Once common throughout North America and Eurasia, wolves now live on a fraction of their former territory. Charlotte McConaghy, author of the international bestselling novel “Migrations,” uses the ongoing battle over rebuilding wolf populations to tell the story of a woman working to reintroduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands. The novel is called “Once There Were Wolves.”
McConaghy says she started to learn about wolves when she read an article about Pando, the Trembling Giant, a forest that is one of the world’s oldest and largest living organisms. The trees of the Trembling Giant are connected to one enormous root system under the ground.
"This beautiful, ancient thing that's been here — some scientists think it could be almost a million years — is starting to die because of human impact,” McConaghy explains. “At the bottom of this article, it says the perfect solution to saving this organism would be to reintroduce wolves back into the area, because they have incredible power over their environment; but that, also, this would never happen because of the local farming and hunting community.”
“It came to me very quickly, in a huge rush, that I wanted to write the story of the woman who was trying to bring these creatures back in order to save a forest, much to the horror of the local community."
“It came to me very quickly, in a huge rush, that I wanted to write the story of the woman who was trying to bring these creatures back in order to save a forest, much to the horror of the local community,” McConaghy continues. “And so I started to look into wolves and discovered that they're the most extraordinary creatures.”
Wolves can help to protect trees or an entire environment, because ecosystems need predators to keep the herbivore populations in check, McConaghy explains. All over the world, growing populations of deer, for example, are eating small shoots and plants and stopping many things from growing. When wolves return to an environment they once inhabited, the deer move out, which allows the plant life to grow and encourages other mammals, insects and birds to return. This renewal can even change water tables in a region. “That’s why we say that wolves have the power to change rivers,” McConaghy says.
No wolves have roamed England and Scotland for nearly 500 years. As in many other places, local people set out to destroy them, because they're thought to be dangerous. But, in fact, they're not, McConaghy says, not to humans.
"[Wolves are] incredibly shy, family-oriented creatures who are terrified of humans, and they will go out of their way to avoid all human contact. The instances of wolves attacking or killing humans are so minuscule … it’s not even really worth talking about."
“[W]e all tend to think of them this way, but that was one of the amazing things that I learned during my research,” she explains. “In fact, they're incredibly shy, family-oriented creatures who are terrified of humans, and they will go out of their way to avoid all human contact. The instances of wolves attacking or killing humans are so minuscule … it’s not even really worth talking about. Deer kill more humans.”
For whatever reason, wolves tend to “conjure these extreme feelings in people,” at both ends of the spectrum, McConaghy says. They generate a lot of fear or a lot of love.
McConaghy says what most surprised and fascinated her when doing research for the book was the "incredible uniqueness of their personalities.”
“In a way, [wolves are] sort of really human in their behavior, but in another way, they're kind of really unknowable. So, I think I just fell in love with this uniqueness.”
“They have extraordinary distinct, mysterious behavior that is very hard for us, as humans, to perceive and understand,” she says. “In a way, they're sort of really human in their behavior, but in another way, they're kind of really unknowable. So, I think I just fell in love with this uniqueness.”
“Each of them have their own kind of lives and adventures and stories and personalities, and you only just have to follow one to fall in love with it and kind of see that they have this amazing sense of loyalty to each other, [and] courage,” she continues. “There’s a part in the novel, which I kind of took inspiration from a real wolf in Yellowstone, when she loses her mate, she howls for him endlessly, which is her method of mourning. And that just felt … so human in a way, but also so animal. And I think there's something that we can really learn from wolves about the way they love.”
“Barry Lopez, who was an amazing nature writer, wrote that … we’ve projected onto the wolf the qualities we most despise and fear in ourselves, and I think that's very true,” McConaghy says. “I wanted to explore that idea in this book, and I guess, maybe flip the idea that the wolves are the monsters, and kind of say that it's us. We're the monsters.”
In fact, McConaghy’s novel also explores a dark, monstrous aspect of humanity — domestic violence. While writing the book, McConaghy grappled with a lot of anger, both toward the slaughter of wolves and the “domestic violence emergency” she sees all around the world.
"Inti [the protagonist of the novel] in a sense kind of became the mouthpiece for that fury about the way that humans treat, not just the natural world, but each other, as well. She becomes someone who's very acutely aware of the damage that people can do to each other."
“A woman a week is murdered by her romantic partner in Australia,” she notes. “And that's not including all the women who … survive their ongoing abuse. I was writing this novel from a very angry place. And so, Inti [the protagonist of the novel], in a sense, kind of became the mouthpiece for that fury about the way that humans treat, not just the natural world, but each other, as well. She becomes someone who's very acutely aware of the damage that people can do to each other. … She’s lost all faith in people. And the book is kind of about a journey, I suppose, from laying that anger down or finding a way to move on from it, rather than letting it kind of poison you.”
Reintroducing wolves is generating a big debate in Scotland, McConaghy says. She’d like to believe it’s more likely than it probably is.
“Scotland is a very progressive country in terms of its re-wilding efforts, so I don't think it's impossible,” she says. “But there's also a very big pushback against it from the farming population, because it's very densely farmed. And there's a lot less land than there is in America, for example.”
While it wasn't exactly easy to get wolves reintroduced in the Lower 48 of the United States, overall, it seems to be working reasonably well.
“I think it worked because wolves are meant to be there,” McConaghy says. “They used to be there and they should have never left, essentially. It worked because nature intended it.”