a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Gusts of wind drove through Wyoming’s turgid valleys shaking the truck we slept in. All I could think of were the cracks in the local roads paved above glaciers from the ice age. How the road had to be repaved each year. I thought about the lava’s heat underneath the glaciers melting the ice, but mostly I wanted to smell the past in those cracks. Ancient ice and lava, their minerals and bones the foundations of planetary systems—there’s spirit there—and I was falling asleep above its lungs. Corinne was already asleep, stretched out as much as she could in a seat that couldn’t recline, a halo of steam gathered on the window. It was about to be opening night at the Slough Creek Campground in Lamar Valley, an area famous for wildlife viewing—though the major attraction was wolves.
We had pulled into the campground’s parking lot around 5pm when the sun was still generous, stretching the valley’s bowl east to west. There were already a few campers here, and Corinne had hoped that if we gave the guys next to us a chocolate bar that they’d tell us how to get a campsite. I was cynical of those guys, but I am always doubtful of my species. The internet had given us conflicting information: campground opens at 9am, campground may open at 6am, arrive by 6am, arrive the night before, avoid getting fined for parking overnight, you’ll need to park overnight. We arrived determined, and since Corinne—Jersey-Italian and a magnet for people, did the talking for us.
Down one chocolate bar and with scarce information, a park ranger arrived. She told us we had to leave by sundown, but there was a message between the lines that she was also trying to give. If I come back I’ll ticket you. There was a sparkly glimmer on if, and we decided to bank on it.
I had really no idea why I had brought us there, except that I wanted to know how it felt to walk where wolves walk, to sleep where they hunt, to have the wind carry their howls down the cliffs. Not the memory of the species, nor the wandering lone wolf looking for an extinct mate. I guess I wanted to believe in something more, if only for a few days. I think I was lonely.
This was also our second anniversary trip—two years since our wedding ceremony in North Carolina when Corinne wrote vows about a math equation for attraction; two years since we fused with the landscape in the airstream nestled into the Sierra Nevadas; two years since the measurements started. In that time the measurements grew in subtle ways, though I learned to also measure our love as depth as well as distance, making the configurations of loneliness much more complex.
This was our plan: to combine literary wolf research with relationship reconnection.
This was our plan: slowly drive a rental car from Seattle to Yellowstone, conclude how to get a campsite for the week at the popular campground at Slough Creek, pitch a tent upon volcanic ground and hope it turns out okay, cook delicious foods that won’t hurt our stomachs too much, and discover why wolves are famous in Yellowstone.
We left the campground parking lot when the ranger asked us to, then went to our hotel room to sleep until 3am, at which time we returned to Slough Creek. Our headlights pushed away the wilderness that had crept in overnight. Humans were tucked away in their containers, and now it was owl’s time, the cool hours for hunting and herding. The unfamiliar sagebrush looked like ghost’s fingers in the gray light of our high beams. Corinne reminded me to take my time while I sipped on watery instant coffee from the hotel.
At the campground, three campers were already lined up at the gate. I pulled in behind them, wondering who they were, what they came here for. I wondered if opening night was always such a dramatic exhibition, if someone might come by offering hoers d’oevures on tiny toothpicks. But instead, a new stillness, a new darkness, the wind clearing the valley of what didn’t belong there anymore.
In 1995, gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Fourteen wolves from several packs in Canada were tracked, stunned, contained and transported to several regions in the park—including Lamar Valley. To animal biologists, this was a necessary and logical decision: elk in the park were very abundant because the top predators who hadn’t been extirpated—grizzly bears and coyotes—weren’t adept at hunting them. Deer populations had swollen, and the ecology of the park was showing signs of the imbalance. To animal biologists, this was also a necessary ethical decision: Doug Smith, the leading biologist and wolf expert, referred to it as “lifting a burden.” The gray wolf and red wolf are indigenous to all of North America from Canada to Mexico. When settlers from Europe arrived there were as many as a half million to a million wolves. But in just a few centuries they cleared the way for European expansion by eliminating the wolf from the landscape. As early as the 1880s, very few wolves were left in the country. The last wolf killed in Yellowstone was in 1936.
