By Chantelle Spicer, contributor
This semester has really piled on some intense readings, challenging me emotionally and intellectually. Sometimes I really need to take a break from this and, rather than turning to Netflix, I find myself snuggling up with some of my favourite literature from childhood. First on the list is White Fang by Jack London. As a child I loved that book for its great story about a wolf; as an adult, I am able to see it from so many different angles, deepening my love and appreciation of the classic. First published in 1906, White Fang examines an environment, a set of ethics, and a lifestyle very different from the Victorian upbringing that Jack London and his readership were saturated in at the time. It opened many minds of that era to not only a different worldview, but also a divergence from classical literature as it was contemporarily known.
Within the wild and stark beauty of the Canadian Yukon, the reader is transported to a potential freedom that most of us dream of today. In both an economic sense, such as the Gold Rush, and a personal or spiritual sense, through the splendour of the natural world, the characters and reader are allowed to dream of a life which is truly theirs. The main human character of the story, Weedon Scott, is doing exactly this—journeying into the depths of the frozen North, searching for gold to secure a better life. Little does he know that along the way he will become, through the eyes of London, the portrayal of the best in humanity.
The main protagonist of this book is, untraditionally, a wolf-dog, White Fang, born into the wild and introduced into “civilized” human existence through abuse and cruelty as a pit-fighting dog. This kind of existence, shown no kindness whatsoever by his owners, shapes him to be an aggressive and morose animal. When he is nearly killed in a fight against a bulldog, he is saved, both physically and emotionally, by Scott. White Fang’s transformation from a vicious beast into a loving animal is a marvelous study by London in the transformative power of love, affection, and kindness.
The underlying themes of this story are elegant and hopeful, driven home by the virtuous spirit of Scott. At a time when the Gold Rush was introducing European culture to the traditional ways of the people of the Yukon, when humans were trying to shape the existence of nature, we are shown there is hope that kindness can be an influencing factor. Another theme lies in the representation of Nature within London’s writing, which illustrates the pristine beauty as well as the incredible power of the land. While the Industrial Revolution was happening in both the US and Britain during the late 1800s to early 1900s, it was important for London to point out that Nature is a power unto itself and works by rules outside of our own human goals and morals. These types of messages make the story truly timeless, and are especially relevant to our current relationship with Nature—one that hasn’t changed much since the time of White Fang’s writing in the early 20th century.
This reading of the story is particularly timely in conjunction with a current environmental practice occurring in BC and Alberta—the wolf cull. The relationship that we have with these animals is incredibly interesting—we revere our companions, the domesticated dogs, while making villains of their wolf kin. This feeling of animosity towards wolves has been a part of humanity’s relationship with nature for centuries—an animosity based in economic fear for farmers, feelings of fear against the wildness of the animals themselves.
This comes to a head in contemporary society through the unscientific and unethical dilemma of the cull in our Northern lands. The governments of both provinces have declared that the “wolf control program will have to go on for at least a decade, [with] other animals [needing] to be killed,” according to the Globe and Mail, in an effort to protect at-risk caribou herds. It is a highly controversial experiment, with celebrities and many forms of government and NGOs weighing in against government attempts. During 2015, 184 wolves are scheduled to be shot from helicopters within BC as part of a multi-year, immediate action program, with a goal of 1400 wolves eventually being culled to save dwindling isolated caribou herds, such as the South Selkirk herd, which is the only mountain caribou herd in the world. This population of caribou have seen their numbers drop from the hundreds, to 46 in 2009, and then to 18 in March of this year.
This is, as an understatement, a highly complex issue. These are incredibly important caribou populations, both genetically and in terms of biodiversity of their habitats. Of the herds at risk from predation and of extinction, most call home one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world—old growth forests. For most of the year, these animals live off lichen, which is incredibly slow-growing and is most prolific in these ecosystems—most over 600 years old—which also offer the caribou protection from the winters and possible predators. The importance of the ecosystems to these herds cannot be stressed enough; however, after many years of lobbying government, there has been no increased protection of these forests.
Instead, these areas become fractured landscapes, used by many resource extraction industries such as forestry and mining, along with increased urbanization. This has a cumulative impact which not only removes habitat, but also disrupts migration patterns and makes herds more susceptible to a variety of threats, like predation and road collisions. Rather than focus on protection of these areas, the government has focused on a more short-sighted, band-aid view of the situation, which has resulted in a taxpayer-funded kill program of one of the most iconic wild animals—wolves.
At this time, 51 individual scientists, 19 environmental groups, and thousands of citizens have petitioned the provincial government to reform and eliminate this cull. The Valhalla Wilderness Society has proposed a 251 thousand hectare protection area which contains critical habitat, which along with the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, would take great strides towards properly protecting caribou herds for the long-term.
It must be remembered that no matter how overwhelming our current situation is, there are many people who are fighting for the environment, whether it be through controlling emissions, stopping the pipeline, or eradicating the wolf cull. I have hope that the underlying goodness of humanity will persevere, and that we can all see how powerful and transformative kindness can be, in conjunction with science and logic.