Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Inhabiting Paradise - 9

Barry Lopez contemplates predator, prey, and the need for wild meat:

The most beguiling moment in the hunt is the first moment of the encounter. Wolves and prey may remain absolutely still while staring at each other.

Immediately afterward, a moose may simply turn and walk away; or the wolves may turn and run; or the wolves may charge and kill the animal in less than a minute. An intense stare is frequently used by wolves to communicate with each other, and wolves also tend to engage strangers--wolf and human--in stares. I think what transpires in those moments of staring is an exchange of information between predator and prey that either triggers a chase or defuses the hunt right there. . . .

That moment of eye contact between wolf and prey seems to be visibly decisive. Here are hunting wolves doing many inexplicable things (to the human eye). They start to chase an animal and then turn and walk away. They glance at a set of moose tracks only a minute old, sniff, and go on, ignoring them. They walk on the perimeter of caribou herds seemingly giving warning of their intent to kill. And the prey signals back. The moose trots toward them and the wolves leave. The pronghorn throws up his white rump as a sign to follow. A wounded cow stands up to be seen. And the prey behave strangely. Caribou rarely use their antlers against the wolf. An ailing moose, who, as far as we know, could send wolves on their way simply by standing his ground, does what is most likely to draw an attack, what he is least capable of carrying off: he runs.

I called this exchange in which the animals appear to lock eyes and make a decision the conversation of death. It is a ceremonial exchange, the flesh of the hunted in exchange for respect for its spirit. In this way both animals, not the predator alone, choose for the encounter to end in death. There is, at least, a sacred order in this. There is nobility. And it is something that happens only between the wolf and his major prey species. It produces, for the wolf, sacred meat.

Imagine a cow in the place of the moose or white-tailed deer. The conversation of death falters noticeably with domestic stock. They have had the conversation of death bred out of them; they do not know how to encounter wolves. A horse, for example--a large animal as capable as a moose of cracking a wolf's ribs or splitting its head open with a kick--will usually panic and run.


Native American cultures in general stressed that there was nothing wrong with dying, one should only strive to die well, that is, consciously choose to die even if it is inevitable. The greatest glory accrued to a warrior who acted with this kind of self-control in the very teeth of death. The ability to see death as less than tragic was rooted in a different perception of ego: a person was simultaneously indispensable and dispensable (in an appropriate way) in the world. In the conversation of death is the striving for a death that is appropriate. i have lived a full life, says the prey. I am ready to die. I am willing to die because clearly I will be dying so that the others in this small herd will go on living. I am ready to die because my leg is broken or my lungs are impacted and my time is finished.

The death is mutually agreeable. The meat it produces has power, as though consecrated. (That is a good word. It strikes us as strange only because it is out of its normal context.)

I have been struck, considering these things, by the difference between captive and wild wolves, and I think that much of the difference-- a difference of bearing, a dynamic tension immediately apparent in a wild wolf and lacking almost entirely in captive animals--lies in their food. The wolf in the wild subsists on his earned meat. The captive is fed on the wastes of commercial slaughterhouses and food made in factories by machines. Wolves in zoos waste away. The Naskapi, to this day, believe that the destruction of their people, the rending of their spirit, has had mainly to do with their being forced to eat the meat of domestic animals.

The difference between wild meat and tame meat to a hunting culture is a matter of monumental significance. It was a fundamental principle of life that, in the case of the Indian, the white man simply never noticed and the Indians did not know how to explain. I remember the first time I gave a penned wolf a piece of chicken. And I remember the feeling in a Minnesota clearing the first time I came on a wolf kill, picked up the moose skull, and turned it in my hands.

Whether wolf and prey act according to some mutual understanding, or whether they only unconsciously participate in a fundamental drama, is something we shall probably never know. All we do know, staring up at the paintings of game animals on the cave walls at Lascaux, is that the belief that there was more to hunting than killing, and that dying was as sacred as living, was not something that one day just fell out of the sky.
-excerpts from “Of Wolves and Men,” by Barry Lopez

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