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Personal Story: How I learned to exist as prey

 With a stranger’s throwaway comment, my entire connection to the natural world had been recalibrated.

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Soon after moving from east London to Montana, my husband, daughter and I woke up in a motel room on the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park at 4.30am. I can’t remember where we found coffee at that time in the morning, but I do remember sipping from a Thermos as I watched the park unfold in the late summer dawn: shades of muted violet and buttery yellow. We were driving to where we had been told we might see some wolves.

We parked in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley and climbed a low hill to set up a borrowed viewing scope, just as the rain began to fall. Beyond the bleak straw-coloured hills, the silvery tops of mountains pressed upwards into thick, grey clouds. Bison lazily grazed on what was left of the summer grass. This landscape would be our new home. 

Then we spotted her: an alpha female, the leader and breeder of the pack. A mottled charcoal colour, she lay nonchalantly on her side, while five cubs ran in circles, jumped on her, every now and then receiving a swat from her large paw. I felt I was seeing something forbidden. Their joy seemed private, intimate – something between them and the land that I had no place witnessing. I wasn’t expecting to have a particularly emotional response to these animals but a kind of awe began to creep over me. It was a push-pull affair: on the one hand I was thrilled that these creatures were here and looked to be thriving; on the other, I felt I should leave them be. 

After some time, I began to tell them apart, to identify the cubs as individuals. “Look, there’s the one who nips ears,” I was saying to myself. The awe shifted from that of observer to participant. The membrane that separated my tamed interior from the wilderness around me was a porous one. I could see, here in this valley, how it could so simply fall away. We had only been in the West a few weeks – we were living in a motel in Missoula – and yet this land was already beginning to have an effect on me. 

Like many newcomers to the West, I soon became obsessed with wolves. They’re an emotive subject here, as they embody arguments around domestication and wilderness, ranching vs rewilding, Europeans vs the original inhabitants of this land. By the 1930s wolves in Yellowstone had been hunted and trapped to extinction. The family I had been watching was most likely descended from a pack of Canadian grey wolves reintroduced to the park in 1995 as an experiment in wilderness management. 

Since the reintroduction of wolves into Montana, debates still rage as to the extent of good or harm these animals inflict. With wolves in Yellowstone hunting and killing prey, the elk population has been reduced, allowing for the regrowth of trees, especially willows, creating more habitats for birds and other animals. The drop in numbers of elk has also invoked the wrath of hunters whose main targets are ungulates (hooved mammals). However, by bringing back the apex predator, many scientists and conservationists believe that a healthier balance has been restored. 

A month or so after my experience in Yellowstone, on a rainy October night, I set off on my bicycle through Missoula’s quaint downtown. We had moved into a rental house at this point and were feeling more settled in our new home. Missoula swells to around 70,000 inhabitants during the school year, when the streets and bars fill with university students. This evening, however, was quiet. The rain seemed to have ushered everyone indoors. I made my way to a basement bar to attend a fundraiser for an anti-trapping organisation called Footloose Montana. 

I stood in a corner clutching a beer, thinking about the trappers I had met recently who viewed wolves as potential pelts, as income generators, as enemies to their cattle, as things to be “harvested” from steel traps. The room was filling up and a band was preparing to go onstage. A guy in a suit approached and made small talk. He asked me the usual questions about where I was from, how I had heard of the organisation, and did I know there was a raffle for the posters in the lobby. He told me he was a keen hunter but found trapping unconscionable – a position I was to hear often in Missoula. He went on to tell me how he loved sleeping outdoors during his hunting trips in the wilderness. I asked if he ever got frightened sleeping among the grizzlies and cougars. He laughed and looked at me like I was crazy. “I could only ever live in a place where I am not the top predator,” he said. 

This was a rare eureka moment. With this stranger’s throwaway comment, my entire connection to the natural world had been recalibrated. I carried his words with me through the vast spaces of the West for the two years we lived in Missoula. We are prey. Of course we are. We have to be. It is our inability to accept this that leads to our sense of exceptionalism, our arrogance towards the non-human animals with which we share the Earth. Reducing this idea to its essence, it simply becomes: “We are mortal. We will die.”

A number of circumstances have brought me back to London. Although this stranger’s words still reverberate, I am finding it difficult to feel like prey in a big city. The threats to my existence are not bears and cougars but insatiable greed, toxic air and the billboards I see every day telling me that consuming more will make me happier. I am prey here but not in a way that makes me feel part of the web of life. I am pining for Montana, for the wolves, the mountains, the people I drank beer with in dimly lit bars. I want to be prey again. The real kind. The kind that makes you feel more alive than dead.

“Surrender” by Joanna Pocock is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Joanna Pocock is an Irish-Canadian writer living in London. Surrender, a work of creative non-fiction about the American West, was published by Fitzcarraldo in 2019.

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose