Monthly Archives: October 2015

My favorite part is the wolves: part II

There by the water. Near the rocks, drinking. Shhh, be still, she sees you moving, she’s lifted her head. Her yellow eyes catch yours for a moment and then she’s…gone.

At first glance, a wolf. Or… maybe a coyote?

But yet not. She’s a bit smaller than a wolf, a bit larger than a coyote. Markings of a wolf yet more tawny in color, like the grasses still whispering in her wake. And her ears are rounded at the edges. Softer.

Wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs all dance inside her DNA.

She numbers in the millions. Her range stretches from Southern Canada through the Eastern U.S. As far south as PA and Washington D.C.

She’s a coywolf, a secretive and cunning hybrid with a powerful mix of ancestors in her genes.

Comfortable hunting in forested, open and urban areas, the coywolf is capable of thriving where her wolf, coyote, and dog sisters cannot.

And her language? As blended as her genes. Her call begins as a deep howl like the wolf and ends in a playful yipping like the coyote.

She is a product of her environment. She can tolerate the noise of crowded cities, and can live off the refuse of human encampment. Yet she is also a fierce hunter who can take down a moose.

She is a shape shifter. A creature of the night so secretive that she is almost invisible. She is clever. She is adaptable. She is resilient. She is a perfect being for living in this changing world.

She is wild.

She is wolf. But she is more.

This is the world we live in. As much as I wish and work for change, I also must accept that this is the world I live in. It is dirty. It is paved. It is poisoned. It is pillaged. But it is also breathtakingly beautiful. It is wet. It is green. It is regenerative. It has a blue sky. It is alive.

It is both tame and savage. It is both broken and whole. It is all encompassing. To ignore the truth, to reject the present, to live in some ideal in our minds is a misstep.

How easily life can become just a story we tell ourselves.

We want the wild to be the way it was. We want the forests and the animals and the waters and the land to be restored to the way it all once was. Perfect and pure.

But that world is gone. The creatures that roamed that world are long dead. Their bones press up through the damp earth from time to time. Their bodies decorate our museums.

We’ve changed this planet. We’ve shifted the balance and now we must watch as the temperatures rise and the waters boil.

We’ve done this.

And now we can’t wish it away. We can’t positively think our way out of this. We can’t pray our way out. No one is going to save us.

But ourselves.

We must do the work.

We must reconnect to the natural world. We must plant trees. We must stop shopping. We must be kind. We must cooperate. We must change. We must listen. We must grow.

We must learn how to care for the land in a way that does not only benefit ourselves. We must raise the carrying capacity of the land base. We must hunt. We must gather. We must reuse. We must make. We must create. We must love.

We must adapt.

Just like the coywolf. We must figure out how to live between the worlds and how to blend them. She is wolf, and she is dog. She is coyote. And she is something else entirely.

This moment has never existed before and it never will again. We are people on the cusp, A foot on the brink, white knuckles desperately holding onto slowly eroding land.

Wolf and I are the same. We carry our babies the same way, beneath a cage of bone, in heavy and swollen bellies. We feed our children from our breasts. We hunt, we eat, we play, we live, we make love.

I understand wolf’s language.

But language is a transient thing. A creature that shifts in the night. Wolf’s language is changing. And so is mine.

Can you hear it?






Thank you for listening,

photo by Michelle Johnsen

photo by Michelle Johnsen


My favorite part is the wolves

Revel’s new favorite book is about animals and ecosystems and when you turn the page it makes the sounds of the animals. The quality of the sound is terrible of course but you can still make out the flapping of bat wings, the songs of the summertime insects, and tigers roaring. He asks us to read it almost every night.

His favorite part is the tiger with it’s orange stripes and sharp teeth. It’s a great page, the roar is really satisfying and loud and I can see why he likes it so much. But it’s not my favorite one.

My favorite part is the wolves.

On the wolf page the sky in the picture is purplish-blue and there is a huge silver moon painted low over some rocky, craggy looking hills. The wolves are gray and white and they are clustered in a small half circle with their faces turned towards the sky. The book has a tiny speaker and their voices come across tinny and too high pitched. But even under such conditions the sound is beautiful and melancholy. Haunting and holy and wild.

