AR-News: Review of ""Of Wolves and Men"

Karen Dawn KarenDawn at
Sun May 23 11:26:14 EDT 2004

Chicago Tribune

May 23, 2004 Sunday
Chicago Final Edition

 BOOKS ; ZONE C; Pg. 3

 Perspectives on the worlds of wolves and human beings

 By Donna Seaman. Donna Seaman is an editor at Booklist, host of "Open
Books" on radio station WLUW 88.7-FM, and editor of the anthology "In Our
Nature: Stories of Wildness."

Of Wolves and Men

By Barry Lopez

Scribner Classics, 323 pages, $45


By Barry Lopez

Knopf, 163 pages, $18

"Of Wolves and Men," Barry Lopez's first sustained work of natural history,
was originally published in 1978. It proved to be immensely influential in
content and approach, and now, in acknowledgment of its enduring
significance, it has been reissued in a 25th anniversary edition that
includes an updated afterword. Felicitously enough, this new incarnation
appears in sync with the release of Lopez's latest work of fiction,

Revolutionary in its in-depth study of a single species, adept and
meaningful synthesis of diverse cultural perspectives, and clarifying
ecological viewpoint, "Of Wolves and Men" is vital and involving, whether
you're reading it for the first time or returning to it (and it does,
indeed, merit and reward repeated readings). Lopez begins with a compelling
and vivid discussion of the findings gleaned from scientific studies
regarding wolves' prodigious strength and stamina, hunting prowess,
ingeniously designed heat-preserving footpads and fur, complex forms of
communication (including the much-romanticized howling) and abiding
affection for their young and care of their elderly.

But such physical details and behavioral traits, no matter how fascinating,
don't fully illuminate the spirit of the wolf, or the dynamics of the wolf
pack, or the intimate relationships wolves have with other species,
especially the caribou, who not only provide sustenance as prey but also
serve as snowplows, clearing paths through otherwise impassably deep snow.
Lopez gathered insights such as this from native people who have lived among
wolves for generations, especially Eskimo hunters who respect, revere and
attempt to emulate the wolf. His conversations and travels with people who
have enjoyed long associations with wolves yield many clarifying and even
thrilling observations, anecdotes and revelations, none more moving than
Lopez's discernment of the spiritual aspects of hunting, especially "the
conversation of death" that takes place between predator and prey when wolf
or human is hunting to eat--that is, to live. This is when "[h]unting is
holy." Wrenchingly enough, Lopez also chronicles hunting as depravity.

But even Eskimo and American Indian perspectives don't provide a
comprehensive understanding of the wolf and its place in the human psyche.
One of Lopez's key missions as a writer is to trace the fine mesh between
nature and culture, and to help us see that what we call nature is in fact a
human invention, a story we tell ourselves about the universe in an attempt
to define and order what we actually know so little about. And in the case
of the wolf, an animal that has for time out of mind profoundly engaged the
human imagination and elicited strong emotions and extreme actions, it
really can be said, as Lopez rather startlingly declares, "We create
wolves." And what a potent, contradictory and mystical being we've

As ardent in his library research as in his field work, Lopez presents a
dynamic survey of wolf lore in which the wolf is caricatured, celebrated and
demonized, from Aesop's fables to Little Red Riding Hood to other fairy
tales, myths and legends that cast wolves as outlaws and sexual criminals,
to stories of werewolves. Lopez dwells the longest on the castigations of
the Christian church that equate the wolf with the devil himself. On our
home ground, hatred for the livestock-killing wolf exploded into
"unrestrained savagery" and "relentless carnage" on the western frontier as
hunters perpetuated nothing less than a wolf holocaust. And wolves haven't
only been hunted to maniacal excess, they've also been tortured and
mutilated in diabolical, downright lunatic ways. Even today hunters massacre
wolves from prop planes. But disturbing as this is, it gets worse as Lopez
exposes the disturbing parallels between the 19th Century war against wolves
and the war against Indians. Lopez concludes that there is "a terrible
meanness in the human spirit," and his recognition of, and grappling with,
the paradox of human nature--our capacity for cruelty and perversity versus
our gifts for love and kindness--drives much of his work.

"Of Wolves and Men" has helped raise our awareness of animals as fellow
sentient beings with whom we share our planet and sharpened our
understanding of how all creatures play essential roles in the spectacular,
infinitely complex dance of life. In his new afterword, Lopez reports on the
reintroduction of wolves into various Western regions, a course of action
that has aroused controversy and anger but, more importantly, has
demonstrated our recognition of the need to maintain "a give-and-take
relationship with the natural world." Lopez reminds us that we, too, are
animals, and as such we and our myriad fellow earth dwellers "are rooted in
an absolute need for good water, clean air, and unadulterated food"--a basic
fact of life that should guide every aspect of public policy locally,
nationally and globally.

Lopez is lavish with facts, observations, interpretation and extrapolation
in his gorgeously detailed non-fiction, which includes "Arctic Dreams,"
winner of a National Book Award, but in his fiction he is almost spare. His
preferred mode is the concise short story, and his elegantly distilled tales
are striking in their psychological intensity and moral questioning,
disarming in their flights of imagination and dismantling of everyday
realities. The natural world is ascendant in the trilogy of short-story
collections consisting of "Desert Notes," "River Notes" and "Field Notes,"
while humankind in all its contrary complexity holds the foreground in the,
by turns, poetic and harrowing stories in "Light Action in the Caribbean"
and in his newest book, the arrestingly titled "Resistance."

