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Samantha Ellis' Play Journal :: first instalment

9 March - 20 September 2006
Samantha reads about Aboriginal women protesting against the re-introduction of crocodiles, gets an idea for a play and has her own encounter with a wolf.


ellis - wolf 1
European wolf in birch wood
9 March 2006

I get on the Tube today with a book I've had sitting around for months now: Barry Lopez' Of Wolves and Men. A wolf stares out from the cover, its yellow-green eyes wild and strange. It's the last book I'd expect to find myself reading. Wolves terrify me.

I'm reading the book because of a website I chanced upon when researching Leviathan for a play about Noah's Ark. My research on the biblical monster led me onto other monsters and then to a website on which Aboriginal women were campaigning against conservationists. The conservationists wanted to reintroduce the crocodile to a nearby river. The women didn't want the crocs back. They'd been glad when the last one was killed off. Now they feared for their children.

    It was the first time I'd encountered the concept of faunal rewilding - the reintroduction of animals to places where they have gone extinct.

    My Leviathan research had also turned up another book, Monster of God by David Quammen. He argues that we need the crocodile, and other predators. In caging, fencing and hunting our alpha predators to extinction, we have lost a sense of ourselves as prey, and we have become disconnected not just from the food chain but from the circle of life. He interviews a Transylvanian shepherd who calls the bears, for all they eat his sheep, the treasure of the forest. "A forest without bears-it's empty," says the shepherd.

I could see that there was a poetry to this, that he was arguing for a sense of relationship with predators that I certainly had lost in my urban, disconnected life, and that what the conservationists called 'charismatic megafauna' had a kind of savage splendour.

But I was troubled by a mental image of crocodiles inching menacingly along a river with a village in their sights.

I ranted to anyone who would listen about how it was wrong, wasn't it, to ask people to live among creatures that might kill them. And then I found that it wasn't just happening in Australia but also closer to home. To my amazement I found that there were people who wanted to bring bears and wolves back to Scotland.

    It seemed such a perverse idea - a forced return to a harsh and terrifying past. I couldn't fathom why anyone would want to do it and because I hate not knowing why people do things I started doing some research.

    A friend directed me to Lopez with the promise that he would make me understand why people liked wolves. I acquired the book but then I let it gather dust. I didn't want to like wolves.

    But last week, a theatre director asked if I had any ideas for a new play and here I am, reading Lopez in a crowded carriage, about as far as one can get, conceptually, emotionally, from Lopez who wrote the book in a cabin in remote, frozen Alaska.

Samantha Ellis's most recent play Sugar and Snow, a love story set in London and Kurdistan, was performed at the Hampstead Theatre in May 2006 and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in August 2006.
I so want to disagree with him. I don't want to like the wolf. But Lopez is irresistible.

His thesis is that we create our animals, just as we create our gods. We know little about the wolf, but much about how we imagine the wolf to be. He loves wolves because they are elusive. So elusive that he says he can look in the direction of a gray wolf 'standing in the snow in winter twilight and not see him at all.'

I begin to see why conservationists might be fascinated enough by wolves to want to bring them back to live among us. Which means I might have a play.

27 June 2006

I'm rereading Clarissa Pinkola Estés' Women Who Run With The Wolves. She's writing counter-myth, re-casting the wolf as a symbol of the wildness we (women particularly) have lost.

As a teenager, I read it as a sort of self-help book in being tougher. This time round I argued with every word of it. She seemed to want me not just to respect wolves but to empathise with them, even to want to be a wolf. She argues that as wolves were hunted, and paradise was paved, so women's wildness, instincts and passion were preened and crushed and tidied away.

'We are all filled with a longing for the wild,' she writes. 'We were taught to feel shame for such a desire ... But the shadow of the Wild Woman still lurks behind us ... No matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four-footed.'

I'm building a central character for my play who is a wild woman, a wolf biologist brought in to investigate the feasibility of reintroducing wolves to the Highlands.

    There is some precedence for this; wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park in 1995. Amid local distress and eleventh-hour legal challenges, 31 wolves were captured in Canada and turned loose. The reintroduction has been a qualified success; the wolves have attracted eco-tourists, changed the Park's ecosystem (by preying on the elk, they have reduced the grazing pressure on the trees), and despite the odd illegal shooting by an anxious or angry local, they are thriving. By the end of 2002 there were at least 148 wolves in the park.
Here in Britain, we're required to consider reintroducing native species, as per Article 22 of the EU Habitats and Species Directive of 1992. Wolves and bears could be on the list, along with beavers, lynxes, wild boar and more.

