Wild Women and Wolves [ + Part 3 of 7 Therapies ]
I arrived at Annabelle’s school on the west side of Manhattan in the Theater District wearing hiking shoes, sweat pants and a t-shirt, and a giant pack filled with camping gear for the two of us. (Some of the finest adventures of my life have begun with wearing a pack, somewhat overburdened but prepared for anything). I managed to convince the school administration staff that I was sane and simply wanted to take my daughter out of school to go on a camping trip. I wasn’t sure I should mention the part about the wolves, or wild women, so I didn’t.
We got the green light, left the school and made our way through the thousands of tourists on 8th Avenue to the subway and hopped on a train towards Grand Central Station (it’s grand, and it’s central).
From Grand Central we caught a MetroNorth train to Katonah, an hour-and-a-bit north of the city, very close to the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, Westchester County where we were going to be “on retreat” for 24 hours in the very near proximity of a number of wild, and some not-so-wild, wolves.
We take a taxi at Katonah station with a sprightly young Colombian guy and drive through wooded areas, past a few well-maintained ranches, then turn off the main road, wind our way through some gorgeous forest and arrive at the conservation center, close to the top of a hill.
I hadn’t fully done my research on the wolves before we arrived and had somehow imagined that we could camp within the enclosure among them, like that time in Zimbabwe when I camped with my kiwi friends Kath and Pete among the elephants and hyenas (and lions, hippos, snakes and water buffalo) in Mana Pools National Park.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (as it turns out, in many respects, I really am still a “kiwi” – “gung ho" to the point of foolishness sometimes, resourceful and resilient enough to get myself out of most challenging situations, and completely inexperienced with wild animals).
I guess I'd thought that sleeping among the wolves would be some kind of test of our ability to overcome fear; an essential component to reconnecting with one’s inner wild woman. In my fog of ignorance, I had no idea that wolves really were that potentially dangerous. But like most wild animals who could take you out with a single lunge at the throat, when left to their own devices, and not provoked in any way, they are not such a threat. In fact wolf attacks in the U.S. are pretty scarce, but clearly a high-fenced enclosure is going to prevent any potential mishaps at all (except those from fingers poked through the fence).
So we hike up to the campsite and empty our gear into the tent we’re sharing between the two of us, located second along in a very neat row of seven tents around twenty feet from the perimeter of the fence between us and the wolves. Then we head to the outdoor lounge and fire-pit area where freshly-brewed herbal infusions and women’s care concoctions await and we begin to get to know some of our fellow wild women while awaiting the arrival of others.
There were ten women in total, including Annabelle (the verging-on-woman girl), and three of us were mother-daughter duos (though the other daughters were much older than Annabelle). One mother-daughter duo had flown up from Asheville in North Carolina. Another had driven from Philadelphia. One woman, who was British, had flown from the Cayman Islands (where she lives). Two other women were more local (Poughkeepsie and NJ).
Then there was the retreat leader, a quintessential “wild” woman; herbalist, ex professional boxer and wolf conservation activist, Vanessa Chakour. With a confident and calming presence Vanessa introduced herself and the nature of the retreat and then she brought out a carved jade bear; a gift that belonged to a teacher of hers and was symbolic of her path as a herbalist. We passed the jade bear around and each said a little something about ourselves and why we were there. I couldn’t help but mention my brother Matt’s recent death death and that I imagined this experience would help with my grieving process –somehow, that I felt so happy to be out in nature on an escape-retreat with my daughter, and that I was very curious about the wolves. Annabelle expressed her curiosity about the wolves too. After all, she had been an equal motivator in getting us there; making sure we made the booking and had it in our calendar.
Vanessa’s more practical agenda was to help facilitate us into feeling comfortable in the vicinity of wolves, teach us a little about native herbalism and also some basics of a physical self defense practice she calls “sacred warrior boxing.”
You can well imagine how reticent I was about the boxing component after Matt’s recent departure following a single punch to the head. But I had sensed that, given her capacities with the wolves and herbalism there was likely something I could learn from this process, at exactly the time I needed to. So I decided to be brave and open my mind to the experience and through that I discovered and realized some interesting facts (see postscript below about that).
