A Perfect Forest
The province of British Colombia is 40,000 square miles larger than the combined states of Washington, Oregon, and California. Much of it is forest wilderness even today: lonely and real and out of the way, still filled with wild animals loyal to their kind who understand the language of affection and sympathy, who remain unconfined and busy with the sheer joy of living.
A healthy old growth forest still survives somewhere in this Canadian province, impervious to disorder and unconcerned about being trapped in the chaos of the human world. Its trees are a patient, careful and uncorrupted species whose lives unfold over a very long and very slow time scale because this forest lives and has always lived to be ancient. There has been so little human meddling here that some trees are hundreds, even thousands of years old, protected by an immensely stable ecosystem. Among the slowest-moving beings on earth, these old conifers quietly and mysteriously get on with their lives, creating their own world of cool temperatures, low humidity and plenty of water.
Such a rare ancient forest is really a superorganism with interconnections much like an ant colony. Its trees communicate with each other above and below ground, possessing an inner life that can actually be transferred to others of their kind. Individual trees, often parent trees living with their offspring and siblings, share food and some scientists say even memories. They experience pain and, above all, demonstrate a sympathetic concern for each other. Growing old together, they patiently become a vast social network of families and friends.
Much of this happens because the root tips in undisturbed forests have fungal networks of unbelievable density that communicate via chemical compounds or electrical impulses to surrounding related trees warning about insects, drought, and animal predators among other things.
I am told that this primeval forest deep in the heart of what many still call “the north woods” is a lovely and restful place and those who have walked in the pure air underneath its vast canopies, are overcome with humility, gratitude, equanimity and peace.
A Perfect Wolf
Occasionally, a perfect forest sustains a perfect wolf. Fifty years ago, an alpha female of dazzling beauty and sagacity reigned as supreme despot over twenty-four wolves for well over a decade around the lake area surrounding this uninhabited, unexplored, unmapped wilderness.
Six feet two inches long from the tip of her nose to the base of her tail, she weighed more than one hundred and fifty-four pounds. Her paw print measured six inches in length. Her coat was an extraordinary silver-white, making her and the pack she commanded, of deadly interest to the First Nation trappers and hunters of the day, who called her Nahani, “one who shines”. Appearing and disappearing out of the conifer forest like a mirage, these animals were never caught in traps or killed by humans and only rarely seen by those who would do them harm.
Because she knew she was hunted, she established a cruising range of 200 miles beginning and ending with the denning complex dug into the side of a hill near the shoreline of a glacial lake her ancestors had used for generations. It was a wonderful home, blissfully free from competition from other packs and filled with radiant life forms: wolverines, cougars, foxes, bears, salmon. All animals lucky enough to live in this area could hunt, bathe, sun, breed, hide, train their young, and escape. Wild ducks often aquaplaned across the lake water which was surrounded by thousands and thousands of dark pointed evergreens, the great families of spruce, fir, pine and balsam selflessly holding together this paradise.
The silver-white queen wolf and her pack particularly flourished here, as human hatred for their species had rarely reached this far north. Though the entrance-ways to their whelping dens were always hidden, an hour or so before sunset exuberant young wolves could often be seen playing their games on the beach, roughhousing between driftwood logs. Their parents’ cruising and hunting runway through dense forest was crisscrossed with many rivers which made the pack difficult to track and no hunter or even helicopter had ever found their home. Still, the adults kept a tight rein over these happy juveniles who were only observed by curious black bears, an occasional grizzly or wandering moose.
Each member of this monarch’s troop reflected and reinforced her adaptability, good judgement and occasional brutality. She was fortunate to have such a healthy pack, so many strong sentries, an entire family ready to die to protect her. Year after year, they kept to the same confident seasonal schedule, lazing through Indian summers, taking advantage of the last warm sunshine of fall and waiting for the first snowfall to bog down a fattened moose.
They endured many meatless weeks before organized autumn hunting, subsisting on berries and roots. All wolves without young were taught to help feed and train other pack members’ cubs, including teaching one of the hardest chores – how to kill and skin a porcupine. The adults had to ensure their offspring would survive if they were ever separated from the pack. After all, much of their life would be tracking and exhausting the largest animals in the western hemisphere. Nahani herself taught every juvenile the teamwork required for herding prey into a ravine. Everyone had to be absolutely prepared to perform their pack duties during the strenuous winter hunting season. But the dominant lesson taught each wolf was to be absolutely obedient to their regal commander-in-chief.
A Perfect Son
It was only because of the diary of a fearless young graduate student in mineralogy, Gregory Tah-Kloma, that we know about this white wolf at all. Because his Northwest Coast Indian father had taught him at a very early age to enjoy all the primitive pleasures and hardships of wilderness life without the need to kill, he often hiked into particularly remote landscapes on his summer vacation from school. On one trip he carried a ninety day supply of freeze-dried and dehydrated food in a specialized backpack. And he moved around his camp on all fours so any wildlife in the area would not be scared off and be easier to approach.
