An essay by Derek Bradley, as provided by Cory Swanson
Art by Leigh Legler
At first, the wolves were shot. People didn’t want to come into the park and see the majestic herbivores chased to their demise by hungry predators. So they were eradicated.
Unchecked, the deer and elk tore the hell out of the ecosystem. So many hungry mouths to feed, they yanked the vegetation up by the roots. There were floods and mudslides, with nothing to hold them back.
The humans, never a part of this environment in the first place, decided to bring the wolves back. The wolves brought back the vegetation, and the landscape flourished again.
That’s how I viewed myself as a ranger at Yellowstone National Park. Humans had royally screwed this place up in so many ways. How do we as people enjoy a place like this without destroying it?
That was the million-dollar question, one I’d wrestled with over the course of my career, rising in the ranks. Here we are, the self-aware invasive species, cursed with understanding the beauty and complexity of all that surrounds us even as we inevitably destroy it.
There I sat in my daily wrestling match with this question when Jason stormed through the door. “Mr. Bradley, there’s a fire in the southwest corner of the park,” he said, out of breath.
Fire. The other wolf. A natural part of the cycle. Without fire, the dead vegetation builds up. Certain trees won’t seed. The land is supposed to burn from time to time. But lord knows you can’t let Yellowstone burn. “Deploy the resources. Get a perimeter going. Don’t let it spread.”
“Yes, sir,” Jason barked.
“And none of that ‘sir’ shit. This isn’t the military.”
He looked confused and turned to leave. I picked up the phone on my desk and began to coordinate the fire effort. A stone pushed down from my heart into my stomach. Truth was, we’d put out too many fires already. If I let it burn, the whole park might burn, even down into the Tetons and beyond. In recent years, the fires had burned hot and destructive, much worse than the natural fires ever would have.
On the other hand, every fire we put out made the problem worse. More dead vegetation piled up. The whole of the American West became a tinder box.
I dialed the regional fire agency. What choice did I really have?
Somewhere around four-hundred-thousand years ago, Homo erectus lost his natural fear of fire. Some people think the invention of the steam engine was the point of no return for the planet, but really it dates to this event.
Imagine it. A human, or something very close to it, saw the forest burning, felt the heat on their face, and for once did not turn and run. The fate of the planet hinged on that moment.
Because we’re supposed to run from it. Instead, we turned it into a tool. We made it digest our food for us, giving us more energy to go out and hunt. We took it with us as we spread north through the Levant and up into Europe. The Neanderthals had it, likely a frightening sight to the modernizing Homo clans. It kept us warm and let us survive in almost any habitat the world could throw at us.
By taming the untamable, we ruled the world.
I shifted the Jeep into low gear as Jason and I rumbled and rolled on the trail. We could see the smoke rising ahead of us and a group of volunteers running toward the fire with axes and masks, shovels strapped to their backs. I caught up with one of the stragglers who panted and sweated furiously as he traversed the uneven terrain.
“How’s it coming?” I yelled at him.
“Ninety percent contained,” he shouted back between breaths.
“Good, good. Here, hop in back, I’ll drive you there.”
The man obliged, perching himself on the little jump seat. “Thank you,” he gasped, pulling out his canteen and gulping down water.
I revved the engine and darted between a pair of boulders as we headed to the forest’s edge. “How many acres did it get?”
“Not sure,” the firefighter said, his breath calming. “I heard seventy at one point.”
“Good, good,” I said over the roar of the engine. The trail now cut through a thick aspen grove and our guest waved at his compatriots as we passed them. Insults were shouted at us.
“They’re jealous,” our firefighter said.
Eventually, we were ahead of his group, all alone in the forest as we covered the last couple of miles to the site of the fire. We could smell the smoke now, and the ash fell on us like a hot and constant snow. “Sorry to cut the conversation short, boys,” I said, stopping the Jeep to put on my mask. The other two followed suit.
Something darted out of the corner of my eye. “Wolf?” I thought I heard Jason say.
It struck me as odd. Animals in these situations tend to move away from the fire, and this one definitely ran toward it. I must be seeing things. Maybe some hippie is growing weed around here and I’m inhaling it.
But wolves are social creatures, and where you see one, you tend to see many. Three more grey streaks darted around us and dashed off through the woods toward the fire. I looked over at my compatriots. They shrugged.
