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A Shepherd of Wolves
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A Shepherd of Wolves

Our sacralizing tendency assimilates every issue into a spiritualized conflict of visions that is ultimately not about policy but about identity.

A gray wolf in Montana. (Photo by B. Von Hoffmann/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

Author’s note: Wanderland will, if all goes according to plan, return to its familiar format next week. Many of you have asked about the triplets: They are thriving, and I will be writing something about the experience in the future. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the following. 

“As I was observing,” continued Michael, “this man also took the view that the symbol of Christianity was a symbol of savagery and all unreason. His history is rather amusing. It is also a perfect allegory of what happens to rationalists like yourself. He began, of course, by refusing to allow a crucifix in his house, or round his wife’s neck, or even in a picture. He said, as you say, that it was an arbitrary and fantastic shape, that it was a monstrosity, loved because it was paradoxical. Then he began to grow fiercer and more eccentric; he would batter the crosses by the roadside; for he lived in a Roman Catholic country. Finally in a height of frenzy he climbed the steeple of the Parish Church and tore down the cross, waving it in the air, and uttering wild soliloquies up there under the stars. Then one still summer evening as he was wending his way homewards, along a lane, the devil of his madness came upon him with a violence and transfiguration which changes the world. He was standing smoking, for a moment, in the front of an interminable line of palings, when his eyes were opened. Not a light shifted, not a leaf stirred, but he saw as if by a sudden change in the eyesight that this paling was an army of innumerable crosses linked together over hill and dale. And he whirled up his heavy stick and went at it as if at an army. Mile after mile along his homeward path he broke it down and tore it up. For he hated the cross and every paling is a wall of crosses. When he returned to his house he was a literal madman. He sat upon a chair and then started up from it for the cross-bars of the carpentry repeated the intolerable image. He flung himself upon a bed only to remember that this, too, like all workmanlike things, was constructed on the accursed plan. He broke his furniture because it was made of crosses. He burnt his house because it was made of crosses. He was found in the river.”

Lucifer was looking at him with a bitten lip.

“Is that story really true?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” said Michael, airily. “It is a parable. It is a parable of you and all your rationalists. You begin by breaking up the Cross; but you end by breaking up the habitable world. We leave you saying that nobody ought to join the Church against his will. When we meet you again you are saying that no one has any will to join it with. We leave you saying that there is no such place as Eden. We find you saying that there is no such place as Ireland.”

G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

“The predominant narrative of the Big Bad Wolf, which has its roots in biblical stories and Northern European fairy tales, arrived with colonization of America.” So writes author Erica Berry in a New York Times essay advertising her recent-ish book, Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear. (“Wise and arresting,” Vulture calls it.) It is in the minor part a book about wolves and in the major part a book about the author’s debilitating anxieties, which are wide-ranging, intense, and baroque. The stupidity of the sentence in the Times caught my attention, and so I read the book (which came out last year) and found that it is, as one might expect from the sentence above, a kind of barely literate confession of a particularly of-the-moment and Western species of madness (and here I do not necessarily mean the medically diagnosable kind; that isn’t my field) taking the form of an obsession that is unmistakably religious in character: a set of vague but intense convictions—alternately romantic and moralistic notions about our relationship with the natural world—held with the smug moral certitude one usually associates with a bright teenager, or with someone who once was a bright teenager and kind of stopped there in life even as the years went by. But why not be ignorant and certain at the same time? It is good business just now, and it is not as though a New York Times editor is going to ask, “Which biblical stories?” 

But—which biblical stories?

What we have here is another variation of the mania described by G. K. Chesterton in The Ball and the Cross, in which an evangelical atheist ends up attacking roadside fences because they are, if you look at them the right way, made up of wooden crosses. Substitute cringe-inducing adolescent pastoral romanticism for good old-fashioned atheism, and there you have it. 

I can hear you already: “All right, Williamson, we know you’re on leave for a bit, but are you really going to review a year-old book as the sole item in your newsletter this week?” No, I’m not. What follows isn’t really a book review but rather some thoughts occasioned by the errors and stupidity of a recent book—errors and stupidity that are, in their perverse way, more interesting than the book itself. Regular readers here will be familiar with my theme: The sacralizing tendency in American politics has had some very obvious effects that have been very much on my mind, particularly the emergence of an imperial cult around the office of the presidency and the person of the president. But the sacralizing tendency is broader than that, assimilating every issue, great and small—from tax policy to Ukraine to wolf-management programs—into a single spiritualized conflict of visions that is ultimately not about policy but about identity. 

Berry writes that she plans to make herself a “martyr” to the lupine cause. 

A martyr, I understood from a high school history reading about Joan of Arc [n.b., “I understood from a high school history reading about” is one of many examples of the author’s habit of writing like someone who learned English as a second language, recently and not very well] was someone who endured suffering on behalf of a cause. Sure, the definition could imply performativity, but at their [sic] purest, a martyr seemed noble. [n.b., St. Stephen & Co. must have breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, someone recognizes the nobility of the martyrs!] I didn’t care about being a hero, or saving lives, I just wanted to dissolve my fizzing ego in the fight for something bigger. Surely a martyr would not jog mental circles in her bed at night wondering if the pink mole on her forehead was a melanoma. A martyr, I imagined, had bigger things to worry about. She did not have time to live in the anxious future because she had to live in the fighting now. Real bravery felt hollow if visualized for myself, like throwing karate punches to my reflection in the mirror. But bravery on behalf of someone or something else? Easy.

Easy, eh? 

The notion of seeking out martyrdom to make life a little easier for oneself is very strange—it inverts the concept of martyrdom, the point of which isn’t helping anxious young American children of privilege to fall asleep more easily at night. But I’m no theologian: Maybe it should be! Perhaps if St. Peter had known about melatonin, he’d have slept soundly and wouldn’t have had to go to the trouble of getting himself crucified upside-down. Imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. or Mohandas Gandhi could have accomplished if only they’d known about Ambien and Xanax. Never mind the self-aggrandizement (Bravery? Easy!), just try to take in the sheer incoherence of it. 

(“Wise and arresting.”)

So, about those wolves: 

Wolf management is a controversial subject, particularly in those places where there actually are wolves. By the numbers, wolves aren’t especially dangerous—like sharks, they command the attention, even though you’re more likely to be killed in an encounter with a cow or a bee. As a public issue, wolves mainly present problems of property damage. The problem is a manageable one. For myself, I’m pro-wolf, pro-hunting, and pro-ranching. There are some animals that should be ruthlessly hunted to the point of eradication if possible (feral hogs) and others that should be cherished and encouraged, wolves among them. I love our national parks, though I am not quite fool enough to believe that these represent the “natural” world (if there is a more artificial environment on Earth than Yellowstone, where man and beast are subjected to extraordinary levels of surveillance and management, I don’t know what it is). I am also adult enough to appreciate that there are trade-offs between lupine interests and agricultural interests, and that the costs of encouraging the growth of wolf populations fall disproportionately on a relatively small group of people who don’t think of themselves as being especially well-suited to bear such burdens. 

That there might be an obvious Coasean solution to the problems presented by wolves is so obvious that many states are actually doing it, reimbursing farmers and ranchers for damage (mostly livestock deaths) caused by wolves. The money involved is pretty modest: A very high estimate from the USDA put cattle lost to wolves in the three major wolf states (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming)  at 2,834 in 2015, while state wildlife agencies covering the same areas confirmed only 148 such losses. But even if we accepted the higher number—and assumed we’re talking about the full market price of a mature cow, which we normally wouldn’t be—we’d only be discussing a few million dollars a year to generously compensate cattle ranchers for wolf damages, and similar sums for other producers affected by wolves. Some problems you really can just throw money at, and property damage caused by such rare wildlife is, in many cases, one of those problems.

But who wants to talk about paying for public goods when what you’re really interested in is martyrdom?

For writers such as Berry—a fantasist who plays so fast and loose with the truth that her friends (as she herself relates the story) assumed she was making up a tall tale when she informed them about a health scare she had endured—the facts of the case are secondary at best. You might generously call what she’s interested in an ethos, though you might also less generously call it cheap moralistic posturing. 