What’s important to note here is how recent this history is. American’s history is very young. The American plan for the wolf: make it extinct. This was an especially deliberate extinction legislated by the U.S. government. Even Theodore Roosevelt, lauded naturalist, beloved my most nature writers, called wolves “the beast of waste and destruction,” and supported the ruthless end of its species.
Yes, history is young: hunters were still wandering around the forests of northern Michigan and Minnesota in the 1970’s hoping to kill one of the few remaining wolves. Also in the 1970s the gray wolf was added as an endangered animal to the newly inked Endangered Species Act (ESA). This represented a very late wake-up in the foundation of America since the species was nearly rendered extinct. But history continued to unfold: the gray wolf in Wyoming was de-listed from the ESA in 2014. In the same year in Idaho, to sarcastically celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the ESA, there was a 2-day contest to honor whomever could kill the most wolves and coyotes, while trappers were sent to kill each member of the wolf packs who lived in remote areas of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Indeed, our young history—between wolves and white people in America—is still unfolding.
I stared at the moonlight along the dashboard there in the Lamar Valley—former home of the Druid Peak pack, one of the largest recorded packs ever with 37 members. The Lamar Canyon pack is somewhere outside these windows, and is in disarray. And this chaos is the result of how I came to know of the “Famous Wolf of Yellowstone,” and why we came here.
Sunrise gradually revealed the valley to us and the wind died down to a hush. The cliffs of Druid Peak were brief outlines below a stunned yellow sky. We both woke up when the camper in front of us turned on its engine, a thick funnel of smoke releasing from its tailpipe. “Should we go out there?” Corinne asked looking around us to be sure our place in line was secure. The line of cars moved one-by-one so I began to practice in my head what to ask the park ranger. Corinne prompted me with more questions, I practiced mine—it felt like so much was on the line in that moment. We pulled up and the park ranger smiled at us knowingly; she seemed proud of us for being fourth in line—she made us feel like we worked hard, did it right and belonged there. She suggested several campsites that were the “best,” so we chose the one nearest a “game trail”—a crossing path for animals to get to the creek. We were on the edge of the animals’ wilderness.
We both wanted to have a ceremony for our union, but neither of us knew if we believed in marriage. The word reeked of heteronormativity, of disaster. Does marriage make sense for queer people? We decided to write our own agreements and plan a ceremony that felt like a community understanding of our love; we wanted everyone there to know what we meant by partnership, though I’m not certain that we knew exactly what that meant, except that we didn’t want to erase ourselves for each other.
For both of us, our ceremony in North Carolina was the greatest moment of feeling loved as adults. We felt high from being seen, for being celebrated, being embraced. We were too exhausted to make love that night, instead we made a tight knot with our bodies in the king-sized bed.
Ours was the only tent in the campsite. Everyone else brought pop-up trailers or campers. Their containers looked sealed, sturdy and, frankly, luxurious. We pitched our two-person tent tightly in the earth, remembering the wind from the night before. Our canopy offered shade and we hid our food in the bear-proof locker. After breakfast, there was a stir from the older couple next to us. A shout. A point to the meadow. A black bear.
She had her nose trained on a pile of ant larvae about 20-feet from out tent. We looked at each other with our best “Oh shit” look, then jumped in the truck. The bear’s body was an amazing heap of fur and power, though her grace at scooping the larvae was soft as moonlight. She sniffed around and moved on, but left an impression. We understood why people came here in campers rather than tents.
In 1872 Yellowstone became a national park, protecting 2.2 million acres for their awe-inspiring composition of mountains, valleys, canyons, geysers, hot springs and wildlife. The park was intended as a “pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Yes, pleasuring as a verb. In 1895, over five thousand visitors entered the park pleasuring. I don’t have photographs, but I am certain that the pleasurers were all white.
Today, almost 5 million people come here to pleasure themselves each year.
Corinne and I don’t like public pleasuring. Since we are queer, our pleasuring doesn’t fit in with mainstream pleasuring—excepting a few movies and the occasional music show. Our time in the world outside of queer and artist communities is spent on its edges; people call us “ladies” and we recoil. People see us hold hands sweetly and they recoil. There’s a lot of recoiling around us.
