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Samantha Ellis' Play Journal :: third instalment

21 February 2007 - 9 January 2008
Samantha sees connections between the wilderness of the Canadian wolf and the unknown places of the Middle East, and between the Scottish Highlanders' experience and that of the Kurdish people. She meets other writers on the wild in Cambridge.


21 February 2007

I've just got round to reading Stef Penney's novel The Tenderness of Wolves, which won this year's Costa Book of the Year Award. Critics seemed obsessed by the fact that Penney, an agoraphobic, had never visited Canada, where the book is set, but, even putting aside the fact that it is set in the 1860's which she couldn't have visited anyway, it feels like the kind of book only an agoraphobic could write.

    It tells the story of a woman, Mrs Ross, whose son disappears on the same day as a fur trapper is murdered. She sets off across the icy wilderness of 1860's Canada to find him and prove his innocence.

    The characters are mostly from the Highlands and it occurs to me, reading it, that it must have been galling for the emigrants whose grandfathers had wiped out wolves in Scotland to arrive in the new world and find themselves surrounded yet again by howling predators.

The wolves in Penney's novel are the emblems of what we fear. They represent the wilderness, the untameable wild, pure violence and appetite. Yet the further Mrs Ross travels in the trackless wastes, the more it seems that it is humans, not wolves, who pose the real danger.

When she finally sees a wolf it is 'grey, against the lighter grey of the snow...It looks small..It seems to be alone'. She watches the wolf from the opening of her tent. She is so fascinated that she forgets to be afraid. And then it has 'vanished like a grey ghost'.

2 April 2007

Tonight I'm celebrating the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover) with my family. The Pesach narrative doesn't have much to say about the wilderness where the Jews spent forty years in between leaving Egypt and finding Israel. I've been given various reasons for why it took them so long, ranging from the theory that they simply got very, very lost to the idea that the generation who were slaves had to be succeeded by a generation with unchained minds and hearts.

The wilderness does feel like a rite of passage. There's a sense that you have to journey through unknown places, even to get lost, before you reach the promised land. I wonder just how wild the wilderness was, and if they encountered any wolves. There are, pleasingly, still wolves all over the Middle East, and at least 400 in Israel alone.

25 April 2007

I've found a Gaelic song about wolves and I check the translation with tutors at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig , the Gaelic institute on Skye. The song's in the present tense but feels wistful nonetheless, as if its author knew that the hills would soon be emptied out of wildlife:

    Chì mi Sgorr-eild air bruaich a' ghlinn
    (Far) an goir a' chuthag gu binn an dos,
    Is gorm mheall-àird nam mìle giubhas
    Nan lub, nan earba, 's nan lon.

    I see the peak of the hinds, on the steep slope of the glen
    Where the cuckoo calls sweetly in the thicket,
    And the blue high mountain of the thousand pines
    Of wolves, of roes, and of elks.

The emails from Skye arrive at the same time as one from a Kurdish friend helping me research another play who tells me that 'sweet dreams' in Kurdish is 'xewnen xwesh'. It feels terribly poignant to have these two languages in my inbox, particularly as the Kurds are super-aware of the way their experience echoes the Highlanders'. The favourite film of the Kurdish guerrillas, fighting their endless war in the mountains of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, is Braveheart.

5 May 2007

Having failed to see a single red kite all the time I was in the Highlands, I see seven today from the London-Oxford coach. Red kites were reintroduced to the Chilterns in 1989 and there are now around 200 pairs there.

A red kite appears in my play, mourning the death of his mate (red kites mate for life, so if one is seen alone, conservationists may have to play detective to find out whether its mate was killed by foul play), but I've only read about them until now. Glued to the coach windows, I see them soar and circle lazily over the hills, their heads a pale grey, their wings red and white, and their tails forked like mermaids'.

23 June 2007

I'm in Cambridge for Passionate Natures, a conference convened by writers and academics who don't like being cloistered up in libraries. They may not be standing on a sodden hillside in the Highlands gathering data but they are just as crucial to the faunal rewilding project as the conservationists; they make us think and feel differently about the wild.

    Convenor Robert Macfarlane begins his new book The Wild Places by climbing a tree in a windstorm before going on a journey to find Britain's wild places, despite the prevailing view that wildness is dead in Britain. He creates a wild map of Britain, one to set against the road maps with which we usually look at where we live, and ends the book back in the tree, only a mile out of Cambridge, but still feeling that 'at that moment the land seemed to ring with a wild light'.

    Like Jay Griffiths who reads from her book, Wild, Macfarlane argues for a passionate approach to nature.

    For Marina Warner imagination is as important as knowledge when it comes to engaging with the wild. It's all very well to identify Romano-British mounds but fairy hills are just as important to the way we live in and love a landscape.

    Jules Pretty finds his imagination stirred by the big cat sightings. He wonders if we are revisiting the medieval bestiary, with unknown creatures appearing at the edges of the map, or the edges of our consciousness; big cat sightings are increasing month by month, and it's all too possible that these cats really are out there, and that sooner or later they'll emerge into the light.

The line between humans and animals has troubled me since I began my play. Specifically, whether there is a line. It seems to have got more blurred since I started thinking about wolves, and that blurring finds its echo when Caspar Henderson (who has blogged about the conference) asks us to imagine how strange it might be to be an octopus; they have three hearts and can squeeze through a space the size of one of their eyeballs.

