Wild city: Reason to howl

My husband and I heard wolves howling when we were camping up north in late July. It was our first night out. The cry went up around midnight, shaking us from our sleep.

I’d heard wolves before, from that same vantage point, that is to say, lying on the ground, inside a flimsy nylon tent. I wasn’t afraid that time, I was thrilled. It is a primitive sound. I heard the bleating of a deer or moose being taken down back in the woods, and then that unmistakable chorus.

I am not sure if wolves howl in celebration, or to call others in to the feast. That time I felt lucky to be there, lucky to be alive.

This time, though, the sound was creepy — but fascinating. There were many varied wolf voices, yipping, keening, and mournfully singing. This went on and on, by turns sounding mechanical, like a siren, or human, like a huge crowd of grieving people.

Then loons on the lake started wailing. It seemed as if the earth itself were crying.

We lay on our backs with our eyes wide open, listening. Later we learned that a little boy in the campsite across the road was so disturbed he was unable to sleep all night. The state parks had just reopened after the shutdown, and I wonder if the animals and birds, too, were disturbed. They may have thought, until we reappeared, that they’d gotten rid of us humans for good.

I remember the first time I heard someone say that our northern Minnesota pine forests were doomed. I grew up in Cloquet, and those forests are home to me. As it is, the pines in our state are at the southern end of their range. They can’t tolerate heat. Global warming, people expect, will do them in.

About the person who told me the bad news I thought, “I don’t like you,” as if he were the cause of the problem, rather than that we all are.

Driving our cars contributes significantly to this urgent problem, of course. Last year’s oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico seemed like the turning-point disaster we’d been headed for, global warming-wise, but our denial and wishful thinking have turned that event into ancient history.

I’ve been studying oil spills. There is a narrative arc to these things. An accident happens, often due to a combination of human and mechanical error, along with the lack of (what they see as expensive) due vigilance by the oil industry.

Oil ends up on the ground and/or in the water. The first estimate for the amount spilled is very low. Then, when people’s attention is turned elsewhere, the estimate is raised drastically.

Some kind of cleanup follows, and the oil people make it sound as though they have done a more thorough job than is possible. Oil is very hard to contain, very hard to call back in. Chastened, people in government vow to put in place more safeguards, but then we all fall asleep again. The pattern repeats.

A new gargantuan disaster-in-the-making is the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline that would run 2,000 miles from Canada to Texas. The project is one of those head bangers, where the possible harms are so drastic you gotta wonder if we simply have a death wish.

The pipeline is to be built over the Ogallala Aquifer, a major source of drinking water for people living in the plains states. To get at this oil, the companies strip away huge tracts of the Canadian boreal forest, where many of our songbirds nest, and they dig large, open pits there. The very trees that mitigate global warming by sequestering carbon dioxide are being cut down just to gain access to the oil.

A sneak preview of what that pipeline could bring: While our attention was focused on the Gulf spill last summer, a pipeline in southern Michigan burst and 840,000 gallons of this thick, hard to recover tar sands oil spilled onto land and water, fouling 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River.  

I ride my bike, recycle, buy used, turn up the thermostat on the air conditioner and turn off lights — quiet, private gestures. It is time, though, for public action. To learn more about efforts to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, go to tarsandsaction.org.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, 
near Minnehaha Creek and 
Lake Harriet, and teaches at 
The Loft Literary Center.