“A Beast of Waste and Desolation”: Memoirs as Poignant Tools for Conservation

Never Cry Wolf (Mowat Farley) and Shadow Mountain (Renee Askins)

Ten years ago, the last of the original fourteen wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone died. Their descendants now compose the ten packs located across the national park, and their establishment is widely considered a great success for conservationists. Anyone interested in learning more the transformation of wolves in the public eye from, as Roosevelt said, “a beast of waste and desolation” to a necessary cog in a healthy ecosystem should check out these two fascinating books.

Written almost forty years apart, Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf (1963) and Renee Askins’ Shadow Mountain (2002) both chronicle the events that kindled in each a dedication to the species’ conservation. Despite their shared message, the two have remarkably different styles.

Askins’ lyrical, contemplative prose chronicles the key events in her youth and education that ultimately lead to her establishing the nonprofit Wolf Fund, ending after the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. Her book is more meditative than Mowat’s, unveiling the contradictions inherent in wildlife management, our history of arrogance and need for control, and the challenge faced by those trying to change the minds of politicians and ranchers. In embracing the wild, she does not shy from revealing the bad mixed with the good. Askins thoughtfully navigates these issues with poetic prose, weaving poetry from Rumi and excerpts from other authors into the context of her philosophy, life, and dedication to wolf reintroduction.

Mowat’s unadorned language stands in stark contrast to Askins’ prose, possibly reflecting the more scientific nature of his work observing the predator-prey interactions of wolves in Canada. He published the book in a period when the academic community’s consensus matched that of the government and public (a rare agreement): wolves jeopardized caribou and other game populations. They should be killed. Mowat, however, concludes that the pack sustained itself on predominately rodents, a claim disputed by many well-known biologists, such as the internationally-recognized wolf expert David Mech. Despite this criticism, Mowat successfully fostered a positive impression of wolves, transforming them from ferocious killers to animals living symbiotically with caribou. This, he freely admits in his article “Never Let the Facts Interfere with the Truth,” was the goal. His success is due, in part, to his spartan writing, which creates a physical sense of place and time, conveying immediate existence rather than reflection, and reading more like a narrated ethogram than an autobiography.

The result of both of these texts has been the public’s improved understanding of wolves and the importance of their reintroduction. Whether you’re looking for the simple observations of wolf behavior in northern Canada–simple observations that caused the reevaluation of our wildlife management policies–or the personal narrative of a woman dedicated to the vision of wolves roaming free in Yellowstone, both of these books make great reading to kickoff a summer camping trip.

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