Alec Finlay If Nature Is An Arena 1080Pix
Alec Finlay 'Manifesto for Humandwolves' 2016. Photo: Mhairi Law

Deer are a roving form of property. They cross estate borders as they migrate along seasonal paths, seeking higher ground in summer to evade bothersome flies, and woods in winter for shelter and food. The foundational principles of rewilding are, firstly, that deer and trees belong together, and secondly, that fear must be returned to the hill. Without an apex predator to bother them, deer graze so intensively that the few seedling trees to survive are twisty bonsai.

There are tensions with sporting estates in regions of the Highlands where woodland remediation is being attempted by erecting fences or culling deer. Recently the difficulty of achieving ecologically benevolent agreements inspired—or provoked—Trees for Life to conceive Project Wolf, an innovative approach intended to overcome the impasse caused by the intransigence of neighbouring sporting estates. On their Dundreggan estate, in Glenmoriston, ecologist Doug Gilbert devised the project as an expedient in which humans fill the niche of the wolf, following the simple principle that if society refuses to accommodate real wolves then humandwolves must take their place. Humandwolf is my term for participants and my interest lies in this model of innovative thinking put into practice, blending hill thrills and ecology. Like many innovations, the concept arose from constraint—not being able to enforce a deer cull or establish enough fences—and focused on co-operation.

The aristocratic pursuit of hunting is a thrill-seeking craze which disguises itself as ecological management. Humandwolving is an aesthetic and scientific experiment, an ethical practice that enacts human desires, a blend of tracking, stalking, and orienteering, all performed as a communal activity. Each April and May a pack of three humandwolves spend their nights, in particular the hours of dusk and dawn when the deer feed, out on the hill, hoping their presence—scent, noise, movement—will harry deer, protecting 150 hectares of seedlings and saplings. Although a lack of funding led to the experiment being temporarily abandoned, the head stalker at Dundreggan says that it works.

There is little in common between the via activa of Project Wolf and Kairos Collective’s recent 3-day performance in association with the Dark Mountain Project, for which a pack of five actors dressed in panto-style wolf suits, following deer paths over the moor and displaying themselves for train passengers. [1] Humandwolving isn’t concerned with animal mimicry—there’s no howling involved—rather it mimics the role of the wolf and the human encounter with wildness.

In 2017 Richard Bracken and I made a den for humandwolves—he did the hard work of building and I helped with the thinking. It is a short walk from the Trees for Life volunteer centre at Dundreggan, and overlooks Creag a’ Mhadaidh, Wolf Crag, which informed its shape. I made a place-aware map of Dundreggan and commissioned Mhairi Law to document Project Wolf for a forthcoming book. The following poem was composed from answers to a questionnaire completed by humandwolves who volunteered in 2016 and 2017. The epigraph is from Lotte Brockbank’s adaptation of the folk-song, ‘Man of British Weather’.


***

I was a Humandwolf

from the words of the humandwolves


‘We are wolves of northern weather

We don’t mind the wind or the driving rain

Stalking, stalking, is our pleasure

And from this woodland we are made.’


(I)


I felt very natural

very human on

my nights spent as a wolf


walking the routes as

tracker and hunter

sentry and surveyor


connected to the land

with favourite sleeping places

and spots to watch from


up late at night

and early in the morning

waiting by the tree-line at dusk


feeling protectiveness

for the wood below

the trees still people


becoming part of the wood

familiar with nooks and crannies

patterns of growth and decay


content to be silent

as stoic an observer

as the trees


(II)


a wolf pack sets out

on a hunt with the

objective of killing prey


our pack sets out to scare

the daylights out of deer

to preserve saplings


a double-sided mindset:

conscious of my purpose

to conserve the forest


using tracking skills

which bring out

the primal brain


anticipating deer behavior

recording any sightings

on the GPS


navigating rough terrain

in the dark

your senses pick out


hoof-prints, scat, hair, trails

the faint smell of something

that has just passed


looking for signs

sniffing the air

for that musty odor


head-torches catching

the bright reflection

of their corneas


walking on uneven terrain

immersed in ‘hunting’

made my body strong


I felt safe in the woods

part of nature

with an underlying awareness


I had a purpose –

I don’t think you stop

being a wolf


everything centered

around mirroring

the wolf’s behavior


(III)


we sit and catch

our breath marveling

at Sirius


all I desire is

a clear night sky

spanning the horizon


the silence as snow-

flakes whisper down

the heather just


slightly stirring

churring snipe and

woodcock overhead


switch off the head-

torches it’s almost

full moon


in the darkness

everything’s still

as the odd snow-


flake bounces off

my nose with

a small sound


cool air in my nostrils

water trickling

or water rushing


birch leaves rustling

in the benevolence

of the forest at night


seeing colours change

the veil become thinner

lucid dreaming easier


because of the dream-

like nature of woods

by night


while being a wolf

I dreamt of deer

and the moon


(IV)


when I’m out there

I want for nothing

except maybe dry socks


when I’m back home

I want more than anything

to go back


(V)


the whole wood

was our territory

defined by fencing


to the east and west

by the big road

to the south


by the two hills

Binnilidh Beag and Mhor

to the north


we kept from

making patterns that

would allow the deer


to predict our behavior

and used natural signposts –

tree lines, rivers, hills,


individual trees –

to find our way

marking the paths


with shiny tags

the camps made

our presence known –


sitting, talking,

setting fires creates

a disturbance


taking a piss

became a way

to assert our presence


on the first night

we camped

in a circle of birches


and felt connected

to that spot

ever since


on the last night

we walked way longer

than usual


and ended up gazing

into the lochan

for an hour


with the deer-stalker lamp

seeing all the newts, beetles,

dragonfly larvae, tadpoles


made a fire

and talked

until it got light


(VI)


I started to miss friends

I would look south

imagining them


way down in London

now that I’m back home

I miss the landscape


bitterly and the slow

pace of life

it was a special time


not having any respon-

sibilities except

walking at night


(VII)


we are two

separate species

being human I cannot


say what being

a wolf means

or feels like


no more than a wolf

would know

what being human means


but all living things

share a sense of place

that they come to know


as home where work,

rest and life merge

into the same thing


***

Project Wolf was conceived by Doug Gilbert of Trees for Life.

The Humandwolves: Martina Baltkalne, Millie Barrett, Nick Belt, Lotte Brockbank, Liv Glatt, Claire Large, Matt McMullen, Lorna Meek, Chanel Valento-Bovell, Alex Volkers

[1] See Dougie Strang’s essay, ‘Rannoch Wolves’

*

Alec Finlay is an artist and poet. gathering, an ecopoetic guide to the Cairngorms was published by Hauser & Wirth in 2017, and an exhibition of the same title opens at Peacock Visual Arts, Aberdeen, 4 April - 18 May.