Digesting Project Wolf
I add haggis to my breakfast bacon bap at Glenmoriston hotel, waiting for the bus which never arrives. I’m hungry in a carnivorous way, after prowling through a night in which we failed as wolves to find any deer. But the deer were all around us, we knew it, and I’m sure our predator eyes were spied by all those doe-eyed ones before our headlamp beams could catch their forest gazes. The ground was a sphagnum sponge and my right sock soaked it up through a crack in my welly.
The rubber boots were full and floppy and I felt prisoner to my human gait as we wound uneasy midnight paths over boulders and crags of Dundreggan. I heard once about convicts in colonial Australia who were strapped into anchor-heavy footwear, the souls of which bore the ‘broad arrow’ of crown property to imprint a traceable direction on the ground, in case they attempted escape. Our physical tracks through Dundreggan weren’t pronounced in this way, but our sonic presence marked an equivalent absence of other nighttime creatures, an absence that lingered in our wake. I mentioned to Doug that I felt more like a knock-needed fawn than a stealthy canid, and I wondered what the deer made of our clumsy group rampage through the tall and windless trees as we filled in their silence with our squelching footfall. We weren’t in pursuit of prey, I realised, so much as we were chasing our own trails, Alex carrying a GPS device to record the final night walk of the season. Our ambitious direction confirmed the outermost contour on a graph recording and mapping a month of patient territorial progress.
So Project Wolf wasn’t really about wolves as it wasn’t about deer, but tracking something else: gap-spirit of the imprint ownership leaves on a forest, pruned around capitalist patterns of thought?
Wolfing at Dundreggan begins to make sense to me as I realise that the practice occupies this gap, an ecological imbalance manifest through the absence of predation. And so I start to think about The Wolves as enacting an “encouragement structure”: a chant or solicitation of growth that gains new momentum through the ritualised scattering of deer, who graze by night on saplings and fresh young grasses. Aspen and birch and undergrowth are encouraged by the humandwolves to spring forwards anew, and yet their ambition bends backwards through time, intimating a primeval (and less-vegetarian) version of The Forest. What does it mean to pass forwards and backwards through time both at once?
In Brazil, Curupira (cuh-ruh-pee-rah) tricksters protect the forest’s ecology with their back to front feet:
“Curupira’s feet are placed on backwards
This helps them trick the hunters of the forest
They find footprints and follow them…
but the Curupira went the other way”
…“Go-fer, be gone” a friend once wrote on the side of a motion-triggered sound-box made for the purpose of scaring off gofers, small furry critters who were decimating a freshly planted row of green beans in rural Pennsylvania. “Go-fer, be gone” — an encouragement chant for the growth of fresh green beans.
“Go far, stay deer” the humandwolves are saying to the deer of Dundreggan, “You are the opposite of vulnerable trees”. And yet this is not what a real wolf would say to a doe (understanding that opposites intersect). “Wings of my love” the wolf would say instead, moonwalking backwards towards the village disco, “baby be mine / Awooooo I wanna be with you everywhere…”
Becoming is somewhere at the core of predator-prey relations and I wonder if (human)wolves are really wolves without the crux of predatory chase, the sizing up and paradox of love and death, “Murder on the dance floor…”
If you think your getting’ away / I will prove you wrong / I’ll take you all the way / Boy, just come along…
The bacon layered with haggis weighs heavy on my stomach and through all this speculation I know I am no bloodthirsty wolf. My overstretched knees ache slightly from the night before, a sensation that conjures up time in foreign cities, navigating museums and galleries against the clock.
In the New York Museum of Natural History before the millennial diorama restoration project, a lightbulb illuminating a ’50s diorama of two wolves baying at the moon slips out of place. No longer corresponding with the painted shadow beneath the taxidermied wolves (an optical trick designed to intensify the illusion of night), the light now generates its own independent shadow, so that within this world-within-world, it seems as if there really are two moons.
Now, retracing our route at Dundreggan, my memory skips through diorama scenes of young birch forest and small streams passing over steps of igneous rock laced with lichens, with mosses and globular butterwort, strobing up from the ground like an LED glitch. Twilight caps the white lichen’s inflorescence like a whole hillside of moons until we turn our headlamps on. Now everything flattens into pattern, all the contours condensing on a single plane. When depth perception is displaced by scent and sound, vision dances freely and I add to the image by superimposing delusional broad arrows onto the ground beneath our feet. The arrows follow faithfully until a scattering of agencies emerge from in the moss, and I watch them through the sleepy gauze of night-blindness as they lift our footprints onto their shoulders, shuffling arrows back-to-front to tinker with the unidirection of time.
We keep our cool and resist these tricksters until about 2am when, nearing home, an electricity pylon and other signs of human presence throw our pack off-scent. Distance is confused with growing exhaustion on a steep incline: I choose this moment to tell Doug the story about the Daribi keberebidi or ‘memory-wipe’ sorcery in Papua New Guinea, a practice which uses the bioelectric snout of an echidna to disorient a victim by loosening his body image. Echidnas use the same electric shock in their noses to disturb the uniform behaviour of ants before snuffling them up to eat. “The sorcery is found where the stone is all white” these moon-face lichens remind us, winking upwards as they do so at the invisible moon (or moons) and the anthropomorphic electricity pylon ahead – “a bit Blair Witchy” Doug remarks. The beam of my flashlight catches one white rock in particular – scattered with moss from this angle it perfectly resembles an anamorphic skull.
