My Wolf Research Adult Day Trip: Reflections on Life, Death, and Perspective Shifts
In 2011, my mom came across the Wolf Research Adult Day Trip in one of her emails rom the International Wolf Center, an educational center. We had visited the Wolf Center a couple of times in the past during day trips up north. The email explained that participants would include an aerial telemetry flight, evening howling field trip, feeding program, snowshoe hike, necropsy observation, and a “slumber party” in the auditorium that overlooks the wolf observation area. Although I was apprehensive about the necropsy portion as well as some of the biology activities, the animal lover and adventure seeker in me jumped at the opportunity. I am so glad I did. The trip changed me in ways that I did not expect.
I drove for four and a half hours the night before to stay in a hotel the night before the trip. As I drove, I was mindful of how the landscape became more and more natural. The roads were iffy in places –it was February and there was fresh snow most places. The morning of the trip I met the group members. There was one couple from Germany, a couple Native American men (one of which was a classmate during my undergrad), a business man from Minneapolis, and a group of biology students from Nebraska. Our leader, Jessie, was a biologist and educator at the Wolf Center. We began that morning in the classroom as preparation to learn about radio location technology. I was feeling a bit nervous but also excited.
New Perspectives on Life
During meditation, I’ve sometimes reached a state of mind that others have described as “being on the mountaintop.” This is a feeling of complete open awareness in which my body and mind are completely in synch. I am aware of myself, the world, and myself in the world. I am aware that I am alive. The connection between the world and myself dissolves. I have sometimes felt this in grocery stores and even at stoplights. I am outside of my own perspective for several moments and feel very much a part of the world. While I do not use drugs, I can’t help but thinking of this meme when I’m in this place, because it’s a mind-blowing experience. I’m sure I look pretty ridiculous just staring in awe in the cereal aisle watching other shoppers.
I felt this same “being on the mountaintop” feeling while up in front seat of the small-engine plane we used to search for wolves aerially. Looking down at the trees and animals moving at the same time was beautiful. We flew over the Superior National Forest, and the landscape was mind blowing. In spite of using radio technology to try and locate wolves, we did not see any. What we did see, though, were a large variety of animal tracks. We knew that wolves and probably moose had been there. They had encoded their actions on the earth. It made me think of my own kinds of tracks – what I’m encoding on the world. Being up in that plane was also a humbling experience. I was reminded that we exist in an interdependent ecosystem, and that nature is always moving and changing. It reminded me that the only thing permanent is impermanence, the theme, I believe of the Beatle’s “Across the Universe:”
New Perspectives on Death
Death scares me, like most people I think. I am afraid of my family members dying, as well as my pets. I absolutely hate seeing animals in pain, and whenever I see an animal that’s been hit on the side of the road, I almost always look away. That’s why the thought of sustained observation of a dead wolf during the necropsy portion of this trip seemed like a bad idea.
I was surprised, then, when given the opportunity to step up to the corpse of the wolf, I found myself stepping up and even touching it (with gloves on). The necropsy was done in a context of respect. The leader of the group was a biologist who was interested in studying its cause of death, I believe, in order to protect wolves in the future. I think part of what drew me to look closely at the wolf was a desire to acknowledge and understand death. So often I’ve looked away quickly when I saw dead animals, but here was an opportunity to stay with my reaction and see something different.
My professor and mentor, Sharon Cogdill, has talked in some of her classes about the agency that comes with prolonged gazing. When you stair at a piece of photojournalism for a long time, for instance, you begin to see its multiple layers of meaning and begin to make choices about how you read it. I experienced the same kind of thing: I gazed at the wolf and began to see more than just my fear, and more than just the suffering that the animal had experienced. We learned in the necropsy that the animal did indeed suffer. The new layer I learned from staying, however, By was that its suffering was a result of natural causes. I had the epiphany that suffering is a natural part of life not only for humans, but animals as well. But I also was mindful that it had more of a story than just its death. I learned its age and where it travelled typically. From learning about wolf biology in general, I could understand what its life must have been like. These were all layers of meaning that I miss when I look away from animals on the road side.
