Ode to a Wildflower

I think often of the strange, beautiful orchestration of cells, veins, neurons, synapses, organs, muscles and tendons that compose me. I think of how this masterful symphony of nature outlines a skeletal frame and, somehow, produces feeling, thought and emotion.

I think often also of life’s fragility and its arbitrariness. I shudder to think of what it will feel like for this precious body of mine to be eroded by time, and, despite how hard I might try to delay it, to wither away.

When I return to this reverence and appreciation I have for my body,  a quote from Jack London’s White Fang emerges from my memory.  The context is that a gold miner is trying to escape from a pack of wolves that’s hunting him deep in the forests of the Yukon. They have him surrounded, and he keeps a large bonfire going throughout the night to keep the wolves at bay (To clarify, wolves don’t hunt humans, but even London wasn’t immune to the hysteria and sensationalism that surrounded wolves at the time).
As he piled wood on the fire he discovered an appreciation of his own body which he had never felt before. He watched his moving muscles and was interested in the cunning mechanism of his fingers. By the light of the fire he crooked his fingers slowly and repeatedly, now one at a time, now all together, spreading them wide or making quick gripping movements. He studied the nail-formation, and prodded the finger-tips, now sharply, and again softly, gauging what the nerve-sensations produced. It fascinated him, and he grew suddenly fond of this subtle flesh of his that worked so beautifully and smoothly and delicately. Then he would cast a glance of fear at the wolf-circle drawn expectantly about him, and like a blow the realization would strike him that this wonderful body of his, this living flesh, was no more than so much meat, a quest of ravenous animals, to be torn and slashed by their hungry fangs, to be sustenance to them as the moose and the rabbit had often been sustenance to him.

I like this passage for many reasons. First, it reverses the dominator-dominated relationship that humans force upon nature. Secondly, it actively takes the experience of the animal, and equates it with the experience of the human (he was “to be sustenance to them” just as other creatures had been sustenance to him). It attempts to understand what the animal, in this case an apex predator, is motivated by and what it needs. While the “non-human turn” in academia is increasingly exploring these ideas, such reflexivity is still rather rare in mainstream culture. While London didn’t accurately portray the behaviors of wild wolves in his novels, I’d argue he still radically challenged the way we think about and relate to the non-human through his writing, even back in 1906. This same reflexivity and destruction of the species hierarchy is the sort of methodology I try to employ when thinking about our relationships with other forms of life.

Do you ever think about how these other forms of life relate to time, and how they interpret its passing? A butterfly lives only two or three weeks after it emerges from the chrysalis. Contrast this with the lifespan of a Galapagos tortoise, which may live a century or more. There are a plethora of mammals, reptiles, and birds that live lifespans in between these extremes. Do we dare attempt to wrap our minds around the relationship a giant sequoia or redwood tree has to time? Still, in the end, nothing is immune to the disease of chronology. Time washes over us all, yet weathers us at different rates and to different extremes.

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Imagine what it would be like to spend about a fourth of your lifespan in a state of dormant metamorphosis. Pictured here is a butterfly on the verge of emerging from the chrysallis. Photo taken at the Missouri Botanical Garden Butterfly House, 2018.

There is an old lady that lives just down the road from me. She’s over a century old, believe it or not. She’s blind and hard of hearing, and has some trouble keeping her weight up. Although her body seems to be rapidly deteriorating, she doesn’t let it dampen her mood in the slightest. She still goes on her morning walk everyday without fail, and eats a hearty breakfast of red meat. She still chats with the neighbors when they start howling about the latest gossip. She’s even got a boyfriend, and a much younger one at that. Her name is Daisy, and just a few days ago she turned 16, which is something like 110 or 112 in wolf years.

Daisy - 2013 - DSC_8568 b - Annie White
Daisy, circa 2013. Photo taken by Annie White at Mission: Wolf sanctuary.

Hailing from somewhere near the Blue Ridge Mountains, Daisy is the oldest pack member at Mission: Wolf, and was surrendered to the sanctuary in 2006 after being kept as a pet for years (one of the staff here is fond of referring to her as “an old Virginia hillbilly”). I have many nicknames for her, including “the old battle-axe,” “the ageless wonder,” and “flower child.”

