Whenever I walk along Sherbrooke Street past the McGill University campus I cannot help but regret that Joe Fafard’s wonderful larger-than-life sculpture of a wolf is no longer there. It was one of several sculptures that McGill University hosted as part of Montreal city’s 375th anniversary --- was that already two summers ago? --- and I became so accustomed to its presence, looking out for it every day as I passed by, that I began to think of it as our defender, on which not only the university, but also all of us passing humans, depended for our safety.
That may sound a bit far-fetched, but if you think of the wolf as symbolic of the other creatures with which we share this earth, it is an idea that makes perfect sense.
It is estimated there are 50,000 wolves in Canada, the highest number of any country in the world. But before the arrival of Europeans, of course, there were infinitely more.
Our forebears regarded them as pests, and got rid of them. Even when we established our first National Park in 1885, we cleared the area of predators, and from 1920 until wiser heads prevailed around 1970, wolves bit the dust with dramatic, deleterious results to our entire ecosystem.
In 1995 the United States National Parks service decided to re-establish the wolf in Yellowstone National Park --- if my memory serves me, some wolves were brought in from Canada for the purpose --- and what they have found is that the presence of wolves “continues to astonish biologists with a ripple of direct and indirect consequences throughout the ecosystem.” For example, when they were re-introduced there was only one beaver colony in the park; today there are nine, and results in improving the ecosystem in other ways have been equally dramatic.
How this worked is described by wildlife biologist Douglas Smith on the Yellowstone web site: when the wolves were killed off in the 1930s, their absence made life easier for the elk, even though elks were still preyed upon by bears, cougars and coyotes. Subsequently the elk population, under less pressure, did not move around as much as before during the winters, but because they were relatively more stable, they browsed more heavily on young willow, aspen and cottonwood plants. This made life tougher for the beaver that need aspen to survive the winter. With the return of the wolves, elk are more constantly on the move, not browsing those plants so voraciously, thus allowing willow stands to recover from the intense browsing, which allows the beaver to rediscover an abundant food source that hadn't been there earlier.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that I paid any attention to the workings of Nature, to its central importance for every living thing, and to the dangers inherent for us all in the modifications we so carelessly make of the natural system. I did not know it at the time, but New Zealand had been brought to the edge of complete ruination of its landscape by the careless introduction of imported animal species without any predators, a state from which it was rescued only by the devoted activism of an English expatriate professor before World War II. The particular agent of destruction was the rabbit, and as a result of the professor’s intervention, the entire country was divided into Rabbit Boards, each one surrounded by a fence, within which their hired rabbiters were active trying to wipe out the miscreants. (As a cub reporter I remember covering meetings of the local Rabbit Board). It never worked until myxomatosis was introduced decades later, from Australia.
Only when I sat in the court case in 1972 by which the Grand Council of the Cree attempted to challenge the Quebec Government’s attempt to build a huge hydro-electric generating project in their traditional hunting grounds, was I wakened to the beauty of the natural processes by which the Earth is kept ticking over so that it may be used as habitation by us, and all other living creatures.
The Indians of Quebec had been trying to negotiate some kind of land deal with the Quebec government for some years, a process that was given urgency by this new challenge to the indigenous people living in northern Quebec. They had found that the government refused to take seriously any evidence they presented about the environmental effects of physical changes to the landscape, so, confronted with the need for emergency action, they decided to send a group of friendly scientists north to cobble together some authentic sounding language that would support their case.
I had made a film as part of the process, although I had concentrated on how the indigenous people in the region viewed the forthcoming invasion of their lands. But when they did finally get into court, I was staggered by some of the interactions in nature described by these scientists, along with the indigenous experts, who, in what might have seemed odd to the uninformed members of the general public, often did not know a word of English or French but yet had astonishing expertise in questions pertaining to landscape, changes in normal processses, animals and their behaviour, and so on.
I described some of these effects in five pages of a 342-page book, called Strangers Devour the Land, that I wrote about the indigenous response to this challenge,, published by Knopf in New York, Macmillan in Canada, and various other publishers in the United .States in succeeding decades.
“The system has no real beginning since it never ceases to change, with life being created and destroyed during every minute of every day,” I wrote. “But the climactic event of the year in these northern climates is the immense spring flood that occurs when the warming sun rises higher into the sky, and begins in May and June to melt the vast blanket of snow that covers the entire country. The first function of these waters is to flush out the ice from the river. The ice has already begun to break during the winter as the river level has dropped, creating a sub-ice space that has been an essential value for many species of little animals during the winter.”
Next, the river waters flush the ice loose from the shore, breaks it into small pieces and carries it into the sea. The rushing water has great power and energy, so it scours out deposits that already exist along the river, drops the silt in different places and carries much of it out to sea, where it warms the sea, and by being deposited on top of the sea ice cuts down the reflexivity of the ice, thereby enabling it to absorb more radiation and melt more quickly.
This water is a kinetic energy source that brings to the surface from deeper ocean levels essential fertilizer salts --- phosphates, nitrates and silicates --- that feed the cells in ocean plants that feed animal plankton, which themselves are crustacea or shrimp-like creatures that form the basic food for many larger forms of fish life.
I go on for several thousand words with this kind of information, writing with the enthusiasm of a new convert. What I was explaining was also a new concept to me, namely, that every inch of every ecosystem is already at its maximum carrying capacity of animals, fish, birds (or ultimately, people), ranging from the tiniest little scurrying creatures like bats, insects, flies, up to muskrats, mink, weasels, and so on, and so up to the gigantic lumbering bears, elk, moose and so on.
I thought this new discovery of mine was a mind-blowing concept, because what it means is that all the well-meant actions of men in transferring animal populations from one ecosystem to another are ultimately destined to fail. Their failure could be hidden from human participants --- and that is another mind-blowing concept, shared with me in interviews by Cree subsistence hunters, that humans are participants in nature on the same level as other forms of life.
One impact of all this was to make me understand that, encouraged by our arrogant religious doctrines, human beings, with homo sapiens at the centre of everything, have always operated from a mistakenly perilous attitude of superiority over every other form of life.
Well, so be it…. The evidence is accumulating rapidly in our own day --- as from the recent scientific warning that we have twelve years to abate global warming, or suffer the drastic consequences; or the concomitant revelation that one million species are in line for extermination if we don’t change our ways soon; these examples providing evidence that we need a total re-think of our system of living, to bring it into conformity with the inexorable process of nature that life is constantly being created, destroyed and reborn so as to continue the cycle indefinitely.
This brings me back to Joe Fafard’s wonderful wolf, standing there, I remember, through the succeeding year of its being set up, half covered with snow through the winter, immovable and strong, watching over us all. One of nature’s real beauties, the wolf, described on the website of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, as “a highly social and playful species,” that live in small, tightly organized family groups called packs, made up of four to eleven members who form extended families.
“Each pack is dominated by an alpha male and an alpha female who are the only mating pair in the group. The alpha female dens up to deliver and raise the pups. There are usually four or five pups per litter born in late April or early May. The rest of the pack helps to feed and care for the pups.”
An admirable species, marred only by the fact that it is feared and detested by many human beings, who have, over the decades, poisoned it, hunted it down, and tried to exterminate it. Maybe we are slowly learning the need to co-exist with it, as we must do with all other species. Let’s hope so.