But we are deeply sensitive and loving: we love pleasure.
Slough Creek Campground seemed almost perfect; away from the 5 million people, sunny, nestled near a creek. The challenges were the constancy of people milling around campers, refreshing their day-long relationship with Bud Light and swinging binoculars from tree-to-tree. It was sweet-natured, but there was a spotlight. We washed behind our tent, ducking behind it to change our underwear.
We stayed in a private airstream on a cliff side in the Sierra Nevadas for our honeymoon. A dog named Piha checked on us each day, wagging her tail next to eggs delivered to us earlier. Next to the trailer was an outdoor kitchen and a bathhouse. The cast iron tub was so spacious we could both stretch out. It held the water’s heat for hours. On the first night we lit each tea light and melted into the water, melted into the landscape. It all just melted away: our move to Seattle, my insecurities, your earlier depression, money, capitalism, environmental violence, queer identities: gone. We did not feel lonely.
And we returned to each other; a reintroduction. We were lovers again, having sex whenever we wanted. You said the moment was like an opening that we moved into. I remember it as moving into a portal of time and energy that was restorative, open and bright.
Our campsite secure, we packed water and our favorite Clif bars and headed out of the valley to search for a wolf. Or to search for others searching for a wolf. Or to determine the reason for searching for something that is supposed to be wild.
An introduction suggests making the way for something, an opening to bring something in; it is context—a moment of looking into another’s eyes before you begin to know them informally. I don’t remember being formally introduced to Corinne; sometimes you glimpse someone spirit before first. I remember the performance of a fiction piece in graduate school that I thought was almost poetry. I have no idea what is was about, but it was piercing and complex. We talked in the hall afterwards, and I appreciated how the other students melted away. I thought that maybe we shared a depth and a privacy; that we shared a way of being in the world.
Wolves handle introductions a little differently. For them it is a way of being with the world. In a video we see a dark gray male wolf who has strayed from the Rose Creek pack. He wants to mate, he’s looking for a new pack to join. He calls to the Druid Peak pack, a complicated and questioning howl. The Druid’s howl back, but the deep tone of their alpha male, #38, is missing.
When the male wolf meets the pack, the introduction—the preliminary opening—is tense. The line between death and belonging is both fragile and terse. The pack smells him, tests him—they are reading his nerve and his will. At first he responds and stands his ground. Then he makes himself a statue under their threat. He can take it. After several hours of testing, he is accepted into the pack. The joy of community and belonging—the playfulness of a secure future for the pack—creates an opening we’d all be lucky to experience.
Wolves did not require a formal introduction to this land, they evolved and adapted here. In fact, much of the ecology of Yellowstone has been shaped by the patterns wolves and other animals have created for millions of years. So the story of their reintroduction is not a story at all—or shouldn’t be. It is what would naturally happen. But since a plane had to fly them over human-controlled lands to get here, since biologists had to adapt them to the landscape for several weeks so they wouldn’t run off looking for Canada, since they had to exist within an invisible boundary so humans didn’t kill them—we have a story.
Here’s the amazing thing about Yellowstone: there are non-human animals everywhere.
Here’s the problematic thing about Yellowstone: there are humans clumped up everywhere on the roadsides staring at them; slamming their brakes on the highway because something somewhere had moved; leaning from their windows with cameras shoved into bisons’ faces, approaching bison calves in flip flops and collared shirts.
If I were to paint a portrait of species loneliness, I’d have taken out a canvas and done a plein air composition of a traffic jam caused by bison crossing some road built on top of a melting glacier and some guy approaching them wearing a culturally appropriated flowered shirt and khakis.
We had received a packet of information when we entered the park, including a yellow flyer that depicted a male tourist who had been gored and vaulted into the air by a bison. His camera and ball cap flew up; the camera pointed at him. The caption read WILD ANIMALS ARE DANGEROUS. The flyer went on to say why they are dangerous and how to behave around them. It suggested that all pleasuring should occur inside your car. It said that tents “are not secure.”