Meanwhile, back to the wolves, wild women, mothers and daughters, and herbs.
So the wolves were inside an enclosure, and we were camping very close to it –and them. And we’d arrived at the campsite and done our introductions and sharing and had imbibed our herbal concoctions –infusions of different mixes of local healing plants such as nettle, red clover, oat straw and red raspberry.
Then, without further ado Vanessa invites us, with a cheeky and happy smile, to stand up, and howl. All ten of us stand up, look up towards the gently-dimming sky, and howl together. We do this, initially with a little trepidation, and then gradually with full abandon.
Then we stop.
Just the almost-silence of an inhabited forest just north of one of the world’s biggest cities. Until it began.
Soul-searing, illuminative, primordial, luscious, and deeply healing; the sound of a wolf’s howl.
Howling is like the primordial OM (minus the “m”). There’s something so undeniably primal about the experience of howling; something quite intangible and yet somehow so naturally therapeutic. I’d done it often enough with people in various situations, but I’ve never howled with wolves before and it was indeed everything I imagined it to be, and more.
It was more insofar as I didn’t expect the “conversation” of the wolves howling together to be so diverse; so many different “voices” and styles of howling once they got going, and yes; they got going. After our initial howl with them they continued to howl more around sunset, during the night twice, then again at 5:30am and around 7:00am.
So the different styles of howling are due to the different species, different degrees of domestication, different ages and different genders, but also each wolf also clearly has its own personality, which comes through in its voice.
Just like us.
[ Interlude from the retreat experience for Part Three of Seven Therapies: Sound and Voice. ]
Sound –in the form of nature, voice, music and mantra– is one of the most powerful forms of healing that exists. I could write for hours on this but plenty of people already have so I don’t need to (see footnote below). For now, suffice to say that in my own experience, the healing –and general psycho-spiritual development– that comes through the experience of sound, and the use of our voice, is truly amazing. I know it has something to do with vibrations, physics, biology and subtle body mechanics, and that one day science and medicine will “catch up” on this. Until then, please take my word for it: both the experience of listening, and the experience of actually making sounds (like howling and mantras and singing) works wonders.
Meanwhile, back at camp. After we initially connected with the wolves through howling, we went to meet them and spend some time with them.
There are two main groups of wolves in separate enclosures. The “wild” wolves –Mexican gray and red wolves– are fed once or twice weekly with deer carcasses from road kills. The Mexican gray wolves are the most endangered mammal in all of North America and the objective here is to nurture them from a semi-domesticated state back into wildness. These wolves are clearly more evasive. In fact we didn’t see them at all (though we did hear them a lot). Only one of the women saw some of the red wolves at 5:30am. Wild wolves tend to steer clear of humans and are only a danger if provoked or semi-domesticated (so if you meet a wolf in the wild, don’t go doing anything silly like taking it’s food from it or if it’s a mother, photographing its puppies).
In the other enclosure are the “ambassador” wolves, which are somewhat socialized and are used to educate the public about the need for wolf conservation. They’re fed on donations of large red meat steaks from WholeFoods. They're much more social, and used to human interaction, but that doesn’t mean you can get too close. In fact there is only one woman, curator of the center, Rebecca Bose, who is able to get into the enclosure with one of the ambassadors, the elderly alpha Arctic wolf, Atka, who was brought up by her German Shepherd.
The way those wolves “wolf” down those T-bone WholeFoods donations, you wouldn’t want to risk putting your finger through the fence. Instead we traded blow-kisses with Atka. He was cool, calm, and powerful, sauntering around like he owned the place (because he did), but he’d return every now and then to our blow-kisses, poke his tongue through the fence and was clearly longing for touch. That feeling was reciprocated; it was hard to restrain ourselves but obviously not worth the risk.
Atka has his own enclosure (being the alpha, he needs his space). In the other ambassador enclosure were three younger more vibrant and rascally wolves, the siblings: Alawa, Zephyr and Nikai, who are a mix of several gray wolf subspecies, but primarily Canadian/Rocky Mountain gray.
