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Author series: Elli H Radinger

A chance encounter with wolves in fabled Yellowstone National Park proves a powerful lesson in the relationship between humans and nature

By Elli H Radinger
Published 17 May 2019, 17:29 BST
Elli H Radinger
Elli H Radinger
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

Sometimes people ask me about a special encounter I had with wolves. I can’t name a single experience, because during the almost three decades I’ve been observing them, every wolf sighting has been special. Unforgettable, however, is one moment in Yellowstone National Park.

Early one spring morning, when the road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful was cleared for traffic for the first time that year, I drove to Norris Geyser Basin. Norris is one of my favourite places — here, where the earth’s crust is only five kilometres thick (normally it’s about 50), I feel close to Mother Earth. Yellowstone is a slumbering supervolcano, and Norris is the hottest spot in the park, formed of ice and fire. Sometimes things happen very slowly here — in terms of geological timescales — and sometimes they happen in a flash. It’s a place where creation is never ending.

I was sitting on a tree trunk in the middle of gurgling, seething and hissing hot springs. Rivers and streams exhaled clouds of steam among cold fields of snow. In the distance I heard whimpering and screeching sounds. They rose and transformed into a high-pitched laugh, the trill of an operatic diva. Coyotes! My wild friends. They were singing their morning song, their prayer to the sun.

A reply from behind me followed promptly. Deeper, calmer, longer. From a powerful throat. I turned round in slow motion to see a light grey wolf standing only five metres away, staring at me. His ears pricked curiously forward. His tail, slightly raised, showed uncertainty. My camera was on the ground next to me, but I didn’t reach for it; that would have broken the spell. I held my breath. Yellow eyes plunged into blue eyes. Seconds, minutes. Then a bird flew up and startled me. The wolf took a step back, turned around and ran off, while I sat there in awe for a long time.

For many people, the creatures of Yellowstone — wolves, bears, cougars — are a symbol of the wilderness. They long to see them, and think a landscape without wolves is a landscape missing something. In our somewhat superficial times, wolves are something real; they represent life and death. Real nature without fences between us.

There are no longer very many places where you can experience wild creatures in such a way, but Yellowstone is one such place. This elemental land of fire and ice can heal our souls. I’ve found comfort in the wilderness of Yellowstone many times. It’s a place where I can touch 50 million-year-old petrified trees, and walk with the knowledge that beneath me, a huge chamber of glowing magma seethes. I feel tiny. Not insignificant — but on the contrary. Here I can see myself as part of the whole, as part of the big plan of things. It’s this realisation that gives me a deep feeling of peace.

Why do we seek comfort in nature? Why do we feel so good when we see, hear, smell or feel animals? When we look at a tree and smell the scent of flowers? When we watch a rushing river or a calm sea?

Outside in nature, I’m never alone, and I never feel lonely. When I take a moment to myself and sit on my favourite hill, then look out over the Lamar Valley, I sometimes catch my breath at the sight of so much magnificence. There’s a timelessness in extreme beauty. The present doesn’t disappear; it becomes eternity. We need such experiences to learn to be at home in our lives, to feel what it’s like to be alive.

Wolves and the wilderness lead us to the existential spiritual questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? We sense in us a spark of the divine that all animals carry within themselves. But wolves don’t ask those questions — they aren’t interested in whether they’re our spirit animals or not, if we want to build an altar to them, or whether we hate them. They aren’t even interested in whether we exist or not. We’re just a part of their environment, to which they adapt.

Perhaps that’s their greatest gift to us: that insignificance and unimportance of humans. Perhaps we need to show greater humility and modesty in our response to nature. It’s time for us to stop taking ourselves so seriously, and just be. It’s only then that we’ll be closer to wolves than we’ve ever been.

Elli H Radinger is the author of The Wisdom of Wolves, published by Michael Joseph. RRP: £14.99.

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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