Photo credit: Andrea Lonas

Wolfish: A Conversation with Erica Berry

On wolves, self, and the stories we tell about fear

In which we discuss our mutual fascination with wolves, Erica’s new book Wolfish, fear, linguistics, wonder, our favorite werewolves, and the best wolf song to sing at karaoke night. (Spoiler: It’s Duran Duran.) 

Katie Yale: So were you a kid with a couple of wolf-howling-at-the-moon T-shirts in the closet?

Erica Berry: Oh, you know it. I bought my first one at a souvenir shop not too far from you, by Flathead Lake in Montana, using $20 I won in a trivia tournament adjudicated by my great uncle, a former high school history teacher. The only time I’ve ever excelled at trivia, so of course I put it to good use. The sad thing is that at some point, I think it was right after I’d finished my college environmental studies thesis about wolves, and was paring down belongings as I was moving away, I gave it away. It was a very conscious choice—I think I felt like the shirt was regressive, and I wanted to signal that I was serious about the subject, and distance myself from human projections around the wolf. I regret that choice every day.

I’m curious what your perceptions of the wolf were growing up. I don’t think I was aware of their essential extermination in the continental U.S.—as a child I think I just thought they were out there, wandering around.

KY: Well, Erica, let me tell you. I was INTO wolves. Like, posters on the wall, stuffed animals on the bed, stacks of books strewn around. And I was obsessed with this amazing comic called Elfquest about these sexy badass forest elves who bond with and ride on the backs of their wolf friends and live in a pack-like social structure. I wanted all that. A few years ago, my mom sent me a bin of childhood papers and such, and I fished out this animal report from maybe fifth grade—all about endangered wolves. The last page of the report began with Here’s an idea! and then proceeded to suggest how the United States government might work out a mutually advantageous trade with Russia: dairy cows for wolves. That’s how we’d reintroduce them! I laugh now to think anti-wolf brains would have exploded thinking about Russian wolves moving in. So, I’d say even as a child I was aware of the plight of wolves, and ready to be their champion. It was a dream fulfilled to later study them in Yellowstone.

How would you characterize your relationship with the natural world, both as a child and as an adult? And did that notion change through the course of researching and writing this book?

EB: The natural world is where I feel most comfortable, which is to say, most myself. I was very lucky to realize this when I was young, and to know that putting my body outside—especially solo, which I love—would be a balm during breakups, grief, professional stress, social anxiety, etc. There’s an essay I adore by Lia Purpura, about the act of looking, where she quotes her friend, a former nun, who talks about “custody of the eyes”—the idea that we have to train our sight to focus only on the task or sight in front of us. That idea, of training my gaze, is what I think of when I consider how working on this book changed my perspective on the natural world. In a sense I was trying to figure out how to tune my gaze to the frequency of a wolf, but I didn’t anticipate how much focusing on that one animal, really thinking about their role both in the ecosystem and in our minds, would tune me to other forms of nonhuman life too. My curiosity became really omnivorous—really wolfish?—and suddenly I wanted to understand rhythms of elk migration, and the history of mammal taxonomy. I became obsessed with the Merlin Bird ID app and the Seek plant ID app: with not just seeing a certain plant, but understanding when it might have arrived in Oregon, and what medicinal uses it might have. My desire to connect individual species to a larger web of environmental and social history really increased. There’s a term in birding, “spark bird,” that refers to the sighting that makes a person a birder. I suppose the wolf was the animal that made me think about ecological connectivity in a new way.

KY: Oh, I love that. Embodying wolfish roving as a pathway to wider wonder. That sentiment carries through into your narrative too, as you weave in so many elements from science and history to memoir, politics, and linguistics. How intentional were those meanderings? Did you set out with this kaleidoscopic map in mind, or did these themes dogpile as you stumbled down successive rabbit holes? (Sorry, but I’m not going to miss an opportunity for animal idioms today!)

EB: I gave myself permission to go into fugue states where I would just research anything. I’d search a database of academic papers for anything that turned up wolf, for example, then download a whole bunch and just pore over them—linguistics, ecologies of fears, ancient Greek history. Sometimes I felt like I was hunting (chasing down one answer to a historical question, say), and other times like I was just a very amateur gatherer (bending over to examine every little sprout to see if I might, uh, digest it in the text). At the same time, I knew pretty early on that I wanted to write about the wolf not just as this creature in the wild, but also what I think of as the shadow wolf—that animal in our minds that gets projected onto the real thing. I wanted to interrogate how I had metabolized the “wolf” growing up, which meant studying the rhetoric and cultural associations around it. It seemed to me that people would continue to conflate four-legged wolves with lone-wolf shooters or “The Big Bad Wolf” unless I was making really visible on the page the means by which those conflations happened.

I knew early on that I wanted to write about the wolf not just as this creature in the wild, but also what I think of as the shadow wolf—that animal in our minds that gets projected onto the real thing.