Finally, we got as far as we could on the Jeep road. A group of maybe fifty soot-blackened firefighters greeted us and helped unload the drums of water and MREs we were delivering.
“You see those wolves?” I shouted through my mask at the woman who helped me unload a five-gallon bucket of water.
“Any idea why they’re going toward the fire?”
She shook her head, either uninterested in the subject or too unsettled to discuss it.
I let it slide and finished the job. We loaded a man, or a boy, I should say, as he couldn’t have been older than nineteen, into the back seat of the Jeep.
“Heat got him. Get him to the first-aid tent,” the woman in charge shouted through her mask, the first words she spoke to me.
We nodded and turned the Jeep around in a clearing. I took the road faster now, understanding that time was of the essence for this young man. His masked head lolled sickeningly from side to side as the Jeep swayed over the rugged terrain. Eventually, we got clear of the smoke and hit the edge of the aspen grove. I took off my mask and rubbed my burning eyes.
We still had a few miles to cover to the first-aid tent, but the trail smoothed out here and the going would be easier. I shifted into second and goosed the accelerator.
Another streak caught my attention. The wolves again, this time running in the correct direction, away from the fire. One poked its head up, a stick in its mouth.
“They’re like big puppy dogs,” Jason said.
I nodded. “Smart, too. I’m glad to have them here, but I don’t want to meet one in the middle of the night.”
“Wait a minute,” Jason said, twisting in his seat. “Is that one carrying fire?”
I looked, but didn’t see what he was seeing, just the occasional grey coat poking out of the tall grass. “You’re nuts,” I said. “Maybe the fire hit a pot grow out there. You’re seeing things.”
Jason hunched back down in his seat, chastened. I felt a little sorry for him. Couldn’t be easy to work with a blowhard like me.
I remembered my charge laying insensate in the back seat and stepped on the gas.
“Now who the hell–” Jason said, lowering his binoculars from his eyes.
We’d gotten the fire under control and now it smoldered in its little pen, running out of fuel and suffocating. It had taken a few days, a boatload of manpower, and three National Guard tanker planes to put it out. But now, as evening fell and the smell of smoke cleared, I could finally appreciate what a small fire it had been overall.
I envied the land in that seventy-acre perimeter. It would now get a second chance. It would now flourish, born anew.
“They can’t seriously be camping over there,” Jason muttered.
I looked over. Through the trees, a thin wisp of smoke could be seen about a mile or two into the forest. It was a small fire. “You think campers?”
“Yeah, but you have to have some serious cajones to light a campfire in the park right now. They’re not even four miles from where the fire was.”
I sighed and got up, knowing what we’d have to do. The policeman part of this job had never appealed to me. People were terrible. They were loud and messy, and they seemed to visit the park simply to break the rules.
“I mean, you’re not supposed to camp outside the designated areas,” complained Jason.
“I know. I know the rules, Jason. I don’t need to talk about it. Let’s go.”
Again, this poor bastard had to work for me. What did he do wrong in his past life to deserve this?
The hike was silent, though I could tell Jason wanted to talk about it. He wanted to quote which citations we were going to give these campers. He wanted to speculate if they’d wandered up from the backcountry of the Tetons. Every time he breathed to speak, I glared at him. I didn’t become a ranger for the chit-chat.
“Hey-o,” I called when the fire was in view. The smell of roasting meat permeated the forest, and we could see the smoke rising from the other side of a fallen log. Scanning the area, I saw no tents or equipment.
“They left their fire unattended?” Jason said, pulling out a collapsible shovel from his pack and unfolding the spade. “Goodness, how many citations can one group pile up?”
“Shh,” I said, suddenly uneasy. I pushed Jason back a little, alarmed.
“What?” he whispered.
I leveled a withering look at him and he fell silent. Being old and gnarled has its advantages.
We took several cautious steps toward the large, fallen log. An inhuman gnawing came from behind the barrier, and my pulse pounded in my ears. Something didn’t feel right. I unholstered my sidearm.
I nearly punched him in the chest to get him quiet.
