Letter from the Desert: Raised by Wolves

There's an article in the New York Times this week about the Southern Resident orca mother whose calf died, and who in a bout of wholly relatable grief has been carrying the dead calf for two weeks now. J35, a 20-year-old member of the J Pod of Southern Residents, was tending to her dying newborn in traditional orca fashion, propping the baby up at the surface of the water so that it doesn't drown despite being too weak to swim. The calf died half an hour after being born, and J35, with some help from other members of the J Pod, has kept the baby afloat for day after day nonetheless. This is not easy, and some biologists worry that J35 is spending so much energy in this mourning that she may be unable to reproduce any time soon. That's a problem: the three Southern Resident pods have a total of 75 orcas among them; J35's cousin J50, another female, is about to starve to death, and the rest of the Southern Residents aren't far behind. That's in part because we have deprived the Southern Residents of the bulk of their food supply: Chinook salmon, of which each adult orca needs between 350 and 400 pounds per day.

So, another sad story in an endless nested matryoshka doll set of nested sadnesses, and I recommend writer Susan Casey's Times article, which is as valuable as it is concise.

In that article, as Casey briefly describes the complexities of orcas' multigenerational matriarchal families, in which the grandmothers and great-grandmothers run society and function as wise elders, she writes:

Orca mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers pass on so much essential knowledge that calves removed from their influence are as ill-equipped for wild orca life as children raised by wolves would be if dropped into Midtown Manhattan.

And amid the melancholy engendered by reading the article, that phrasing nagged at me.

Casey isn't the first to use that trope, by any stretch. It's convenient shorthand, a handy metaphor for suggesting the depth and complexity of a non-human culture. But something about it made me want to turn it on its head. Why not suggest that a human child raised entirely in Midtown Manhattan, exposed only to screens and rectilinear street grids and packaged food, would be supremely ill-equipped for life if dropped into the Mojave Desert, or a redwood forest, or even a multi-crop organic farm in Iowa.

As I mentioned to la mujer que amo, if I was given a choice between an hour with a young person who had been raised in Midtown Manhattan, and an hour with a different young person who had been raised by wolves, I am pretty sure I know from which one I was likelier to learn interesting things.

The last few years have been, to some degree, an exercise in unlearning many of the things I picked up during my decades of city life. Details of observation have become more and more important to me: the seasons in which desert willow blossoms fall spent to the ground and the concurrent appearance of fat iguanas; the differences in color of discarded soil freshly excavated from a burrow of rabbit or squirrel; the distinction between a rainstorm ten miles upwind whose rain will not reach us and one which will.

I can only imagine what someone would know who was raised out here by coyotes. And yes, I understand how unlikely it is that coyotes would raise a small child as anything except tomorrow's lunch. But imagine the depth of knowledge that child would gain, some of it untranslatable into spoken language. The depth of digging to where the soil temperature doesn't burn. The scent of buried water. The way to run broken, anticipating the cottontail's next move. Alertness to subtleties.

Not that knowing which seats to avoid at the Majestic or how the pastrami is at Tick Tock wouldn't be handy on occasion. Still, and this is not in any way a swipe at Casey, I think the notion that crowded cities are a sine qua non for being fully human needs to be examined critically. I know I feel way more human out where the number of human residents per square mile drops below one than I ever have navigating those rectilinear street grids.

All content Copyright 2018 Chris Clarke, all rights reserved. Please feel free to share via forwarding, but don't spam anyone. If you like what you see you can subscribe. If you really like what you see my tip jar is here.