Poacher’s Pilgrimage

Extract from Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey (Birlinn, 2016)


Out here, it’s mainly dark beds of heather interspersed with little greens of tough and spiky grass. Pools of water, mostly shallow some profound, lurk amongst the bare rock sheets.

It’s now so dark you have to second guess each step. You have to walk with toes upturned to reduce the chance of stumbling. They used to say in Inverness that city dwellers could tell the country folk by their ceum a’ mhonaidh – their ‘heather loup’. Test every footfall with your heel before committing weight. Watch for hidden trips and dead man’s drops. Watch, too, for wider patterns in the land – the flow of shadows that distinguish different types of vegetation, or the raised ground from the dips, or the dry from the wet. Let the eyes accustom to these mottled shades of grey and black, for here is ‘relief and drainage’ abstracted from the abstract school geography books. Here it is, all set out in the raw.

I remind myself (as if to give a pinch) that if I hear a sudden shriek, it’ll just be some poor critter, startled from its slumbers, and more alarmed than me. But all is still. I haven’t even heard the drumming of the snipe. The night has claimed the day, and cold itself stands watch and takes the helm. The moon is on the wane this week and won’t be out ’til after midnight, but when she rises, there she’ll ride. Banrigh na h-oidhche – the Queen of the Night. Lòchran àigh nam bochd – the Joyful Lamp of the Poor.

It’s written that, in both the Catholic and the Protestant districts of these parts, when folks would first catch sight of the new moon they’d greet her with the invocation:

Siud agaibh a’ ghealach ùr – Rìgh nan Dùl ‘ga beannachadh!
‘There is the new moon – the King of the Elements bless it!’

And I have to say, that kind of peasants’ Christ attracts me more than the arid version of urban theologians. Give me any day the one who’d go and pray alone up mountains, who’d wander with the angels and wild beasts.

Mountain loch, Isle of Harris looking over towards Lewis

The village has dropped out of sight. I come up to a flattish spot of moss and grass. This will do to pitch my tent. Up it goes, more by a sense of touch than by the light of dithering torch. It looks a little kinked, but no-one will be looking. It’s good enough to do the night, especially as the mink trapper had said the forecast was for cold but calm. I feel my fingers numbing as I blow into a valve and roll out my mattress, fluffing up my sleeping bag to lay it down. At last, I crawl inside with a cosy sense of relief, zipping shut the flaps as if to roll a boulder across the entrance of my cave. Only then does it occur to me: I clean forgot to eat! Oh well – I’ll just have to take recourse to childhood reading on survival training. The Famous Five, with their chocolate bars beneath the stars.

I’m lying here, aware the stars are out above the flysheet. When we were young growing up on the island, the old folks used say that on a moonless night, they’d move from house to house by just the light of a glowing peat taken from the fire. You could make a biography from those peats. Their great migration paths from hearth to hearth. Their kindling, dying and rekindling. The stories that they’d hear along the way.

It would be fun to walk at night by just the moon. Not even with a compass, just going by the Pole Star. And no way, GPS! But satellites – now, they’re a strange addition to the constellations.

I remember the first time I ever saw a satellite, transiting across a Hebridean sky.

In those days, when the nights were mild, Dad and I would go out fishing once he’d finished with the evening surgery at seven.

It would be just him and me, out on a moorland loch. He’d be on the rod. Me, at the oars. We’d talk, and catch the evening rise. We’d usually land a few, then drive back home. He was kept so busy with his burden of responsibilities. It was probably the closest that I ever got to him, just a boy and a man, together in a boat.

I think it must have been September or October. Which, exactly, doesn’t matter; but it must have been late in the season, for although the nights had not yet chilled, twilight had fallen fast. We were out on Loch na Craoibhe – the Loch of the Trees. It lay at the end of the peat cutters’ road, up from the council houses at Balallan. It had an island full of rowans, safe where the sheep couldn’t get at them. Dad and his good friend, Dan Smith of Sildinis, had stocked the water with a golden-coloured strain of hybrid trout, called Sunbeam. They’d been given the fry by the Highlands Board. This was in the experimental days of fish farming and restocking.

P1000440 152
Beehive dwelling – as used from the bronze age until very recently

Dad was single-handed at the time, on call 24/7, with eighteen hundred patients for whom he had to be available. He held his patients like a hen would mind her chicks. The loch was up behind the police station. If needed, they would come and fetch him for emergencies. For a time, the Balallan folks called it ‘the Doctor’s Loch’. That’s how places get or change their names. They knew he couldn’t go and fish just anywhere out on the distant moors. Poachers, though some were, it’s said they did the decent thing, and left the fish on Loch na Craoibhe to him and Dan alone – there is a poacher’s honour.