We took our time on that first day, scoping out hikes and getting our bearings. The bears had their bearings; we did not. Sunrise and sunset were the suggested times to go looking for wolves, so after dinner we drove to a densely populated lookout along the highway. At first, we loitered around. You were looking for someone who I should meet so I could get more information on finding a wolf. I was avoiding people who wanted to talk about wolves. I was half-heartedly trying to be a good environmental literary journalist: I wore my binoculars, scanning the hills for movement; I sat near other folks doing the same thing and eavesdropped; I tried to find the remnants of a carcass that a guy with a spotting scope told us about, but couldn’t see anything. I was feeling more like a poet—one who stands on the edges of existence. One who, if I stayed there long enough, might realize something about being alive.
Corinne asked if I’d like to get away from all the people, and I did. We were both not pleasuring. We knew we didn’t belong there. We spotted a skinny trail through a meadow that wound back toward the hill just below where the spotting scopes were pointed. There were a few bison near its base. It felt good to be away from the other spectators. There must have been forty cars of people, and several couples appeared to be tailgating: beers in koozies, chips, pretzels, hot dogs, mini-grills. It was like a football game was about to begin, and the teams were Wolf vs. Elk – a Wildlife Superbowl match.
We were nervous on the walk: this was not a place for wandering humans. I mean, it was—it was a trail created for human feet as well as nonhuman paws and hooves. But this is where animals hunt and poop and fight and eat and sleep. Not a place for us. Yet as we walked I felt myself unwind toward the animal world. I felt the activity of tracking, my nose sharper, the awareness of my own nervous odor. The path was muddy and we spotted the impression of a wolf paw. My heart knelt into it.
We didn’t “see” anything except for all the amazing things we saw. We would learn over our week at Yellowstone the constancy of “did you see?” “Is there anything to see here?” It would feel like we were burning Annie Dillard’s essay “Seeing” over and over again. Back in the parking lot a Spanish speaking family was looking for something and the children seemed bored. One of the kids approached us and said, “did you see the wolf that was shadowing you along the path?” I said no. She said her mom watched a wolf follow us along the path. I looked to her and she saw somehow into me.
The rest of the week was characterized by general discomfort and a lack of pleasuring. We slept separated by the cold and wind, mildly panicked of becoming food for a grizzly. One night I woke up to a significant sniffing just outside our tent. I didn’t wake you—you already had your fill of anxiety. We tried to shower once at a less primitive campsite, but you took one look at the shower room filled with beach towels and hair dryers and knew that we didn’t belong there. In the sea of red USA shirts and Coronas, I felt like the first genderqueer person these people had ever seen. We started down one hiking trail, only to be warned off by a “recent carcass” flyer. Down the next trail a male pronghorn squared his shoulders and chased us back. On another trail, the giant claws of a grizzly had scratched a section of a tree away. The wilderness was keeping us out, as if a flyer had been handed to the animals: HUMAN ANIMALS ARE DANGEROUS.
Queer people reckon with safety every day. I am visibly transmasculine and Corinne is femme in appearance but with a complicated gender. Every time we walk through a door we are forcing our existences into a new room. Some rooms are too unsafe to enter. On our drive through Idaho Corinne had to pay for gas while I stayed in the car—it wasn’t safe for me in there.
I have always found safety and belonging in the animal world. Not because animals want me around, but because they don’t gender me. There are no social rules that have been constructed by animals to exclude me. So in a way, the Coronas and beach towels were a greater threat to us than the fresh piles of scat the size of watermelons. We spent the week negotiating safe spaces, finding peace for only brief moments.
The morning we did see a wolf was the last time we’d go looking for one. Our campsite was populated almost exclusively by animal biologists and naturalists. The couple next to us, John and Betty, were friends with the lead wolf trackers in the park who’d synchronized their radio signal with the signal of the rangers—they were who you followed for a sighting. They rushed to their truck and said “follow us if you want to see a wolf!” At that point, we didn’t want to—but Corinne reminded me that this was why we were here—so we hurried. We followed the dry dust kicked up by their truck to the highway where we saw a huge clump of people. Binoculars, spotting scopes: we were all there to see something. To really see it.
