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The Wolf is a profound account detailing the return of the world’s most enduring carnivore

Nate Blakeslee’s book is as much a report on the deep divisions within contemporary America as it is a tale about wolves.

The author of this deeply informed yet fast-paced and deftly structured book suggests that in the long, blood-soaked story of wolves and humans, the rise of agriculture was decisive. About 12,000 years ago, the world’s most successful terrestrial mammal became the enemy-in-chief to the second most widespread. By day, wolves threatened our livestock. By night, they haunted our nightmares. There could really be only a single outcome.

It has entailed the relentless extermination of one by the other, yet the largest single loss of territory in the shortest possible time has to be the grey wolf’s extirpation from almost all of the lower 48 states of the United States. In barely three centuries, wolves were cleared from three million square miles, with a surviving relic population only in a forested belt from Michigan to Minnesota.

The most shocking part of the process occurred in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, whose vast areas of montane forest were not only perfect for wolves but had enjoyed protection since 1872 as the world’s oldest national park. Here at least, one might imagine, the eerie nocturnal music of the Canis lupus might be tolerated. But in 1926, Yellowstone also fell silent. The irony was that the killing was done not by ranchers, hunters or fur trappers but by the very people tasked with defending Yellowstone’s pristine character – the park rangers.

It is a measure of the volte-face that conservationists have since performed on the issue of the wolf’s essential place in America’s wilderness that in 1995 they began to work towards the species’s return. That this was then met – and continues to be met – by opposition from almost every other rural constituency is an index of how little has changed in matters of wolves and men.

Nate Blakeslee’s tale of the Yellowstone reintroduction is an account of three types of unremitting hunter. First, there are the wolves, and it is remarkable to observe how quickly they took to the park, as well as its long inflated elk herds. Within a short time, there were 1,700 wolves spread across the three neighbouring states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. 

One striking aspect of the rise of this top predator was the way that almost every­thing changed. True, the elk (the same species as British red deer) were brought to within more healthy population limits, but pronghorn antelopes increased, as did grizzly bears. The elk losses led to reductions in grazing pressure and, thus, a rapid expansion of riverine woodland.

This then brought more beavers, which triggered improvements to all the river systems. There was also a massive reduction in the wolf’s competitor the coyote, which led to a big expansion of rodent populations and then, in turn, more owls, hawks, foxes, weasels, and so on. In short, the entire ecosystem has been rebooted and Yellowstone has flourished like never before.

Another kind of hunter that has increased with the rise of the wolves is the human devotee who watches them. These obsessive naturalists, armed with cameras and spotting telescopes, seem to spend almost every waking hour either studying lupine behaviour or logging it on personal blogs and Facebook pages. It is they as much as the wolves who are the stars of Blakeslee’s story, especially a ranger called Rick McIntyre.

He has spent more time in the company of wild wolf packs than any other human on Earth. McIntyre now almost never leaves the park and, over an intensive three-year period, saw wolves every day on 891 consecutive occasions. His diaries of these encounters run to five million words, and it is part of Blakeslee’s achievement to have encouraged this lone wolf among men to share his experiences so freely.

Alas, McIntyre’s form of wolf obsession has it counterpart in a more conventional kind of hunter, whose lead representative passes by the pseudonym Steven Turnbull. Turnbull bears a profound grudge against wolves and those who have championed their return for detracting from the pleasure of shooting surplus elk numbers. He has his revenge when he legally slaughters an alpha female called O-Six, which was described by a New York Times correspondent as the world’s most famous wolf.

It is a mark of the narrator’s skill that we feel the tragedy of this violent story, while understanding the motivations and even sympathising with its human perpetrator. Blakeslee also pans away from this micro-drama in the soaring, snow-capped landscapes of Yellowstone to show us how the issues surrounding wolves affect all of American society.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about the animals and many of them are very antagonistic. As the author notes, the reintroduction of humankind’s arch enemy is as loaded with politics as abortion, gun control and war in the Middle East. What ultimately makes this book so satisfying is that it is as much an account of the deep divisions within contemporary America as it is a tale about the world’s most enduring carnivore. 

The Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West
Nate Blakeslee
Oneworld, 300pp, £20

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist