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Louisa Willcox’s Blog

Of Wolves, Bears and the Yaak: the Power of Story

Louisa Willcox

Posted August 2, 2008 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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Last Saturday, I was the guest story teller at the Yaak wilderness festival, an eclectic annual gathering of woodsworkers, back-to-the-landers, local artists, writers, musicians, and conservationists committed to protecting an incredible stretch of wild country that is the Cabinet Yaak Ecosystem.  (See Rick Bass’s piece in the last issue of OnEarth Magazine).  Lots of kids running around, many with faces painted to look like cats, butterflies, and other animals, thanks to a woman seated at a table with a palette of bright paints.  Booths selling local jewelry, hooked rugs, hemp neckwear, and smoothies were doing a brisk business.  With 200 people on a hot July day, the beer and bratwurst went fast.  

The Yaak Valley Forest Council, a group I have worked with for many years and long admired, sponsored the event.  This group of iconoclasts and creative spirits came together through a shared sense of urgency over the threats to their native trout and watersheds, forests and wildlife, as well as their way of life, and work tirelessly to protect and restore what local author Rick Bass calls “the land that the Wilderness Act forgot.” 

It is easy to forget the Cabinet Yaak.  There is no big-name park in the middle of it, like Glacier or Yellowstone.  And despite an abundance of wild forest lands, as Rick Bass says, there is no congressionally designated Wilderness in the entire Yaak, the northern part of this remote ecosystem.  

Tucked away in a quiet corner of northwest Montana, the Cabinet Yaak, with its lush cedar-hemlock forests, is a jungle compared to the open dry forests of Yellowstone country where I am from.  Indeed, this land is part of an extensive interior rainforest that extends for miles north into Canada in the geologic lowland called the “Rocky Mountain Trench.”  

But despite the ecological differences between this place and Yellowstone, these ecosystems share threatened populations of grizzlies, wolverines, and wolves, and other wildlife that rely on large tracts of untrammeled country.  Both regions are riddled with old clearcuts and logging roads, that fragment habitat and increase poaching.  The remoteness of these ecosystems and their abundance of wildlife is a double-edged sword.  These qualities are attracting new residents – lots and lots of them.  On one hand, they add to the diversity of the local culture, while on the other, they can bring old habits, like leaving out unsecured garbage, which can be a problem for bears.  And more and more newcomers are bringing new recreational toys such as four wheelers, which are penetrating the last bits of wild country that remain.  Ahh we humans, we can be such a curse – and/or a blessing.   

I was the act between the music sessions.  And I was nervous, and not because I was standing in front of a couple hundred somewhat distracted people.  And it was not because I seemed, to some perhaps, to delay the appearance of regionally acclaimed folksinger Amy Martin.  It was because I was telling a couple of stories that meant a lot to me and I didn’t want to blow it.  

One was an excerpt of a play I had written a few years back, called “Dreaming with Cheney,” about a grizzly who tries to save her habitat by persuading people of its importance, showing them what was happening to it, and reminding them of the old, old stories that show the interconnectedness of the lives of bears and humans throughout thousands of years of shared history.  She does this by invading the dream lives of humans including, eventually, Dick Cheney.

Of course I had cleaned the piece up for the kids, and tailored it to this audience.  I put in the characters of the champions of the Yaak – people like Yaak Forest Council director Robyn King and organizer Scott Daily – and took out all the stuff about Dick Cheney.  Even without Cheney, who provided a lot of the comedy in the original, it remained an important piece for me, because these were my words – not those of some storyteller who lived hundreds of years ago – and because the bear at the center of it was a grizzly from the Cabinet Yaak.  

With only 20-40 grizzlies, this bear population is in desperate trouble.  Although I work hard to better their prospects through engaging in processes to improve roads standards, promoting protection of their wilderness habitat, and working with colleagues to prevent a massive silver/copper mine from being built, I can never get away from the stark reality of the tragedy that is taking place here.  These bears are on the brink of disaster, and the numbers are declining. When you are that close to zero, extinction is not far off.  If I could not find a way to make these bears’ story real and relevant and a little bit funny, I did not know how to bear (so to speak) their tragic plight.  And yes, my piece is full of puns.   

Well the sound system was weird, and my voice echoed what I was saying behind me, so I could hear myself twice.  The hot sun felt like a hammer.  After the first few lines, my throat stuck and I realized that I did not have a glass of water.  And then I saw Rick Bass, one of my heroes, in the back row.  

But somehow the power of the story pulled me along.  And at one point when I needed to find a young person in the audience to engage with me in the piece, my eyes landed on a tan, young woman in a tank top who smiled at me at just the right time.  She took up her part perfectly.  

The second story was easier, because the day had cooled off, sound system worked better - - and it was an old Russian fairy tale.  I had grown so tired of all the bad fairy tales about wolves, that I had set out to find one where the wolf was not about to eat somebody.  There are a lot actually. In this one, “Prince Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf, ” the prince is basically an incompetent boob who is saved from disaster and succeeds in his quest, by being willing to ride a wolf after it eats his horse.  In these old stories, they say that you can look at all the characters as parts of or qualities in yourself.  The piece turns on the young prince’s daring to mount the wolf – that wild and wise part of himself that knows what to do and where to go to find what he needs.  The wolf here is that deep, wild wisdom, that inner knowing, that is inside in all of us, if we will just listen. 

The crowd had grown by this time, and a group of  about 15 kids,  almost all of them with faces painted like animals, sprawled in a half circle right in front of me.  The story took 25 minutes to tell (a classic Russian story), but the kids, even the really little ones, listened the whole way through.  As with most kids, that wild wolf spirit has not yet been killed off or tamed with years of “education” and acculturation.  

I’m hoping these kids never forget how to listen to that wild wolf inside themselves when they grow up.  And that they will always be able to hear the howl of the wolf and see the sign of the grizzly in the Yaak, which still retains its magic to take us deep into the wild.   

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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