But what do we feel about predators in Britain?

Wildlife photographer Peter Cairns has joined forces with another photographer Mark Hamblin and wildlife tourism consultant Ian Rowlands to set up Tooth and Claw, a web-based project that looks at precisely this. Their provocative questionnaire doesn't just try to get at why we don't like wolves but asks questions such as:

    'There are approximately 6 million pet cats in the UK. Although they are domesticated, their natural instinct is to hunt for themselves and it is estimated that between them, they kill 270 million birds and small mammals each year. Would you support a nationwide legislative reduction in cat numbers?'
I'm starting to wonder how much of my fear of the wolf is justified. I'd always assumed it must be based on facts, but I'm finding that wolves rarely attack people, don't howl at the moon, aren't driven mad by the smell of blood and are only about the size of a German shepherd. The Wolf Trust points out that when the last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1743, people still believed in witches. My fear of wolves might be just as ill-founded.

Yet I'm not the only one. The fear of wolves seems to be both primal and universal. When I tell my friends about my research, here are some of the things they say:

    "Why would we want to bring back wolves? We turned them into dogs."

    "They eat children, don't they?"

    "Have these people seen Grizzly Man ?"

    "Isn't Scotland full of sheep?"

There must be a reason that Little Red Riding Hood is one of the most-told fairy tales. In France they read about Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, in Finland she's Punahilkka, in Italy she's Cappuccetto Rosso. We're all afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, even if the song asking the question was only written in 1933 for a Disney film of The Three Little Pigs.

co of wolves dvd
At the Anglian Wolf Society, some people who have had nightmares all their lives about wolves have found themselves in tears, hugging a (captive) wolf. I'd never had a nightmare about wolves. Then, last night, I watched Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves. It's a schlocky, dated horror film with animatronic wolves and plastic bats, but a classic, driven by Carter's haunting formulation that the really bad wolves are not the ones that howl in the night but the ones who are 'hairy on the inside.'

I went to bed. A moonbeam fell across the pillows. I dreamed a wolf burst through my window.

15 August 2006

So far, all I've got is a pile of notes and a title. 'The wolf,' writes Lopez 'takes your stare and turns it back on you'. I'm going to call the play The Stare.

I start planning a research trip to the Highlands and discover a peculiar fact: the places where wolves might be reintroduced maps surprisingly neatly onto the Highlands and Islands theatrical touring circuit.

9 September 2006

I'm in the Cotswolds for 'Scary or What?', a one-day conference on reintroduction organised by the Wildland Network. There are 80 conservationists here who don't want to just preserve what's here but to radically remap our landscapes and reconnect us with the wild.

They want the really wild things back. "We spend too much time worrying about species that don't have any impact on the ecosystem. What does a crested tit do?" asks veteran conservationist Roy Dennis.

There's talk of breeding a cold-weather rhino and reconstituting the massive auroch by reuniting its genes, now dispersed into cattle all over Europe. Then there's the missing lynx. But when it comes to reintroductions, the beaver is in the front line. It's tubby, cartoonish and, crucially, it doesn't attack people. Yet Scotland barred the beaver in 2002, much to the conservationists' frustration. "It's just a big hamster!" says beaver expert Derek Gow.

    It's startling stuff to someone new to the concept of faunal rewilding. I scrawl down notes as fast as I can. Did someone just say they wanted to bring back the moose? I look up and yes, we're discussing, semi-seriously, the reintroduction of an animal that hasn't been in the UK for 900 years. If we brought back the moose, someone points out, we'd all have to drive around in Saabs and Volvos so we wouldn't get killed.

    The bear, they admit, is a tough proposition. But they are also talking about it as an exciting challenge. Images of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog's terrifying film about bear activist Timothy Treadwell who was killed by the animals he loved, are running through my head.

    Now someone is holding up a peculiar, small brown object. It's a beaver gland, a valuable commodity in medieval Britain, and one of the reasons beavers went extinct. Another reason was that because of their scaly tails the Church counted them as fish and allowed people to eat them during Lent.

Wolves, everyone agrees, are going to be a hard sell, but even there the problem is claimed to be perception rather than fact.
    Peter Taylor, whose book Beyond Conservation is the most radical manifesto for faunal rewilding I have read, asks us to guess which is the most dangerous animal in Western Europe, the one which kills more children than any other, and someone shouts out "cow", while another tries "domestic dog" before Taylor reveals that it is the wasp, which if it gets into a can of Coke can sting a person's throat and make it swell up with fatal consequences.