It's May Week in Cambridge, and last night, walking home from drinks on the riverbank, I saw girls in ballgowns and boys in black tie, just graduating, on the cusp of everything.

Eleven years ago when I reeled across town in my own May Week dress (shivering; it was not a balmy night) I didn't feel particularly wild or connected or passionate, but maybe sometimes, or for some people, it takes a long time to leap the fences and hedges and get to the wild, and perhaps even longer to find a way of voicing wildness, which does not want to be contained, not even in words.

24 July 2007

Shakespeare refers to wolves fifty times in his plays. I know this from my friend Héloïse Sénéchal who has been working with Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen on the first edition of the Complete Works to have its own blog.

Shakespeare mostly uses the wolf as shorthand for cruelty, giving King Lear's daughter Goneril a 'wolvish visage' because she is ruthless enough to send her father out into a night so harsh that 'If wolves had at thy gate howl'd that dern time, / Thou shouldst have said, 'Good porter, turn the key'.

    In The Merchant of Venice, it is Shylock who is being excluded from polite society because his 'desires / Are wolvish, bloody, starved and ravenous'. Here, the wolf is synonymous with greed.

    In Othello, the wolf acquires a reputation for lustfulness, with Iago suggesting that Desdemona and Cassio are 'As salt (lecherous) as wolves in pride (on heat)'.

    In Coriolanus, the wolf is seen as incapable of a finer emotion. Menenius Agrippa asks 'Pray you, who does the wolf love?' before comparing the people to wolves who will devour Coriolanus.

    In Troilus and Cressida, the wolf is the consequence of anarchy. Forget the social order and eventually 'appetite, an universal wolf / Must make perforce an universal prey, / And last eat up himself'.

Did Shakespeare ever meet a wolf? Probably not. Exact dates are hard to come by but according to Wolf Song of Alaska, Edward I ordered the extermination of all wolves in England in 1281. The Anglian Wolf Society say that wolves were extinct in southern England as early as the fourteenth century while the people at Lioncrusher date the last wolf in England to the 1480s. So wolves were almost certainly extinct in England long before Shakespeare's birth.

    The only bears (including the bear that pursues Antigonus in The Winter's Tale) were in chains at the bear-baiting pits, the last wild bear having gone extinct in Britain around 500 AD. According to Tooth and Claw, lynx went extinct in the tenth century and beavers in the sixteenth, although Shakespeare may have seen wild boar since they survived until the late 1600s.
However, a wolf population clung on in Scotland until around 1743. Did Shakespeare know this when he included a wolf's tooth in the witches' cauldron in Macbeth?

Perhaps he spent 1586 - 1592, the mystery years that still fox biographers, tracking wolves across the remnants of the Caledonian forest. It's surely less implausible than the suggestion of a forthcoming film, William and Miguel, that he was in fact in Spain getting writing tips off Cervantes.

22 November 2007

I go to see Robert Zemeckis's new film of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf because it's about monsters, and, like it or not, most people think of wolves as monsters. I didn't plan to write a play about monsters but I have.

Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary's radical rewrite of Beowulf takes the view that we are our monsters. In their film, as in the original, Beowulf battles three man-eating monsters.

    The first, Grendel, has been terrorising the meadhall of the Danish king Hrothgar. The second is Grendel's mother. The third is a dragon who appears out of nowhere to fight (and fatally wound) Beowulf when he is an old man. Gaiman and Avary decided to solve Grendel's paternity by making him Hrothgar's son. They also have Beowulf sleep with (rather than kill) Grendel's mother, and fifty years later his son (the dragon) comes back to haunt him.
The problem with this is that the monsters stop being frightening and Beowulf becomes yet another tame Hollywood story of fathers and sons, which wasn't what I wanted at all.

4 December 2007

Elk have arrived in Alladale! Hercules and Hulda were flown over from Sweden in an 18-seater aircraft and the hope is that they will soon be breeding.

20 December 2007

When I was at the Highland Wildlife Park I acquired a wolf hand puppet. I got it as a sort of joke, but I also thought having a small, fluffy, cheery-looking wolf on my desk might remind me about my changing feelings about wolves.

    Today my friend's one-year-old came to visit, took one look at the wolf and started screaming in terror. This doesn't feel like learned behaviour; she's never lived anywhere there might be wolves, and her parents tell me she hasn't been read any fairytales with wolves in.
So is it a primal, necessary fear? Are we supposed to fear wolves after all?

1 January 2008

New year, new play title. The play's now called The Last Wolf in Scotland because, without wanting to give away too much of the plot, it's about why people wanted wolves to be extinct in Scotland all those years ago and what might happen if wolves returned. New Year's Day seems like the wrong time to be thinking about extinction.

9 January 2008

The faunal rewilding debate seems to be gathering steam, north of the border at least.

On 11 February the Scottish Wilder Trust is asking Should Scotland Have a Wilder Future? and in September the Wildland Network plan to reconvene in Scotland to debate reintroduction again; the dates are yet to be confirmed.

Meanwhile, just before Christmas a new application was submitted to Edinburgh for the reintroduction of beavers. A poll indicated that three out of four people in Scotland want the beaver back.

Things look less likely for the reintroduction of lynx to Scotland despite growing evidence that lynx are on the brink of extinction.

Samantha Ellis

return to the first instalments of Samatha Ellis' Play Journal

return to the first instalments of Samatha Ellis' Play Journal
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