KY: Speaking of idioms, you dug up some choice ones. I mean, Elle a vu le loupShe has seen the wolfreferring to the loss of virginity?! Wow. Did you have a favorite weirdo wolf-related expression?

EB: That French expression was so surreal—wolves and virginity?! I did come across a Chinese idiom, which I don’t think I was able to Tetris into the actual book, which translates along the lines of “When the rams lock horns, the wolf gets fed.” That one is so applicable to politics, but I was very interested in how many wolf-related expressions from around the world are essentially modes of teaching wisdom to youth: here’s how to be savvy, here’s how to stay out of trouble, here’s how to stay alive. It’s interesting that humans have (literally) been learning from wolves for so long—I’m thinking of research Raymond Pierotti and Brandy R. Fogg lay out in their book The First Domesticationbut also that the animal has been encapsulated into so many teachable moment expressions.

KY: I want to talk a bit about fear and violence. I worked as a wildlife field biologist on the Yellowstone Wolf Project in the mid-2000s, about ten years after wolves were reintroduced to the ecosystem in 1995. It never ceased to amaze me how polarizing these animals were. You’ve got people spending their vacation standing in the Lamar Valley in subzero temperatures all day to catch a glimpse of the famous Druid Peak pack, while back in town a truck rumbles by sporting a KILL ALL THE GODDAMN WOLVES AND THE PEOPLE WHO BROUGHT THEM HERE bumper sticker. You mention similar nasty SHOOT, SHOVEL AND SHUT UP and SMOKE A PACK A DAY anti-wolf stickers (which I still occasionally see around Montana), but I remember being a woman in her early twenties and reading that kill kill kill sticker on a neighbor’s vehicle and feeling sick. My boss was literally a person who brought wolves here. I was a person studying those wolves. What can you say about when hatred for a wild animal extends to an associated human community?

EB: Oof, yes, this violence is such a hard thing for me to wrap my mind around. Makes me think of a quote from the writer Jess Row, in his book White Flights, that “America’s great and possibly catastrophic failure is its failure to imagine what it means to live together.” I had an experience in a dive bar in eastern Oregon, where I had gone to meet a source, and a man who approached our table heard what I was reporting on and then mimed shooting up the bar, talking about how to solve the “wolf problem.” He was livid, not just about the subject, but about my interest in it. And being a woman in my early twenties at the time, facing this inebriated, bigger guy—I felt all these layers of unease. Working on this book, I have had so many fruitful, thoughtful conversations with people who held different feelings about wolves, but that was the first time I understood that my journalistic desire to “come to the table” and hear any single person out could really clash with my own instincts of self-protection. This is a bit different, but I think one of the things that drew me into the topic was a feeling of deep nauseousness around both rhetoric that animalized humans (the Central Park Five being referred to in newspapers as a “Wolf Pack”) and personified animals as villains (I’m thinking of the WOLVES: GOVERNMENT-SPONSERED TERRORISTS stickers). There’s a feedback loop here—this sort of language is so harmful in its misrepresentations of both humans and nonhumans. That trope of wolves as criminals is unfair both to wolves and, for example, to incarcerated peoples. I wanted this book to make readers more aware of that feedback loop.

Order your copy of Wolfish today.

KY: Exactly. It reminds me of that ludicrous Bush-Cheney television ad from back in the day, likening liberals to a hungry wolf pack ready to steal babies off porches. In the book, you detail some scary encounters with strange men, and I have to say in all my years in the woods, nothing scares me more than a sketchy dude. What is your biggest fear these daysin nature or in general?

EB: I’m right with you. Even though I no longer experience the sort of “stranger danger” anxiety that I did acutely in my mid-twenties, I still know very intimately what it feels like to be out in public and think, Hmm, this person gives me the creeps; I hope they don’t do anything creepy, and then they just—do. I’ve struggled to accept that, at any moment, violence could swerve into my life while walking around the block or riding the bus. And not just my life, so many of ours! Anyone who has experienced that before knows that it becomes a projected reality. Statistically, of course, women and nonbinary folx are more likely to be hurt by people they live with, people in their own community. And yet the specter of the unknown threat occupies the most cultural bandwidth. The word fear is rooted in an Old English term for “ambush,” so maybe it’s appropriate that the scary thing is, so often, the utterly unknown.

KY: Favorite werewolf? 

EB: First would be the big sister in Ginger Snaps, a feminist Canadian werewolf film from 2000 that conflates female puberty with turning into a werewolf. I don’t know what is needed for a film to be a “cult favorite,” but let’s just say, if I had a cult, this would be my favorite. Second favorite is book editor turned werewolf Jack Nicholson in Wolf, based on the Jim Harrison book. Does Jack find a chewed finger in his suit pocket one day at the office urinal? Is this film actually a metanarrative about the publishing industry? Did I mention it co-stars Michelle Pfeiffer!?

