June, 2013. On the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies.
A family band of wild horses is grazing on the sedges by the lake, their summer coats gleaming darkly in the sunshine. Sleek, muscled, fit in the original Darwinian sense, their beauty has been sculpted by the challenges of survival as they face predators like grizzly, wolf and cougar, in this harsh mountain land, where winter temperatures drop below minus 30C.
The band stallion is black, his coat scored with white scars from his encounters with other stallions, eager to claim one of his mares. We dismount from our own horses, tie them up, and settle down to watch the wild herd from the shelter of the trees.
That’s when the wolf appears.
A large male, with a dark-gray coat emerges from cover and wanders towards the horses. I focus my binoculars on the stallion, expecting a tense, even bloody encounter, as he prepares to defend his family against this powerful predator.
But the wolves and the horses confound my expectations. The wolf is completely relaxed; he looks like he’s taking a casual stroll along the lakeside. And the horses simply watch him with relaxed interest; even the mares with foals show no visible sign of anxiety at his approach. These animals know each other, and they’ve clearly worked out a way to co-exist.
The wolf picks up the buoyant trot that is so characteristic of wolves and disappears into the dwarf birch bushes. And I take a deep breath. Wolves were once the most widely-distributed of all northern mammals, found across the northern hemisphere. But our long hatred and persecution of them have drastically reduced their range and numbers. To see or hear a wolf in the wild now has become a rare experience. It is also a deeply emotional one. Wolves have such intense presence that it sharpens all your senses and snaps you wide-awake in the present moment.
Native Americans say that the wolf only shows itself for a reason, when it has some message to bring. Certainly, the message it brought me that day was a reminder not to make easy assumptions about life in the wild. We humans make so many divisions with our minds; we separate creatures into “predators” and “prey.” and expect them to behave accordingly. Of course, that is true of certain aspects of wild behaviour. But the living reality is far richer, far more subtle and profound than such simple oppositions, and one of the most glorious aspects of watching wildlife is having your preconceptions torn apart and scattered to the wind.
Watching that wolf moving so lightly through the landscape, I also remembered how indigenous peoples everywhere have honoured wolves for their loyalty, courage, and exceptional endurance. Wolves were understood and honoured as potent spirits, endowed with healing and transforming power. Among the Hopi, wolves embodied an aspect of the creative power of the universe. The women of the Haida, of the American Northwest, placed wolf fur on their bellies as they gave birth. And the Chukchi people of northeastern Siberia wrapped their sick in wolf pelts to surround them with its power.
For my book, Eyes of the Wild Journeys of Transformation with the Animal Powers I travelled among wild wolves in Russia, North America and Central Asia. One of my guides was a remarkable biologist who had lived alone for two years with a wild wolf pack. He learned to communicate with them, he hunted with them, and shared their food, and he was trusted and accepted by them completely.
Eyes of the Wild also includes a retelling of a traditional Native American story called The Woman Who Lived with Wolves. This story shows how wolves’ healing power works at the emotional and psychological level. It tells of a woman whose husband was very unkind to her. She endured her unhappiness for years, until a night came when she could bear it no longer. Leaving her family and her tribe, she walked into the wilderness, and wandered alone and exposed to the elements for many days. One night she found a cave for shelter and fell asleep. In her dreams, wolves came and surrounded her with the warmth of their fur. When she woke, she was among wolves. At first this terrified her, but when she met their gaze she saw that there is nothing to fear.
The wolves are so intensely present that in their company the woman herself becomes more present. She begins to free herself from the dominion of her painful and repetitive memories, becoming stronger as the fear and pain she carried with her into the wilderness are transformed. Gradually she becomes rooted in the power of her own true nature. Until one day she looks into the wolves’ eyes and she knows the time has come for her to return to her people with the strength and knowledge she has gained from living among wolves.
The story is profound and beautiful and the people who told it first knew wolves well. They knew that many young wolves leave their family and familiar territory and wander alone in search of a partner and a territory of their own. Wolves have been known to travel for hundreds of miles on these solitary journeys, which are very dangerous for them.
In this story, the motif of leaving the familiar and exploring the unknown, takes on profound psychological and spiritual resonance. And that resonance is as real and immediate and important now as it was then. The story depicts the archetypal journey that each one of us makes, as we find the courage to leave the familiar territory of our pain and fear, limitation and hopelessness and seek the country of inner freedom.
That journey is challenging; it can appear dangerous and most uncertain, but grace and healing come with certainty in the most unexpected places, and in the company of wolves and all the elemental powers of nature.