Scottish-American conservationist John Muir, the “Father of the National Parks,” once wrote that

“…when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else.”

John Muir

This quote was specifically called into use when considering the failing ecosystem of Yellowstone National Park, where the purposeful removal of wolves, Yellowstone’s top predator, meant that the elk population overgrazed the plants and trees, leading to the demise of songbirds, beavers, and cold-water fish. Wolves were the missing link in the equation that would keep Yellowstone healthy and, 28 years after they were reintroduced (in 1995), the ripple effect is considered one of the most successful rewilding efforts ever undertaken. The culling of the elk herds by the 80+ wolves now living in Yellowstone benefitted ravens, eagles, magpies, coyotes, and bears. Wolves’ preying on coyotes increased the populations of rabbits and mice, providing a wider food source for hawks, weasels, foxes, and badgers. Muir’s quote was certainly prescient.

Charlotte McConaghy’s novel Once There Were Wolves posits a similar experiment to bring wolves back to the forests and Highlands of Scotland to rebalance biodiversity, depicting the difficulties inherent in convincing the resident human population (primarily sheep farmers) of the benefits to be had, and protecting the wolves against the farmers’ and ranchers’ conviction that humans and wolves can’t
co-exist on the land.

The protagonist is lead biologist Inti Flynn, a passionate young woman whose unusual upbringing by her father—living a subsistence life deep in the forests of Canada—has shaped both her beliefs and her career. She arrives in Scotland accompanied by her twin, Aggie, who is deeply damaged, mostly silent and passive, and spends all her time sequestered in their cabin. Inti has an extraordinary affinity for the wolves, heightened by an actual neurological condition called mirror-touch synesthesia:

“My brain re-creates the sensory experiences of living creatures, of all people and even sometimes animals; if I see it I feel it, and for just a moment I am them, we are one and their pain or pleasure is my own. It can seem like magic, but really it’s not so far removed from how other brains behave: the physiological response to witnessing someone’s pain is a cringe, a recoil, a wince. We are hardwired for empathy.”

Inti Flynn, Once There Were Wolves, by Charlotte McConaghy

The book is part literary fiction, part mystery, and engrossing in its narrative. Although the rewilding program is officially sanctioned by the government, there is massive resistance by the locals, some of whom are aggressive with their threats to kill wolves who set foot on “their” land. Inti struggles between her desire to protect her wolves and her need to engage with the locals as something other than a know-it-all outsider. She is assisted in making the human connections by the sheriff, local-boy Duncan MacTavish, but he remains something of an enigma throughout the story, and his passivity when it comes to enforcing Inti’s cause frustrates her. Then a local farmer goes missing, and speculation inevitably turns to assumptions about wolf culpability.

The best parts of the book are Inti’s detailed observations about the wolves—how they relate to one another and to their surroundings, and their habits, travels, and behaviors as they integrate into this foreign environment. The reader is transported to the hillside blind where Inti watches a new batch of pups scramble and play just outside the mouth of their den while the adults warily sniff the air, cognizant of the human close by, and the welfare of the small packs dispersed around the town becomes personal as each wolf becomes familiar.

Less effective, for me, was the rest of the narrative, especially that surrounding the sheriff, Duncan, and Inti’s sister, Aggie. I felt like we were too far into the story before we understood what happened to destroy Aggie’s confidence and turn her into the near-catatonic figure she now presents. Likewise, Duncan runs hot and cold, both with Inti and also with his commitment to doing his job (although his devotion to the individuals in his community is touching), and I was frustrated by the incitement to waffle over whether he was a good guy or a bad one. But McConaghy knows how to keep the action flowing throughout the narrative, and the mystery remains intriguing up to its final solution. Readers should be aware that this book presents scenes including violence and abuse, although much of that action takes place “off screen,” or is implied but not graphically described. But the few graphic depictions are powerful and potentially disturbing.

I enjoy a story with some meat on its bones—focusing on a particular iteration of a wider philosophy. As happens with my reading choices from time to time, there was a serendipity of theme between this book and The Crow Trap, by Ann Cleeves, which also detailed a biodiversity study in a rural area, but whereas I found that book almost completely lacking in appeal, Once There Were Wolves delivers all kinds of intellectual and empathetic content. Despite the few caveats above, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in both a gripping story and a thorough education about how the biological world works.

For more information about the Yellowstone rewilding project:

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