Lopez is a storyteller, not a constructor of elaborate fictional universes,
and he excels in creating electrifying first-person recitations. In
"Resistance" he distills this form into what can be best described as a set
of spiritual autobiographies, each written under duress by an artist,
scholar or activist living in lands far from their home, which, one infers,
is the U.S. Lopez is vague on this count to remind us that these are works
of the imagination--and because this unique and haunting collection offers a
quietly stated but nonetheless searing critique of a great democracy turned
censorious, oppressive and utterly enthralled to corporate imperatives.

In the opening story, "Apocalypse," Owen (the reader only learns each
narrator's name at the end of each tale), is living in Paris, where he
receives a letter from his native country's Office of Inland Security. The
missive, which he finds "ridiculous, but also alarming," informs him that he
and his far-flung circle of similarly minded friends are charged with "
`terrorizing the imaginations of our fellow citizens' " via their books,
artworks and performances. It states that not only are their works
"anti-democratic" but that their interest in and involvement with "
`unadvanced' cultures,' " and their avid study of the past, are antithetical
to the government's goals and policies. Therefore, measures will be taken.

Surprised to be considered "a serious threat," yet also vindicated to
discover that their efforts have not been ineffectual, Owen and Mary (his
wife or lover) instantly decide to go underground. But before they
disappear, they e-mail their friends--their fellow resisters--and ascertain
that, as they expected, all have received the letter, and all have made the
same painful but necessary decision.

But Owen wants to leave something behind, some declaration of their
convictions and intentions. So he asks all of the accused to write about
their political, moral or spiritual awakenings, the birth of their
resistance to their society's blatant valuing of wealth over well-being,
power over compassion, materialism over community, control over learning,
conformity over freedom. The resulting credos, apologias, confessions and
confidences are as surprising in their circumstantial particulars as they
are deeply affecting in their psychological and moral struggles. And despite
the book's implicit political critique, these are not tracts or diatribes
but profoundly personal and idiosyncratic tales, intimate chronicles of
arduous journeys from despair to enlightenment.

A number of Lopez's narrators were born to all the privileges bestowed by
wealth and social standing yet chose to resist the comforts and advantages
of their station. Refusing to be cocooned, or groomed for conventional
success, they confront the grim realities of the world as experienced by the
vast majority of humanity and try to bring the truth about cultural
oppressiveness and the struggles of the poor and disenfranchised into the

For example, one woman, a successful architect who specializes in designing
memorials, writes from Buenos Aires of her severe depression in the wake of
her father's betrayal of her mother and her mother's subsequent illness. She
is also overwhelmed by a sense of futility and anger over a society and
government that shirk all responsibility as scandal after scandal cycles
through the news, which is all but drowned out by the "manic opportuning" of
incessant advertising. The son of a Boston Brahmin and an upper-class
Jamaican rejects the benefits of his social class and focuses, instead, on
the conflicts inherent in his mixed racial heritage. He travels to Chad to
work in a so-called famine camp, where he learns just how difficult it is to
change the world, and that anger and righteousness are liabilities, not
strengths. Another well-off young man suffers great anguish as he rejects
the self-serving beliefs inherent in his parents' bland and insular lives.
He studies anthropology, wanders the world, becomes fascinated by the Navajo
concept of wind as a holy entity that flows within an individual and all
around him, and finds his vocation as an alternative-energy expert.

But Lopez has darker stories to tell. In "Mortise and Tenon," an itinerant
cabinet-maker, folklorist and land activist recounts his horrific childhood
sexual abuse. In "Traveling With Bo Ling," a Vietnam veteran who had the
almost mythic misfortune to be both blinded and castrated by shrapnel
describes his unlikely marriage to a North Vietnamese woman who was blinded
by her violent first husband. Grim at the outset, these stories move toward
healing and encompass a sense of wonder and openness to beauty, crucial
aspects of survival that blossom most alluringly in two of the collection's
most richly imagined stories. In "The Walls at Yogpar," a woman intent on
learning as many of the languages spoken in China as possible goes to live
in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, where she befriends a Muslim camel
trader who overcomes his culture's taboos and takes his Western woman friend
on a remarkable trip across desert terrain that his ancestors have been
crossing for millenniums. In "Flight From Berlin," an indigenous-rights
activist shares his story from deep in the Brazilian rain forest, where he
has learned a new way of seeing, a transformation he explores by drawing the
animals that appear each morning in dappled sunlight. This story highlights
how very visual a writer Lopez is, and how interested he is in the power of
images. He has collaborated with illustrators and artists before, but never
as evocatively as he does in this volume, in which each story is paired with
a haunting monotype by artist Alan Magee, each depicting a mysterious yet
expressive face, some masklike, some a hybrid of human and animal, others
quintessentially, even nakedly, human.

Lopez's thoughtful narrators of conscience are passionate in their quests
for freedom and justice, and admirably mature in their acceptance of respons
ibility in realms private and public. Pilgrims and seekers who resist easy
answers, complacency and tyranny, they improvise risky, creative and
fruitful lives, and because of this they make for unusual protagonists. Some
readers may resist the high seriousness of their rather demanding tales. But
these somber stories shimmer with flashes of wit and beauty, and the
radiance of love. And readers who treasure fiction that conjures characters
and situations that reflect our struggle to live meaningful lives--and that
expresses our feelings of rage and helplessness in the face of war, domestic
violence, religious fanaticism, corruption, greed and every folly that
endangers life on Earth--will find "Resistance" intriguing, authentic and

There's no question that Lopez is a major writer, provocative,
knowledgeable, incisive and forthright. He has written that it is his
intention to "contribute to a literature of hope." That he does. And Lopez
also contributes mightily to a literature of biological and cultural
interconnectiveness and diversity, qualities just as essential to our
survival as hope, and love.

More information about the AR-News mailing list