All joking aside, Daisy leads a truly thought-provoking, even awe-inspiring life. Despite being blind and half-deaf, she somehow manages to amble around her enclosure by memorizing the well-worn paths laid by herself and previous inhabitants. She also follows the scent and movements of her younger mate, Fenris, who, whether he realizes it or not, seems to act as a support system and “seeing-eye wolf” of sorts.

We’ve all heard how when a human loses the use of one of their senses, the other senses become stronger to compensate for the deficiency. We can assume the same is true of many other organisms, and especially other highly evolved mammals like wolves. So it is difficult to describe how acute Daisy’s sense of smell must be, because at this point it is the primary mechanism anchoring her to time and space. For perspective, all wolves have a better sense of smell than bloodhounds. A wolf’s olfactory sense is roughly 100x more powerful than a humans. Again, it is difficult to quantify or put into terms we can understand. It’s as if you could see the world through your nose, and if somehow different scents constituted different textures, depths, and panoramas–that’s the best way I can describe it.

So let’s say Daisy’s sense of smell is even more powerful than the average wolf’s because of compensation for her blindness and deafness. Is her sense of smell 150x more powerful than a humans? 200x? We can’t really say; all I know is that the old girl has impeccable balance, and somehow gets around as if her vision is twenty-twenty.

I walk down to Daisy’s enclosure to check up on her every so often, and usually find her napping in the sun. Her breathing is so shallow I have to squint my eyes to see the slight undulations of her chest as she inhales, and ensure she hasn’t passed in her sleep. More than once in the past couple of years, staff have sounded the alarm and ran to the community with the sad news that Daisy had passed away, only to find that she had seemingly entered into some type of cryogenic state to conserve her energy.

Watching Daisy move is like watching a reanimated skeleton. I know that sounds harsh, but its true. Her blind eyes are cloudy and glazed over, she’s completely skin and bones, she maybe weights sixty pounds soaking wet, her fur is matted and tangled, and she leans heavily on her front legs due to her weak hips. I feel like a strong gust of wind could turn her to dust and blow her away into the horizon. Those who don’t know Daisy might question her quality of life, and wonder if euthanasia was the most humane thing to do. These are questions we grapple with as we assess her condition, and it fluctuates from day-to-day.

I would never argue to keep Daisy alive if I felt like her quality of life was poor. Like any geriatric life form, Daisy has good days and bad days. One day she seems to be in pain, acting downtrodden and lethargic. The next she is bouncing around like a puppy again. All things considered, I firmly believe she is not ready to leave us now. But she might never be ready, and that’s when ethical dilemmas arise.

Of course, this assessment could change tomorrow; the reality is that Daisy could pass any moment now, even as I’m writing these words. People in the community have been saying this ever since I arrived at the sanctuary in the summer of 2016.

Yet without fail, Daisy arrises with the sun every morning, and with renewed vigor. She bounds around her enclosure, up and down the hillside with Fenris, in anticipation of breakfast. She must catch the smell of the meat being prepared, because she’s already completed many laps by the time we arrive with her meal. Daisy is fed small cubes of slightly cooked meat that we call “granny chunks.” Like most grandmas, she just can’t gorge herself on big pieces of hide and chomp through bones like she could in her younger days. Nevertheless, she ravenously eats the chunks of meat almost as quickly as they hit the ground, pausing only occasionally to sniff out where an errant piece landed. In these moments, its like Daisy drank from the fountain of youth, and she’s undoubtedly happy.

Daisy on her hill. 2017 Jenny Thompson
Daisy, perched on her hill, catching the colors and scents on the wind. Photo taken by Jenny Thompson, 2017, at Mission:Wolf Sanctuary.

Daisy is one of the unique residents at Mission: Wolf who actually gains enrichment from some degree of human interaction. Having been raised in captivity and kept as a pet, she generally finds humans interesting rather than scary like most wolves would. One day a few weeks ago, Daisy’s usually reliable balance failed her, and she took a hard fall down the hill. Although she seemed to recover alright, we were all worried sick about her. The next day, the staff decided to visit her with the hope that it would lift her spirits a bit.

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Sweet Daisy greets the staff during a visit to her enclosure.

Imagine walking through the door after a long day at work, and your adorable puppy rushes over and starts excitedly jumping on you and wriggling around because it can hardly contain all the joy it has because of your return. That’s the same energy Daisy has when meeting people–except she’s a wolf. After she sniffs around to locate you, she mashes her face against yours and licks profusely (I have a fairly large beard, and when Daisy licks me she also inadvertently rips out a few of my hairs. She’s made me tear up a few times while giving me her affection–partially because of joy and partially because of pain).