And we did. A tiny speck in the meadow sitting behind sage brush. Through my binoculars I saw the ginger-colored wolf’s handsome ears revolving through our sounds: the gasping, oohing, tracking sounds of our modern species. You got me to reluctantly talk to a park ranger. I asked him about wolf 832F, the “Famous Wolf of Yellowstone” who was killed in the winter of 2012. He couldn’t recall her. Maybe he remembers something about a she alpha who was killed. Not sure. She wasn’t famous to him at all.
I asked him why someone might describe a wolf as famous or as a “rock star,” and he wondered about the connection between people seeing their own wild nature in the eyes of wolves. He said “you begin to see them and it sticks: you want the chase, you want to see.”
After the wolf trotted off, the carnival of spectators milled around looking lost: nothing to see here. Cheryl and Dave’s radio clicked out a fuzzy voice. In a panic they grabbed their gear and sprinted to their van. The human clumps rushed to follow. They were off to go find themselves in another wolf.
In my journal I wrote: stun me, collar me, test me—I disappear by retreat.
Something I love about Corinne involves ritual: of reading the newspaper. Walk to the mailbox on Sunday morning, retrieve the New York Times, then curl up in a soft place; begin with the arts section to prepare for the front page; trace stories from beginning to end. The articles saved for me are a hodge-podge about animals or environmental disasters. I linger on them; the systems of planetary destruction that week. In December of 2012 Corinne clipped an article for me: “ ‘Famous’ Wolf is Killed Outside Yellowstone.” It told the story of 832F, the alpha female of the Lamar Valley pack. She had wandered past the invisible park boundary and was shot. Her brother was killed nearby just a few weeks earlier.
I researched 832F, trying to identify the conditions of her fame. Articles talked about her visibility to humans, how she would seem to entertain them rather than shy away. They tried to imagine how many photographs of her existed around the globe. They labeled her a global sensation. Yet the park ranger saw her as just another wolf.
What hungriness within the human species does fame fulfill? Fame was not the state of being of that wolf—her fame was a story constructed from the millions of visitors who came looking for wildness. They shared a question: what is it like to be her, roaming these cliffs, managing her pack, accelerating toward an exhausted elk, seizing her fangs into its throat? 832F was the reflection of a pervasive loneliness among us: the distance between our selves and our experiences—our animal bodies restless while our minds stare at illuminated screens.
After a hike up Specimen Ridge in which you and I sang Meatloaf and Whitney Houston songs to alert bears of our presences, passed by elk horn sculptures and stepped over immense bear poop piles, we finally gave in to secure tourism in our vehicle. We drove to the fog in Hayden’s Valley that kept the people away, drove to some geysers where the instability of the ground shook our spirits and spent time in an air-conditioned gift store. We purchased a roll of Sweet Sixteen chocolate donuts because a woman who admires the red fox at our campground ate them each morning. These are the travels of lonely people who love each other, but don’t touch in the night; whose bodies need the wildness of this place but don’t know how to open to it. Corinne said, “all the animals have a job except for us. We are just walking aimlessly.”
In the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone, something of our human spirit is trying to heal. The empty spaces within us are far from pretty, and I continue to calculate the cost on our planet. The frantic search for feeling alive through unembodied experiences is a gruesome spectacle, one that the animals of the park contend with daily through the lenses of binoculars and cameras. I wonder if we should finally say enough; if the park should close to pleasuring humans.
On our final night we retreated to Trout Lake—a place people do not go to view wildlife or seek the restoration of wolves. It was wind-quiet as the blues of dusk settled upon us. My arm was around you. Two ravens flew immediately overhead; the sun lowered behind the mountain. A wolf let go of a howl that nearly returned us.
JM Miller is a queer/trans/human poet, essayist, instructor and healer living in Seattle, WA. They have one poetry collection, Wilderness Lessons, and a chapbook, Primitive Elegy (alicebluebooks). JM won the Grand Prize for the Eco Arts Awards in 2014 and was a finalist for terrain.org’s 2013 poetry contest. They teach poetry and creative nonfiction writing at the University of Washington in Tacoma and are an instructor at Richard Hugo House. Their essays and poetry can be found at Tupelo Quarterly, Poecology, Bellingham Review, terrain.org, Cimarron Review, Columbia Poetry Review, CURA, Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics, Five Fingers Review, Whitefish Review and others.