In either case, for the true believer it doesn’t matter whether our attitudes toward wolves actually come from “biblical stories” (they don’t). What matters is only that the cultural attitudes associated with the kind of people who say they take their views from the Bible are available for rhetorical use as a conservative, anti-intellectual point of contrast to the more enlightened Portland spiritualism of New Age goofs such as Berry, who at one point seriously cites her horoscope (“my star chart is a cascade of Libras”) as an explanation for her behavior. And the New Age goofery is thick in Wolfish, in part because it is thick in general out there in the dank wooly wilds of Real America, which, for Berry’s tribe, exists mostly between Portland and Minneapolis.

Wolfish has the marks of a book that was “researched” for a decade, written in six weeks, and edited in 11 minutes. The grammar is bad, the usage is bad, every other sentence is larded up with some insensible simile that fails on literary and literal grounds—the work of a writer who recently received an MFA, in short. (That’s right, readers: Mr. 327-word Opening Sentence judges that this particular puddin’ is overegged.) The work somehow is simultaneously overcooked and underdone, and it is full of obvious errors. For example, Berry at one point describes a 1967 newspaper headline as reading, “The ‘Average’ Boy Convicted of Savage,” a fragment that makes no sense as a headline or as English. (It doesn’t even quite rhyme.)  In fact, the headline reads, “The ‘Average’ Boy Convicted of Savage Murder—a Crime That Stunned a Nation,” a perfectly ordinary headline. But if all you saw was the thumbnail internet preview you get without clicking through to the British Newspaper Archive and then taking two minutes to register for an account, then you wouldn’t know, and instead you’d be out there twisting in the wind and inviting the question of why someone writing about a book bothered to do more detailed research into the subject than the person who wrote the book did. I suppose it is possible that the kids today have never seen a two-page newspaper spread and can’t imagine one. 

Newspaper articles give the author much trouble: She complains that the attacker in an awful English mosque assault in 2017 wasn’t described as a terrorist—the omission is a critical fact, she insists—and then cites as her primary evidence a Times of London article in which the words terror, terrorism, and terrorist are applied to the attacker a half-dozen times. Naturally, she also ignores the other Times of London headlines about the attack, the fact that everybody and his Canis familiaris from the mayor of London on down is on the record calling the attack terrorism, that the attacker was sentenced to life in prison for the terrorism charges of which he was convicted, etc. 

(You can find the article on the Times’ website, filed under “Terrorism.”) 

My colleague David French describes “bespoke realities”—if you have an elderly Fox News watcher in your life, you know what he means—and the “fact” that nobody calls non-Muslim terrorists “terrorists” is one of those bespoke facts that certain very morally and intellectually confident progressives know for a certainty to be a fact in spite of the fact that reality doesn’t comply. To think critically about even the most obvious claims is off the table as long as the claims are useful. Berry, for example, quotes “human-animal scholar” Garry Marvin: “The wolf is the only animal with a criminal reputation and record that has lasted for centuries and resulted in so many legal acts putting a price on its head.” Really? The only animal? If another little beastie doesn’t immediately leap to mind, the snake would like a minute or three of your time. Snake bounties even have their own special place in economics, the “cobra effect.” 

Berry is a graduate of a “girls’ empowerment camp,” among other things. She pointedly affirms her belief in astrology, begins her end-of-book acknowledgements with the most voguish kind of virtue-signaling (“This book was written primarily on the stolen, unceded land of the Kalapuya and Chinookan peoples”), introduces a section on Banbirpur, India, with notice that “this was the season the Ganges did not obey its banks” (true enough, but Banbirpur is on the Sai River), etc. You can imagine that this sounds pretty persuasive to a certain type of reader—the incurious type. Which isn’t to say that the author is stupid: This is not the kind of stupid book a stupid person writes—it is the kind of stupid book a reasonably bright person writes. 

