“Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell about Fear” explores danger and culture through stories about wolves. Portland-based author Erica Berry weaves in her own experiences and encounters with “big, bad wolves.” She also charts the journey of OR-7, a radio-collared Oregon wolf who wanders throughout the state and into California. We listen back to the conversation from March when we first talked with Berry about her book and what wolves mean to us.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We’re going to spend the hour today talking about wolves, both real ones like the wild canines who reintroduced themselves to Oregon over the last 24 years or so, as well as the wolves we have constructed as humans, the wolves of our imagination, our stories, our myths. The Portland writer, Erica Berry has spent much of the last decade on the trail of both of these animals. The result is her new book, “Wolfish: Wolf Self and the Stories We Tell about Fear.” The once world famous OR-7 trots through this narrative. But the book is at least as much the story of how Barry came to see the historic and cultural contexts for the things that scare us, a context that helped her not to eradicate her own fears, but to coexist with them. Erica Barry. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Erica Berry: Thanks so much. So nice to be here.
Miller: I thought we could start with a passage from early on in the book. It is about the first wolf to come back to Oregon in about 50 years. She crossed the Snake River from Idaho in 1999.
“As the wolf shook the river from her back droplets constellated in the frozen air. She was a yearling nearly full grown,the run of her litter almost waist high on a grown man. Her weight, around 65 pounds, her coat, the gradient of stone, the color perhaps of that day’s January sky. Her winter under fur was so thick. The cold did not even reach her bones.
“She was a descendant of the Canadian wolves reintroduced to Idaho just a couple of years earlier as part of an effort to restore the American gray wolf populations that had been slaughtered to extinction in the early 20th century. Around her neck the radio collar given by the Idaho Department of Fish and Wildlife, IDFW, was a dull and nearly forgotten weight. B-45. That’s what they were calling her, the 45th wolf to be collared in Idaho. One node of a federal wolf recovery program that the Nez Perce tribe was working with the IDFW to implement.
“With each step, her saucer-sized paws splintered the lattice of icy crystals that frosted the earth. Turning tail to the river she climbed into the snow and the vanilla scented air of 100 year-old Ponderosa pines. If a bald eagle cut the sky above her, she heard it. If a rabbit threw itself into a snowy burrow, she smelled it.
“A wolf can average 8 to 10 hours a day of travel, often moving in the seams between night and day. 10 miles, 20, 30, 40, more. She had left her family in east central Idaho to look for the three things any young wolf needed to survive; a mate, a meal, and defensible territory. And she did not know that in climbing onto this far shore of the Snake, she had crossed a border, not just a state line but a line of history. Because she had been fitted a year earlier with a radio collar her movements were legible to humans and she was now superlative, the first known member of her species to step into Oregon in over 50 years.
“As in much of continental America, wolves had not lived here since the state’s last wolf bounty was paid to a trapper in the 1940s. When B- 45 arrived, she came as both the dawn of the future and a relic from the past. ‘B-45 seems to me a title ill suited for a majestic animal and more appropriate for a chemical used to color breakfast cereal,’ wrote one skeptical editor of an Eastern Oregon newspaper. When the Nez Perce tribe and an environmental conservation group held a contest to name her, Freedom won. A local conservationist began to call her Eve.”
Miller: I want to come back to wolves in Oregon. But let’s start with a bigger picture here. Can you give us a sense for wolves ubiquity both on global landscapes and in human stories and language?
Berry: Wolves were one of the most widely distributed land mammals around the world. And this was true. You had wolves in deserts. You have them in ice flows. You have them essentially in every landscape. And I think now that there’s some reason why they’re also then walked through so many of our stories. They’re just the animal that people would have been encountering.
I also think there’s something about the spectral howl of a wolf that creates a kind of sonic bread crumb. You don’t see the thing, but you hear it. And I’ve thought a lot about what is the quality of a wolf that makes them appear in our stories? And I think a lot of this is the parallels between wolves and humans and their groupings. We look to wolves and we see creatures that might mate for life, collaboratively take care of young, are working together sometimes on the same territory - wolves will pass territory on through different generations sometimes. And so there’s this sense of parallel, of foil. The wolf becomes a foil for ourselves. Yeah, there are wolf stories just across time and space to a degree that I did not understand going into this project.
Miller: Does any animal that you’re aware of match the wolf for the extent to which humans tell stories and have idioms and have myths about them?