I’ve never heard a wolf howling in real life. Only in movies and on television, or on the occasional new age soundtrack kind of song. Coyotes yes, many times. But wolves never.

I’ve never seen a wolf except for a few sad souls in a rehabilitation center in Texas and maybe at the zoo when I was a kid but honestly I can’t remember if there were any wolves there or not.

Wolves were mostly extirpated from this area by the late 1800’s with one or 2 packs remaining through the turn of the century. But by the early 1900’s every last one had been wiped away along with most of the old growth forests and the indigenous people who once called this place home.

The closest wolves to me right now here where I sit typing this are in a refuge about 15 miles to the north. The population there is mostly wolf-dog hybrids abandoned by owners who gave them up for one reason or another. I imagine they must have longed for the companionship of man’s best friend but were surprised when they got the cunning mind of the wolf instead.

The nearest wild wolf population is at least several states away. In fact, the entire population of wolves in the lower 48 numbers fewer that 6,000 individuals and is restricted to only a handful of regions.

So why then, does the sound of the wolf howling, even through the shitty little speakers of my little son’s book, call to me so loudly that it is all I can do not to throw open the doors and wander barefoot under tonight’s just-past-full moon?

A few days ago I read online that the game commission had released 2 adult wolves into the 500 or so acres of a local park that runs along the nearby river. Later I was heartbroken to find that the article was a joke and that the game commission had no plans for any such thing. What kind of joke is that? I thought. Are we so far gone that the thought of an intact ecosystem elicits some kind of humorous response?

In this too-tame landscape of GMO corn fields, suburban sprawl and broken, patchwork forest, there is no room for wolves. The shopping malls and restaurants and manicured lawns and parking lots wouldn’t stand for it.

Ours is a world rendered wild-less.

There is no place in this domesticated ecosystem for wolf howls. There is no place for hunts that rage into the night, or wolf pups born into dark dens, or the blood stained teeth of the carnivore.

And yet, that wolf howl is a language I can recognize. It’s buried deep in the coils of my DNA. It’s written in my cells and in the marrow of my bones. Fingertips trailed over my soft skin can read the message just like braille.

There is still something sacred here it says. There is another world buried beneath the asphalt and the cement. It is hidden in the ancient memories of the GMO corn and the blades of the brilliant green, chemically fertilized, grass.

Barely bridled wildness, seething beneath the surface, visible in the brilliant blue of the chicory flower growing in the crack of the sidewalk and the hawk plucking squirrel from the edge of the yard.

We are just visitors here, remember?

My hands were made for more than just typing. They can also hold babies, and carry arrows, and weave baskets, and knit sweaters, and clothing, and rugs. They can pull the still warm skin from a fresh kill, and gather berries, and hunt fish with nearly invisible line. And they can chop trees, and carry water,and plant seeds, not as a farmer would exactly, but as something else entirely, as a person who wishes to see the world come back alive from the brink it is precariously balancing on.

I know the wolf. She is me and I am her. We carry our babies the same way, beneath a cage of bone, in heavy and swollen bellies. We feed our children from our breasts. We hunt, we eat, we play, we live, we make love.

Yet there is no place for her here at this table. She has been caged up, paved over, chopped down, and pushed out. She and her kin are clearly not welcome here in this neutered and diluted landscape.

But, if she and I are the same,

then where in the world do I belong?

Am I just a tinny and too-high-pitched version of the person I could have become?

There is still something sacred here.


Just listen.


photo by Michelle Johnsen

photo by Michelle Johnsen

May the waves wash through you

This process continues to unfold. The year of mourning, the focus on grief. The idea behind this project. Only the process took much longer than a year. In fact, this is an experiment that will never end. I gave myself over to the sadness, to the pain. I faced a thousand horrors and refused to look away, I let all the destruction and suffering wash in. I did not turn away. And it very nearly washed me away.

I wanted to see what would happen if I stopped living in denial about the state of the world. I needed to know what would happen if I stopped stuffing the pain away and let it swell up to the surface.

I forced myself to look at all the terrible photos, to read the news articles, to see the destruction in my own town, in my own life. I felt the pain of the earth and all her creatures. I wrote about it, I sang about it, I talked about it. I cried, I sobbed, I screamed, I lay on the ground and stared up at the stars.

