Canine Kisses… and the Power of Story

I’ve been touched by a wolf, wrapped and changed and marked by her wild energy.

Some years ago, during a weekend session of “Art, Advocacy and Landscape” class held on the campus of the Earthfire Institute, a spiritual retreat and animal sanctuary near Driggs, Idaho, our facilitator, Jean, halted us during a conversation about the nature of wildness, and the fragility of legal protections for wolves in the West.

“Before we start talking about wolves, I think the best thing to do would be to bring a wolf in here,” said Jean. He disappeared for ten minutes then reappeared at the door, a snow-white She-wolf at his side.

“This is Chimayo,” he told us. The wolf bounded into our yurt with the power, grace, and enormity of a dragoness. Jean laid down her chain and instructed us to relax. “Don’t show any fear,” he said. “And don’t reach out; let the wolf come to you.”

Chimayo walked silently around our circle, sniffing and sensing. She nibbled my neighbor’s toe then stopped at my knees, moved in closer. I willed myself still. Majesty, I thought, as she raised her eyes to mine. She nodded quickly upward, and I felt the sandy-slick warmth of her tongue as she licked me, once, in the middle of my brow. The sixth chakra. My third eye.

We pulled out our journals: So this is wolf energy, I wrote in the margins. And I will never be the same. 

Chimayo. Photo: Earthfire Institute.

At the end of the weekend we stitched medicine bags as offerings to the refuge, tucking eggshells, twigs, bison fur and other trappings inside linen squares we closed, then adorned with milagros, feathers and bits of bark. Mine was simple, whip-stitched, spare in decoration, embroidered with a single name:

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“What is wild?” We had been asking ourselves, naiively and discursively at times, since we’d started our journey as a graduate school cohort six months before. “Did we create wild when we created its opposite?”

Jean and his partner Susan had spent the weekend trying to convince us that humans once knew how to communicate, to inter-be, with other animals. There was no great separation, Jean believed, between “us” and “other”; rather, we had simply forgotten the way, had built up isolations and insulations instead of honing the skills and sensitivities both he and Susan seemed to possess, and which allowed them to interact in hauntingly intimate ways with the wolves, bears, foxes, deer, and other wild creatures in their charge.

For me it was a head-spin. Yellowstone had been my own best schooling in wildness; there, we built our respect and connection through distance. In Yellowstone, wolves, black bears, grizzlies, bison, elk, moose and mountain lions are assigned legal yardages of separation: tread within 100 yards of a grizzly and I once could have called you in for a ticket.

I had thought that to love meant to admire from afar. Here, by contrast, Jean danced with his wolves; Susan fed deer and foxes from her hands.

It’s been three years and change since my weekend with Jean, Susan, Chimayo and the others, and the questions still tease: What is wildness? How do we best honor wild beings, wild landscapes? And, How do we cultivate those wild, communicative, sensate, animal parts of our selves?

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Writers in the Environmental Humanities canon put great faith in the written, sung, chanted and spoken word, and in story, as channels for developing and redeveloping our human, yet also more-than-human capacity for wild understanding. The most recent such text to find me has been Clarissa Pinkola Estés 1992 exploration, Women Who Run With The Wolves. 

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The act of writing can be so wild on its own: in a trance we pour and bleed, unediting, onto the page that which we channel from deep, unknown sources. Then, the wild act of reading alchemizes writer’s intent with reader’s cultural and personal experience to produce rounded, meaningful story. Once in a while even the materiality of the book itself demonstrates wildness—willed-ness—as it finds the perfect reader, rapt and ready at the perfect moment in her life, tucked temptingly into the perfect periphery of an otherwise innocuous bookstore stack.

When I first saw this sleek black book I jumped at the title, howled inside as I read the words of Estés’ introduction:

“We are all filled with a longing for the wild. There are few culturally sanctioned antidotes for this yearning. We were taught to feel shame for such a desire. We grew our hair long and used it to hide our feelings. But the shadow of Wild Woman still lurks behind us during our days and in our nights. No matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four-footed.”

Then, this:

“Healthy wolves and healthy women share certain psychic characteristics: keen sensing, playful spirit, and a heightened capacity for devotion. Wolves and women are relational by nature, inquiring, possessed of great endurance and strength. They are deeply intuitive, intensely concerned with their young, their mates, and their pack…They are fiercely stalwart and very brave.”

Oh, to be woman, to be wolflike and wild! I had never read nor heard such a pure expression of my soul’s own desire.

Within days I had a library copy in my bag, which I would devour with budding canine fangs at bedside, in waiting rooms, on sweat-sticky subway rides. When my  library renewal lapsed I sprung for my own copy and re-started it so I could circle, scribble, and underline to my heart’s content.

Has a book, a song, a story ever gripped you this way?

Estés develops her exploration through a myriad of lenses: psychoanalyst, folklorist, storyteller, mother, wolf biologist, and woman of varied travels and ethnic backgrounds. Chapter by chapter she introduces original reworkings of well-known, or lesser well-known folk tales, like The Tale of Bluebeard or The Ugly Duckling, then parses out elements from each that instruct the reader—most often, the female reader—in ways to develop a strong, wild, intuitive, wolf-like feminine strength, and sense of self.

She writes of archetypes buried in fairy tale characters and situations, heroines and villains alike: how the old hag in the woods represents the wild-mother lessons of discernment, endurance, and courage, to be experienced after the influence of a young girl’s more nurturing, early-life mother subsides; how the ugly duckling’s mother’s rejection indicates that mother’s own incomplete sense of self, and perhaps her own unfinished “mothering.”

It is thick, trance-like, transformative storytelling worth getting lost in. Reading this text brought me back to that fateful yurt in Idaho, with Chimayo’s wild calling so clear on my forehead; and also, to those distant days spent hiking and wolf-watching in Hayden and Lamar.

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Processing a wolf-killed bison, on a day-long tag-along with Yellowstone’s Fall 2008 wolf study crew.

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“It is my belief that story is meant to set the inner life back into motion again. …Story solutions lessen fear, elicit doses of adrenaline at just the right times, and most importantly for the captured naive self, cut doors into walls which were previously blank.”

I have to believe, for my own purpose and vocation, and for our survival in a world where the Natural Wild bleeds and screams and burns, that story-sharing indeed matters, and that it holds the power Estés claims.

Please, read this book. Find yourself in these common characters, in Estés more vivid, un-Disneyfied retellings, and apply their lessons in your lives. The journeys may be dark, wild, out-of-control, but as Estés writes: sometimes, we’ve simply got to “kiss the hag.”

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4 thoughts on “Canine Kisses… and the Power of Story

  1. I’ve had that book since it was first out way back when (sort of dates me, eh?). You inspire me to go into my back room library and hunt it up, set it next to my bed, and make it the last thing I read before dream time. Perhaps I will dream of wild wolves, running with them across the Lamar landscape. Thank you, HIlary.

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  2. Yes, that book gripped me the same way. I love it so much that it travels with me in my car to work. Sometimes I grab it and read a passage, any passage, on my break, especially if I’m feeling distant from the wild woman in me. It’s a roadmap, a bit of a history book, a celebration, and a reaffirmation of the power of myth and story. Thanks so much for sharing this.

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