Berry: I think snakes maybe. There’s a similarity in terms of their ubiquity, on every continent. I mean, wolves are literally on every continent. I do think the wolf holds a sort of singular place and there have been bounties on wolves for thousands of years.
Miller: The first story that you really explore in detail, both historically and in your own life, is “Little Red Riding Hood.” And the first person to write down a version of the fairy tale that is close to the one that I’m familiar with and probably a lot of our listeners are familiar with, was a French nobleman in the 17th century named Charles Perrault. It doesn’t end well for Little Red. In his telling, she gets eaten along with her grandmother. And then unlike the Brothers Grimm’s version where the huntsman saves them, that doesn’t happen in this version that was written down by Perrault. But he does end with a moral. Could you read that for us?
Berry: Yeah, sure.
“Moral children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies should never talk to strangers. For if they should do so they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say wolf, but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous of all.”
Miller: That’s not particularly subtle in terms of who this lesson is for, especially for attractive well bred girls.
Berry: There’s just, it’s a constant eye roll, reading it.
Miller: So what are the boys or the men who encountered this story supposed to take from it?
Berry: I think this is one of the things that, insofar as “Little Red Riding Hood” is an instructive story, it’s instructive toward the girls, right? And this sense that only the girl can keep herself on the right path. And that was one of the things that originally troubled me about it. The boy has two roles he can play. He’s either the wolf or he’s the woodcutter. In the later versions, the Brothers Grimm introduced the woodcutter.
Miller: The savage beast or the savior?
Berry: Yeah, exactly. Both of those. For the girl, she can either be like the mother or a grandmother who’s sort of guileless and failing to protect or the girl who’s the victim. And so I think my entryway to “Little Red Riding Hood” was frustrated with the way the wolf was depicted in it. But at a certain point, I was, my own body as a young woman is ensnared in this story. But also there are these larger gendered dynamics that are shaped by the echoes of this story. I don’t know what the men who read it. . . there’s a savior complex embedded in it that I’m uncomfortable with.
Miller: You write “might today’s anthropomorphized metaphor of the big bad wolf have roots in a real life legacy of masculine violence.” What’s the historical legacy that you’re referring to here?
Berry: At some point I thought, “OK, so the largest conflation of wolf in my head is this symbolic idea of the wolf as violent man.” And I started trying to trace how far back that goes? And you find in language, in Sanskrit and Prussian and Iranian, the words for wolf and evil do are really tied. I started thinking “why is that” and found this sort of legacy of proto-indo-european warrior men who would leave home around this coming of age time and go together in these warrior bands, often taking on the characteristics or traits of wolves.
Miller: And meaning what characteristics?
Berry: I mean, there’s pillage, I mean, this is hard because wolves don’t really do these things. But there was a level of ferocity in what they were. The sexual violence, there was thievery, there was, I don’t know. Again, real wolves are not doing these things, but in the warrior codes, there was a sense that you don’t need to act like a human. You can maybe kill with abandon in this sense. There were these sacrifices where maybe there would be canine bones that were used, like the wolf as a sort of warrior totem. But [this warrior band behavior] was also letting people off the hook to not have to do their normal human codes of etiquette.
And so that is like thousands of years ago, men acting as wolves are sort of like pillaging their way across Europe. And that was really interesting to me to think this metaphor actually goes back to the start of the English language as we know it now. And so that seed of that metaphor is so old and we’ve inherited it almost in the language itself.
Miller: But one of the things that strikes me about this - and you deal with this in the book - is that even in times before recorded history, in a lot of ways, it seems like humans were already trying to explain away very human behavior by blaming it on these wolves. When wolves, by their nature as predators, they’re very different. I mean, bands of human men going around and marauding and raping and murdering. It’s very different from what wolves do just to survive.
Berry: Yeah absolutely. I mean the fundamental reason why these wolf metaphors break down is that wolves do not kill out of cruelty. It’s out of survival. And I think you look at so many Indigenous stories, there’s a more sort of hybrid porosity between animal and human. And in that sense, is it a wolf showing human traits or is it a human showing wolf traits? The very idea of anthropomorphization doesn’t always hold up when you think “is this wolf being like a human or maybe this is just a way of acting.” That wolves take care of their young, for example, collaboratively - are they like humans or humans when we take care of our young being like wolves? I became sort of interested in the feedback loop between how we look at animals as ways of making sense of ourselves and vice versa, project outward.