That night, the evening rise had run far on into the dusk. Dad was reeling them in, and me, scooping them up with the landing net in virtual darkness. Nice half-pounders mostly. I asked how they could see his three tiny flies in such poor light. He said they felt vibrations in the water down the lateral line. That’s why the twitching motion of the rod must be just right.

We filled the wicker basket with a hefty haul. Then the wind dropped. It went flat calm, and that was them, gone off the take. Usually we’d have packed in there and then. But this was such a ‘glorious night’, as Dad would say. That was his favoured turn of phrase. He laid his rod across the stern, lit a cigarette, and passed me back a chocolate bar.
I shipped the oars and crossed their butts beneath my knees. We drifted, pensively, out from the island of the berry-laden trees, off the headland where the water lay the deepest. The world had settled to a hush untroubled by the slightest ripple. The sky was settling down to midnight blue on charcoal.

Then we saw the fires come out. Odd embers blown ablaze at first but gradually, the speckled sheen of shimmered starlight right across the Milky Way. And we were there. Inside of all of this. Just the two of us.

A shooting star streaked by, and then another. You glimpse your life as held in cosmic splendour on such a night as this. Dad pointed out a satellite, a sight still rare back then. We watched the tiny speck of light, as if a distant carriage that was lantern-lit and pulled by pounding horses through the freckled constellations.

Such depths of silence let you feel another person’s spirit. In ways I hadn’t known before, I felt Dad’s layers of being. His qualities of presence. His standing, in the sense of all he stood for. I was growing up, and he, it must be said, was growing older.

The satellite crept ceaselessly across the sky, and both of us were rapt, transfixed. Each knew it meant our world was changing. Such signs had not been seen before in Heaven or on Earth. We followed, wordlessly, like shepherds watching flocks by night.

For me, I have to say, I felt the surge of youth’s excitement. It was Apollo’s age when men from NASA reached out to the moon. We were in the space age, right here, right now; and there’d never been a thrill before quite like it – or, for that matter – since.

Dad sat straddled across the wooden thwart. His thick Harris Tweed jacket. His conspicuously Victorian plus fours and gartered socks. Back then, his white or chequered shirts would last a week. Their cuffs and collars were the olden sort, that could detach for daily washing and a dash of starch.

He was conservative in politics, as many country doctors those days were. That said, he was an ecologist of both planet and the body. A man who planted trees, who kept a tank of tropical fish for patients in the waiting room, who delivered a whole generation of babies with the district nurses, and who prided himself on having one of the lowest prescribing rates in the north.

He didn’t believe in a pill for every ill. Instead, he’d make the time to sit with failing patients, to hold their trembling hands, to share about life’s meaning and the future of the world.

That night, we watched the satellite go down on the horizon. I wondered when it would come round again. I wonder, now, what went round in his mind?



The Listening Post

 I don’t remember how old I was when I was taught to tend the listening post. The lottery was held when Good Gillem, who taught me, was an old man and ready to be replaced. All the children who were old enough to work were given a pebble; we put them in the box; mine was drawn.

So I had to leave the oasis, where the other children would work all their lives as our parents and grandparents had, to shepherd the tiny spring into channels where a few fish would spawn each year among the cress and rice we planted. To tend and harvest the palms, weave their fibres into cloth, mend the screens and strengthen the mud walls. To grind the flour and bake the dry, flat bread. My work would be different from theirs. I felt sad and proud.

As I stood in the shadowed doorway of my parents’ house, ready to set out, my mother held my shoulders tightly and kissed me on the top of my head. She was not crying, but her face was twisted in sadness. We’ll see you on Year’s Day, she whispered. Be good till then. One day each year they would come to visit me, for once I was at the post I could never leave it again.

On my shoulder I carried the little bundle she’d prepared for me. Alone I walked out beyond the storm screens, to the open desert, which I’d never seen before. I stared. Stretched before me were endless hills of red sand under the burning sky. The vastness of it made my heart jump like a netted fish in my chest. Everything I knew shrunk to nothingness before it. Carefully I followed the old markers that led over the dunes. I climbed the highest dune and looked back down on my home. The oasis looked indistinct, just a grainy shadow behind the screens, its colours, plants, and people gone. I turned my face away, twisting it as my mother had done to keep from crying, and went on.

The sand shifted and whispered around me. It was red, soft, warm, moving like a smooth-limbed body turning in its sleep. For a moment I felt tempted to leave the marked path and just walk into that great red place, join my body with its body and sleep in its softness. I thought I heard it calling me as it whispered: come and sleep with me, little one! Come and lie down in my arms! It was so great and I was so little. Why shouldn’t I do as it wanted?