In this particular visit, Daisy was haphazardly loping around a circle of humans, almost falling many times but catching herself at the last second, and doling out kisses to any face she stumbled upon. After she repeated this ritual maybe three or four times, she gradually calmed down. On the next pass, she approached a staff member, I’ll call her Penelope, and gave a sloppy kiss–but then, she caught a whiff of something interesting–a traveler coffee mug laying in Penelope’s lap. Like a lighting bolt, Daisy’s massive jaws shot downward and clamped around the lid of the mug. Thankfully Penelope reacted quickly and was able to grab the mug before Daisy made off with it, but then Daisy reached down and grabbed Penelope’s cardigan, and refused to let go of that! Eventually we were able to distract Daisy with a stick she could chew on, and she quickly forgot about her intense interest in the human items.

To be clear, Daisy didn’t show any aggression or territoriality whatsoever when she grabbed onto the mug or the cardigan, nor did any sort of tug-of-war ensue. Daisy simply smelled something that was fascinating to her, and thought “I want that. That is mine.” What struck me about this incident is not necessarily what Daisy did, but rather what she was capable of doing in that situation, and at the age of 16 no less.

This is an animal that could supposedly die at any moment–an animal that the grim reaper has been following about impatiently for quite awhile. But in that moment I can say without a doubt that Daisy was more than capable of crushing that stainless steel coffee mug to pieces in her jaws, and of ripping the shirt completely off Penelope. Even though she is ancient and near death, she still possessed so much raw power and intense instinct. She’s so frail and rickety, yet capable of crushing, maiming, and devouring on a moments notice.

Keep in mind Daisy is a sweetheart, and doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. She’s never hurt anyone. But that’s besides the point.

Think about it: What will you be doing at 85 years old, if you even make it to that age? The point is that a 100-year-old human can barely walk or remain lucid throughout the day, let alone crush bones and smell the individual characteristics and nuances of hundreds of different stimuli simultaneously like Daisy can. Most elderly humans must be cared for by their family members, and shepherded through their dying process.  While its true that Daisy probably wouldn’t have made it to 10 had she lived in the wild like she was supposed to, it doesn’t diminish how formidable her lupine sensibilities are in comparison to a human counterpart of the same age.

Like many of the wolves at the sanctuary, Daisy seems to exist on some sort of supernatural plane of existence. It’s as if she exchanged her sight for the ability to see into an ethereal realm that is far beyond us. I suggest this not to fetishize “the wild” or glorify some sort of primitivist philosophy. I simply believe that attempting to analyze the world from the experiences of the non-human can help us be more compassionate towards the world around us, and the other subjectivities we share it with. We might be able to conceptualize of a more egalitarian and just environmental ethic, rather than the oppressive and exploitative ones we inevitably default to. The individual narratives of animals like Daisy help illustrate radical ideas of converging the human experience with other ways of existing and feeling.

If you had your preference, how would you choose to die?

Most of the deaths I’ve witnessed have been in hospital beds, with bodies hooked up to a labyrinth of tubes and respirators. I can’t imagine this is how people envision themselves leaving this Earth (granted, this is in a Westernized capitalist world, where even death itself is commodified and processed).

Many don’t have the liberty to pass away on their own terms, but Daisy will, at least to a much greater extent than most humans.

You may be under the impression that this entry is about death. But in fact, it is about deaths very antithesis–it is about celebrating life. I want to celebrate Daisy while she’s still vibrantly alive alongside us. All the omens point to her imminent demise. She’s lithe, bony and frail. She can’t see and can hardly hear. The whole universe seems to be telling her to let go. And what does Daisy do? She holds on tighter, of course. Wild things were never meant to pass of old age.

Some who look at Daisy only see a body that is failing, and ready to die. I see a spirit with an indomitable will to live. Hers is a spirit that is still joyous, and that yearns to imbibe the very last drop from the fountain of youth.

Hopefully you slake your thirst soon, and leave us peacefully. I am honored to know you, beautiful Daisy. Thank you for inspiring us, sweet flower. You are a testament to the resiliency of life.

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The sure-footed Daisy takes another step forward with her big paws, even though she’s not sure what might lie ahead.

In love and solidarity, 

-Austin-

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