Miller: I wonder if you could tell us a story of a kind of pack that you encountered when you were just starting college and walking through one of the greens?
Berry: I went to school in New England. And my experience there was definitely this sense of sort of feeling like a foreigner in some ways. And one night I was walking home from the library and saw a group of guys walking toward me across the quad. And it was one of those things where I think so many people, so many women, so many non-binary folks experience. This could be something scary because it’s dark and there’s a group walking toward me and then you note that red flag and step away from it and think “surely not, surely this is me overreacting.” And so I had that experience and I continued walking towards them and as they got closer to me, I saw that it wasn’t just a group of students walking from the library. They were men or boys wearing t-shirts on their head with sort of slashes cut for eye holes and they had socks on their hands, making their hands effectively these like paws. And we approached each other and I could have run at that point but I was sort of in disbelief. They surrounded me and we sort of stared at each other for a minute and I didn’t know how to narrate what was going on in my head. I felt terrified.
These people whose identities were disguised, of course, and I was expecting for something to happen. And after a few seconds or time - I mean time stopped in that moment. Nothing did happen. I pushed through their hands and I ran back to the dorm. I called them into security and I was worried they were going to hurt someone else. And it turns out that they were a soccer team or soccer players that had been hazed. And I thought of them later reading about these sort of warrior bands of young men and this idea that under the disguise of animals, people act in ways that they wouldn’t own as humans. And the boys in this situation wanted to apologize to me about that. The narrative told to me by the college was they never meant harm. They’re basically like sheep in wolf’s clothing, right?
And I think what was interesting for me as a woman who hadn’t yet experienced the moment where I’m moving through the public world and the thing that I think will not be a threat actually is a threat, it brought me into this waiting room of fear. I think of where nothing bad happened after that. There was no physical assault altercation, but it changed my perspective of how bad it feels to be in that moment where it might be a tipping point. And I think one of the reasons the story stood out to me later was I really didn’t know how to narrate it. Like had I been a victim? These men might not have meant harm, but they still did harm. That doesn’t let them off the hook.
But I think it made me think so much about “Little Red Riding Hood” again. And this idea - I can still picture this - the choreography of this scene. We were in the trees, all of our shadows in this little forest grove at this very idyllic campus. And of course, I’m thinking about the stories I’ve been told about what will happen to my body in the forest. And as a woman who grew up hiking in Oregon and loving to camp alone and do all these things, I was resistant to tell myself that kind of story.
Miller: I want to go back to the mother in the story because she has another important role that often people don’t pay a ton of attention to. Because the wolf, the grandmother, and “Little Red Riding Hood” occupy so much of our imagination. But she’s the one who says, “watch out, deliver this stuff and be careful,” but she does send her daughter out there. How have you come to think about that act of giving a warning but also letting go?
Berry: I hate to say that I’ve been thinking of it today a lot, in the last 24 hours since hearing about this shooting yesterday in the preschool, right? And I think the sense that to be a caretaker is to be constantly thinking about how to dose fear for those around you.
Miller: Dose, meaning give it out in small amounts of fear?
Berry: Or figure out what dosage, how much you should give, right? Like this mother in the story is evaluating how scary the forest is. And she’s saying “be careful of this, be careful of this but also get to grandmother’s house, we need you to do this errand.” And there is a sort of bravery in that moment. I came to really think like I want the mother to keep sending the daughter out there, just like when little red riding hood is walking.
Even though she’s heard her mother’s concerns, she stops to look at the butterfly. In all of these storytellings from brothers Graham to Perrault [they] talk about where her gaze goes in a way that is really interesting because it’s like punishing her for being curious. And punishing her for getting distracted to look at the squirrel and talk to the wolf and also to look at the flowers, as if those things are all equivalent. As if reining in our curiosity will keep us safe, which I just don’t believe.
Miller: It’s an absurd thing for a purported storyteller to be giving that message.
Berry: Oh yeah, 100%. And I also think honestly about one of the things I learned about young wolves, which is that they’re born so afraid. As an animal, wolves are fearful. But as their young, they get used to going to explore and investigate the things that scare them. So if I hear a bird in a tree and I’m a young wolf, I’m going to be a little bit on edge, but I’m going to go investigate it. And that idea of fear and curiosity and inquiry being tied, I think is really interesting. So let’s go back to “Little Red Riding Hood.” The girl is curious and the mother is still telling her to go out on this adventure. And I wanted that for myself and I wanted this when I thought about the messages that I give as a teacher or caretaker, a guide of outdoor trips for young people.
