A Wisconsin teacher uses an essay about wolves to teach teen boys about empathy and environmentalism.
“I wish I had my gun so I could shoot these pumpkins,” Cody announced to his classmates before he even stepped off the bus. We were at the trailhead, next to a farmer’s market and across the street from a pumpkin patch. We’d had a few frosts already, and with the vegetation blackened and flattened, the pumpkins were lined up like a rafter of turkeys.
“I’m in charge of the sack,” Cody said next when I handed him one of two camelbacks, each holding seventy ounces of water, which I planned to distribute in Dixie cups at the hike’s midway point. We would hear the word “sack” over and over that morning, along with the fact that Cody was “in charge of it.” I cringed each time. Cody was a master of sexual puns. If a word had even a hint of double meaning relating to intercourse or the involved body parts, he would find it and exploit it. He was so good, in fact, that most of the other students didn’t get his jokes.
“Everybody on your wood!” he shouted once, when I gave each student a square of paneling to mark where to stand during a team problem-solving activity. “I’m the giver, not the receiver,” he made sure everyone knew, later in the game, when he was asked to hand something to someone.
But the problem with Cody wasn’t his machismo or his hypersexuality. Many of the 15- and 16-year-old boys in my English class in the experiential, environmental program in Wisconsin where I teach suffer from these two hopefully temporary exaggerations of character. The students who register for the program—a multidisciplinary three-hour block class at a public high school—don’t do it because they’re particularly concerned about global warming, or because they have a strong environmental ethic. They sign up because they’re the sons (and occasionally, daughters) of farmers. They like hunting, and they love being outdoors.
Cody had been in my class the previous year, too, so I knew him well. And it wasn’t his excessive machismo, his ultra-sensitivity to human sexuality, or even his intolerance of gays that I found surprising. No, what was so maddening about Cody was that he was all of these things and also one of the smartest students in the class. He was one of the few who’d actually read all of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, not just the first half of each chapter (the portion that could be finished in class). He and a partner had prepared an excellent translation and performance of the argument between Brutus and Cassius in their army tent on the battlefield after the assassination of Julius Caesar. I’d heard from another student that Cody, only a junior, had the highest grade in a senior chemistry class. Having Cody in class was always paradoxical. And when it came time to study the issue of wolves in Wisconsin, Cody embodied that paradox again. He would be both my biggest obstacle and most powerful weapon in getting my students to realize there might actually be a valid way to view the wolf other than through the sights of a rifle.
In his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Aldo Leopold admitted to once having just the kind of predator-mindedness that permeates the heads of Cody and many of my other male students. Leopold recounted a story about how he and a buddy once caught sight of a family of wolves in an open area beneath where they stood on a cliff. “In those days,” he wrote, “we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack… when our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.”
At that time, Leopold viewed the wolf solely as a rival, a competitor in the hunt for deer. Cody shared this view. In preparation for studying Leopold’s essay, I presented my students with a 2008 article about the reinstatement of wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to the federal endangered species list. They had been removed from the list just six months prior by the Bush administration, but the decision was overturned after a lawsuit from the Humane Society and several other groups. (Since that time, wolves in the Western Great lakes region have been delisted and relisted multiple times; currently they remain on the federal endangered species list.)
When I’d asked the students for their opinions, Cody hadn’t respond in his usual, well-edited prose. Instead, he’d scrawled, “The wolfs should be killed. I have had it with these stupid bunny huggers wanting to see animals that shouldn’t be there. They are just ruin[ing] the deer population.”
Before settlers came to Wisconsin, there were an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 wolves in the state. As hunters reduced the deer population, wolves found livestock to be easy prey. In 1865, a bounty of $5 was offered for each wolf killed, to lessen losses for cattlemen. In 1900 the bounty was raised, but for a different reason: to ensure a good population of deer for hunters. At $20 for adults and $10 for pups, it took just sixty years to extirpate wolves from the state.
In “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold describes how watching state after state extirpate its wolves—and how these extirpations affected vegetation and other wildlife—caused him to change his view of the wolf’s role in nature. But “extirpate,” which we came across in the news article, was a new word for my students.
“It means to make extinct from a local area,” I explained.
“It sounds like constipated,” Vince said from the back of the room. Vince, like Cody, always went for the laugh.
“Yes,” I conceded, “it shares a suffix with constipated. But extirpated means that although there were no wolves in Wisconsin in 1960, they did exist elsewhere.”
“In Alaska you can shoot wolves from an airplane!” exclaimed another flannel-shirt-wearing scholar named Brad.
“Really?” I asked, feigning interest. I had no idea what Brad was talking about, but it sounded made-up.
“Yeah,” Cody said, excited by any talk of shooting wolves. “There’s a $150 bounty on wolves in Alaska.”
