Monday, 3 December 2012

Wolf Road



by Morgan Meis

St+Francis+and+WolfWe were speaking of wolves. I don't remember how the conversation started. Maybe the thought of wolves comes naturally when you look out across the Hudson River and see the tree line of Shodack Island. There are no people on Shodack Island, no structures. On Shodack Island, the trees and the plants and the animals get to do it however they like. When you look out at the tree line of Shodack Island you think, "There could be anything on the other side of those trees." In fact, there are no wolves on Shodack Island. There are no wolves to be found for thousands of miles from here, here being twenty miles south of Albany. The wolves were killed off long ago. It was one of the top priorities on the civilizational list. Kill the wolves. It has to be done. For the wolves are terror.

***

Driving out to Albany Airport (a regional airport if there ever was one) to put Shuffy on a plane to visit her mother in Las Vegas you exit the NY State Throughway and get onto Wolf Road. There is a Hampton Inn on Wolf Road. There is a Holiday Inn on Wolf Road. There is a Moe's Southwest Grill on Wolf Road. The Cheesecake Factory can be found just off of Wolf Road at the Colonie Center Shopping Mall. There are, needless to say, no wolves on Wolf Road. But there must have been once. Albany was founded in the 17th century. It is a very old city by American standards. On the Department of Environmental Conservation website can be found the sentence, "The Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies waged war on wolves in 1631." It was a successful war. Now, there aren't even any memories. The wolves were eradicated so quickly that they are not part of the story.

That is something Shuffy brought up one morning while we were sitting on the deck of the second floor of my sister's house in New Baltimore. The sun was coming up over the trees across the water on Shodack Island. We were drinking coffee from steamy cups. Steam was lifting off the surface of the Hudson River too. Or mist. Physics that morning was acting on the coffee and the river water in the same way. I was musing about how wolves seem to haunt the European imagination. It goes way back, I was speculating. All those old forests. The wolves were always lingering there at the edge of civilization, nipping at its heels. When European civilization wasn't doing so well, when its defenses were down, it would be time for the wolves again. They could get the taste for human flesh. A frenzy is begun, wolves eating men and men killing wolves. That's probably where the idea for werewolves got started, I was thinking aloud. There is a line in time and space where the margins of human living and the margins of wolf living overlap. That overlap marks a spot for violence. The distinction between wolf and man blurs and everything collapses into a mutual killing. Is there repressed guilt about that killing in the stories of werewolves? Man kills wolf just as mercilessly as wolf kills man. Does the lingering guilt come back in the idea of the wolfman, the human creature who becomes wolf in order to balance the scales, to do the work of the absent wolf?

Maybe the stories of werewolves were generated because it was difficult for European civilization to acknowledge that the wolf was really gone when the wolf had been there at the edge of the forest for so long, so many dark European centuries. Europe is a place filled with memories. Some of those memories are wolf memories. "But it didn't happen that way here in New York," Shuffy said. She said, "Here, they killed the wolves first and built civilization later." I found another sentence on the Department of Environmental Conservation website. This one reads, "The history of wolves in New York is by no means clear, although it seems reasonable to assume that they were once present." That is how murky the history is. That's how flimsy the historical memory. The best we can do is to "assume that they were once present." Maybe that is how we should think of Wolf Road in Albany. It is a historical marker for a memory we are not even sure we have. It is the name for an assumption. There must have been wolves here.

***

A wolf is a predator that can hunt a man. This is a fact. The same fact cannot be stated of squirrels, for instance. The history of squirrels in New York State is much different than the history of wolves. Surely this has much to do with the fact that the wolf is a predator that can hunt man.

The other morning, next to a fireplace that actually was crackling and spitting as the wood burned, Shuffy read me a passage from a book by Willa Cather. It's a long passage from Cather's novel My Ántonia. You have to imagine Shuffy reading it to me as the logs burn in the fire and the house is very quiet. Ántonia is telling a story from the old country.

When Pavel and Peter were young men, living at home in Russia, they were asked to be groomsmen for a friend who was to marry the belle of another village. It was in the dead of winter and the groom's party went over to the wedding in sledges. Peter and Pavel drove in the groom's sledge, and six sledges followed with all his relatives and friends.

After the ceremony at the church, the party went to a dinner given by the parents of the bride. The dinner lasted all afternoon; then it became a supper and continued far into the night. There was much dancing and drinking. At midnight the parents of the bride said good-bye to her and blessed her. The groom took her up in his arms and carried her out to his sledge and tucked her under the blankets. He sprang in beside her, and Pavel and Peter (our Pavel and Peter!) took the front seat. Pavel drove. The party set out with singing and the jingle of sleigh-bells, the groom's sledge going first. All the drivers were more or less the worse for merry-making, and the groom was absorbed in his bride.

The wolves were bad that winter, and everyone knew it, yet when they heard the first wolf-cry, the drivers were not much alarmed. They had too much good food and drink inside them. The first howls were taken up and echoed and with quickening repetitions. The wolves were coming together. There was no moon, but the starlight was clear on the snow. A black drove came up over the hill behind the wedding party. The wolves ran like streaks of shadow; they looked no bigger than dogs, but there were hundreds of them.

Something happened to the hindmost sledge: the driver lost control—he was probably very drunk—the horses left the road, the sledge was caught in a clump of trees, and overturned. The occupants rolled out over the snow, and the fleetest of the wolves sprang upon them. The shrieks that followed made everybody sober. The drivers stood up and lashed their horses. The groom had the best team and his sledge was lightest—all the others carried from six to a dozen people.