On the more substantive issues, there’s much more to choke down, of course. (Of course.) The author, for example, asserts that there are “residual links between fascism and conservation,” which is a very interesting claim and probably true, but she never says what these links are. It is possible, I suppose, that the author meant to write “historical links between fascism and conservation,” which are well-known and two of which (Mussolini’s fantastical forestation plans, Hitler’s desire to turn Poland into a kind of wildlife preserve in which to recreate primitive Germanic patterns of life) she cites in passing. I would be very interested in learning more about, say, the links between the environmentalism of Teddy Roosevelt and that of Adolf Hitler (there is a very short link in the person and works of conservationist and white-supremacist crank Madison Grant), but I’ll have to look elsewhere. Whether the author is simply sloppy about these supposed “residual links” or is making stuff up or is in possession of facts she is not sharing with her readers is unclear. One can make a pretty good guess which it is. 

Some of this is little stuff, but it is illustrative little stuff, and it is on nearly every page. The author writes that the name of the abandoned English village of Wolfhampcote shows us that “memories of the animal’s presence lie across Britain’s cartography like a faded tattoo”—which, again, ye gods at that prose—but Wolfhampcote is not a reminder of the presence of wolves at all. It is instead a reminder of the presence of a man named Ufelm (the Domesday Book gives the village’s name as Ufelmscote) to whom the cote (manor) presumably belonged, Wolfham being a later variation of Ufelm or Wulfhelm, a name that crops up fairly often in the Anglo-Saxon era. The best-known Wulfhelm of the pre-Norman era was the Archbishop of Canterbury who served Æthelstan, though the same period sees the name recorded far and wide, from other English churchmen to English moneylenders to a Benedictine abbot who was beatified after a distinguished career in Cologne. Sure, Wulf- and Wolf- and Uf- name elements all reference words for wolf, but the name Wulfhelm or Wolfham no more denotes the presence of wolves in a region than the name Schumacher on a Manhattan apartment building denotes the presence of cordwainers (the Schumacher building is, in fact, a former printers’ shop) or the name Kellogg reveals the presence of professional pig-stickers. (Think: “kill-hog.”) There weren’t a lot of farriers in Muleshoe, Texas, either—the town was named for a local rancher’s brand. There may or may not have been a lot of wolves around Wolfhampcote, but the place was named after a man, whose wolfy name probably came from Lower Saxony or Jutland or Angeln. These might be little things in a book about the biology of wolves or in a wonky essay about wolf-management policy, but this is a book about how we talk about wolves—“the stories we tell,” as the subtitle has it.

So, maybe get the story right. 

As expected, the book has almost no relationship with the facts. To begin with the first correction, the necessity of which will, after all those intervening paragraphs, already have receded in readers’ memories: There are no “biblical stories” about wolves, as you Presbyterians out there already know. There is one very evocative phrase—the famous description of false prophets who are “wolves in sheep’s clothing”—and a smattering of other passing references to the animal, classed alongside other predators such as leopards as symbols of tyranny and greed. As Berry herself notes, the words wolf and wolves appear only 13 times in the Bible. (For a cynical entrepreneur, the superstitious character of contemporary American Christianity encountering the numerological resonance of the number 13 and the symbolic power of the wolf are the sort of thing upon which a whole terrible franchise could be built—there’s your free billion-dollar idea.) But there aren’t any stories about wolves in the Bible. There are stories about other animals in the Bible—a serpent, famously—but there isn’t one about wolves, which appear only in metaphor rather than as narrative characters. It is possible Berry doesn’t know this, and it is possible that she does know and wanted to insist that “biblical stories” are somehow a vector of intellectual contagion, anyway, maybe having forgotten what she wrote on the other page. The point is worth taking in: Metaphors do not create cultural attitudes; they point to preexisting cultural attitudes without which the metaphor would not be sensible. Very probably the people who wrote the stuff that became the Bible got their beliefs about wolves the same way I got my beliefs about Erica Berry’s inability to tell a useful metaphor from a crashingly illiterate one: experience.