Later, I learned that Brad and Cody were right. Since 2003, Alaska has allowed hunters to apply for permits to hunt wolves aerially in certain areas of the state where, on the snow-covered landscape, the wolves can be spotted almost as easily as pumpkins in a field after frost. I was impressed by my students’ knowledge—at least, my two loudest students’ knowledge—about the wolf situation in another state. But I knew we would soon be reading Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain.” If the only thing that interested or excited my students about wolves was the prospect of killing them, how could I prepare them for Leopold’s suggestion that the wolf has a role in nature other than to compete with humans for deer?
The day that Cody declared his desire to shoot pumpkins, my colleague, Phil, and I had arranged for the students to hike a section of the Ice Age Trail, a national scenic trail that follows the farthest reach of the most recent glacier across Wisconsin. The students were studying glaciation in their social studies class, and in English we were putting together a newsletter for which they would write articles spotlighting this section of the trail. The hike was three miles—not long, but probably longer than most of the kids had walked. It was also rough terrain, with the trail running up and down numerous glacial features that we wanted the students to observe and write about.
We had decided to split the class in two and hike in opposite directions. On the bus, Phil looked over the class list and created two groups, expertly dividing up friends, enemies, and lovers. He showed me the groups and told me to choose. I scanned the list, spotted Cody’s name, and picked the group he wasn’t in. But when Phil read the names aloud, he skipped over Cody’s. He ended up on my hike. It didn’t take Cody long to annoy me. “Do you go to bars and get drunk?” he asked, sounding artificially loud and innocent.
“No, Cody, I don’t,” I replied, which was mostly true. (Except for the occasional birthday party, I don’t go to bars and get drunk.)
He kept at it. “Do you go clubbing?”
The students giggled. “No, I don’t go clubbing, Cody.” The laughter continued, and we walked on.
I decided to take our mid-hike break at the top of a kame, which is basically a pile of sand and gravel. It’s a place where meltwater pours through a hole in a glacier, depositing its suspended load. Then, when the glacier melts away, it leaves behind a conical shaped pile of glacial till—called a kame. Most kames are no more than one-hundred feet high, and this one was less than that. Still, it was quite a hill for these students, who are used to walking no farther than they can drag a dead deer back to their truck in a much flatter part of Wisconsin.
When we reached the top I asked them who wanted some GORP, but no one knew what that meant. “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts,” I explained, and they seemed pleased. It might have been the only thing some of them learned and remembered that day. Cody began dispensing water into his classmates’ cups by squeezing the end of the tube protruding from the Camelbak. It’s really meant to be used as a straw, so his classmates had to push against his back; eventually he just laid down on the ground to apply pressure to the sack in order to get the water out. The students talked as they ate and sipped their water, repeatedly going to Cody for refills. I heard one of the students say “keg,” and then another say “shhhhhhhh.” They were joking about refilling their cups with beer.
I was worried about bringing up wolves in class again. I love Leopold’s essay, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for students like Cody and Brad to express their glee a second time at the prospect of killing wolves. With their deep voices and propensity to talk over others, they could make it seem like everyone in the classroom agreed with them. How could I get the students who believed that wolves should be on the endangered species list to speak out?
If certain students weren’t going to put their perceived unpopular opinions out there, I decided I would do it anonymously for them. During my planning period, I pulled out their papers on the Wisconsin wolf article and reread their answers to the last question, which asked for their opinion on wolves as an endangered species. I chose twelve that were insightful and well argued—six for and six against—and typed them up, omitting the students’ names. I planned to display them on the classroom’s big screen. Then I tallied up all of the opinions and displayed the totals: ten were against putting Wisconsin wolves on the federal endangered species list, thirteen were for, and three were undecided.
“Oh God, are we talking about wolves again?” Brianna said as she entered the classroom, glancing at Cody, who immediately looked up at the screen where I’d displayed the anonymous opinions. “I want to know who wrote the third one!” he yelled out, referring to a response arguing that wolves should be on the endangered species list because they are “a beautiful animal who, when they kill cattle, are just trying to survive.”
I began the class by asking the students how many had heard a wolf howl. Two-thirds of their hands shot up, which surprised me, because I’ve never heard it myself—only a coyote. I explained that we’d be reading Leopold’s essay, and that he begins by describing what the howl of a wolf means to a deer, a spruce tree, a man, and a mountain. I played a ninety-second clip of a wolf chorus and asked the students to come up with an adjective to describe the howls, or a phrase that explained what the howls reminded them of.
Half the class wouldn’t keep quiet while I played the clip. Robbie thumbed through a magazine, looking at cars for sale and whispering to Brianna about jeeps. Someone else howled along with the wolves. When it was over, Brad said the wolf’s howl “reminds me its time to go hunting,” and Cody declared that the wolf’s howl sounds “gay.”
I gave each student three post-it notes and a copy of the essay and then read “Thinking Like a Mountain” aloud. When I got to the part about Leopold and his buddy “packing lead,” I saw Brad smile and try to catch Cody’s eye across the room, but Cody didn’t seem to notice. He was focused on the essay. After the reading, I asked each student to come up with three questions to use in a small group discussion.
