“Wolfish” by Erica Berry begins with a crime scene. “This is one of those stories that begins with a female body. Hers was crumpled, roadside, in the ash colored slush between asphalt and snowbank.” OR-106, the 106th wolf that had been collared in Oregon (where Berry and I both live, although there’s no relation). OR-106 had been shot, a continuation of a spate of wolf killings across the state in 2021 and 2022.
Berry, whose MFA was earned at the University of Minnesota, began studying wolves in 2013. She elucidates the myths and stories we tell about our lupine fears in ferocious and beautiful writing. Like the traveling wolf in search of companionship, Berry ranges far and wide, taking readers along on her own journey — Oregon, the United Kingdom, Italy, the northern United States — in search of answers.
Wolves’ journeys from Idaho across Oregon and down into California galvanized feelings of both awe and animosity. In the western U.S., the wolf inspires hatred from many ranchers, who, despite raising animals for slaughter, find the killing of their animals by wolves to be intolerable. And while Berry attempts to understand such a contradiction, it’s one of the rare instances in her exemplary study where I felt shortchanged by the discussion. The surface-level of that discussion is a testament to how richly layered and complex the overall work is.
Berry recounts how fear accompanied her in her studies, not from the wolf, but from everyday encounters with men, and, in Italy, from a danger that she could not have anticipated. The most powerful theme that runs through “Wolfish” is human fear, and here Berry’s vulnerability and strength is displayed in poignant detail. While recognizing the cultural safeguards she has inherited as a white woman, she lays bare the real dangers posed to women, especially those traveling alone, and the media-fed paranoia that sees constant danger for women who are without the protection of a man.
In addition to the taxonomy, biology and behaviors of terrestrial wolves, Berry argues that it’s crucial to understand the “cultural taxidermy, created by humans, fabricated with parts gathered across time and space, and howling first and foremost in our heads. The symbolic wolf is enormous.”
The symbolic wolf occupies space in the stories told by various tribes — the Kalapuya, the Pueblo and the Cherokee, for example — in which the wolf is watchdog, creator and a human relative, and in the stories of wolves that have come down to western culture from Europe. Fairy tales, idiomatic expressions, warrior tales all amplified human fear, and led to the systematic extermination of wolves across Britain and Europe. And if Berry is critical of these harmful stories, she also casts a cynical eye at those who claim to love the wolf, over-identifying the animal with their own views of humanity.
In 2021, a mass poisoning in northeastern Oregon killed off the entire Catherine pack. That deliberate, obliterative act is representative of how the wolf as symbol occupies much more territory in the human head than it does in the narrow bands of space it wanders on the continent.