    David Bullock and Matthew Oates explain what some call the ecology of fear; where there are wolves, there is woodland because, as with the elk at Yellowstone Park, the wolves scare away the browsers and grazers and give the trees a chance to grow. We need our top predators, they say, to keep the rest of the ecosystem in good working order.

I'm surprised by how much talk there is of fear and death. In a landscape with predators, we would have to give up our Beatrix Potter view of nature and remind ourselves that the wild is full of killing. Maybe we need this, not just because it would be more realistic but also because fear is the flipside of survival. It can be exhilarating. It can make us feel more alive.

I want to feel a bit of exhilaration myself so instead of going on the field trip I'd signed up for (to look at beavers in an enclosure), I venture into the Forest of Dean to try to get a glimpse of the wild boar which were reintroduced by mistake when they escaped from wild boar farms. Trying hard not to think about tusks, I follow the others into the forest at dusk. It is dark and mossy, bats are emerging, and we're looking for 'field signs' (that's conservationists' code for scat and hair and scratches). I pull some hairs out of a tree trunk. They are long and brown and coarse.

I feel about a million miles from my desk in London.

16 September 2006

For a map of Scotland, see
Moving north to south:
The Hill o' Many Stanes is near Wick.
Badbea is just to the north of Helmsdale.
Alladale is to the west of Bonar Bridge
Kincraig is between Kingussie and Aviemore.
I'm on a moor on the east coast of the Highlands, looking at the Hill o' Many Stanes. Over a hundred standing stones peek from the gorse and heather. They're not solemn or majestic-looking, but squat and higgledy-piggledy. Archaeologists suspect they may have been a Neolithic lunar observatory. The cold sweeping mists certainly feel Neolithic.

I scan the sky. I'm hoping very much to see some sea eagles. I haven't bothered with binoculars because these birds of prey are enormous. Their eight-foot wingspan has earned them the nickname 'flying barn doors' although their more romantic Gaelic name translates as 'the eagle with the sunlit eye.' Reintroduced in the 1970s, the sea eagles are supposed to be the conservationists' success story but after only two days in the Highlands, I've already heard them called 'shitehawks.'

It isn't hard to find anti-conservation views in the Highlands. Which is just as well because that's what I've come to find. I've come up with an old friend, lots of questions and a notebook. We get the sleeper north, falling asleep to the rocking train and waking up to the Cairngorms.

At Inverness, we jump in a car and go north and further north. We're spending the first few nights at a farmhouse in Brora, a grey, little, east coast town which boasts one of Scotland's many wolf stones, claiming to mark the spots where notorious wolves were killed. Often these claim to be the 'last wolf' stone. The Brora stone makes the rather more modest claim to commemorate the county of Sutherland's last wolf.

Still, the message is clear: the wolf doesn't have a lot of friends in the Highlands.

Neither, of course, do the conservationists. A battle is raging about how to use and manage the land. I feel as though I'm drowning in opinion. I want to get everyone in the play-walkers, stalkers, golfers, poachers, crofters, conservationists, shepherds - all depicted by five actors with a lot of hats and stick-on facial hair.

A great source of anger is that many conservationists come from the south. If we're so keen on wolves, runs the argument, we should have them in England. Not that the wolves couldn't get south if they wanted to. A wolf can run at up to 40 miles per hour; the Caledonian Sleeper's average speed is only twice that. They could get from Inverness to Piccadilly in a day and a night.

17 September 2006

Everywhere we go, there are ruined crofts, the legacy of the Highland Clearances when people were evicted, often violently, to make way for large scale sheep farming. We visit Badbea, a bleak village some crofters were cleared to. It's so windswept that they had to tether their chickens and their children to buildings and stakes to stop them getting blown off the cliffs. Some people think the reintroduction of predators would be the Clearances all over again, with men chased out by wolves instead of sheep.

History has muddied the issue of what to do with the land. Where conservationists see wilderness, many Highlanders see depopulation.

    Still, from my perspective, this is wild, wild land. It's certainly a long way from the suburbs of north London where I grew up. It wasn't completely tame; our house backed onto a small but very definitely enchanted wood. There were owls and foxes, squirrels on the roof (I used to hear the whoosh-bang-pitterpatter in the winter as they skiied down the roof and ran back up for another go) and bats, occasionally, in my bedroom. They'd get in through the window and fail to find a way back out. But I was very definitely a city child and Hampstead Heath was about as wild as I could handle.
There are so many trees on Hampstead Heath that some have suggested renaming it Hampstead Wood. Here in the Highlands, only remnants of the ancient forest of Caledon have survived. The trees were cut down for firewood, for farming and sometimes even to smoke out wolves who were hiding in their midst.

The Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean explicitly linked deforestation and depopulation in his hallucinatory poem, Hallaig, set in a deserted village where he imagines the modern trees metamorphosing into ancient trees which in turn become the women who once lived there: 'The girls a wood of birch trees / Standing tall, with their heads bowed.'

Now the trees are coming back as organisations such as Trees for Life spearhead the preservation of the remaining patches of the Caledonian forest, and the planting of native woodland.

In On the Other Side of Sorrow, his book about conservation in the Highlands, historian James Hunter argues that 'If it makes sense to reinstate scots pines to settings from which scots pines are today known to have been artificially stripped, might it not be equally acceptable to restore people to some of at least of the many glens from which human beings were removed ...?'

19 September 2006

Alladale is nicknamed 'the Jurassic Park estate' because of owner Paul Lister's plans to create a fenced-off wilderness reserve in which various native species will be released, from the red squirrel right up to the brown bear. (According to the conservationists, it would be more accurate to call it Pleistocene Park, and the film should really have been called Cretaceous Park).

    It's in the very middle of the Highlands and satisfyingly remote. We leave the road to drive along a track, with instructions to turn at a red phonebox. When I got the directions I asked how I'd know which phonebox. This seems a stupid question as the track winds on for miles, vaguely following the River Carron. Blackface sheep move grudgingly aside to let us pass.

    At the stone-built Victorian lodge, we meet the head keeper and stalker, Innes MacNeill, and set off for the wilder reaches of the 23,000-acre estate. It's stunning. The sun's burned through the morning mist. It lingers only on the hills, which veer sharply up from the glen to over 3,000ft. There are gnarled and twisted ancient Caledonian pines, a sparkling salmon river, heather in its last bloom, scarlet-berried rowans and Highland cows.

The estate is already home to a posse of wild boar which have had to be fenced off because they were causing damage to the tree roots. As we squelch across the bog towards them, they start snuffling and grunting and shoving each other towards the fence.

I'm no good with animals. Certainly not with anything with 'wild' in its name.

As I edge gingerly away from the boars, MacNeill asks, "Why are you writing this play?" I give the response I always give, which is that I write about what I fear and what I desire, that writing's a way of walking into my fears.

He flicks a switch, and says "Go on then. Step over the electric fence."

So I have to.

20 September 2006

The Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig is run by conservationists who want to give people an authentic experience of the wild. It's home to a pack of wolves, living in an award-winning enclosure with a view of the Cairngorms.

We arrive mid-afternoon and go straight to the enclosure. Two wolves trot through the grass, giving us a sidelong look. It feels wrong to be looking at them in brilliant sunshine. For all the research, all the myth-shattering, I still imagine coming upon a wolf at night, a full moon shining on the snow, flakes glittering on its fur. The wolf would howl. On this point, at least, the myths are true; most wolf biologists agree that wolves prefer to howl at night. Some even say they howl more at a full moon.

One of the wolves trots back through the enclosure. He has a slinky way of moving and a cunning look. He slows down to a lope. He stops. He's smaller than I've been expecting. This is probably because last year the Highland Wildlife Park had to cull the pack of American wolves they'd had in the park since 1972 because the wolves had stopped behaving like wild animals and started turning on each other. They replaced them with endangered Scandinavian wolves, which are younger and smaller.

And then he stops. And stares. I stare back.

The mesh of the enclosure separates us. I'm in a car. He isn't even very big. But still I feel a chill down my spine. He holds the stare for a moment before moving on.

My friend and I park the car and walk to a viewing platform high above the wolves. It's built to extend right into the enclosure, to give you the sensation you're among them. Except the wolves are nowhere to be seen.

"You'll have to howl for them," says my friend, not quite seriously.

Wolf biologists do howl to track their wolves, or sometimes, to join in with what biologist Durwood L. Allen has called 'the jubilation of wolves', not a lonely sound at all, nor a threatening one, but a communion.

I can't hear or see any wolves at all now. At first, I'm disappointed. But then I realise I am experiencing what wolf enthusiasts love most about the wolf: its legendary elusiveness.

Samantha Ellis

return to the latest instalment of Samatha Ellis' Play Journal

The photograph of the European wolf is provided by Peter Cairns of Tooth and Claw

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