the earlier oral versions both print versions drew from, in which both the girl and the wolf escape unscathed. The disparity between the oral and print versions leads Berry to conclude that Perrault ‘followed the established tradition of men hijacking a female-centred oral folktale long spun by rural women’, ultimately ‘portraying both forest and girl as unkempt and in need of civilisation’. The Brothers Grimm version also centres on the rescue of vulnerable womanhood from the corruption of wilderness. Both printed versions distort the earlier oral tales by incorporating the ‘stark binaries’ so antithetical to ecological thought. By laying bare this distortion, Berry goes some way towards achieving her goal to ‘free the women, free the wolves’. But she goes deeper still, probing the ‘bulb of truth’ at the centre of the tale: fear, and its utilities and its dangers. Throughout Wolfish, Berry inquires what happens when white women’s fear is turned against purported assailants, inciting white men’s violent ‘defences’ of their ‘alleged property’. Her feminist analysis is careful to acknowledge how tropes of female vulnerability have been used to prop up whiteness and settler colonialism, for example in the bloody history of lynching in the US. This kind of many-layered analysis helps balance passages about real-life murdered and missing women that otherwise might risk an uncomfortable resemblance to the true crime genre. Here and elsewhere we see how when Berry ‘pick[s] stories up’ and ‘hold[s] them to the light’, she is interested in both the stories themselves and their inverses, the shadows they cast.
Like ‘Girl v. Wolf’, the chapter ‘Truth v. Wolf’ also probes the shadows of white heteropatriarchy, and also holds at its heart a well-known story: ‘the Boy Who Cried Wolf’, in which a shepherd boy who falsely reports wolf sightings is eventually gobbled up by a real wolf when the townspeople no longer believe his cries. Much of the chapter is dedicated to interrogating the credibility of reported killings by or sightings of wolves, including Berry’s own formative wolf encounters; she finds that not all reports stand up to scrutiny. However, Berry seeks to trouble a cultural discourse of truth that equates this history of dubious wolf sightings with human accusations of sexual violence. Despite the fact that false accusations are vanishingly rare, the expression ‘crying wolf’ has become popularly associated with women who make accusations of sexual assault or harassment, as if to suggest that in these stories, too, predators are imaginary, conjured to seek attention. If accusers are ‘crying wolf’, sexual predators are fictional, and the ‘townspeople’ can ignore them in good conscience. Noting that the ‘boy who cried wolf’ is now mostly gendered female, Berry reminds us that the credence given to accusers is all-too-often predicated on their gender, race, and class.
Gender, race and class are also central to the chapters ‘Adventure v. Wolf’ and ‘Town v. Wolf’, which confront foundational myths of the American West by asking to whom these myths grant the freedom to move—or even to exist. In the former, she recounts how a strange, violent man accosted her while retracing the westward path of wolf ‘dispersers’ and European colonisers on a cross-country train journey; this inspires an investigation of the threat of gender-based violence as a factor limiting women’s lives. In the latter chapter, Berry recalls that the first law ever passed in Oregon incentivised wolf-killing through a bounty system; a year later, the provisional legislature passed a bill expelling Black people from the territory. Let me note here that Berry avoids drawing simple parallels between the animals and humans excluded from the project of white America: ‘For as long as white people have been coming to America, they have been kindling the story of their own belonging, erasing the stories of early inhabitants, in part by conflating them with animals’, she reminds us; ‘often, it is only by anthropomorphising animals and animalising humans that the fictions that necessitate human borders can be propped up at all’. By showing us the moralising beliefs about real and presumed species differences at the heart of American social stratification, Wolfish’s project of dismantling them becomes all the more compelling—and urgent.
In ‘Country v. Wolf’, Berry moves beyond the US context to take on the history of extermination and conservation of wolves in the UK, as well. While on a research trip to the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, she works through notions of the supposedly ‘peaceful’ English countryside, UK rewilding and conservation efforts, and the Trust’s controversial strategy of reintroducing wolves abroad, but not at home. Building on the historical hypothesis that England first became England when a 1281 law was passed to ‘rid the land of wolves’, this chapter unravels histories of environmental change in the UK and beyond. Here, Berry wonders whether in their aspiration to restore landscapes to their condition at a certain point of history, ‘rewilding’ efforts, however noble, efface the ecosystems before and after that point: the rolling hills and country estates in bucolic visions of the English countryside can obscure the violence of enclosures and histories of ‘the social exploitation of England’s peasant-class’. Likewise, in the United States, indigenous peoples were expelled from their ancestral lands because conservationists such as John Muir believed they ‘had no right place in the landscape’. In Berry’s hands, the ponderous stories we tell about nation-states and their purportedly innate landscapes are just as susceptible to reversal as children’s stories.
Throughout Wolfish, Berry intersperses critical explorations of wolf, fear, and nation with passages of self-writing, from joyful narratives of communion with natural places to accounts of sexual harassment and assault. Across each of these topics, her self-writing is haunted by the question, ‘how should a person be on a planet that might not support life much longer?’. Possible answers to this question come into focus in the closing chapters. In ‘Self v. Wolf’ Berry contemplates lycanthropy, rabies, and the aforementioned mandrake poisoning to shed light on our ‘theriophobia’, or fear of beasts—including the beasts that may lurk within ourselves. From these dark corners, Berry pulls out the joy of fearless moments in the natural world, and of living in a body which sometimes escapes our control. ‘Mother v. Wolf’ looks into archetypes of ‘the benevolent wolf-mother’ embodied not only by mother wolves and Berry’s own mother, but also by other communities of organisms, from human families to microbiota, that look after their kin. Following Donna Haraway’s ‘omnivorous interspecies view of kinship’, Berry calls for resisting increasingly inhospitable climates through connecting with others—connections reflected in her wandering prose. Her proposal for ‘indiscriminate’ mothering is neither genealogical—restricted to blood ties—nor unidirectional—flowing from older generations to younger ones. The book ends by describing how the coronavirus pandemic and the loneliness of social distancing animated Berry to ‘rekindle’ connection with loved ones, the ‘collective’, the ‘herd’. Just as a ‘disperser’ leaves the pack to establish a new one, Berry’s ten years’ of research across Sicily, England, and the United States conclude when she returns to her Oregon home’s web of belonging: her friends and family, their farmland, and the ecosystems that they share. Her book is an invitation to similarly ‘rekindle’ connections with a broader ‘collective’ of creatures—even those who feature in scary stories with big teeth. For all their shadows, wolves are ultimately neither villains nor saviours, but companions in a lush more-than-human world in which we are not alone.