Animal as Metaphor: Erica Berry’s Wolfish

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Emotions rattle us. A high in one moment—holding someone’s hand, say—does not prevent dread or regret or humiliation from cropping up in the next. To escape, if only temporarily, some people seek a feeling of wondrous smallness in the grandeur of the woods. Others find that having a fluffy creature around, to care for and love, helps. This outsourcing—a person’s concerns brought into nature; human issues transposed onto an animal or repressed by proximity—sells magazine articles, books, and movies.

Loneliness gloms onto a blue whale in Leslie Jamison’s 2014 reported essay “52 Blue.” Grief hovers alongside a goshawk in Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk. Recently, we tested freedom with an owl, illegally released from the Central Park Zoo, an instance of interspecies transference that Michiko Kakutani covered for the New York Times. “[I]t’s easy to see ourselves in a chubby little homebody who ditched his one-room apartment for the great outdoors,” the dek of Kakutani’s piece reads. On the opposite coast, a mountain lion enacted our desire to roam, as described in the New Yorker by Alex Ross, who quotes a Los Angeles Times obituary for the big cat: “Many Angelenos saw themselves in P-22, an aging bachelor who adjusted to a too-small space in the big city, waiting for a mate who might never arrive.”

Movies like Babe, Stuart Little, and Ratatouille use a different tack: the animal protagonists themselves not only wrestle with feelings like yearning, alienation, and ambition as people do but also converse with adorable human voices that never fail to make me profoundly, somewhat inexplicably, sad. And now in Erica Berry’s debut book, Wolfish, a diffuse fear stalks about with a wolf.

Living entities, with whom we cannot communicate fully, seduce us in their majesty. In part we want to understand how they experience the world but can’t, so we try to chart that blank space with the only language we have: ours, not theirs. Writers acknowledge the anthropomorphizing that happens when a person encounters something nonhuman and starts to identify herself in it. “The natural world has always offered itself as a screen for human projection,” Jamison writes. “We project our fears and longings onto everything we’re not—every beast, every mountain—and in this way we make them somehow kin. It’s an act of humbling and longing and claiming all at once.”

One can spot a pattern among these anthropomorphizing literary projects: start with a searching writer, add a discrete yet complex human emotion, connect that emotion to an animal who has a bumper-sticker-ready name, and produce a literary/environmental/personal work. In each case, an individual who is wading through the depths—the unexpected death of Macdonald’s father; the extreme isolation or even day-to-day unhappiness of people in Jamison’s piece; the anxieties that swirl inside Berry’s head—is crying out for affinity on some primordial plane.

Wolfish begins with a dead wolf. An unidentified human being has shot OR-106, “the 106th wolf biologists collared in Oregon,” for unspecified reasons. So, Berry asks, “Why, in a time and place where wolves present no tangible threat to human safety, does a human kill a wolf—or eight—in the middle of a forest?” She adds, personalizing her inquiry, “And when I imagined encountering a wolf in the forest, what did I see?”

To explore potential answers, Berry tracks Oregon’s wolf population—via the path of one wolf, OR-7—in parallel with her own intercontinental trek to confront wolves writ large, both “the creature in front of you and the creature in your mind,” as she writes. The latter carries centuries of figurative language threaded with unease, idioms like “keep the wolf at the door,” “lone wolf,” and “entre chien et loup” (a French saying, which means “between a dog and a wolf” and “refers to that dawn-or-dusk hour when it becomes hard to tell the difference between a dog and a wolf,” Berry explains). In addition to phrases, Berry evaluates archetypes woven entirely of nervy metaphor: “There is the boy who leaves home and becomes the wolf, and there is the girl who leaves home and meets the wolf,” she writes. Of course, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” makes an appearance.

Berry focuses on these longstanding myths because she believes that “we cannot untether the biological wolf from the stories told about it without also examining those associative, metaphorical stories.” Her references accumulate, steeping the reader in a winding canon of wolf lore. Interrogating both animal and metaphor, Berry aims to scrutinize “who gets to be predator and who gets to be prey.”

