Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Call of the Wild

By Debbie Gilbert & Leonard Gill

The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone by Thomas McNamee
Henry Holt & Co., 354 pp., $27.50

AUGUST 18, 1997:  In 1926, the last native wolf was shot in Yellowstone National Park. During the seven decades that followed, conservationists came to believe that something was wrong with this picture -- that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could never be considered complete until its major predator, Canis lupus, was again part of the equation. After one of the most bitterly fought environmental battles of this century, advocates of the wolf successfully returned the much-maligned carnivore to Yellowstone in 1995.

As told by former Memphian Thomas McNamee, the tale of the wolf's reintroduction becomes an epic clash of values between those who admire wolves and those -- mainly cattle ranchers and right-wing Western politicians -- who don't. Numerous public hearings and court proceedings fail to show a valid reason not to bring back the wolf, so the unprecedented experiment is given the green light.

It seems simple enough: Capture three packs of wolves in Alberta, Canada (where the species is still abundant), transport them to Yellowstone, and turn them loose. But this undertaking is much more complex than it first appears. The wolves' presence will have a profound impact on every aspect of the ecosystem -- not to mention legal, ethical, financial, and political implications that stretch far beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone.

Moreover, the wolves are a wild card; no one can predict just what they'll do in their new surroundings. When most of the wolves seem to be heading north, out of the park, the wolf-recovery team begins to despair. What if the animals are trying to return to their birthplace, thereby negating the entire project?

McNamee was given near-exclusive access to the researchers and government workers on the team, and he paints vivid portraits of each member, allowing us to know them as people. Their dedication to the effort is total; their spirits soar and plummet in response to each small victory and setback. And their work is complicated by grating uncertainty, because imprecise radio-collar tracking is often their only means of knowing the wolves' whereabouts.

And then something goes horribly wrong. A senseless crime -- which McNamee describes in nightmarish detail -- turns the wildlife-management project into a hunt for a cold-blooded killer.

Without slowing the pace of the story too much, McNamee weaves in his own musings on the nature of wilderness and our relationship to its inhabitants. In one chapter he reminisces about growing up in Whitehaven in the 1950s, recalling how the wild places gradually were supplanted by subdivisions. This seeming digression serves a purpose -- it illustrates why wilderness matters, whether in Memphis or in Montana.

Movingly written and factually impeccable, The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone qualifies as one of best environmental books of the decade. -- Debbie Gilbert

The Wild Child: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Free Press, 247 pp., $13 (paper)

In the more than 150 years since his death, Kaspar Hauser has haunted the imaginations of no less a lineup than Verlaine, Melville, and Rilke (and more recently, the lesser likes of filmmaker Werner Herzog and songwriter Suzanne Vega). Who, then, if you don't know, was this Kaspar Hauser?

If he was, strictly speaking, not a "wolf-child," worse perhaps was done to him than to be raised by wolves: Hauser was held, from roughly the age of 4, in a dungeon and accorded the barest human contact. Twelve years later, in 1828, he showed up in the town of Nuremberg, Germany. In 1829, an unknown assailant tried to cut his throat. And in 1833, the same or another unknown assailant lured him to a deserted grove and stabbed him in the heart.

Was Kaspar Hauser the rightful and terribly wronged heir to the principality of Baden -- as evidence seemed to suggest even during his lifetime -- or was he a fraud? What explained his astonishing progress in language? His remarkable skills in drawing? His great compassion for all living creatures? Was Kaspar Hauser the archetypal Romantic hero, man in his natural state, a bona fide innocent? Or was he a dissembler out to take advantage of well-wishing officials and a captivated public?

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson gives us fresh translations of contemporary records (including Feuerbach's classic account); endnotes almost as fascinating as his main text; and appendices that range from the Nuremberg mayor's initial proclamation to an essay on two wolf children thought to have been discovered in India in 1920. Masson's own thoughts on child abuse (and trashing of Freud on this issue) may seem mere tags to his useful introductory remarks, but The Wild Child is a necessary resource for anyone in need of an update on, or introduction to, Kaspar Hauser's short, sad life. -- Leonard Gill

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