Wolves do play a more prominent role in religious texts and tales outside of the Christian world: Fenrir in the Norse mythology, the wolf who successfully prays for the restoration of a blinded benefactor’s sight in the Rig Veda, infant-suckling wolves from the Zoroastrian tradition to the Roman one, etc. But Berry isn’t interested in building a counterpoint to Hinduism or Zoroastrianism—the inevitable spiritual antagonist is Christianity and, to the extent that it is Christian, European civilization, those terrible colonizers and wolf-haters. That the indigenous peoples of the Americas were friends of the wolf would have come as news to those who hunted wolves, who ate wolf meat, who exterminated cub populations in wolf dens in order to reduce the predator population, etc. That relationship, as the oldsters used to say on Facebook, is complicated. Of course, there is no such thing as the “indigenous” attitude toward wolves because there is and was no such thing as “indigenous” American culture, and what held true for the Wolf-clan Lenape of the 17th century was not necessarily true for the Apache in Geronimo’s time or the Cherokee Nation today. But the creation of a rhetorical counterpoint to the colonizing Christians of Europe is useful—necessary—to Berry’s evangelical project.

If a baker’s dozen references to wolves in the 783,137 words of the King James Bible and 0.00 stories about wolves as such are not much of a foundation for the claim that the Big Bad Wolf comes to us from “biblical stories,” what about folklore? The Big Bad Wolf himself—if you mean the antagonist from the story of Little Red Riding Hood—is a creature of the late-17th century. That isn’t exactly ancient Western cultural history: The story of Little Red Riding Hood, as we know the tale from Charles Perrault’s 1697 Histoires ou contes du temps passé, is more recent than, say, Paradise Lost or the first operas of Scarlatti. (Big year, 1697: In London, the current St. Paul’s Cathedral was consecrated, and, in Zurich, the Swiss were introduced to chocolate.) But, of course, there are older European wolf stories, and older wolf stories from the rest of the world. 

One wonders how Æsop, without access to a Bible that wouldn’t be written for another seven centuries or so, learned about wolves. Surely it could not be so obvious as … ?

The Israelites were a shepherding people, and it seems likely enough that their penchant for pastoral metaphors was rooted not in any particular theology or legend or mythology or philosophy but in the actual historical experience of living as a shepherding people, which entailed, among other things, dealing from time to time with Canis lupus. There is, in fact, a predictably widespread (though by no means universal) pattern when it comes to attitudes about wolves: From the Germanic tribes to the American ones, wolves often were respected by hunters and warriors and feared by settled people whose livestock and children were eaten by wolves from time to time. The wolf’s reputation as a child-eater is not from fancy: In Uttar Pradesh, 33 children were eaten by wolves, and 20 more mauled by them, in a single district—in 1996, not in the ancient past. Berry knows this, at least from news stories: Her account of the episode is a very lightly rewritten version of the New York Times report from 1996. (Not quite plagiarism, but you’d have received an F on the paper if you’d handed it in in my class. If you’re going to steal, steal from the Indian Express.) Wolf predation in that part of India has a long history: There were 624 people, mostly children, killed by wolves in the same region in 1878. Berry knows that, too, but is somehow sure that if an Indian wolf attacks an Indian child, it was—presto-change-o!—somehow the fault of the British, colonialism and all that. (And in 1996, when humble farmer H.D. Deve Gowda was running the show in New Delhi rather than the British Empire? Well …) This isn’t a story about wolves, after all: It is good guys and bad guys, black hats vs. white hats—strictly kid stuff. 

In other contexts, such as that of ancient Japan, wolves were understood as beneficial, driving away more pressing agricultural threats such as crop-destroying deer and wild boar. In the same country at a later date, wolves were ruthlessly hunted and poisoned to extinction as menaces. Perhaps there was a change in Japanese theology, but the change in attitude is more likely explained by a change in pattern of life. For someone who is writing a book on the subject, Berry is not as curious as you’d expect her to be about the real-world ins and outs of living with wolves. We learn a good deal about her sexual and social anxieties and family history and that she got very sick in Italy while working for a supposed countess (“the self-professed bohemian of the aristocratic family”), and—it was wolves, right? The subject was wolves, yes? As one survey cited by Berry straightforwardly reports, negative attitudes toward wolves tend to be strongly correlated with experience, whereas the people who have the most positive view of wolves are those who have never met one.

