|OK, so, my first year students have to do a version of reading notes and read the same essay. And their job is to summarize and try to figure out the thesis, in two double-spaced pages. I almost got mine to two pages. It was originally four pages. But I’m not re-writing Reading Notes for Killing Wolves for our class tonight. There is a lot of summary here so it’s boring.
2 October 2011
The essay “Killing Wolves” by Sherry Simpson begins with the author in a general store in Alaska looking at the pelt of a wolf hanging above, of all things, dog food. I think this is an interesting way to start the essay because part of what she is going to argue is that people who are not trappers and hunters have a tendency to equate wolves with dogs. She is guilty of this. In the next section she talks about her own fur hats—and how people in Alaska don’t wear them as a fashion statement but to keep warm—and how she both loves them and also feels badly about them (she cried at Bambi as a grown up; she was raised on Disney versions of animal relations). But she’s also from Alaska, and she doesn’t want do-gooders from other parts of the world telling Alaskans how to live. She writes about how she knows she’s a bit of a hypocrite: “I recognize a moral blind spot, a deliberate turning away form the way life and death proceed.” So she is confronting an issue that is both about her own personal issues, but also about a larger understanding of how both killer and prey, good and bad, happy and sad always exist in this world.
I spent so much time on that first part of the essay, because it is where she carefully sets up her argument. Then we get into her trying to figure things out. How does she do this? She goes to wolf trapping camp, of course. This is a camp for pretty advanced hunters—which she is not (and, we find out, they don’t really trust her or want her around—they are worried that she is going to write bad things about wolf trapping and make them look like evil bambi-killers, but they are also worried that if they don’t let her write about them then they will look like they have something to hide). Here at the camp, we meet a cast of characters that let us understand something about who these trappers are.
We first meet Ben Hopson Jr. He’s the teacher. And he demonstrates how to disguise a wolf trap with snow. It’s a very complicated deal, and I didn’t entirely follow what he was doing, but I get that what she wants us to see is that it is complicated to do this trapping. She never shies away from showing us the tough stuff about wolf-trapping, namely the traps. They are big and ugly and they are designed to catch very smart animals that don’t want to be caught. There are several places in the essay where Simpson shows us this: with her discussion of Jim Masek and also of Mike Johnson.
We learn about the history of trapping in Alaska. We see that that relationship, complicated though it might be, is an important one in the culture. She takes a moment at the end of this section to talk about what a wolf symbolizes—they represent the wilderness & wildness I would say. And humans take to this representation because wolves are, she postulates, like us: “social, family-oriented, intelligent, communicative.” And we are both killers. This is her grappling with the issues she’s set out for herself at the beginning of the essay. She’s trying to show the complexity of, well, of living a life essentially, if you strip away cellophane wrapped chicken cutlets and Disney movies about talking bears.
In the next section, we learn here that most trappers, in fact, come from or live in south central Alaska. We get more on how hard a trapping life is. How much work it is. How it is dependent on good weather conditions, the price of fur. A significant part of the essay is learning about Jim Masek, a very famous wolf trapper who captures 12 wolves in one day. The author is sort of disgusted by the excess (as am I), and Macek isn’t really a likable guy. He hates wolves, but he does respect them. He respects their intellect and much of what he says is about how not to teach a wolf how to escape a trap. The section on Masek is long, and it is filled with equal parts respect for the trappers but also some tough facts about how wolves are caught—like how they might sit in a trap for 36 hours before being shot in the head. The author uses the terminology the hunters uses—puppies—and it is hard not to think of cute little baby dogs. And she admits she does think this too.
The next section might be the toughest to read; it is where they skin the wolf. Simpson takes a long time to describe the work of it—and it’s not easy. And it is a sad section. Simpson talks about how the wolf is suddenly no longer the thing of myth it was when it was intact. Here she also captures some of the camaraderie of wolf-trapping culture. And part of that camaraderie coms from people sort of admiring the tricky nature and the killer nature of wolves. At the end of this section, she talks about a dream she has where she sort of slips into the wolf skin. And she talks more about the wolf as a symbol. She talks about how this is the work of writers and non-hunters. Hunters, on the other hand, see a pay check, a worthy adversary.
We return to the out of doors for a while now. We get more wolf facts in this section about the wolves being the killers. Simpson is smart this way: the wolves aren’t heroes anymore than people are. We are all just trying to make our way in a tough landscape (of which we get a lot of description of). We also meet Mike Johnson more in this section, and I think it is important because he has a picture of that idealized wolf on his t-shirt even though he is a hunter. When Simpson talks to him, he says what for me is the one thing I’ve really learned about hunters: they have great respect for nature and for their prey. Johnson says that he hopes there are always wolves in Alaska—and he’d rather have too many than too few. Johnson, in this section, talks in this sort of circle of life Lion King kind of way about how the wolf kills the moose and he kills the wolf. We also get the line about how fur is organic and how if you don’t wear fur you are probably wearing a petroleum-based product. All this shows both sides of the issue
As we enter the last parts of the essay, we get some pretty intense scenes of death—namely her friend Norm’s story of smashing a wolf’s head in to kill it. She spends some time theorizing here about whether this is all right or not. Is man really a part of this natural cycle or does man have no business here? What is most interesting to me at the end of the essay is how the author is still pretty conflicted. She gets what the hunters say. She gets what people who would not wear fur or hunt would also say. But Simpson also does not shy away from how hypocritical people are—eating their chicken breast that they didn’t have to do anything to prepare except unwrap. And she includes herself in this hypocrisy. She knows she wants to be OK with the cellophane chicken breast. But, at the same time, she knows that the harsh reality of the natural world will not leave her unharmed. These are the last words of the essay “All we can do is follow the tracks, knowing that someday, the wolf will circle around to us.” Simpson gives a balanced essay about this wild place called Alaska by telling us about the people and things that occupy it and the stuff they do in it. But she also asks a reader to think about how much of what seems so foreign to most of us really does affect us too.