The last fifty feet took an eternity as we rolled our steps to reduce the noise of our footfalls. A fit of growling and snarling erupted behind the log and we both jumped. Irrational images of terrible, feral men raced through my head. Truth was, I had no idea what was going on.
Jason unholstered his sidearm as well, keeping his shovel raised like a club in his other hand. We came to our final approach hunched down, scared out of our wits.
Whatever my imagination served up for me, I was unprepared for reality. Summoning every ounce of possible courage, I stood and looked over the log.
The first thing I saw was the carcass of a deer stretched out over a pile of burning sticks. Though its flesh was seared in spots, the majority of the meat had been cooked and the animal’s eyes were smoky and blind.
Most of the carcass had been devoured, in places all the way to the spine. It was grisly and inhuman.
But it was not done by humans. The next thing that drew my gaze was two wolf pups pulling at a detached leg, attempting to dislocate the joint so they might each have a share. The meat on the leg was grey and cooked through, the blood having long dripped off into the flames.
Several adult wolves lay about the fire seemingly warming themselves like dogs, their bellies gorged full.
One large male noticed us. He got to his feet, the weight of his swollen belly swinging beneath his torso as he charged the log, snarling and hissing.
I ran as hard as I could. I assume Jason did as well, but I didn’t look back for him. We never talked about that part. Men don’t like to talk about their own cowardice.
“It’s an adaptation,” I said to the room of rangers.
“An adaptation?” Luke nearly screamed. “These wolves have gone insane. They’re going to burn the whole park down.”
I gave him a withering stare. Luke wasn’t a naturalist in the scientific sense of the word. He was more of the Henry David Thoreau type, out to save God’s creation in all of its perfection. “Yeah, it’s an adaptation, Luke. Nature does this from time to time. It happened to us, why wouldn’t it happen to them?”
“You’re telling me you don’t find it terrifying that wolves are making fires out in the forest to cook meat.”
“It’s terrifyingly beautiful,” I said, scratching my beard.
“Regardless of how you feel, we can’t have a bunch of wolves setting forest fires in Yellowstone.”
The whole room looked at me for my rebuttal. “I don’t think they lit the big fire, I think they used it to their advantage. Their fire went out, what more do you want?”
“I want them gone. I want us to get our guns and snuff this out before it destroys our natural heritage.”
“They are our natural heritage. Or at least they would be if we hadn’t played God and killed all of them, realized our mistake, and had to reintroduce them so the deer wouldn’t eat everything.” My cheeks burned with my temper.
“I’m not playing God.”
“Gentlemen, please,” came the voice of Erin, our boss. “Arguing isn’t going to solve the problem.”
“That’s just it. We’re viewing it as a problem,” I said.
“It’s not a problem?”
I thumbed the stiffly starched collar of my uniform shirt. “It’s an opportunity.”
“You sound like a hippie,” Luke spit.
Nearly tossing the table over as I got up, I charged him. “You take that back.”
“No. Only a hippie would let wolves light fires because ‘it’s natural, man.'” He said the last part flashing the peace sign and swaying like a stoner.
Luckily, Jason caught my arm as I wound up to punch him. “Settle down, Mr. Bradley. He doesn’t mean it.”
I shrugged him off and sat down, pouting. “He means it all right.”
“I’m warning you, Derek,” Erin said, “any more threats of violence like that and I’ll have to suspend you.”
I scratched my beard then folded my arms over my middle. “Everything’s fine, Captain. We’re having a philosophical debate. Luke thinks we’re here to control nature.”
“That’s literally what our job–”
I held up a finger. “Let me finish. You think we have to protect and enforce our perceived order of nature. I’m positing that nature is dynamic and adaptable. I’m not trying to be a hippie here. The wolves have lost their fear of fire. That’s a genetic change for them. What’s more, they’re intelligent enough to manipulate it. This is a fascinating opportunity. We get to watch as another species attempts to control the uncontrollable.”
“They’re going to burn the whole place down,” Luke said like a pot boiling over.
“They might,” I said, raising my hands calmly. “As much as you don’t want to admit it, fire is part of nature. We were part of nature when we discovered how to control fire. I’m sure we burned a lot of shit down. Nature likes fire. The forests are adapted to its presence. It makes them healthier.”
“Think of all the money,” Luke burbled.
“Luke’s right,” Erin said.