Miller: How would you describe the dosages of fear that you were given, that were provided to you and that you metabolized?
Berry: I did come of age in this sort of girl power era of the 2000′s where there was this real “anything is possible if you put your mind to it” idea. And I think that in the sense that I should be afraid as a woman was a very rusty scaffolding that had been dismantled.
Miller: Very consciously, right? I mean, your parents consciously did not give you that message?
Berry: Exactly. I think so. Yeah. And I’ve heard this, talking to other people of my millennial generation. It was part of this girl empowerment. We’re not going to tell you to be afraid. I think part of this was also my white girlhood and the ways that I was able to move through a world where people wanted to protect me. People saw me as a girl that was worthy of . . . my girlhood being granted, right? Not everyone gets a girlhood and not everyone is allowed to be seen as a victim. But I didn’t feel like a victim until I went to this great summer camp. Well, there were some moments that were really exciting. It was kind of in a meadow in Eugene. We ate a lot of tofu pasta salad. They stole our wrist watches. That brought me a lot of angst.
But it was a girl empowerment camp essentially from this very kind of Pacific Northwest hippie-adjacent thing. But I realized ultimately the lessons we were being taught were somewhat conservative. Like the boys are out to get us. And I remember sitting around in a circle with these other girls and we were sort of told, “if you go on a date, the man just wants to sleep with you” and da, da, da da. And I didn’t trust that message. I think at that point, I felt like I wanted to think for myself more. And so I sort of grew up in my adolescence feeling like I was just pushing myself constantly toward things that scared me. I was traveling alone, living alone, taking a train by myself across the country solo, without a sleeper car, 100%. Do it for the story, do it for the adventure.
That was very much in my coding and to go back to wolves, like some wolves just do. They’re just riskier than others. So we don’t know why some wolves do that. I was anxious but I was pushing myself to things that scared me. And that changed. In my early 20′s. I had a couple of experiences that rewired and made me reconsider the stories I’d inherited. I didn’t trust them. I didn’t trust the stories I’ve been told about fear. And I also realized I needed new stories because I was having trouble feeling brave.
Miller: Let’s go from the stories of interpersonal fear about wolves and how they shape our individual lives in a very gendered way to the stories of making countries and creating borders and putting up walls. How is wolf killing embedded in early Oregon history, even pre-statehood?
Berry: This was a fascinating thing that I did not grow up knowing. Early Oregon, you have these French Canadian fur trading Catholics versus the sort of English pioneer Methodists. And they weren’t coming together until you have the creation of the presence of a threat. And so it was wolves, cougars and bears. In 1843, there were two meetings called to discuss this threat to livestock. They’re now referred to pretty exclusively as the Wolf Meetings. And the idea was that everyone bonded over the fact that the community needed a way to stop this quote “immediate destruction.” And so the first local tax in the territory was a bounty to fund a bounty for dead predators. And a white hunter would get what is about $100 in today’s money for a pelt. Native American residents got half that amount.
So already lthe expulsion of animals was a way of also ordering the power dynamics of people there. And this worked well. A local government ended up being voted on and so people saw that this bounty was doing something for them and it really became the groundwork for the legislation.
Miller: What did the mass hunting and poisoning of wolves in the territories or colonies 200 years before that or later, in the states in the US - what did it actually entail? I mean, what did it look like?
Berry: You’d get out, you’d kill a wolf, you’d bring it in to the town clerk and they’d punch a hole in the ear so that you couldn’t turn it in twice. And these pelts were piled up. There were stories of these frozen rivers in the winter and there’d be piles of pelts waiting for the river to thaw so that they could bring the pelts downstream. And the scale of this, I think, is hard to imagine. Carter Niemeyer formerly worked in wolf management in Montana and Idaho. And he tells stories of these poisonous poles that would be set around in Montana and just vast numbers of animals would pile up around them. And I think what we forget is that if you poison, say, livestock or a buffalo and put it on the prairie, it’s not just going to kill the wolves that eat it, but also the squirrels, the crows, the magpies. There are these sort of like ripples of death outward. There were even accounts that an animal’s saliva, as this animal died from this poison, would poison the grass and then animals that ate the grass would die.
And so I think understanding the ripples of what this sort of government funded killing campaign in early American history did to the West. The scale of it was hard for me to imagine.