After an evening of hanging out with the wolves, practicing sacred warrior boxing and imbibing nature’s medicines (this time a variety of mugwort tinctures known to induce lucid dreaming), we shared a scrumptious and healthy dinner then sat around the fire sharing stories under the almost-full moon.
One of the wonderful things about a group of women like this getting together is that they tend to be non-judgmental and very supportive. Everyone’s been through some trauma or another and is open to supporting their fellow sisters through whatever it is they’re working with. I could’ve stayed up all night listening to everyone’s stories but Annabelle had fallen asleep on me, my eyelids were drooping and I was beginning to feel numb from her weight and being positioned just slightly too far from the fire. We sloped off to bed filled with stories and high on wolves and mugwort.
The temperature had dropped a lot and I made sure Annabelle was bundled up warm but alas the sleeping bag I had was more for mid summer climes and I spent the night snuggling up to her in a bid to stay warm. It seemed like I never quite fell into a deep sleep. I also discovered that I have arthritic hips in extreme cold. But the upside was hearing almost every howl-fest the wolves put on during the night. (I even recorded them and will put those on SoundCloud so you can hear for yourself).
I also had the most exquisite lucid dreams full of brilliant turquoise and delightful surprises.
In the morning we warmed up with a deliciously hearty and healthy breakfast, coffee and more time with the wolves. We also spent time picking wild plants and listening to Vanessa teach us about their medicinal benefits. Aside from the mugwort, there was wild violet, dandelion, plantain, rose, raspberry, mullein and chickweed. And I should’ve taken notes but I was too busy taking photographs.
In any case this mother-daughter duo were thoroughly stoked with the joys of a brief escape from the city; a close encounter with wolves, and the camaraderie of being among a bunch of brave yet gentle and supportive women who know exactly what “wild” means for them.
Thanks to Vanessa and the Wolf Conservation Center, to all the wonderful wild women on retreat with us, and to my precious and adventurous daughter. There was not a drop of fear flowing with a giant fence between us and those gorgeous yet potentially ferocious creatures and was it ever amazing to spend time with them up close. If you like dogs, the sound of howling, learning about nature’s bountiful medicines, moving your body, sitting around an open fire, camping and getting close to nature and wilderness, you’ll love this.
WHAT’S THAT STUFF ON ANNABELLE’S FACE?
She had a dinosaur tattoo there and we had some trouble getting it off.
1) Vanessa taught us that you are most powerful as you are falling, not as you are pushing. It’s your own body weight that provides the power in those situations and I understand that now also through the experience of doing handstands; you really feel the weight of your body being pulled by gravity when you do a handstand. Falling forward with your fists covering your face has a lot to do with gravity too.
2) My random observations: I haven’t heard too much about women killing people in single-punch deaths (except for the woman who killed a friend during a party-stunt-gone-wrong moment in 2011 (http://abcnews.go.com/US/woman-trial-killing-rapper-punch/story?id=13724992 ). Women are much more inclined to talk and negotiate their way out of threatening situations, rather than throw a fist, so if a woman did ever throw a fist outside of the ring, you know that 99.9% of the time it would be from a place of self defense (agree, women friends?).
SOUND AS A FORM OF HEALING:
“All music, in one way or another, is therapeutic because it can heal. Behind this healing are the principles of Nada Yoga –that sound is holy, and therefore capable of restoring wholeness. Around the world, from Greece to Egypt to India, cultures have used music to restore and health and harmony in a system out of balance … My hope is that melody and mantra will be included in future medical research and healing."
~p. 125, The Yoga of Sound, Russell Paul.
"The springs of our reaction to music lie deeper than thought… Part of what music allows me is the freedom to drift off into a reverie of my own, stimulated but not constrained by the inventions of the composer. And part of what I love about music is the way it relaxes the usual need to understand. Sometimes the pleasure of an artwork comes from not knowing, not understanding, not recognizing."
How Music Helps us Grieve, BrainPickings.org:
WHERE ARE PARTS ONE, TWO, FOUR, FIVE AND SEVEN OF THE SEVEN THERAPIES?
I’ve posted parts one and two on my Facebook page and will elaborate on them further here at some point. I’m working on parts four through seven.