“What?” I screamed, slapping my hands down on the table.
“You’re both right. Christ, boys, it’s too early in the morning for such a heated discussion. Luke’s right about the money. Derek, you’re right about nature.”
Luke threw his arms up. “That’s it? He gets to dictate our scientific stance based on philosophy?”
“Luke.” Erin steepled her hands to show her control over herself in the tense situation. “What would you do about these wolves?”
I ground my teeth as I spoke. “Let them be.”
“All right. We’ll do both.”
Surprise filled both our faces. “What?” Luke barked. “How?”
“We’re going to tranquilize them and put trackers on them. If they threaten human infrastructure or anything natural and irreplaceable, we’ll take action. Otherwise, we’ll let them run their course and see what happens.”
“She’s crazy,” Luke said, bobbing up and down with the Jeep as we cruised out into the back country. Erin had assigned Jason, Luke, and I to work together.
I nodded. “She thinks we’ll learn to appreciate each other if we have to work together.”
“You’re lucky I didn’t punch you in there,” Luke grumbled.
“Same to you, buddy,” I said.
Perched on the back seat, Jason looked miserable as I eyed him through the rear-view. Poor bastard. Must have killed someone in his past life to deserve this.
We got as far as we could and parked in a beautiful alpine meadow at the edge of the caldera. Hopping out, we unloaded our gear and got ready.
“Down over here, right?” Jason said.
“If I remember, yes. The smoke seemed to rise between those two hills to the south,” I said.
We hiked into the woods in tense silence, keeping our eyes peeled for wolf signs. All we could find led to the site of the fire, making it easy to find our way back.
“It makes sense,” Luke said, breaking the tension like a crack of thunder.
“What does?” Jason asked.
“That it’s wolves. Think about it. Dogs turned off their fear of fire in order to become codependent with humans.”
“Yeah, but dogs don’t manipulate it,” I said.
“No. They tolerate it because it means an easy meal for them. I’m just saying, all things considered, wolves make sense. If dogs could adapt, why not wolves?”
“Shh,” I said as the log appeared in the distance, not wanting to scare away any wolves that might still be around.
But the camp proved empty. It struck me how the area around the fire resembled human activity. Trash from the deer carcass lay spread everywhere, bones cracked open for the marrow. Bits of wolf dung lay scattered about.
“Why mess with the fire?” Jason asked. “They were surviving fine on raw meat.”
“Fire does the work of digestion for you,” I said, poking at a wolf turd with a stick to check its freshness. “You get more out of your meal if you don’t have to spend energy digesting it. If the wolves eat cooked meat, they can do more with less. Not to mention, their bodies can spend less energy keeping warm when they’re laying around a fire.”
“Over here,” Luke said. “This is where they went.”
I had to hand it to him, Luke knew how to track an animal. He must have been born in a hunting party to be able to notice the small details. Scuffed dirt, bent blades of grass. Stuff that hid from the untrained eye.
But Luke appeared to be uncomfortable. Pale even.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
“Nothing,” he replied.
“Come on. Something has you spooked. I want to know if I should be spooked too.”
Luke crouched and held up the stem of a blade of grass. “It’s singed.”
“Singed?” Jason said.
“So they’re carrying it with them.” I shrugged, crouching myself for a better view. “Smart buggers. If you can’t make your own, never let it go out.”
“It’s a tinder box in here, Derek,” Luke quavered, “and we’ll be trapped inside if it goes up.”
“Sounds painful,” I said, standing up. “Let’s get the job done.”
Luke stood and examined the path, leading us on.
The wolves had covered some serious ground since leaving that previous camp, and despite all of us being fast hikers, we couldn’t catch up in a single day. We lit our own fire that night, cooking up some canned beans and rolling out our sleeping bags to sleep by the heat of the fire under the stars.
I dreamed I was one of the wolves, sleeping around the fire, perched at the dawn of a new era. I dreamed I could look into the flames and see the future, one where fire fueled the evolution of the wolves. A society built on the new social order. I tried to see if the planet was better off, if the wolves would take better care of it than we did.
But the flames flickered out and I could see no more.
In the morning, we donned our packs again, each of us strapping on two guns, one to tranquilize and one to kill. I hoped to hell we wouldn’t need the second one.