Miller: Could you read us an excerpt from the chapter you have about this?
Berry: [Berry reading]
“For as long as white people have been coming to America, they have been kindling the story of their own belonging, erasing the stories of early inhabitants, in part by conflating them with animals. One piece of 17th century legislation in Massachusetts said that whoever shall shoot off a gun on any unnecessary occasion or at any game except an Indian or a wolf shall forfeit five shillings for every shot, as if shooting a wolf or a Native meant nothing at all.
“The work of statehood is at first the work of boundary creation, not just erecting a border but policing it. Deciding who do you let in? Who do you push out? If I once thought these questions were posed in one way about humans and another about animals, the wolf has shown me otherwise. Often it is only by anthropomorphizing animals and animalizing humans that the fictions that necessitate human borders can be propped up at all.”
Miller: Can you contrast that Euro-American approach of wolf eradication and fear with the Kalapuya creation story that the Tribal elder Esther Stutzman has shared?
Berry: The wolf is very central to this creation story. And I think it’s important to remember that the Kalapuya Native land is the same homeland where the Wolf Meetings are later happening.
Miller: So it’s right in the Willamette Valley?
Berry: Exactly. Yeah. So basically at the top of the mountain, the earth’s first woman, Le-lu, had two babies. She’s a mother and she basically meets Mother Wolf as she’s coming down the mountain. She’s just been brought on to this earth and she has to go explore the world. And Mother Wolf says, “I’ll watch your children.” She feels a little bit afraid, but she decides to weave a pack basket and give the babies to the wolf and puts a band around the foreheads of the babies so they don’t fall out. And she goes out and she explores and when she comes back, the babies are fine.
The wolf has been taking care of them and their foreheads are slightly flattened. And from that idea, she says “from now on our people will flatten the foreheads of their babies in honor of Mother Wolf who took such good care of my babies.” That’s Stutzman’s words.
So this idea of the wolf as a sort of mother-protector-shepherd is as much of an Oregon story as a story of this land as an idea of extermination and the Wolf Meetings.
Miller: What interested you most when you started to dig into the ancient stories about “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?”
Berry: I think at one point, somebody pointed out to me that it becomes a sort of interesting counterbalance to “Little Red Riding Hood.” And I think both of these are stories that young people hear quite a lot. But in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” he’s believed. People come to his aid until they’re not. And I think with “Little Red Riding Hood,” it’s so easy to imagine if a girl had been in that case, being doubted by saying there’s a threat. And of course, this comes to the modern conceptions of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” It’s very often referred to as a woman and I found this idea of not believing women.
I became really interested in the idea that if somebody lies, who is the audience to that lie and are they believed? And the stories that we’re told about threat speak to our own identities and communities and the privilege of belief. Belief is this thing that we choose to grant to people. And that was compelling to me.
Miller: In that story, the boy is lying, meaning he knows he’s saying something that’s not true. But you also dig into trickier situations that are maybe more likely when we’re not necessarily sure what we’re seeing or we’re not sure if we should be afraid of something. How do you reckon with that version of, is this a quote unquote “wolf” or not?
Berry: Yeah. There was a French phrase that I came across in my research and pardon, I hope my high school French teacher isn’t listening to this. “Entre chien et loup” refers to this hour between a dog and a wolf, that’s this kind of dusk time. And I think the way that this phrase was used was that, at this time of day, you’re walking down a path and you cannot tell if it is a dog or a wolf before you. If you are right to be afraid if you are not. And there’s a level of evaluation in that moment where you’re thinking not just about the stories you’ve been told about what you will encounter, but what you see and what you think will happen to your body.
And I think that story is one of evaluating threat. In “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” I became very interested in moments where, throughout history and in my own life, I had potentially said “was I right to feel afraid? Was I right to evaluate this thing as a ‘wolf,’ quote unquote instead of a dog?” And I think so often those situations are so murky you know? It’s not as clear. One of the things I was interested in this book was breaking down this sort of apparatus of predator and prey. Who gets to be predator and who gets to be prey? And what does that mean? Those are not fixed states. Those are projections and we can oscillate between them.
Miller: You write that to decide what’s a dog and what’s a wolf is to “weigh the cost of fear to yourself against the cost of fear to the creature before you.” But I think we only actually do that second part if we care about the outcome for that creature in front of us. I mean if we see their life as a life that matters. But how do you do that if you imagine that it’s just a kind of monster that has no worth?
