The Wolf, the Woman, the Wilderness is a book written by Teresa tsimmu Martino, an author I hadn’t heard of until a friend from Oregon sent me some of her books as a gift some time after I had returned to New Zealand from the White Wolf Sanctuary. This book is a recollection of her life with a small pup of a wolf that she eventually realises must return ‘to the wild’. While she embarks on a journey to rehabilitate the wolf into wilderness, she also finds herself thinking greatly about her origins and what her own ultimate ‘wilderness’ might be. Teresa has a mixture of Italian and Native American descent, and while she previously hadn’t identified with either ethnic group (she had been living for a long time in Northern California working horses) she comes to realise something is calling her to rediscover her roots, her People and herself.
The little wolf, who she names Mckenzie, is a captive-born pure grey wolf that Teresa adopts from a closing rescue facility. Along with Mckenzie she takes Kip, a little black fox with a white-tipped tail. She brings them to her cabin four days drive away on an island in northwest America, back to where she already has a wolf-dog hybrid and a Weimaraner. As I was reading Teresa’s story, I envisaged the ‘island’ to be a place of quiet peace and contemplation. However, it is more a community filled with many different types of people and, as you would expect, she has to be careful of the wolves with her neighbours. She keeps Mckenzie in a pen, the size of which I am unsure, but large enough that she is able to dig a den under a tree.
I was not sure what to expect while reading this book. I knew I had kept it for some time because I hadn’t felt a right moment to open it. For a long time I have felt very disconnected from things I once held very close. When I went to America I had hoped to get some of this back, to find some answers to questions I cannot even piece aloud in my head, and to fill an empty void I have had inside me for longer than I can know. When I met the wolves for the first time, my heart swam. Whether you are spiritual or not, I felt spirits. Huge spirits. Ones that came home with me, back to the motel and continued swimming around me in celebration. I remember being so contented, and feeling so full I might burst.
As days went on and I became more and more accustomed to the power and content I felt around the wolves, I began to notice other voids open within me and become more empty. These were the unfinished spaces that I had left back home, and I knew I would have to go back and rediscover those left-behind things that were unknowingly deep down so important to me.
I found some answers in America. But mostly I found more questions, and am left with another great and unfilled void. My pull to the wolves is strong. Sometimes I wonder how it can be; how can you be born into this life so far from where you know you must belong? I know I belong both here, and over there with the wolves and the wilderness I want to rediscover. Here is my family. Here is my comfort, peace, here is joy. But there is where my fire burns; somewhere there I am attached. The attachment goes from the depths of my tummy; a long, invisible tugging cord, beckoning me back.
But immigration laws don’t make it so easy!! And so, here I am, tied between calm contentment and a fierce, calling passion.
There is a part in Teresa’s book where she recalls a friend from a Native tribe explaining the tie many individuals feel (but perhaps can’t explain) to a native people;
“…We were all Native peoples once.” This I believe. A Blackfeet friend told me about “wannabes.” A “wannabe” is a non-Native who wants to be Indian. He said that those people aren’t really “wannabes,” they are “used-to-bes.”
I like this very much. I like this, because it is something I wish to identify with. Those who know me have probably, at some point, recognised me feeling unrelated and unconnected with what I greatly refer to as ‘our culture’. The label of ‘Our culture’ is an easy way for me to distinguish the social norms of my generation and particular age group in our western New Zealand world, the expectations others have of us and the expectations we as a peer group have for each other. My partner has seen me walk away in ‘disgust’ at particular situations that I want no part of but are often pushed as the norm. During these times I go away and sit to think about a distant place where there may be people more akin to myself, my character and my understanding of the world around us. I am afraid because, from what I have constantly been told growing up, my ideas are unrealistic. Does this mean there aren’t people who see the world through more humble, equal eyes? Am I being told to resign myself to the fact that this is life, and this is who I am supposed to be? Am I supposed to care about the many things people around me seem to revere? Fashion, good wine, good food, alcohol, sex, physical beauty, getting high, money… All these things make me want to walk away, down a forested path to another world that exists somewhere here. All these things I find superficial and so unimportant. All these things make me anxious. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy food. I feel special if I go to a nice restaurant in good company. But not once do I forget others. Others who don’t have a scrap. Others who wouldn’t understand this picky, clicky, peer-pressured, power-pressured ‘culture’ a lot of us are consumed by. I don’t want to be consumed. I don’t want to pretend I am consumed so that I fit in with the false and unimportant norm. I am tired of running with it. I want to walk down that forested path, away from all this. When I speak of this out loud to those close to me I am often told I’m running away. But I more think I am returning home.