Another layer that I typically miss is the close glimpse of a dead body. Again, I usually only see quick glimpses of dead bodies on the side of the road. I think part of what bothers me about “road kill” is that there is no respect or awareness given to these bodies. During the biology trip, surrounded with a young, burgeoning biologists and community members that appreciated animals, we gave the body attention. This in itself felt like a kind of honoring of the body and the wolf itself.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that not all scientific observations with animals are done with respect; this would be far from the truth. My close friend Amanda, who is becoming a nurse, reported a very disrespectful student who made jokes while dissecting a dead cat. And certainly, science has exploited animals for a variety of products, medical as well as commercial. The International Wolf Center, however, showed integrity and respect during this portion of the day trip.
The juxtaposition of the airplane observation, which for me presented a pulled back, big-picture perspective of life and the up-close observation of death, was transformative. I believe both of these perspectives are important, and it’s important to shift between the two. Both are necessary to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for life and death.
Wolf Howling and Slumber Party with the Wolves
That evening, we piled into the bus once again and went further north. It was snowing hard, and the bus would slide back and forth occasionally. I loved that it was risky, and enjoyed the comfort of the warm lights that lit the inside of the bus. I was also warm thanks to my many layers of winter attire. At one point, the bus had to stop completely because we kept sliding on the roads. We were out in the woods at this point, but I loved the sense of adventure so I did not care. Eventually we were able to move forward and we stopped to do our wolf howling. It was very dark outside, and extremely quiet. Although I live in a rural area, there are still dogs barking in the night, sounds of far off traffic, and orange city lights in the distance. Not up there. It was a very full silence.
After listening to instructions on how to howl, the ten or so of us began howling as a group. In a different context, I’m sure we would have felt ridiculous, but we were really in nature and I think we all felt like we were actually communicating…which we were. I felt very close to my group, oddly enough. It was one of the neatest things I’ve ever done with a group of people. We never did hear a response, but being in the dark in the very, very quiet and putting our message out there was awesome, nonetheless.
After dark that evening, after playing some games in the classroom, we moved into the auditorium that overlooked a wolf pack. I spread out a couple of giant dog beds on the carpeted steps. I could not sleep. There was too much to process…and the wolves were right there outside. Near dawn, the snow outside glowed dark blue. As the blue turned a bit brighter, I heard the wolves howling. I went down the glass and while everyone else in the room was asleep, I listened and watched the group howl. It was haunting.
Snowshoe and the Ride Home
The snowshoe the next morning was incredibly beautiful. I tend to bitch about the snow and only focus on the pain of snow removal and the messy, dirty roads in town. Up north, however, dressed to be outside and armed with snowshoes, I remembered that part of me really loves snow. This was an important shift in perspective for me. I felt like a kid again. My brother and I used to put on our snowmobile suits and walk around on the land in our back yard. We settled into the experience. Like the necropsy, I was once again settling into something that I normally rush through. We traveled to the falls and learned about the land. I kept falling through the snow, but my new friends kept helping me up.
I felt very, very happy. I also felt like a part of me was awake that had been asleep for quite a long time. On the ride home, I was exhausted. The excitement of the trip robbed me of sleep both nights. At the same time, I felt very excited – the same “being on the mountaintop” feeling remained. I listened to the Talking Head’s “Once in a Lifetime.”
The song, I believe, is about acknowledging that in spite of the drama we give our energy to in our daily lives (“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife”), there is something bigger that is both permanent and impermanent, symbolized by water. This force, which operates through the passage of time, dissolves all that we try to cling to. I connected to this song, especially after being reminded of the temporal nature of life by participating in the wolf necropsy. The song, I believe, is also about reflecting on the larger purpose in life. After reconnecting with nature and literally getting to see the big picture from the small-engine plane, I found I could remember the deeper meaning of life.