Another driver lost control. The screams of the horses were more terrible to hear than the cries of the men and women. Nothing seemed to check the wolves. It was hard to tell what was happening in the rear; the people who were falling behind shrieked as piteously as those who were already lost. The little bride hid her face on the groom's shoulder and sobbed. Pavel sat still and watched his horses. The road was clear and white, and the groom's three blacks went like the wind. It was only necessary to be calm and to guide them carefully.

At length, as they breasted a long hill, Peter rose cautiously and looked back. 'There are only three sledges left,' he whispered.

'And the wolves?' Pavel asked.

'Enough! Enough for all of us.'

Pavel reached the brow of the hill, but only two sledges followed him down the other side. In that moment on the hilltop, they saw behind them a whirling black group on the snow. Presently the groom screamed. He saw his father's sledge overturned, with his mother and sisters. He sprang up as if he meant to jump, but the girl shrieked and held him back. It was even then too late. The black ground-shadows were already crowding over the heap in the road, and one horse ran out across the fields, his harness hanging to him, wolves at his heels. But the groom's movement had given Pavel an idea.

They were within a few miles of their village now. The only sledge left out of six was not very far behind them, and Pavel's middle horse was failing. Beside a frozen pond something happened to the other sledge; Peter saw it plainly. Three big wolves got abreast of the horses, and the horses went crazy. They tried to jump over each other, got tangled up in the harness, and overturned the sledge.

When the shrieking behind them died away, Pavel realized that he was alone upon the familiar road. 'They still come?' he asked Peter.

'Yes.'

'How many?'

'Twenty, thirty—enough.'

Now his middle horse was being almost dragged by the other two. Pavel gave Peter the reins and stepped carefully into the back of the sledge. He called to the groom that they must lighten—and pointed to the bride. The young man cursed him and held her tighter. Pavel tried to drag her away. In the struggle, the groom rose. Pavel knocked him over the side of the sledge and threw the girl after him. He said he never remembered exactly how he did it, or what happened afterward. Peter, crouching in the front seat, saw nothing. The first thing either of them noticed was a new sound that broke into the clear air, louder than they had ever heard it before—the bell of the monastery of their own village, ringing for early prayers.

Pavel and Peter drove into the village alone, and they had been alone ever since. They were run out of their village. Pavel's own mother would not look at him. They went away to strange towns, but when people learned where they came from, they were always asked if they knew the two men who had fed the bride to the wolves. Wherever they went, the story followed them. It took them five years to save money enough to come to America. They worked in Chicago, Des Moines, Fort Wayne, but they were always unfortunate.

One reason to come to America is to get away from the wolves. More importantly it is to get away from the memory of the wolves. And more important even than that is to get away from the memories of what people have done because of the wolves.

***

One final story. There is a collection of tales about Saint Francis of Assisi called Little Flowers of St. Francis (Fioretti di San Francesco). The stories were compiled in the 14th century. One of them tells of Saint Francis and the wolf of Gubbio. Gubbio is a town in Perugio near the hills of Mount Ingino. During Saint Francis' time, the people of Gubbio were being terrorized by a large wolf. The wolf lurked at the outskirts of town. Many people were devoured. Finally, someone decided to ask Saint Francis for help. Francis walked up to the wolf and made the sign of the cross. He asked the wolf to stop terrorizing the town. The wolf, so the story goes, became meek and put his paw into Francis' hand. Francis made a deal with the wolf, saying the following as it is recorded in the Little Flowers:

As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?

The wolf agreed and lived happily thereafter with the people of Gubbio until he died of natural causes a few years later. The story is a trite bit of saintly hagiography at first glance. But there is something more. Human beings were trying to work out a problem through this tale of Saint Francis and the wolf. It is Saint Francis, after all, who proposed that we all live as birds. Mirroring something that Christ is supposed to have said to his disciples, Francis told his little friars to trust in providence, as do the birds. The birds don't worry about where they will get their next meal, Francis said. They don't fret and stress and cause strife, they neither sow nor reap. And yet, nature provides for the birds, God provides for the birds. All of us, Francis suggests, can live more like the birds.

That's all well enough, the more skeptically inclined among us might say, but what about the wolves? If providence really provides, then what do we do about the wolves? At the heart of this worry is the deepest question of all. Are we being cared for?

There is no unambiguous answer to this question. But the story of Saint Francis and the wolf makes an interesting proposal. It proposes that man cannot have a simple relationship with nature. Sometimes we must learn, sometimes we must teach. There is something to be learned from the birds. From the birds we learn to trust in powers that are beyond us. We don't make things grow. The bounty of nature is given to us. This is something the birds know and that they can pass on to us. And we can pass it on as well. Human beings can have an influence on wolves. This is factually true. It is possible to tame wolves. It is also possible to kill wolves. But in Francis' vision the taming makes more sense. You might say that this is simply another version of the biblical promise to man, that man shall have nature as his dominion and shall rule over it. But that is not actually what Francis does. He doesn't rule over the wolf. He cuts a deal. He promises the wolf that he will be fed and cared for. Francis promises, in short, that the people of Gubbio will act as agents of providence. The wolf of Gubbio, it was said, roamed around the town after Francis tamed him, visiting people's homes and being fed and stroked as he went. Providence, in this story, is both something you get and something you give, it is a gift and a responsibility at the same time. No one, no animal gets to be on the outside. Providence doesn't leave anybody alone.

It doesn't have to be that way of course. You can opt out of Saint Francis' version of providence all you like. In the battle between wolves and men it is possible to win. It is possible to make the wolves go away completely. And then all that is left is a road, Wolf Road, on the outskirts of Albany near the airport.

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