Honestly it broke me. I very nearly lost sight of what is beautiful and what is good. My life fell apart in a number of different ways. And I’m not just talking emotionally. Over the course of The Year experiment and since, I lost my home. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I very nearly lost my dear nephew due to a custody struggle. We dealt with crippling poverty. Wil and I struggled to deal with the stress. Our marriage suffered. I felt like a wasn’t able to be the kind of mother I wanted to be.

It also frightened me. I wondered if I had brought the disasters on myself. If I had invited them in by asking sorrow to come sit at my table. By opening myself to the grief of the world, had I welcomed in darkness itself?

I felt swallowed. I couldn’t deal with anything else. The earth was in collapse and now my personal life was too? I couldn’t take it.

I felt angry all the time. I had terrible anxiety and couldn’t sleep at night. I felt like I was burning up inside, on fire, yet chilled and shivering at the same time.

My soul was gripped by fever.

I cried and cried and cried. My heart hurt all the time.

I had finally collapsed.

But then slowly, something started to shift. Something in me started to move. I realized I had been holding on too tight.

To the way I wanted the world to be. To the life I thought I should have. To the dreams of my childhood. To the idea that I could change things. To the desire to change the world. Exhausted from trying to control a million things I could not, I gave up.

And guess what happened? Sweetness started to slowly creep back into my life. Who cared where we were living? At least I was surrounded by family, my nephew, my beautiful son, and Wil, my love. What difference did it make how I thought the world should be? The world is the way it is. What good were the dreams of my childhood if I had completely lost track of my inner child? What was the point of wanting to change the world if I had lost sight of all of the parts that were worth saving?

I started to love again, without anger, without sadness. I swam in the creeks, had mud fights with my boys, listened to the cicadas, walked barefoot through the forests.

But I am still raw. My heart is still broken. I have had to remember how to play, how to have fun. I am in recovery. From grief, from mourning. From sadness, and stress. From civilization itself. I try to do something each day that brings me pleasure. I create. I sculpt flowers. I crochet. I cook. I sweep the floor. I do the dishes. I cuddle my son. I eat chocolate. I drink coffee. I spend endless hours in the woods and meadows. I found a job working with children in the most lovely and nurturing setting I can imagine. It’s incredibly healing. Revel accompanies me there. It is beautiful. I am happy.

It’s autumn now and the sky is very blue. I can’t believe how blue it is. On the way to work we pass miles of soybean fields. They have turned a beautiful golden yellow. They are dazzling against the blue sky. They are also covered in poison. They are round-up ready soybeans drenched in glyphosate. They are terrible. But, they are also beautiful, and I can’t deny it.

Now that I have learned how to the feel the pain of the world I can never un-feel it. I hold the destruction and suffering in my heart all the time. I turn it over and over in the palm of my hand like a smooth rock, worn by years of touch. It is familiar. The rhinos are almost gone. There are children sold into slavery every single day. The elephant population continues to dwindle. The climate is changing. I am raising my son in a contaminated world. All of these things are true.

But the world is also beautiful. So beautiful it leaves me breathless. My child’s brown and silky curls. The blue of the sky. The yellow of the soybeans. The wind on my skin. The delight of bare feet on the ground. The fields, the forests, the animals, and the plants. The oceans.

How to hold it all?

You know what I’ve found?

The answer is not to try. Don’t hold it. Let each moment, each emotion wash through you like a wave.

The soybeans are terrible but also beautiful. Do not try to understand it, the world we have created does not make sense no matter how hard you try to examine it. Trying to do so will only break your mind, and your spirit.

Our civilization is broken. It is sick. Our culture is one of oppression. But it is also where and how we live.

We are the captives but also the captors. The prisoners, and the ones who hold the key.

We are the predators, and yet also the prey.

This kind of grief doesn’t end. It goes on and on and on. There are no easy answers or simple fixes. There is an endless list of things to be angry about. But we also have an endless capacity for love. One thing does not cancel out the other.

There is a culture of rebellion growing. It has been here all along and it is strong. This is a time of great awakening. But a very long road lies ahead.

This life is beautiful, terrible, powerful, and wonderful. We are only small, like children. Lost in a wild and stormy sea.

May the waves wash through you.

May the waves wash through you, my friend.

Thank you for listening,

photo by Michelle Johnsen

photo by Michelle Johnsen