Berry: I think it’s such a good question. I think it’s one of the reasons why people say “trust your gut instincts around fear.” And at the time I was working on this book, I thought “there’s no way I can trust my gut instincts.” They’re wired. If I’m watching local news every night and there’s a certain fear that is being produced and sold to me to try. Fear is always a tool. I think when beginning to see it in that way - who is it benefiting and who is it harming - it becomes hard to trust your own instincts around it.
Miller: A lot of places, either there’s a voice inside you or an actual person who says, “no, x-thing is not really the main thing that you should worry about because it’s so unlikely.” And the thinking is that actuarial tables or statistics can free us from fears if there’s a .002% chance that x-thing is going to happen. But how does it work? Do statistics prevent us from being afraid of things?
Berry: I quote the high wire artist, Phillipe Petit, in the book and he knows something about fear, right?
Miller: And he’s the guy who famously strung a wire between the World Trade Centers soon after they were erected. An extraordinary individual who walked across it.
Berry: Yeah and his quote is something like “fear is an absence of knowledge.” I wouldn’t do what he did, I know. I can’t totally square that quote with what he did. But I thought a lot about this. So say in the last 18 years in North America, there have been, I think, 12 wolf attacks, only two of which were on people. And compared to dogs, compared to toddlers with guns, compared to falling vending machines, ladders, cows.
Miller: Let alone driving?
Berry: Exactly. That is such a comparatively small risk. And so I think part of the question with coming into this book is I was looking at real wolves and seeing the ways that they were made into these specters of fear. And culturally, people were talking about these wolves going to kill your children and thinking that fear is irrational. At the same time, I was personally not afraid of wolves. But I was maybe walking down the sidewalk feeling worried that I’m going to be attacked.
Miller: But it did happen to you at one point, what I think is fair to call an attack. A stranger put his hands on you. So bad things happen.
Berry: I know and I think that’s the thing to square. You do. And this was sort of the crux of the start of my research. I knew statistically it’s low odds that I’m going to be grabbed, walking down the sidewalk. But the minute that happens to you, which it did, as I was starting graduate school, you expect it everywhere, right? And so I began to think either I have to try to change the world I’m living in to eliminate threats in some way or I have to change the stories in my brain because I was having trouble understanding how to go through the world. And part of this was like reporting.
I wrote this book, at first, thinking [of] it as an environmental studies thesis. And I thought I’m just going to report on wolves academically, historically, scientifically. And then I would go on these reporting trips and have these moments where I felt like I was afraid for my own life. It was like a smear of grease on the lens that I was looking through, right? And I couldn’t wipe it off. And I thought, “are other writers just better at hiding this?” So I wanted this book to capture my own sense of, not just observing a subject but also sometimes, being observed and trying to interrogate the narratives when I felt, at times, like a victim. But when am I actually maybe also predatory because I’m walking on stolen land or because I have a certain institutional affiliation that gives me a sense of privilege in certain corners where I might be researching and trying to understand those sorts of intersections of power. They have helped me rewire fear.
I think so often we talk about fear. We think about it as “how do you grow out of it?” But I wanted to think about “how do we grow into it” and that maybe that’s the way to move past it is to take apart the wiring.
Miller: One of the ways that you changed your conception of your power in the world or your relationship to your power is . . .(laughs) I shouldn’t laugh. It’s terrifying. But you write about it in various ways, including ways that, with perspective, have humor. This is when you were in Sicily and mistakenly picked some greens for a meal for you and two of your friends at that point. Mistakenly because they were poisonous. It’s something called mandrake?
Berry: It’s in “Harry Potter.” It’s like the screaming root baby that has the legs that are these sort of, yeah, the roots.
Miller: So that’s “Harry Potter” world. What happened when an actual human person, not a muggle, ate them?
Berry: Well, it turns out that part of the reason they’re in “Harry Potter” and also in Shakespeare, and have this great mythological history. I did not know about this but the roots are potentially hallucinogenic. But the leaves are quite toxic and you do hallucinate as well. But we just ate the leaves. So I pretty much started hallucinating and we found ourselves unable to throw them up once we realized what we’d done. And one of my colleagues, essentially, entered a coma within a few hours and we were in rural Sicily. We were at a hospital by that point. And I was strapped to one bed. My whole body was shaking.