Some of the questions dealt with vocabulary or minor details (“What is a rimrock?” “How can a steep downhill shot be hard to aim?”), but I was astonished by the depth of others. Two groups discussed the symbolism of the “green fire” that Leopold saw extinguished in the eyes of the old wolf he shot. Another tried to decipher the “secret opinion” Leopold says mountains hold about wolves. A third group tried to understand the quote, “He [who shoots wolves] has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls and rivers washing the future into the sea.” My students wondered, “What does shooting wolves have to do with rivers?”
A few minutes later, I brought the students back together and asked several to share their questions. After the one about rivers, Cody raised his hand. I called on him. “Shooting wolves causes the deer population to increase,” he began, in a descending monotone, as if nothing that school presented him with could ever be difficult to unravel. “Then the deer browse the plants on the mountain, killing them. The roots of the plants are what hold the mountain together. So without wolves, eventually the mountain dies.”
My eyes widened. Cody, the hater of wolves and homophobic hunter of pumpkins and deer, had expertly understood and paraphrased Leopold’s lesson. I raised my hands above my head, turned toward Cody, and began to bend in an “I’m not worthy” half-bow. Cody’s face reddened, but I could see that he was happy. I worried for a moment that I might be crossing a line, that my motion could be misconstrued as something inappropriate, even sexual. But it was too late, and I was overcome with emotion—relief, gratitude, hope.
I wanted to make sure the whole class “got” the essay, so I asked for a volunteer to “restate what Cody has just said to make sure you all heard it and understand it.” Joe, a student who never misses a chance to tell me how much he hates reading, raised his hand and relayed, in his own words, the cycle that results from extirpating wolves: a brief increase in the deer population, an over-browsed landscape, erosion, and then a decrease in the deer population due to starvation. Bearing witness to this very cycle caused Leopold to change his own point of view, and I could only hope my own trigger-happy students might follow suit.
“Excellent!” I practically screamed, and then, borrowing one of the student’s questions, I asked, “So what does it mean to think like a mountain?”
“The mountain is like a spectator!” a student called out.
“Mountains live a long time, so they see things,” another yelled.
I stopped and stared toward the ceiling, my hands in a supplicating pose. “Am I dreaming?!” I said aloud.
“Stop, you guys!” Kristen yelled from the back. “Or she’s going to expect this all the time!”
There were only ten minutes left in class, and I had to get them started on their journal entries, because most of these kids don’t do homework. If they didn’t write about what it means to think like a mountain right away, they might never think about it again. I handed out the writing prompts, reminded them to write a full page, and pointed toward the clock.
But Cody, as usual, wasn’t finished talking. I leaned down next to his desk and asked him to share his opinion with me quietly, so the other students could get their work done. After bantering back and forth about the status of deer in Wisconsin, Cody said this, referring to humans and wolves: “Look, we’re talking about survival of the fittest here.” I smiled. I liked the way he thought.
“I know. You’re right,” I said, tapping my nail beneath a line at the end of Leopold’s essay, where he quotes Thoreau. “It all comes down to how much you believe in this statement: ‘In wildness is the salvation of the world.’” I looked back up at Cody. “There are six billion humans on the planet. We may well be able to live,” I continued, borrowing from scientist and essayist David Quammen, “on a planet of weeds—a planet without wolves, but with a lot of deer—and other animals that do well with the kinds of changes humans make in the environment. But sometimes those changes turn out to be not so good for us, either.”
I wasn’t sure that Cody, or any of my other students, would be thinking like a mountain when I saw them again the next week. Who knew if they were even thinking like a mountain after reading the essay? Brad, after all, suggested “an ATV” when I asked them to write down what a hiker might want to bring on the Ice Age Trail.
But Phil told me he saw Cody talking to two girls next to his locker and stopped to ask the students what they thought of the trail. “It was awesome,” Cody blurted out. Perhaps they will think not like mountains, but like kames, at least some of the time.
I don’t know how I feel about Wisconsin wolves being on the federal endangered species list. It seems that if a wolf is killing your cow or your poodle you should be able to shoot it, as long as there is a sufficient population of wolves in the state. But what is a sufficient population of wolves when compared to a staggering population of humans? In 1836, the human population of Wisconsin was 11,836. (That figure does not include Native Americans). Minimum estimates put the wolf population for that time at 3,000. But now there are 5.5 million humans in the state and just 662 wolves. The ratio of human to wolf has changed, in the last 200 years, from 4 to 1 to 8,000 to 1. This, time and time again, is what we tend to forget: the human population on Earth is exorbitant. And what sector decides what we desire? Exactly how many wolves does a human need to survive?
“Zero,” Cody might say.
But somewhere, in the back of his mind, the mountain may respond. “Only time will tell.”
Photo: todd ryburn / flickr