Several miles in, we lost the trail. Despairing the potential loss of several days, we backtracked and attempted to pick it up again.
Then it wafted into my face. Smoke, acrid and biting. Even my weak human nose recognized the stench.
“Over there.” Jason pointed at the rising plume.
We crept toward the stand of trees like stalkers as a new smell, the smell of cooking meat, wafted in our faces. How could any animal resist the delectable smell of seared flesh slowly roasting? How had the bears and tigers not poached every protohuman’s meal simply by waltzing in and taking what they wanted from us weak beasts?
Then I remembered that the first smell, the smell of smoke, would have struck innate fear into the heart of every woodland animal. None would have dared to go near. The smell of cooking flesh would only have intensified the fear as it would have confirmed the lethality of the fire.
The wolves were uphill about fifty yards from us. We could hear the pups playing and the crackling of the wood as it burned. To me, it was magnificent, like looking into the future and the past at the same time.
We crept closer, careful to make no sound. I made sure my dart gun was ready and motioned for the other two to do the same. We didn’t need to tag the whole pack, but it would be nice if one of us connected.
About thirty yards out, I motioned for everyone to stop. Now within the comfortable range of the dart guns, I took aim at the big dog who paced the perimeter and breathed out as I squeezed the trigger.
A loud pop reported through the trees. The big dog went down in a spray of blood on its grey-black fur. Terrified, I looked down at the gun in my hands, but I hadn’t chosen the wrong weapon. There was no way the air gun had made that sound.
A metallic click came from my left, and I looked over to see Luke chambering another round.
“What the hell are you doing?” I barked.
“Taking care of the problem,” he said, agitated.
I grabbed the barrel of his weapon, feeling the heat dissipate into my hand. “It’s not your place to decide this is a problem.”
“Let go or so help me.” Luke tried to wrestle the point of the weapon into my gut, so I wrenched him over and pinned him, the gun now sideways between us.
“You guys,” Jason said, bewildered and alarmed.
Luke, being no pushover physically, managed to roll me onto my back. I grabbed his weapon with all my might. Fueled by desperation and fear, I fought like a man half my age.
“You guys,” Jason yelled again. We heard his footfalls bounding off into the trees. I might have paid more attention to this. I probably should have. Yet I was locked in my own desperate battle for life and death.
Luke now had the barrel of the gun sideways under my jaw and pushed it up toward my chin. My strength began to fail as I struggled to breathe. Luke lifted one hand away, punching me in the eye with it before I could take advantage of the momentary freedom.
Then something hit him. It looked like a barrel of fur and it knocked him sideways, toppling Luke off me and rolling him onto the ground.
Coughing, I rolled over to recover my senses only to see the rest of the wolves coming out of the trees, snarling and growling. Somehow, I got to my feet, but my weapons had fallen out of my reach during our struggle.
In the split second I had to contemplate my options, I saw Luke desperately protecting his face from the wolf with his arms, which were now lacerated and dripping with blood from the attack. My stomach turned as I realized I couldn’t help him.
Then, with terrible majesty, the largest of the dogs emerged through the trees, a long stick in its jaws, each end engulfed in flames. It looked directly at me, fangs bared around the stick, and began to charge.
I don’t remember much after that point except the sound of its paws galloping on the ground behind me. At some point, it must have stopped, but I didn’t. I ran until I could run no farther. I ran blind with no heed for direction until I looked up and realized I was deep in the woods, all alone, with only the pack on my back.
“Canis lupus,” I said, clicking through a slide. Every time I blinked, I could still feel the tenderness in my left eye. I wondered if the makeup lady had been able to cover the darkness. Maybe no one at the convention would notice. “It should be a familiar name to all of you.”
Lord, was I bad at public speaking. Not much in life riled me to sweaty palms and a pounding heart, but I’d faced two in the past month. A pack of fire-toting wolves and a room full of curious eyes at the Ranger Rendezvous.
“You might have heard that we observed some strange behavior in our population.” My voice sounded like someone talking about gardening on public radio, so calm and slow was my drawl. My voice felt like it was in a cage that barred it from expressing any enthusiasm.
I flipped the slide to show some remarkable pictures of the wolves tending their fires that Jason and I had shot. The crowd gasped.