We knew what we’d done at that point, but not how lethal it was or [wasn’t]. We didn’t know what was gonna happen to us and we couldn’t speak the language. There were a number of things that made it extremely terrifying. But I remember lying in this bed, my heart rate was really, really low and there’s these sirens going off and hearing my colleague [who] was strapped to the bed at this point because his body was shaking so much. And at some point he went quiet. He stopped shaking and he’d been screaming and he stopped and I thought that I had killed him in that moment. I thought, wow, this thing that I’ve picked . . . and he was a horticulturalist so he had sort of identified it. I felt like we were all complicit in some ways, but he’s dead. And I now have eaten the second largest serving of this and I’m gonna die next.
And so I spent the course of this night in this hospital feeling like I’d killed my friend or like, I’d helped contribute to his death, certainly not intentionally, but also that it was going to kill me. And I think that headspace, I could not shake for so long, even after I knew that he had emerged from the coma and we were all relatively unscathed. Thank goodness.
Miller: What’s the connection between that experience and werewolves? Because this story is embedded in a chapter where you talk about the lore of people turning into wolf monsters?
Berry: It’s so interesting to hear that some of the earliest werewolf stories are potentially rooted in people having these encounters with poisonous plants, essentially with drugs, right? Where they would act beastly or think that they were animals. And reading this at first, I’m just sort of thinking, oh, that is kind of what happened that night. Like at one point, we were driving to the hospital and my colleague who was very ill, sort of sprang out of the door and I remember it was a full moon and he started just like running up a hill like he’d lost his mind. And this word lunatic comes from luna, we think about werewolves and there’s all this history there.
But then researching Sicilian werewolves or stories about wolves and these legends, there’s actually a legacy in the Mediterranean on Corsica, specifically, of these, they were called dream hunters. The Mazzeri [are] these women who would take mandrake potentially and have these crazy sort of hallucinatory dreams where they were beasts and they were sort of predatory. And I think that combined with this experience that I had, which is that for the course of a night, I was transformed, he was transformed and then we woke up and we were ostensibly back in our old bodies, like everything was fine. And yet you carry the memory of this transformation that has happened. And I think it allowed me to think about what werewolf stories do for us culturally, how they allow us to think about darkness inside ourselves that we maybe don’t have a language for.
Miller: Could you read us from the end of that chapter?
Berry: [Berry reading]
“When I think back to that year in Sicily, I see myself as a kaleidoscope of selves, wheeling through that poppy studded countryside, the color from oneself always tinting the color of another. No barriers between them. Only the truth of their murkiness, the truth of feeling like a foreigner and like I belonged, that I was lonely and loved, consuming and producing, helping and harming.
“When I now think of that self in the hospital hallucinating as she ran through the halls, I feel tenderness. She, who had surrendered to her transformation, she who could not imagine it would pass. At the same time, I feel a tenderness toward the other self, the one who picked the leaves whistling as she brought them in. She did not know it at the time, but she too was in the throes of transformation, living a life, an ocean away from the people she loved but also a little further from her fear.
“If, in my American life, fear so often drove the boat, here in Sicily, the engine was pleasure. Maybe eating almost brought me death. But so often at the cooking school, it had also shaken me out of my speculative anxiety and lifted me closer to life. I can look back now and see I should have been more cautious. But I can also see how good it felt not to think about caution at all, to accept that living in a body meant sometimes losing control over it.
“Annie Dillard describes animal appetite as ‘living in the physical sense without bias or motive.’ Eating is when I am my most wolf, when I eat, I am most grounded in my body in the world. I forget the wine in my head that says the future is too scary or I am too cowardly to face it. As Ligaya Mishan writes in the New York Times, ‘eating forces us to confront what we do to others and so fear our own devouring of becoming food for worms, as the saying goes, upon death.’ If eating is a confrontation with mortality, it is also a buffer against its shadow. We feed our bones so they can face another day. When I think of a ravenous wolf now, I do not see a specter of horror. I see a body wired with instinct, a body on the brink of joy.”
Miller: We started with the first wolf in over 50 years, nicknamed Eve, who came to Oregon back in 1999. I want to end with the most famous wolf in recent Oregon history, OR-7. I say famous, but probably for the newest Oregonians, they may never have heard of this guy. Who was OR-7?