Berry herself often feels menaced like prey, a premonition of terror that comes through in extended anecdotes. A disconcerting stranger sits next to her on a train. A group of masked men, whom she later learns were athletes being hazed, block her path one night on her college campus. These heart-pounding instances and others—each characterized by “some shade of confrontation”—embed a person “in the twilight zone between the anticipatory anxiety of what could be and the memory of fear that screamed what now,” Berry writes. In contrast, when she loosens the wariness that grips her mind, alongside two colleagues at a cooking school in Sicily, they accidentally eat poisonous mandrake and spend a frightening couple of days at a hospital—a cautionary tale. “I did not know how to weigh who was worthy of my fear because I knew the stories I had inherited about it were false,” she writes. “I did not trust men, but also, I did not trust my gut.”

A self-conscious question thrums beneath the prose and explicitly: Is the fear of a “cis white millennial woman” like Berry valid, considering the racism, xenophobia, and anti-LGBTQ beliefs and behaviors in the world? The origin of her fear, moreover, evades her. “When I began writing this book, a storm of anxious fear had flooded my life,” she writes. “I couldn’t pinpoint when or how it arrived, and I wasn’t sure how to escape it.”

Rather than taking on her fear with confidence, however, the pained guilt of Berry’s “privilege” spills into the text. “I am white; I am neurotypical; I am educated; I have a supportive family with a financial safety net; I present primarily as the woman I identify as,” she writes. “The constellation of these privileged identities has meant an assumption of my ‘goodness’ is socially encoded too.” She often follows these kinds of sentences by quoting writers of our moment: Tressie McMillan Cottom, Melissa Febos, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Cathy Park Hong, Min Jin Lee, Carmen Maria Machado, Jenny Odell, and Isabel Wilkerson, among others. But such an attempt to disarm the critic distances us from Berry and her fear; her nervous deflection obstructs a narrative that depends on her centrality.

And the wolves? Wolfish amasses stories about solo young women and children killed by wolves, and about human beings cast as “lone wolves,” as well as media clippings about wolves, chiefly OR-7. “‘People are going to get wolf tattoos, wolf sweaters, wolf key chains, wolf hats,’ a board member for a California wolf advocacy organization told the Times.” OR-7’s fandom echoes those of 52 Blue, the whale in Jamison’s essay, and P-22, the mountain lion in Ross’s piece. People gave 52 Blue new lives in songs, artwork, and Twitter accounts, whereby the whale can “speak” to us. “I drift along the current / I scream my silent question,” the indie-folk band St. Mary, St. Michael sing on “Blue 52.” “Are you there? / Can you hear me?” P-22 likewise received the musical, cinematic, and “school curricula” treatment. “Show me what to see / I want everything,” croons Michael Kaiser, taking up P-22’s perspective on an eponymous track, “I came a long, long way / over land and on highways.” Flaco the owl “tweets” too.

What do we make of the impulse to personify these animals? When Berry spends two weeks with wolves at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, she recognizes how anthropomorphizing permeates the experience: “Each enclosure carried a photo and profile for each wolf, written in first-person like a dating profile. ‘I am the smallest with a very pretty face,’ said Sikko’s.” The first-person lines and lyrics strike a note of heartbreaking cuteness, akin to the movie critters’ human utterances. The remote idea of “human projection” has morphed into a human’s embodying an animal.

At one point, Berry gestures toward a middle ground, disavowing the tendency either to imbue wolves with human concerns or to deny wolves their own shifting emotions:

I didn’t want to anthropomorphize this creature that had so long dragged the baggage of human fantasy and fears, but to studiously avoid the comparison was ‘to risk falling into the related fallacy of mechanomorphism—the assumption that animals are machine-like creatures,’ as critic Amitav Ghosh writes, citing the work of ecological sociologist Eileen Crist.

Jamison clarifies what this balance might look like, articulating two paths for 52 Blue: “What if we grant the whale his whale-ness, grant him furlough from our metaphoric employ, but still grant the contours of his second self—the one we’ve made—and admit what he’s done for us?” In the end, we can cover an extensive terrain with an animal of our choice, but we must navigate facing ourselves.




Melissa Rodman is a journalist and critic based in New York. More from this author →