Occasionally an Amazonian hunter will come upon a disturbance in the closed-canopy forest, a gap not created by man. These spots are called wind’s gardens. People avoid them because these places are visited by the Curupira.
The Curupira happily tolerates hunting for food but is infuriated by those who hunt for pleasure and will lay traps and confuse them so that they become eternally lost in the forest.
They also uses whistles and imitate sounds of both nature and the human voice to confuse their targets. Doug finds a patch of ground above a badger set that echoes in a particular way when he jumps up and down on its surface. I wonder what’s he’s doing and he seems a little crazed, a little Curupira. He calls to us and we stop and gather in a grassy glade circled by trees. We turn off our headlamps and listen to the silence. The darkness is thick and we sink into the pulse of our own arteries – stopping makes me realise how ceaselessly my attention has been stretched, like a skipping stone across water, through the density of signs in the night.
And then we realise we are thoroughly lost, and very tired and very wet. I feel a need for a language or a signalling system that might cut through the thoughts of this forest, something more tuned in than the human voice, a code to use to gather and translocate our pack. A conversation resonant with the branching of the trees, like a spiderweb with its language of touch and vibration.
“If an Indian loses his way in the forest, the Spirit is the cause [Curupira]. The Caribs, however, know how to circumvent the latter, by making a string puzzle, which is left on the pathway: the object of this puzzle consists in removing, without cutting or breaking, an endless string from off two sticks upon which it has been placed. The Spirit coming along sees the puzzle, starts examining it, and tries to get the string off: indeed, so engrossed with it does he become, that he forgets all about the wanderer, who is now free to find the road again.”
A trap from one perspective is a map from another. In the predatory forest, for hunters as for spiders, getting lost is not an option. Spun around serial past encounters, each web the spider weaves must more perfectly prefigure the form of a bigger, juicier meal-to-come. The spider shuttles backwards and forwards along radial strings of time, and the web she precipitates out is a mandala-like diagram of time itself. A sensate membrane, an intranet, it maps the spider’s being-in the forest.
Elsewhere in the Amazon, Enawenê dam builders (who are surely aware of Curupira) do not depend on maps as we know them. Instead they chart their cosmos through the sensitive construction of grid-like river weirs and handwoven fish traps. These traps embody a dangerous, medial quality: the merging of man and fish. For the Enawenê, setting a trap automatically implies making oneself vulnerable to entrapment. “Traps are all about hubris: mastery’s inevitable subjection […] Enawenê fishermen play god and they delay the inevitable” (Chloe Nahum Claudel)
Setting a trap means sculpting the invisible and tackling the impossible, inhabiting the brink of becoming-other than oneself. Getting lost and finding something else. A sort of curupira-turn.
And so I wonder what it is that’s consuming Northern Scotland, and what the inevitable fate of wooded lands at Dundreggan might be. A collapse in ecological stability, or the breaking down of bounded lands and capitalist forms of thought? Who are the ecological guardians of Dundreggan, and how can we encourage them?
“For this purpose he took a young palm-leaf, plaited it, and formed it into a ring which he hung to a branch on our track…”
A web is an “encouragement structure” for the wellbeing of spiders and, of course, an archetypal trap. It is also a prediction, anticipating and then amplifying the arrival of a fly, and the magic of this is in the realisation that spiders are blind to flies as-such – they cannot perceive them, and likewise the fly doesn’t register the spider, and yet the invisible web the spider weaves is so perfectly in tune that when a fly gets stuck, the spider ‘hears’ the presence of the insect like a gong announcing dinner. The web is an ecological map: a kind of creativity that comes in the form of listening…
“When the form’s in place, everything within it can be pure feeling…”
…But by now our pack lacks any semblance of form and we’re turned around, overstretched and hungry. The wind’s garden sends us back in a loop and we follow a fence which takes us straight back to the pylon again without finding our overnight spot. We want to rest, and we need to eat. Our sweat mingles with the rain. We are melting into the wild phase of the forest.
There was an old lady who swallowed a spider / That wriggled and wiggled and tiggled inside her / She swallowed the spider to catch the fly / I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!
The Curupira’s most severe punishment reverses the chain of predatory relations, his raison d’être as always to protect the forest from the destructive habits of man. The Tupi “little lad” has a thing for transforming predators into prey: human into wolf, wolf into deer, deer into grassland — Curupira inverts along the fractal scale of things.
“If you want to pity something, pity grassland”, Bilgee in Wong’s novel Wolf Totem advises, reminding me of the vulnerable fresh green shoots of aspen and birch that I had taken pains not to trample on the higher slopes of the glen. Finally back at base-camp we collapse and drink tea; I relax my body against a smooth cleft of earth. My eyes fall closed and I drift into sleep, slipping backwards and forwards through time both at once.
Maybe our wolves are in the deer are in the saplings of Dundreggan.
We cannot see them but we were them in the future.
Link to Project Wolf at Trees for Life https://treesforlife.org.uk/volunteer/long-term-volunteering/project-wolf/https://treesforlife.org.uk/volunteer/long-term-volunteering/project-wolf/