Wolves and the Wolf Myth in American Literature by S.K. Robisch, a good friend of mine, is more than a piece of dry ecocriticism whose sole purpose is to give the intellect a workout or to play theoretical games. This is a book written with pure heart, and guts (a rarity in the academy these days). Take as an example a personal experience Robisch describes as part of a critical re-reading of Jack London's White Fang:
One spring in Missoula, Montana, I walked out of a coffee shop to find a short flatbed with a white cab parked along the curb. It was cool out, cloud-heavy and gray, and the coniferous wall of the Bob Marshall wilderness was spread below a fog that was partly the smoke of the paper mill by the Clark Fork. On the flatbed stood a wolf. It wore a thick collar studded with blunt chrome and fitted with two bolt rings, one to each side of the collar. From each ring stretched a length of heavy chain down to the larger eyebolts on the flatbed. Little slack in either chain. I sat on the curb and waited for the owner, who explained that wolves were runners, you couldn't keep 'em behind a fence, and that he had to "keep my wolf still" while he did his business. Had a stray hunter's bullet found its way into that man at that moment I wouldn't have shed a tear. For his part, the wolf stared at both of us, long-legged and apparently whipped, and didn't seem to care anymore about my anger than the other guy's idiocy, although I remain oblivious to what was going on inside the wolf's head. I'll lay my paycheck on it being nothing good. This is what happens to Fenris in the reality of a culture that won't learn from its mistakes, and it generates a profound and lasting body of literature. Unfortunately, the academic humanities have traditionally treated that moment, and whatever attendant emotions are connected to it, as a "wolf encounter" like any other, all abstracted so that the wolf chained on the flatbed is the same as any other wolf--a symbolic device serving the greater human drama, and not worth our attention as anything more real than that. Literary critics tend not to carry bolt cutters.
How many of us, literary critics or not, would have seen the wolf on that flatbed and then waited for its owner to come out so we could question him? Heck, how many of us would have even realized that that animal in the back of his truck was actually a wolf? Robisch did--on both counts. That's the kind of intelligence, commitment and courage we need if academics, and specifically ecocritics, are to play a part in changing our relationship to the natural world. In essence--and how sickening that this sounds so simple and yet is apparently beyond us--we need to see wolves as more real than that. And other animals, as well. And their homes in the forest, the desert, the sea.