Of course, I don’t know if when I embark on a journey hoping to find something to fill me up that I won’t just be disappointed. I remember going to the Pow Wow in Siletz. I took myself there with a heart full of fear of not being accepted. I was also, perhaps even more so, afraid of not being recognised or understood and welcomed. I met some great people there, although I was far too shy to approach anyone outside of the market. I did learn a lot about a more ancient culture, and found I felt more at home at the Pow Wow than I do in many social gatherings back in New Zealand. Perhaps that is just one little piece of one individual girl’s Who Am I search.
In Teresa’s journey to find her people, the Osage, she receives a book of their native language. She learns that Wah Kon Tah – “The Mystery” – translates to what many of us refer to as God. She incorporates it into the way she views the world, and it seems to bring her comfort. I see this as a humble way to live. Teresa points out we like to think we know everything. Everything is categorised. Different religions have rules, and labels, even though we are so often drawing strength from the same beliefs. While ‘The Mystery’ does not seem like a personal enough term, it is indeed a humble way to identify with something there but out of one’s control.
Teresa finds her search for the meaning of wilderness to be intertwined with her journeys of finding her people and releasing Mckenzie. Teresa has a struggle in trying to decide what is right for the little wolf Mckenzie. She gets different advice from different people – of course, those with careers in federal wildlife protection are against her releasing Mckenzie. She seeks the aid of an animal rehabilitation centre that, after initially agreeing to take the wolf, end up telling Teresa it is illegal to have a pure-bred wolf in her possession and that the rescue facility could end up being greatly penalized for assisting in any way. She is relieved in part (the thought of handing Mckenzie over to strangers was emotionally difficult), but her frustration is apparent. In her book she admits she has no idea of the ‘right’ way to go about releasing a captive animal into the wild. A great part of it, she realises, is to do with her also ‘rehabilitating’ herself, and accepting wilderness back into her life. She writes:
In the north you tie out the dog. When they hear the wolf’s howl the dogs bark and shiver, both in fear and longing to return to the pack. If the wolf comes close, two things can happen: A playful bow and a quick way of the tail that means, Come! Join us! Or the soft stalking walk of hunger in glaring yellow eyes.
But wildness is a hard walk. It is a walk up mountains that makes you hungry and thirsty. There are stones that cut your knees and you fall. There are lions that are real with claws. And they can kill you with little effort. But the air is clean and cool and you can see a long way from those peaks into Tomorrow and back to Yesterday. And Now sits like a butterfly on your outstretched hand.
Come, Sister! the wolves howl, put away your fear and run with us for a while. Join the rainbow and live before you die. You must die of something. Live outside the cage. Then you won’t become like a captive naked ape, interested only in sex and violence. You are a wild creature pure like wolves, beautiful like horses.
Through learning to live in the wild, Teresa can thus teach Mckenzie – and so she decides to take Mckenzie regularly into the mountains, to hunt and sleep and live for days at a time, both meeting lessons imperative to survival.
I’m not sure how to take the rest of the book. It is a lovely story, heartfelt and heartbreaking. It talks about the strong ties one human individual feels for an animal, something that cannot speak the same language or communicate in the same ways. I understand this kind of bond, which was why having to accept Mckenzie must eventually return to her own kind was something I found sad. I don’t know if it is compassion that drives my strong emotional responses to certain situations, but sometimes I do find it difficult to take an objective stance. It also made me read certain passages of Teresa’s book with mixed feelings – for example, she talks about a roadkill doe found and fed to the animals with milk still dripping from its teats, and notes that there will be a hungry fawn out there somewhere. This is all part of the cycle of life and death, yes, but at what point does one individual’s life outweigh the importance of another’s? I care about the health of wolf populations, but I also care about the welfare of individuals – carnivores need to hunt and feed, but I know when I witness a filmed hunt and the death of a prey species I feel strongly sorry and bad for the victim animal. I suppose I just don’t like suffering full stop, so when it comes to the cycle of life sustaining life, the quicker death is the better.‘Wilderness’ includes all this – life for life, death for the continuation of a cycle. I think many see the concept of true wilderness as a feared thing – we keep a wild animal as a pet and in doing so contain a piece of wilderness inside our own world. We take, and shape wilderness to fit our desires, whether or not what we do is right or wrong.
I am halfway through the book, and it is getting late here, so I shall try and write some kind of conclusion (hopefully more eloquent than tonight’s post) once I am finished tomorrow :)