“It’s not every day you are able to witness what could be an evolutionary turning point,” I said. “Fire was certainly that for us humans. It expanded our dietary range by making tough foods digestible. We were able to spend less energy in our search for food.”
I flipped to an image of a deer carcass stretched over the flames and the wolves feeding on the cooked meat. More gasps and murmurs broke out in the crowd. “We also were able to spend less energy keeping warm, which expanded our range of livable habitats. This has yet to be borne out in our study of these wolves, but they do enjoy the warmth of the flames.”
I clicked again, and an image of the wolves huddled in a ring around the fire at night appeared on the screen.
“Now, some of you likely find this proposition terrifying,” I continued, “and rightfully so. We’ve been the dominant species on this planet for so long, we don’t know how not to be. After our own species discovered fire, the advances came in droves. Superior tool making, metallurgy, wood-fired pottery, advanced agriculture. The list goes on, and these things are the bedrock of our civilization.
“Hell, we love burning stuff so much, we’re suffocating on it. We’ve belched so much carbon into our atmosphere we’re literally cooking ourselves to death and yet we still can’t stop.”
I paused for a breath, feeling my hands shake with the emotion.
“So, my friends and colleagues, I celebrate the wolves taking this step toward advancement. If you’re afraid they’ll burn down the forest, just remember all the forests we’ve burned down. If you’re afraid they’ll over-hunt and push their prey to the brink of extinction, just remember that mankind lives in a period of unprecedented extinction caused by our own hand.
“Also, remember it will take time. Our own species took four-hundred-thousand years to turn fire into civilization.
“But as a naturalist, I have lobbied to leave these creatures to their own devices. Through a coordinated effort between the Park Service and the governments of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, we are systematically leaving the wolves alone.”
A certain faction within the crowd applauded. The rest talked amongst themselves in agitation. I waited for the hubbub to die down.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’re going to study the hell out of them.” The crowd laughed. “I wouldn’t be a card carrying human if I didn’t. For instance, after an unfortunate incident where we tragically lost a colleague–” I looked over at Jason who cast his eyes low. “–we were able to obtain a blood sample from one of the wolves.
“We now have enough evidence to conclude that while this pack of wolves is genetically similar enough to breed within the general population of wolves, they do carry a heavily modified genetic marker. This, paired with their absolutely unique yet structured and systematic behavior regarding fire and food preparation, we have concluded that this amounts to the emergence of a new species. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Canis ignis.”
I flipped the slide to show a striking image of one of the wolves carrying a long stick with flames caught mid-dance on both ends.
“The Fire Wolf,” I said with all the drama I could muster in my public radio voice.
The crowd applauded. They stood. The press snapped pictures of me and Jason as he stood with me to accept the shared credit for this discovery.
I looked over at my colleague and smiled. “Looks like hanging out with an old man finally paid off.”
A tinge of fear hid in his expression. “You’re crazy, Mr. Bradley.”
“I know,” I said. And he was right. It was crazy to lose faith in my own species. I knew in my heart that Luke had been right, we should be wiping the wolves out before they burn down the forest.
But then where does that leave us? Back where we were, putting out every fire and fighting against nature itself to preserve our idea of what nature should be, stamping out every aberration, until one day, the forest is ready to consume us as well. Because we neglected to remember one important thing.
“Don’t forget,” I said into Jason’s ear as the applause continued to thunder around us, “we are part of nature as well.”
Ranger Derek Bradley grew up in Laramie, Wyoming, and received degrees in forestry and zoology from Colorado State University. While working up through the ranks of the Parks Service, he wore out a couple trucks, a couple marriages, and a couple good dogs. He misses the dogs the most.
Cory Swanson lives in Northern Colorado with his wife, two daughters, and an old blind dog named Kirby. When he’s not working himself to the bone teaching tweens how to play band and orchestra instruments, he can be seen camping with his family in his tiny trailer or traveling to strange worlds in his head in order to write about them.
If you would like to witness a nearly middle aged man attempt to navigate the perils of social media, you can find Cory on Facebook under the handle @speculativemeculative, on Instagram @coryswansonauthor, or at his website, coryswansonauthor.wordpress.com
Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“Canis ignis” is © 2019 Cory Swanson
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Leigh Legler