So where did you get the idea for your book?
Authors hear this question frequently. It is a good conversation starter because it asks the writer to punctuate the highlights in the long journey to bring the story to the readers. Though some novelists can crank out books in several weeks, most of us spend months and years on the venture, only slowly closing in on the final version that sees print. When a process involves that much time and thought, several elements eventually make their way into the project. We may not always be aware of what life experiences or stories we entertain (in books or movies) are influencing us as we make decisions about our narratives, but usually there are major ones that stand out clearly.
Wolf Code has a complicated origin, but one of the big influences was Jim and Jamie Dutcher’s book The Hidden Life of Wolves. In the Foreword, Robert Redford effectively summarizes the problem, showing how wolves often are irrationally vilified: “Directly descending from the same genetic background as the dogs we welcome into our families, the wolves in this drama have come to be regarded as the evil twins of our lovable and devoted pets.” (See the letter online.) That portrait led many hunters to kill wolves indiscriminately, making the extermination of untold numbers of wolves and buffalo a terrible part of American history.
Jim and Jamie Dutcher
Jim and Jamie Dutcher have courageously spoken out against that misrepresentation of wolves. Their book details their six years living with a pack of wolves in a 25-acre enclosure in the Sawtooth Mountains. The Dutchers were able to observe wolf pack behavior, to see what social animals wolves are (and how they care for each other). Their books and documentaries reveal a complexity to wolf life that few humans understand, much less acknowledge. (Read their story here.)
This general lack of knowledge about wolves among the wider public leads to two misrepresentations of wolves. The first is the violent response Redford and others have described: we see the wolf solely as a bloodthirsty hunter who threatens our livestock, pets, and our safety. This misrepresentation leads to callous extermination and feeds stories that portray wolves as nightmares. Think of the widespread images of the Big Bad Wolf or the popularity of werewolf (shapeshifter) stories. Next to vampires, ghouls, and zombies, we have werewolves. Much imagery since the Middle Ages (and the Inquisition) has portrayed wolves in this negative light (Dutcher 104-105).
However, the other response is to jump too far in the other direction, seeing the wolf merely as a misunderstood dog, one who could be a loving pet for humans. Even if this sentiment is well-intentioned, it does much damage too because wolves are free spirits who will resist our attempts to domesticate them. Sometimes this sentimentalized portrait of the wolf gets wrapped into superficial references to American Indian traditions that portrayed wolves as spirit guides (106).
The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park and the subsequent “restoration” of the ecosystem them has led a number of biologists to speak of trophic cascades, evidence that wolves do have significant positive effects on the world in which we live. Some believe scientific study can help us then to control wolves, yet this vision of the wolf confined with radio collars does not acknowledge the gifts wolves offer either (108).
The Wolf as “Social Animal”
The Dutchers, instead, put forward the image of the wolf as “social animal,” one we should not only observe, but also live with. This wolf is “neither demon, nor deity, nor data,” but a living creature, displaying intense devotion to their family, their pack. The Dutchers argue this understanding of wolves only comes with patience and attentiveness; we need to be open to communicating with them. As Robert Redford says in his introduction, we must be willing to listen to them.
It is the Dutchers’ portrait of their life with the Sawtooth Pack that most inspired my own description of wolves in Wolf Code. Every third chapter in the novel offers a view of life within a wolf pack; here I heavily drew on the Dutchers’ description of wolves as social animals, depending upon each other. Relationships are key to wolf life. In addition, you will see in the conversations between Tsula and Don, and other characters they meet along the way, many of the arguments the Dutchers make in their books and documentaries. The wolf is a complicated animal, deserving our serious, calculated attention. Of course, packs can be dangerous, but if we learn to live with them, yet without trying to domesticate them, then there is much we can learn from them. Our lives and our planet will be much the richer for them. (Learn more about Wolf Code here.)