Another sound woke me from my daze: the clinking of the old metal flags of the marker as I approached. I realized the sun outside the screens was too strong and it had opened a channel in my head for the whispering sand to enter. Quickly I pulled my hood up and wrapped it tight. Behind the screens I mostly forgot to wear it, unless a big storm came. I drank from my water jug until the whispering died down, and went on again.

At sunset I reached the foot of the black rock mountain, and saw the marker flashing at the entrance to the cave. Gillem waited there. He stood leaning on a great staff of knotted wood. It must have been older than he was, perhaps much older, as there were no trees from which to cut such staffs now in the oasis or any of the places we knew.

I followed him inside the cave and set down my bundle on its smooth swept rock floor. Gillem nodded to me in greeting but that was all. My training began at once.

He showed me the wall at the back of the cave, behind a stone outcrop that shielded it from view. Into the wall were set the devices of the listening post. They were like nothing I had seen in the oasis; I didn’t understand them at all. You don’t have to understand how they work, Gillem said. I don’t, nor has any Listener before me, as far as I know. You just have to do exactly as I show you, and the devices will sweep the skies, as they have down all the lifetimes since they were put here, for a message from the stars.

How many Listeners have there been? I asked.

I have never counted, replied Gillem. Each one keeps his archive and when he is finished, adds it to the others, to show that he has fulfilled his task. The count can be made if you want to – he waved his arm at the great archive wall, whose end was lost in darkness – but it would take a long time and it is easy to lose track. There’s enough to keep you busy.

And has any message ever come? I asked.

No message has ever come, he said.

Gillem and I stayed together for the first year. Every seven days the runner brought us our food, and less often brought us seeds or plants for the small hanging garden we had. And I learned how to grow a few vegetables there, in the sunlight at the cave mouth. I learned to tend the listening machine and keep the panels clean that made it run. I always stayed within earshot of the speaking tube, and checked it now and again to make sure its connections were good. But it never made a sound.

Gillem spoke little. When he was not guiding me or instructing me in my tasks, we sat together at the mouth of the cave and watched for birds – rare – or more often, clouds. At night we watched the stars wheel overhead. We passed the time trying to guess which one the message might come from. Listeners learn to sleep only a little at a time, and never fully. This was the hardest part of the training, and Gillem could not leave until he was sure I had mastered it.

At last my training was done, and I truly understood that I could never leave the post, never travel farther than the entrance of the cave, for the rest of my time as Listener, until I was at least as old as Gillem. I could not risk that the message we had waited for so long might come at last, and I would miss it.

That day Gillem nodded to me, took up his staff and walked to the mouth of the cave. I looked out and saw a boy I knew from the oasis coming over the dunes. For a moment I longed with all my heart to change places with him. But then the feeling passed. He left me some dried fish and bread, and then he followed Gillem who, slowly, leaning heavily on his staff, began his journey back to the oasis, which he had not seen since he was a child. Others had been born, wed, had children of their own and died, but he had seen and shared in none of that. No more would I. I watched them go, and then I turned my face to the sky and wished for the night to come on so I could watch the stars and imagine they were tears the sky cried to fill its emptiness.

Not long after, a runner came, bearing the staff. He handed it to me, and I knew old Gillem was dead.

Years passed. Every year, on the same day, my parents came, and we sat together at the mouth of the cave. At first they spoke of things and people I knew about, but as time went by everything they told me was foreign to me and I became indifferent to it. There was little I could tell them; my days were all the same. And we couldn’t speak loudly or long anyway. I must always be listening first and foremost; nothing must distract me from that task.

I grew older, as did they. The long walk over the dunes became difficult for my mother. She and my father seemed weaker and sadder each time they arrived. But there was something else – I could see the runners who came were also troubled, but no one would speak of it. Finally I asked what was wrong.

The spring is drying up, said the runner. Each year for the last ten we have had a little less food. No children have been born for three years now – the people fear they might starve. The oasis may be dying.

What will happen? I asked. What will you do?

If it dies we will die too, she said. And so will you, I suppose.

That was true. My little hanging garden was watered ingeniously by moisture that dripped from the walls of the cave. This was made to happen somehow by one of the devices I tended in the listening post, but the seeds and plants came from the oasis – and the garden produced only a little of what I needed to survive in any case. The runners brought the rest.

Could you go somewhere else? I asked. Although that would not change my fate.

You know there is nowhere else to go, she answered. The desert goes on forever. At least, no one knows where it ends, if it does. We would die trying to cross it.

I hope the spring doesn’t dry up, I said. Yes, she said. We all hope. But every year the water is less.

