December 31, 2012

A Wolfish History of Religions in the West

by Thomas S. Bremer

Earlier this month the world received news that 832F had been killed.  As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, a hunter brought down the most famous and widely recognizable of the Yellowstone wolves fifteen miles outside of the national park boundaries in Wyoming.

As someone prone to pondering the cultural significance of Yellowstone’s history, I found myself thinking about 832F, the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack, and was surprised by my ambivalence over her death.  Perhaps my mixed feelings reflect a broader cultural ambivalence modern westerners have held in their regard for not only wolves, but wildlife in general.

832F, as the Times reporter Nate Schweber points out in his article, had achieved the status of “rock star” among certain wildlife aficionados.  She was, by my reckoning, a fully aestheticized commodity in a tourist economy of wildlife, national parks, and outdoor adventure.  In eco-tourist discourses on Yellowstone, the image of the wolf has become an iconic figure representing the virtues of biodiversity, wildness, and a benevolent humanity that brings rational science to bear on a compassionate regard for animals. Moreover, the possibility of wolf sightings in the highly managed landscapes of Yellowstone National Park contributes to the authenticity of the park for tourist visitors; to see live wolves in the wild affirms in touristic discourses that Yellowstone is indeed an authentically wild place, and therefore a more appealing tourist destination, itself an ironic development that belies the claim of wildness.

On the other hand, the very wildness of wolves is what threatens another sort of economy and discourse, that of ranchers and wildlife managers in areas surrounding the park.  Particularly for agricultural interests, the wolf represents a dangerous predator whose attacks on livestock imperil the very foundations of western civilization, besides harming their own personal financial interests.  There are plenty of folks in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, as well as throughout the western United States, who are convinced that extermination of wolves is a good thing, in fact necessary for the profitable success of the livestock industries.

As a historian of American religions, I wonder what sort of critical perspective I might contribute to such debates.  I am not sure a good religious history of wolves has been written, although Barry Lopez’s impressive book Of Wolves and Men includes numerous references to cultural traditions and folkloric legends that rely on religious orientations.  Lopez contends, “The truth is we know little about the wolf.  What we know a good deal more about is what we imagine the wolf to be” (3).  As I reflect on the human imagination of the various subspecies of Canis lupus, it seems to me that the critical questions for scholars of religions have to do with how religious orientations, perspectives, assumptions, practices, and images have contributed to and informed various wolfian discourses. 

For those of us interested specifically in the western regions of North America, one discourse with urgent political ramifications has to do with the reintroduction of wolf populations in areas where wolves had been earlier exterminated.  Scholars of religions could help elucidate historical and anthropological perspectives on religious considerations underlying the cultural ambivalence toward wolves that informs both sides of the debate. Insight into the religious aspects of collective attitudes toward the Yellowstone wolves, I surmise, will take us beyond wolves and far outside the park boundaries of Yellowstone, for it ultimately concerns self-understandings of the human relationship to nature, animals, and the places we deem as wild.  Perhaps we might even come to terms with both the sadness and the necessity of losing 832F to the hunter’s skillfully placed shot.

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