Thus, on an early summer evening in 1964, the “largest most patrician wolf” he had ever seen had simply appeared out of the dense hillside darkness surrounding his modest camp, then vanished again. Despite his shock at suddenly being approached by a huge predator, he noticed immediately that the head and tail of this extraordinary animal were held high, a non-aggressive position.
Astonishingly, the silver-white wolf began to regularly visit his camp, stepping out of the dark protecting forest into the flickering light of his small fire after midnight. He was not surprised. Wolves are particularly fascinated by small campfires. After a while, Gregory realized this female was unmated and always apart from the other females in her pack, always the aloof commander, never the friend. She was in fact lonely. Although she denned regularly with her chief lieutenant and his mate, and even as charismatic and independent as she seemed, the magnificent animal seemed to need a friend and even a “non-wolf reprieve” from her onerous duties. This was the only reason Tah-Kloma could come up with that might explain such extraordinary behavior for a wild predator.
According to the young man’s diary, everything about this wolf was beautiful and satisfying: “her extraordinary silver coat; her bicycle-pedaling gait that broke into an effortless canter like that of a thoroughbred horse; her wide-set greenish-amber eyes, the muscular shoulders, neck and legs, the heavy foxlike tail expressing her every whim and mood”.
Each night sitting side by side before the fire, they listened to a wide-awake forest: grey owls softly calling, the trumpeting of a bull moose, geese honking overhead. At first light, she bounded across the log into her forest home, the shadows of her silent bodyguards finally visible as they had been surrounding the campsite all night long. Greg would then wiggle into his sleeping bag and sleep until noon. The pack accepted his presence because Nahani demanded it.
Eventually, the she-wolf visited at other times and introduced the young Indian to many adventures, some quite dangerous. But she was always his protector, whether from a raging grizzly, a demented wolverine, or a band of coyotes. In all these encounters, Gregory became her willing subject, learning the lessons she wanted to teach him. His upbringing had prepared him to be ready to go with her wildness to get to a deeper level of understanding.
Nahani left Gregory for days on end to lead her pack around their cruising range, leaving him alone except for a pair of old female wolves who had been left in charge of the denning site. During these intervals, Gregory hiked long distances, played his harmonica, fished in the lake and cooked arctic grayling over his campfire, often feeding these timid but friendly creatures.
At the beginning of autumn, when the mated pairs temporarily left with their offspring to teach them the way of their ancestors, and Tah-Kloma was literally her only bodyguard, the friendship between Nahani and the Indian solidified into something truly magical.
One particular day, Nahani suddenly and impulsively stood on his feet, placed her huge paws on his shoulders and licked his nose, almost knocking him into the fire. From then on, they took leisurely explorations together through woods and around the lake. Tah-Kloma was never allowed to lead on these walks. “They climbed hills, raced each other madly down to the beach, swam together, or sat in silence by the campfire.” Eventually, she allowed him to comb the burrs and nettles out of her fur and slept side by side next to his sleeping bag.
Finally, as individual families started drifting in with their older and wiser offspring, the weather turned. Snowflakes sizzled on the campfire. Herds of caribou were beginning their winter migration and the queen wolf could wait no longer. “Studying my face and wagging her tail, she jumped up, licked me, shoved me back, and proudly turned and raced ahead of her pack north toward the Yukon.” The excited baying of her magnificent company stayed in the air long after they had disappeared over the ridge.
I first read the story twenty years ago and it has stayed with me all these years, making an impression upon my soul that all the philosophy, literature, science, and other forms of reason that have crossed my path over time never has. Like Gregory Tah-Kloma himself, “I thanked the great spirit for the privilege of knowing that wolf.”
The perfect forest that once sustained a silver-white wolf and her pack was “set aside” twenty years ago by the government of British Columbia. Called the Great Bear Rainforest, 85% has only recently (2016) been protected by law from ever being forced to submit to any more human industrial culture, the enemy of so much life on earth.
Today, many logging roads traverse the Rainforest. Even the so-called protected area has already been severely damaged with large areas of clear cut wasteland. This very wilderness, beginning on the spectacular west coast and ending in north central British Columbia, was once called the Kitiwanga which in Gregory Tah-kloma’s original language means: “no place for human beings”.
It is nice to imagine that under their nurturing canopies, families of trees living here will once again have the chance to enjoy crumbly hummus-rich moist soil for their delicate roots, enabling them to communicate long distances with vast fungal networks. Wolves will be allowed to live in a way that is appropriate to their species. All trees and wildlife will be allowed to fulfil their social needs, to grow in an undisturbed environment, and to pass their knowledge on to the next generation. Most importantly, they will be given their privacy and allowed to grow old with dignity and die a natural death.
I am grateful for the above insights of Peter Wohlleben whose book, The Hidden Life of Trees, taught me so much about our forests and of course to Gregory Tah-kloma for sharing his wonderful diary of so long ago and to Robert Franklin Leslie who shared it in his book In the Shadow of a Rainbow.