I’m pretty brave and not so squeamish, so meeting a wolf appealed to me — or at least didn’t immediately horrify. I was prepared to sit, wait for a wolf and gape. But face to face with her, I clenched my jaw and balked. The wolf wandered off, back to a volunteer she knew. I yearned for a second shot, but I’d missed my chance. I should forgive myself now: We can’t always control our fear. But it wasn’t exactly fear that had made me recoil, at least not insofar as “fear” describes specific concerns about some specific phenomenon — the awareness that this toothy predator might bite off my human face, for example. The wolf’s pursuit felt instead like ancient information, a message that overwhelmed my brain and inserted a terrified panic into my body.
Terror propels Erica Berry’s exhilarating book, “Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear.” The book sets about on two simultaneous projects: understanding the wolf as a symbol in human stories and as a real animal that humans live alongside. This double pursuit can’t be split. It’s the thing and its shadow. “There is always the creature in front of you and the creature in your mind,” Berry writes. “That wolf is a piece of cultural taxidermy, fabricated by humans with parts gathered across time and space.” In her pursuit of understanding, Berry treks through many nonfiction genres, from coming-of-age memoir to ecological history, from thriller-paced personal stories to feminist critique, poetic nature writing and sociological theory. But the intuitive, winding nature of Berry’s approach shouldn’t suggest that this work is unfocused. The wolf wanders a meandering and highly focused path to find food, a mate, a home. No matter where Berry weaves, she sniffs out fascinating insights. And she writes about it in clear, beautiful language.
One of the most propulsive themes in “Wolfish” concerns the practice of stalking another creature. Berry writes, “There was something about going to look for an animal, to focus on being smart enough to try and find it, that sharpened the experience of being in the woods, but also just being alive on earth.” Her hunt for the wolf heightens her ability to understand the world. She isn’t sentimental or romantic about wolves, but she is passionate. Her search sends her far and wide, but the book never suffers from lack of direction. The best reference point for “Wolfish” might be Helen Macdonald’s perfect “H Is for Hawk.” But where that book felt captivating (and concerned captivation), “Wolfish” reads expansively. And where Macdonald creates a character portrait of a rare and relatively unfamiliar creature (the goshawk), Berry has the difficult project of detangling myths about a rare creature we think we know.
“The symbolic wolf is enormous,” Berry writes. Her chapter “Town v. Wolf” uses the children’s fable about “crying wolf” to investigate questions about lying, borders, belief and violence. “The work of statehood is at first the work of boundary creation,” Berry writes. She recounts how wolves are described as vengeful murderers when they kill livestock inside a farmer’s fences; and she writes about how people who cross borders are described in animalistic terms as a feared other. “Often, it is only by anthropomorphizing animals and animalizing humans that the fictions that necessitate human borders can be propped up at all.” Berry is interested not only in fear but also in how fear changes the way we live. Here, she quotes the essayist Eula Biss: “Fear is a cruelty to those who are feared.” Our myths about wolves — Little Red Riding Hood, the boy who cried wolf — are stories of fear and warning. And these stories affect how we treat actual wolves, from romanticization on one end to extermination on the other.
In the process of making sense of those tales, “Wolfish” collects wolf-related idioms from across languages. Berry considers the wolf as a sign of insatiable or incorrect hunger: “Stop wolfing down your food.” Then there’s “going berserk,” which refers to ancient Norwegian warriors who donned wolf skin before they killed. When Berry lived in Italy, she recalls, her boss would say, each time she walked out the door: “In bocca al lupo!” Into the wolf’s mouth! “It was a colloquial expression, an idiom with roots in opera,” she writes. “Like ‘break a leg,’ it was a paradoxical wish of good luck. ‘Crepi!’ I learned to respond. Let it die!” In French, she notes that “le loup” can refer to a hoarse voice, as if someone has been “silenced by the fear of a wolf.”
The hardest-working of the idioms in “Wolfish” is another French one (they have several): “entre chien et loup.” This phrase recalls “that dawn-or-dusk hour when it becomes hard to tell the difference between a dog and a wolf. That time when you cannot tell if the shadow on the road before you is familiar or strange, if it poses a threat.”
This phrase captures Berry’s most compelling argument about wolves — that they are defined in part by a kind of wavering indefinability. The wolf ignites a crepuscular uncertainty about what’s fact and what’s fable, about how to differentiate between bared teeth and lolling tongue. There’s a broader truth to this: Our relationship to reality cannot be understood if we ignore our relationship to our myths. Berry never forgets when we talk about wolves, even symbolically, we’re talking about real animals. Even more important, she never forgets that we are also real animals. To train a bifocal vision on both the thing and its shadow is an act of respect that begins to undo fear of the unknown.
When I recoiled from the wolf in Colorado, I interpreted my failure to relax as a yearning for a wildness I couldn’t handle. But Berry encourages us to walk into a scary world and declare: In bocca al lupo! Into the wolf’s mouth! Maybe only then can we let the wolf into our own.
Maggie Lange writes about books for many publications. She also runs the weekly newsletter Purse Book, which publishes quick reviews of slim volumes.
Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear
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