KY: Wait, her name is Ginger? And she snaps? That’s great. I’ve never seen it, but see it ranks #2 in Paste’s Best Werewolf Movies of All Time. It’s an obvious choice, but I’m partial to An American Werewolf in London. And it’s not a werewolf flick, but wow did Rutger Hauer as a man-by-day, wolf-by-night cursed knight in Ladyhawke loom large in my childhood. I also had a thing for the rail-riding wolf-buddy movie The Journey of Natty Gann. Plus, you get young John Cusack in a fedora. 

The word fear is rooted in an Old English term for “ambush,” so maybe it’s appropriate that the scary thing is, so often, the utterly unknown.

EB: You live near Glacier National Park, in what I think of as pretty solid grizzly bear country. I’m curious how your awareness of sharing the space with apex predators has evolved. What relationship do you have with the animals you know you share the trail with, say, but you do not see?

KY: I think I’m pretty attuned to my surroundings in the woods. I actually worked on a grizzly bear project in the park on and off for several years. We collected bear hair samples (they love rubbing their backs against trees) for DNA analysis, so, you’re bringing your field of focus from the landscape level down to literal individual hairs. Generally, I’m thrilled to see any animal, even just evidence of any animal. I follow bear safety and all that, and I’ve had some close encounters, but rarely do I feel afraid of animals, predators or otherwise, and certainly not wolves. I didn’t have that fear as a child, and I don’t have it as an adult, but I do understand various predators’ behaviors a lot better now. I respect the power they embody. It’s funny, I spent some months hiking around New Zealand, and while I loved that country, I sort of ached a bit because of its lack of large native animals. I missed walking around a bend in the trail with that feeling you might walk into a bear or a wolf.

Did you learn anything through the course of your research that has really stuck with you—as especially surprising, disturbing, or delightful?

EB: I’m always interested in the dominoes of environmental cause and effect that topple when humans make a choice they think they are in control of. For example: research suggests that coyotes may have benefited more from nineteenth-century wolf bounties than they did suffer from concurrent coyote bounties. With diminishing competition from wolves, coyotes expanded into new territories. This cascade makes me think of something I read positing that at times the primary threat to sheep is more hungry rabbits eating their food, not wolves eating them . . . Where’s the fairy tale about that? 

What about you? You have this incredible wealth of experience working with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. What’s one moment of witnessing or working with wolves that has really blazed in your memory?

KY: So many! We spent countless hours just watching them through spotting scopes, witnessing them play, hunt, howl, sleep, chase ravens, hang out with bears, walk in very precise single-file lines, and wrestle with new pups. We crawled in their dens to take measurements once they’d relocated, radio-tracked them, studied their kill sites, and conducted necropsies when a collared wolf died. But because we’re talking so much about wolves and the human psyche, one memory stands out: It was in the winter at dusk and the light was fading fast as my friend and I were coming down off a ridge, sliding in the deep snow. We hit a plateau and suddenly a herd of elk came rocketing by, separating to either side of us, and then, right behind them, a pack of wolves. It felt a bit like standing in the middle of a river—all that movement and energy and adrenalin bursting forth in and around us. One wolf stood up on a rock right in front of us and barked some—funny because you don’t hear them bark that often. They were focused on the elk and didn’t bother us, but a couple were very close and interactive, howling and assessing. I never feared for our safety, but there was this kind of . . . holy shit vibe. Primal magic. 

Let’s talk books. What other works do you feel are in conversation with Wolfish? What’s on your recommended reading list?

EB: Sabrina Imbler’s How Far the Light Reaches is a wondrous, glittering example of a similar impulse: a writer who looks at a wild animal while considering the lessons they can glean examining their own life. Talia Lakshmi Kolluri’s What We Fed to the Manticore is a brilliant collection of short stories told from animal point of view, which, while you’re reading, can make you feel sort of like this guy. I tell everyone about Emma Marris’s Wild Souls and Daisy Hildyard’s book-length essay The Second Body, which each really unspooled human–nonhuman relationships for me in different philosophical ways. I bought Hildyard’s book in England but I believe it is coming out in the U.S. this summer—Orion readers would know about her from the short story you just published, which, it must be said, I read in the bath while literally gasping aloud with glee.

KY: Okay, last one. Best song about wolves?

EB: For karaoke: “Hungry Like the Wolf,” by Duran Duran.

For singing as you drive in the dark: “She Wolf,” by Shakira.

For zoning out the window at Portland rain: “Wolves,” by Jensen McRae, tied with “Werewolf,” by CocoRosie.

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Erica Berry’s essays can be found in The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, The Yale Review, Outside, Catapult, The Atlantic, Guernica, and other publications. Winner of the Steinberg Essay Prize and the Kurt Brown Prize in nonfiction, she is the recipient of fellowships and funding from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Tin House, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. Wolfish is her first book.

Kathleen Yale is Orion‘s digital editor and the author of the award-winning children’s book Howl Like a Wolf! and the game Guess My Animal! which both combine ecology, animal behavior, and imagination to engage children in creative play. She’s a former scriptwriter for the educational programs SciShow and Crash Course, and prior to that worked as a wildlife field biologist. She lives outside of Glacier National Park, with her family.