ANTONIO SABA/ GALLERY STOCK
Show Hide image

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

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.