Rather than an account of current wolfish affairs, Erica Berry is offering up a kind of theology, a statement of the transcendent truth of things. Berry’s morality, as she describes it, demands “reframing the world into something less human-centric.” That is a very old idea. There is an old notion that the crisis in the West has come from mankind’s being knocked off his throne by Copernicus, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud, reduced to knowing himself only as a speck of dust that somehow became time’s favorite monkey, a species whose former self-importance (made in God’s image! ha!) was entirely unjustified by its real place in the universe. There are other versions of that: Anglo-American conservatives, particularly those of a Christian bent, have developed a kind of Unholy Trinity of materialism, comprising Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin (Copernicus, a churchman, is let off the hook) each of whom presented himself as a scientific rationalist, two of whom (Marx and Freud) were intellectual frauds whose work has largely been rejected by professionals in their fields, and all of whom are today more relevant as mascots than as scholars. (That shouldn’t be read as sneering at Darwin’s scientific contributions; it simply is a fact that pop-Darwinism is a more relevant cultural force than anything the man himself produced in his esteemed career.) The story the critics tell is a version of the familiar lapsarian one: that each of these thinkers invited man to take the place of God, doing the work of the serpent rather than that of the wolf. 

I don’t want to range too (too!) far afield here, but I do not think it would be very controversial to say that there is a particularly Christian conception of man’s distinctness that provides a very considerable part of the basis for Western intellectual and political life, a fact that should be obvious enough even to those who are not themselves Christian believers. The main competitor to this understanding in the Western world—which is to say, in the European culture most shaped by Christianity and that culture’s many offshoots—is gross materialism, the philosophy of man-as-meat, which was more the view of the Marxists than the view of Marx, more the view of the pop-Darwinists than the view of Darwin, more the view of the Freudians than the view of Freud. (There are other competitors, many of them prominent beyond the intellectual borders of the West, Tianxia being arguably the most important of them.) For those who see the world the way Berry does, it is necessary both to reduce man to the status of just another animal (because the competing view is entangled in Christian orthodoxy) but also to make endless moral demands of man that one simply could not make of a wolf or a grasshopper or a raccoon. 

If man is only another animal, nothing less and nothing more than time’s favorite monkey—and the idea is at least a coherent and defensible one—then man no more owes the world an apology for building a coal-fired powerplant than a beaver does for felling a magnificent old tree in the pursuit of his local castorine interests. But the beaver has no notion of an old tree’s magnificence, and man does—mightn’t a thoroughgoing naturalist wonder where he got it? That doesn’t necessarily point in the direction of theism, much less of any particular theism, and still much less to the distinct Christian understanding of man’s role as a steward of the natural world, an agent acting in loco Creatoris. There’s a plausible evolved-behavior account of that, a just-so story for the development of our sense of beauty and majesty and of the custodial attitude toward the natural world related to that sense, but even if one adopts the exclusively materialistic view in toto, it remains the case that man has these sensibilities while other creatures do not have them—and that these must be something other than accident for the notion of human responsibility toward the natural world (or anything else) to have any real moral weight. For the beaver or the bee or the wolf, there isn’t anything in the universe that corresponds with the word ought, whereas there is a whole lot of ought in the Wolfish ethos. 

That this creates a dilemma apparently is entirely beyond the author and those to whom, or for whom, she presumes to speak: The bee stings, man hunts the bison to the brink of extinction or nukes the Japanese or drives the Mougoulacha to extinction, extinguishing the eternal flames of their temples—either these actions are in one category of things or else they fall into at least two distinct categories of things, and, in the latter case, man is sui generis, his situation and his behavior in a special class all their own. Which is to say, if it is to be something other than nihilism, then even thoroughgoing naturalism is only a back road to the same anthropocentrism the author wishes to see overturned. 

There is a place for ordinary materialism—economics, for instance. But it is precisely there—where we should be talking about complex but far-from-metaphysical issues such as resource constraints and trade-offs—that the author is most committed to the sacralizing and moralizing project. And that leads to some of the most appalling gibberish in a book that is full of it, especially on the subject of scarcity:

]It was an argument I had heard regarding wolves and grazing populations in Oregon, and people and resources on a warming planet. The logic sprang from anxiety, not imagination, though, and I was beginning to understand what could be gained by seeing the world another way. “That scarcity is the lie,” author and activist adrienne maree brown [sic, sic, and sic] said in an interview. “Actually … the society we want to structure and move toward is one in which there’s abundant justice, abundant attention, abundant liberation, where there is enough for all of us to feel attended to.” It is useful to discuss how dog owners and sheep and ranchers can best share today’s land with wolves, but it feels more generative—more interesting—to think about how making room for wolves might compel us to visualize and enact a better, different world for ourselves and other species too. What sort of economic and social structures might help humans live beside wolves not as competitors, but as neighbors, even collaborators? What if the story we told was that one creature’s thriving did not have to come at the expense of another?

Wolves know all about scarcity, which is a real thing and not an economists’ invention or a “social construct” or something dreamt up by people who lowercase their names as a sign of authentic … whatever. Friends of wolves know all about scarcity, too: A section of land cleared for agriculture or exurban sprawl or a solar farm to charge Teslas is 640 acres not available for wolf habitat. On the campus of Virginia Tech, they receive the occasional black bear as a visitor from the nearby woods, and it is clear enough to everybody (including the bears, I have to assume) that the ursine and collegiate uses of that particular real estate ultimately are mutually exclusive. Imagination will not change that. Talking about it in a different way will not make it so. 

Even Jesus, who was not mainly interested in supply and demand, understood the practical matter of economic incentives: 

He that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.

It falls to him who would try to see to the wolf’s actual interests to take up a task that would have perplexed his ancestors: He must be a shepherd of wolves. And that yanks us right back in the direction of the hated “dominionist” school of environmentalism, which doesn’t domesticate the wolf but entrusts the wolf, with the rest of creation, to man, who is—not that you’d know it from the headlines!—the only creature with a sense of responsibility that is up to the job. I’ll not hear an ill word spoken against the beaver, that industrious and ingenious creature who is the symbol of my third-favorite country, but the beaver is not a big-picture guy. Neither is the sparrow. It is up to us, Homo allegedly sapiens, and the real political questions look like this: What are we to do with these acres? With these trees? With this lake? What is the real price, externalities included, of getting at that lithium in the Salton Sea? What is the real price of not getting at it? Should we have a lottery for elk-hunting licenses or raise a lot more money by auctioning them off? What good things could we do for the elk habitat with that extra money? Those are not wolfish questions—the anthropocentrism is baked into the cake. Erica Berry insists that it is “more interesting” to pursue a metaphysical line of conversation that pretends that these questions are not the real questions, that the real issue is all that bong-hit dorm-room stuff about tearing down the framework of economics and asking MFA graduates to build a new one in between therapy sessions. That would be interesting, alright. But more interesting to whom? 

Surely not to the wolf. 

The political questions are not the only questions. There are precedent matters. I do not think that the kind of ersatz religion that Berry would have us follow can get the job done—and the job she would like to see done is, I think, a job worth doing. The world is ugly and damaged enough without our making it worse. Very likely the problem is that those who see the world the way Berry does are only playing with the big issues, that they are constructing only a rhetoric rather than a real foundation. There’s no shame in paying attention to rhetoric—I used to teach it—but rhetoric only takes us so far. 

What I would advise—and here endeth the sermon—is considering the possibility that all that anxious, wounded, moralizing stuff doesn’t add up to a satisfactory basis for civilizational action (which is what we really are talking about here) because it is not true. It isn’t necessarily bad or mendacious or held in bad faith. These are perfectly nice people we are talking about. (Mostly.) And even if experience suggests that there is no more vicious and hateful human being walking God’s green Earth than the person who lectures you about “empathy” and “compassion,” even they point us in the general direction of something real, in much the same way that the hypocrisy and moral shortcomings of Christians do not diminish the credibility of the basic Christian claims but rather illustrate the truth of them—that we are fallen creatures in a fallen world, which is a helpful thing to understand first if you want to try to get back up. To avoid the “dangerous inversion,” we—as individuals and as communities—have to build what is useful on top of what is true. That’s the necessary beginning of the thing, the long and difficult project of learning not how to be more wolf but of learning how to be human.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.