Berry: Newsweek called him the most famous wolf of all time. (laughter) So we have that. Yeah, he dispersed from his pack in Northeastern Oregon in September 2011. He’s called OR-7 because he was the seventh wolf collared in Oregon by biologists. He starts walking west and at that point, there were other wolves dispersing. It’s relatively common behavior for a young wolf to do. But OR-7 quickly started breaking records. He became the first wolf in Western Oregon and then the first wolf in California since wolves had been exterminated in the mid 20th century.
Around the time he’s racking up these thousands of mile journeys, he starts getting this huge following. There are Twitter accounts devoted to him, Facebook pages, and the National Enquirer writes about him. There’s a bumper sticker that says “OR-7 for President.” The New York Times says it’s almost a cult-like status. There’s a naming competition that Oregon Wild runs and multiple young people submit the same name, Journey.
And in that moment, the headlines are like, “don’t stop believing here he is. He’s looking for love.” There’s no other wolves around and I think that’s what it was right? He was in these areas where there weren’t other wolves and it became this example of people watching OR-7, rooting for him, not across the board of course, a certain public. He was stoking different feelings in different people and I was in college at the time on the east Coast and thinking, “well, I’m just gonna watch the people watch OR-7.” It’s really interesting to witness how this wolf is being talked about and, of course, I was watching him too.
Miller: Looking back now, what most strikes you about the fervor behind the interest in OR-7?
Berry: I think there was, on the one hand, a sort of easy rom-com narrative to it where people were seeing, very much projecting onto this wolf. Is this wolf going to find a mate? Is this wolf going to be able to start a pack?
At the same time, beneath it is a desire for forgiveness, I think is maybe the right word. White settlers had exterminated the wolves in Oregon and there was a degree of, well, wolves are coming back now, we didn’t bring them back and OR-7 was sort of a totem of what was possible, maybe, in a sense of rewilding or a sense of a wolf coming back where there had been no wolves. I think it’s important to note that, like the story, he did find another mate. And talking to one of the biologists, people thought that we planted her. There was so much skepticism because . . .
Miller: It was too much of a meet cute, to go back to your rom com idea.
Berry: Yes, exactly. Completely. And yet they start this pack in Eastern Jackson, Western Klamath counties, the Rogue pack. OR-7 becomes a grandfather. Local papers, [including] the Medford paper were following every time he crossed the border, like he’s a grandfather bringing home the bacon. There was a real sense of following this one wolf. And I think it becomes - there’s a word in birding - a spark bird is the bird that gets you interested in birding. And I think OR-7 was sort of like the spark wolf for a lot of people, where it was hard to grapple with these larger themes of wolf repopulation. But through one animal, we can understand that, right?
The Rogue pack is responsible for a number of confirmed depredations. And I think it’s interesting. The story of OR-7 is also interesting because it’s complicated, right? He’s not a wolf. It’s not just about a wolf finding a partner. It’s also about a wolf becoming entangled with livestock producers and their pack. And so one of the headlines said he was a model citizen and then he turned his pack to livestock predation. And of course, he was never either of those things. He was just a wolf going about doing what wolves do.
Miller: What have you heard from ranchers about this book since it’s come out, if anything?
Berry: I had a really interesting conversation last week with one of the producers I talked to who told me that he was two-thirds of the way through the book. And he had understood that the book was about real wolves, but he had not fully understood the degree to which it was a sociological exploration. He is one of the ranchers who’d had depredations from OR-7′s pack in his land. So wolves were a very clear concrete thing that he’s thinking about, right? And yet he said, “I’m reading your book and I’m realizing that I was a wolf in my youth.” That’s what he said.
Miller: Do you know what he meant by that?
Berry: He started talking about the degree to which as a young man, he had occupied the world in a certain way and not questioned the way he moved through it. And he started talking about someone in his family who had experienced violence as a woman, and processing that and the relationship between the power dynamics that ensnared his own body. And that’s one of the things about this book that feels like such a gift - that people are encountering both the real wolves and the symbolic wolves and maybe thinking differently about both and also reading their own bodies into it in a way. I always wanted it to not just be about the body of the wolf, but also our own selves.
Miller: And the porousness of all of it?
Berry: Yeah, absolutely. And the ways that the creation of a wolf depends on this kind of counterweight of self. And if we define the wolf as an “other,” then we’re also defining ourselves.
Miller: Erica, thanks very much and congratulations.
Berry: Thank you so much
Miller: Erica Berry’s new book is called “Wolfish: Wolf, Self and the Stories We Tell About Fear.” You can see her tomorrow night at 6PM at Portland’s Broadway Books.
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