Sermon: Humans & Earth: The Wolves’ Comeback
It was a strange and historic moment one morning in 1995 when a large white truck pulled into Yellowstone National Park carrying eight Canadian wolves. This shipment of wolves had been for years the focal point of explosive political battles and the stuff of dreams for wildlife biologists. And, after many false starts and almost-dashed hopes, the day had finally arrived. Nobody knew what exactly would happen. This had never been tried before. One of the biologists’ fears was realized right away: when they released the pack, the alpha couple, a male and a female who was pregnant, immediately headed north and crossed out of the park, trying to head home to Canada. The male got shot by a rancher, illegally. But the rangers eventually found the female and the pups and returned them to the safety of the park. That couple and those pups are the ancestors of most of the wolves in Yellowstone today.
Wolves are the heroes of this story that Meagan told earlier – and it’s a true story. Wolves had been hunted to eradication in Yellowstone by 1930 and for almost 70 years there were no wolves in the park. During that time, the health of the ecosystem and many species had declined. The trees and bushes around waterways had gotten munched down to nothing; the beavers didn’t have good materials to make their dams and so they weren’t doing so well, numbers of fish and animals that live in the water had dropped dramatically. Birds of all kinds were struggling. Really only the elk were good with the situation. When the wolves came back, just as Meagan described, one by one plants and other animals began to bounce back as well. Even the elk increased, they just hid more in the deeper forests and didn’t hang out snacking by the lakes and rivers so much. And the rivers themselves changed shape – they became deeper and faster flowing, with more estuaries that support wildlife and more sharply defined banks because of better soil that was eroding less. The wolves brought back life to the earth.
This story had another hero too: the scientists. The biologists who dreamed this up had the courage and the vision and the strength of their convictions to create the possibility for this extraordinary chain of events. They tipped the first domino and nature took care of the rest. Today’s story is part of this year’s series called Six Stories of Humans and the Earth. We are exploring the relationship between humans and the earth through each of the six Unitarian Universalist sources. The source of this story is “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” This rebirth of Yellowstone through the predation of the wolves was, above all, a triumph of science over the idolatries of the mind and spirit, idolatries in this case being superstitions and fears.
Biologists had long known that wolves were a vital missing link in the Yellowstone ecosystem. They had long studied the impact of losing an important predator from the food chain. And they had analyzed in other places the importance of top-level predators – a cascade of positive impacts that maintain an entire ecosystem in health and balance. So in the late 80’s and 90’s, scientists proposed the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone with exactly this intention. The wolves were clearly the missing puzzle piece and so this was a rational plan, grounded in science. Wolves had been an important part of ecosystem of the northern hemisphere for millennia.
But wolves have a bad reputation. They have a larger-than-life mythic association for people as dangerous, big, bad, cunning, sly, even evil. Children’s stories and mythology are full of wolves preying on innocent kids. Take Little Red Riding Hood where the villain is a wolf and the victims are the very archetypes of innocent helplessness – a little girl and a grandmother. The wolf (a male wolf, of course) eats them both. And take the story of the Three Little Pigs where the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the house down. And take the story of Peter and the Wolf. Prokofiev’s musical setting has different melodies for each animal in the story. The wolf sounds like this: [play melody]. These myths have persisted because, although wolf attacks on humans are exceedingly rare, wolves are fierce and sophisticated predators to the animals that they do hunt. (It’s hard to fathom that the modern toy poodle is somehow related.)
And so, because of all this, when scientists revealed plans to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone, public opposition was intense. Ranchers in the surrounding areas feared that the wolves would kill their livestock (which was, of all the concerns, the only reasonable one). Some people feared for their lives and others feared for the elk. Elk, unlike wolves, were an animal that people liked… again, based on mythology and sentimentalism, maybe because elk are innocent vegetarians and have cool antlers like Rudolph. I don’t know. The battles about this became so heated that at one point the governor threatened to call the National Guard to stop the shipment of wolves at the border. In spite of all of this, science prevailed this time, and the results have been spectacular. There are now 13 wolf packs living in Yellowstone. No wolf has attacked a person there in the 22 years since their return. They have killed some livestock in the surrounding areas, cows and sheep. But more livestock are killed by other predators. And environmental groups compensate the ranchers for livestock lost to wolves.
So what we saw was a battle between, on one hand, reason paired with hope and ambition for the future, and on the other hand, largely irrational fears, rooted in myth and legend. How often we have that same battle going on in our own heart. We have the part of us that has a pretty solid theory about what we need to do to bring our internal ecosystem into balance, what just might make a world of positive difference in our own lives or someone else’s. And we have the part of us that holds back because of fears rooted in our own internal legends and myths – stories about who we are or who someone else is or memories of how we’ve been hurt in the past. We may have a myth that says, “If I get married, my spouse will huff and puff and blow my house down: I’ll lose myself as an individual.” Or one that says, “I’m just a little old grandmother: too old to change careers without getting eaten alive.” Or one that says, “If I raise my kid to be too independent and walk in the woods alone, she’ll be weird and have no friends and she’ll hate me and it’ll be all my fault.” These are all fear-based myths that are often not true and not serving us. But they can be so powerful, sometimes we want to call the National Guard to stop whatever is scaring us at the border.
And then there is the aspirational boldness of the voice of reason and hope. To the myth about marriage, this voice says, “But I love this person and I want to share my life with them.” To the myth about career, this voice says, “Many people have changed careers late in life and I can too.” To the myth about the child, this voice says, “As a parent, I am in a unique position to help my child become her own person.” Like the wildlife biologists, we don’t know for sure if a new, wild idea will work. We know things could go wrong. When we let our internal wolf out of its cage it might just head north to try to get back home and we might get hurt. But we also know that if we take that leap, take that risk, and it does work, it could succeed beyond our wildest dreams, cascading down to every dimension of our lives and relationships. We have these two voices, battling inside us. Which one will win?
This question is answered in another legend that happens to be about wolves, this one from the Cherokee nation. An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
At the beginning of this new year, some of us are making resolutions and dreaming about how to make big changes in our lives. How can we get the delicate ecosystems of our own world into health and balance? It can be daunting and scary, even overwhelming. We need to decide where to start and how to do it. Some of us make New Year’s resolutions, but they always feel a little grandiose and hard to keep. Most of them fail. Not all of us are prepared to order the equivalent of a fresh shipment of live wolves every year.
To me, when I feel daunted by the scale of a change or project or year ahead of me, I find the story of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone tremendously comforting. Because it tells me that, just like in those emails we all got about year-end giving, when we give, when we make a donation however small, that donation will be matched. That if I do one small thing, the right kind of thing, life itself will give me a huge extra push. The story shows how nature can do so much with so little… it was just eight wolves in Yellowstone, after all, who changed everything. It teaches that we too, in our own lives can do so much with so little if we are working in and with the flow of nature. Sometimes all we have to do is take a small step in the right direction and nature will swoop in and take it from there.
And even though this is supposed to be a story drawn from our source about reason and science, I can’t help but notice that there is something mystical about this. I can’t help but feel awe at the power and wisdom of the workings of the universe. And so I invite you into this new year, yes, with reason and science, but also with a bit of faith. That if we feed the wolf of hope instead of the wolf of fear, if we feed the wolf of compassion instead of the wolf of resentment, if we feed the wolf of generosity instead of the wolf of greed, if we feed the wolf of truth instead of the wolf of deception, if we feed the wolf of kindness instead of the wolf of ego; if we are true to ourselves and set our intension toward health and balance, it will trigger a cascade of goodness that pours into our lives and out to our families, our communities and the ecosystem of the world itself, that needs it so badly. And so, as we head into this strange and somewhat daunting new year, I invite each of us to take some time and ask ourselves: which wolf are we going to feed this year?