A bit of explanation: I grew up on a farm without a bookshelf. We were not readers. Once we finally got a television, there was only one channel but it had Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, disappointingly black and white in our house. I mention this because Walt’s photo is in the dictionary next to the definition of the word anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object. It wasn’t just Mickey and Donald and Goofy. It was Fairy Godmothers and Princes and various rodents who were helpful with chores. How many of us lost touch with reality about then?
I graduated from cartoons to Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom when my father would permit, but it bored him as much as it fascinated me. I was a poor reader until I left home but I nurtured a budding love and the next few decades were spent homeschooling myself by reading books from classical literature to current Natural Book Award winners. Good years, but once I moved to the farm, my reading time evaporated. I’d crack a book in bed and read the first paragraph each night before drooling off to sleep, often reading as much as an entire page in a month. Even worse these last years, my reading time has been spent writing, and blaming myself for not reading. And we all know how time-consuming self-criticism is.
Then in January, I gave in to a long-time fantasy. I signed up for Audible, so people could read to me. Such decadence, sometimes it’s people with an accent, but they patiently read to me at my leisure (mucking.) It isn’t revolutionary, but I’m frugal. I exchanged money for bliss. Oh my heart, forty-seven books in a half-year. Now I squander hours a day “reading.” Tossing a reckless dart at the globe and jumping centuries like a sidewalk crack, I “read” new books, non-fiction books, fat books, old-friend books that I’ve missed and want to revisit. I struggle with literary gluttony but am not guilty enough to do much but brag. I’m worse than a sullen teenager with earbuds on public transportation. I have my filling-hay-bags earbuds and my louder-than-an-ATV earbuds. I “read” voraciously now, hands-free and mind engaged.
During a recent writing workshop, I asked for book titles that had been read more than once. White Fang by Jack London was mentioned and I scribbled it down. No, I didn’t read it as a kid. For crying out loud, I didn’t see The Wizard of Oz until I was thirty. In all my catching-up, this small volume had never caught my eye but it was a freebie on Audible, so off I went to Alaska.
The first chapter of White Fang is a powerful narrative of a wolf pack that follows two hunters and their sled dog teams during a time of famine. The wolves lured the dogs away from the hunter’s camp one by one, to kill and eat them. It would be sad, but it is a dog-eat-dog world and the she-wolf is so intelligent that it’s hard to not cheer her on as she toys with the hunters, eventually managing to kill one. Scenes like this cheer a certain sort of person who has worked in rescue and feels frustration with the cruelty of her own species.
White Fang was the only surviving pup of the she-wolf’s litter, but he grows in the wild, hunting and learning from his mother, the she-wolf-who-must-be-obeyed. But the she-wolf is half dog and when they come to an “Indian” [sic] village where her previous master is, she is silly enough to allow herself to be captured. He trades her away and White Fang is enslaved, then passed from one despicable human to another, being submissive to harsh corrections, and eventually turning angry and aggressive enough to fight dogs for human entertainment. Nearly dead from a fight, he’s rescued and rehabbed, finally to live in California where he convinces the humans he’s marginally domesticated, saves a life, and wins the name “Blessed Wolf.” Okay, the end is a bit soft but White Fang was made old by many previous injuries by then.
Forgive my poor synopsis; I do it by design. The story isn’t as important as how it’s told. The book is brilliantly written from the point of view of the wolf-dogs, in a narrative that almost borders on being a documentary; a life as seen with the eyes and mind of White Fang. I do not say this lightly. It’s my biggest goal as an author who writes about animals to capture their language and their world. I hate anthropomorphizing any creature and salute you, Mr. London.
Disney taught us to see animals as stuffed toys. Horses and dogs especially suffer from our romantic notions and misunderstandings. We could serve them better with a truer translation, hearing less human opinions and more of theirs. We need to rest our intellectual perceptions and drop into the realm of instinct. By trying to understand the instinct of other animals, unvarnished and without apology, we might come to grips with our own predatory nature more honestly.
London tells no fairy tale. White Fang is about the collision of humans and wolves, not sweetened by saccharine Disney pastels. No spaghetti noodles are shared with a Dalmation. There are no golden retriever embraces or corgi sploots. Nothing is cute.
Jack London, 1876-1916, was known as an extremist, radical and searcher. He managed to cleanly explain the method an animal, without a frontal lobe like ours, might extrapolate from memory and make choices. Horses do that, too. As you read, you’ll also find such current hot topics as how fear-based training works, the experience of learned helplessness, affirmative training, brain science, how animals connect with humans, the power of instinct, rehabbing abused animals, and of course, calming signals. It’s a book for this era perhaps more than when it was written and is made stronger by not choosing to humanize or trivialize animals into some cheap version meant to be sweet or funny, but to respect their intelligence and instinct. London celebrates what it means to not anthropomorphize but love the wolf for his true nature.
The experience of changing our point of view is the first step toward the goal of understanding and true empathy toward one who is other than us. Perhaps you read this book when you were younger, but with a nod of apology to the horses and dogs we have bred into compliance or altered over generations to be a caricature of what they were meant to be, read the book again with new eyes. Knowing what we know now, do your horse the favor, even if his story is the prey-opposite. But especially for the dog sleeping next to you, use the book to remind yourself part of him is still wild, Hear his calming signals and accept him for who he is.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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