More years passed. My parents died, and others buried them. No message came from the speaking tube, but I tended the wall as carefully and constantly as all the other Listeners had before me. The runners still came and went, but they came less frequently and brought less food. I began to grow thin and weak. Then one day, the last runner came.

Only my family is left, she said. And we have decided to take poison rather than starve. I was told to bring some for you. Here is the last food. I won’t return.

Is the food poisoned? I asked.

No, she said. Here is the poison. You can choose the time. She handed me a little glass vial.

What if a message comes? I asked.

It will come too late, she replied.

After she left I let the days go by somehow, without taking up the little vial. I ate as little as I could. I kept to my tasks. I thought: after all, why not wait a bit longer? I can choose whenever I want.

Then one evening as I was sitting at the mouth of the cave, waiting for the stars to come out, I heard a sound I had never heard before. The speaking tube!

The message began to come through, at first as if someone were mumbling indistinctly in my ear, and then at last, as the translating device found the signals it needed in my brain, the words became clear:

We are dying… we are dying, it said. We seek no rescue. This is a warning. We set our world afire. We put the torch to everything that gave us life. Now it’s too late; the last of us are dying. Heed us!

I felt struck by lightning. A message at last! From a distant star!

But I knew the oasis was gone, and there was no one left but me to hear it.

Words kept coming from the speaking tube. A poem, said the voice; I didn’t understand most of what followed. I listened, trying to repeat what I could. Then the last words were spoken, and the voice stopped.

I stood at the mouth of the cave, holding the little vial in my hand. As I lifted it to my lips, I spoke softly the words that described what I looked out upon: the lone and level sands stretched far away.


My second novel, Beast, was published this week by Faber and Faber. It’s the story of a man alone on a wild moor. Who he is, where he came from, why he came and what he is there for are questions that may or may not be answered. But it turns out he is not there alone. Something is out there, and he is hunting it. Or it is hunting him.

Like all my fiction, Beast is trying to fulfil some of the demands which I myself laid out in the Dark Mountain manifesto (if I don’t make an effort, who will?) That is to say I am trying to write with dirt under my fingernails, I am trying to pull my sensibility, if not my body, outside the bounds set for it by my civilisation, and – crucially in this case – I am trying to take seriously the notion of the non-human world as a living, breathing thing with which we have a relationship, whether we know it or not.

I’d better not say much more. Novels are for reading, not explaining. If you’d like to find out more, about the book, you can do so here. In the meantime, here is an extract…


I wanted to go into the church. I wanted to be entombed by the cold stone to get out of this heat to sit in an empty pew and ease myself. I wondered if I could work the anger and irritation out of me and have the old stale air of that place carry it away through the stained glass and out into the whiteness. I wanted to go in but I stayed outside. I had come here to watch. I sat down with my back against the trunk of the ancient yew in the churchyard. From there I could see out onto the lane to the place where I had seen it and for some way on either side. If it came back here I would not miss it.

The yew must have been centuries old it was hollow at the centre and the wood I was leaning on had been twisted and gnarled by the ages. Its green needles were thick above me its berries scarlet. I drank more water. I said nothing to myself or to the tree or to anyone I could dream of or think about. I just sat and I watched the lane and the hedges and the fields and I listened for any sound and there was none. Nothing happened.

I sat and watched the lane and the hedges and the fields and nothing happened for hours or what I thought must have been hours. I had no watch and so time was nothing not even a concept time was nothing and nothing happened. When you sit like this you realise that nothing has its own energy that it moves that nothing can happen like an event or an episode. Nothingness extends itself emptiness moves and when you stare into it things happen to you. I sat with my back against the yew and I looked across the churchyard wall over to the lane. Inside me the worm was still coiling though it was moving more sluggishly since I had settled down.

At the end of the hedge where it curled around the corner of the lane and disappeared out of my sight was a tree. It must have been fairly young it had a thin trunk and its slender angular branches hung over the lane. There were no leaves on it so it was hard for me to tell what it was. Maybe a beech maybe an oak. If you sit looking at anything for long enough then everything else fades from your vision and all you have is what you are staring at. I was staring at a small knot above the biggest branch on this tree. Its trunk was black and it was bare in the white heat and suddenly I saw what terrible things trees are. They sprout up from the Earth they reach out in all directions they reach out for you they will smother you they will never stop growing and dividing and colonising. They are so fecund there is no stopping them. Chop them down burn them they always come back up they stretch to the sky these thin green fingers they are indescribable. They are just waiting there waiting everywhere for us to fall and then they will come back and they will grow over everything they will suck it all in and take it up to the sky in their thin fingers. Their roots will wrap around all that we were and our lives will rot down in their litter and theirs will be a silent Earth of roots and leaves and thin grasping and there will be no place for us in their world at all.

Then I remembered a man who would go out every morning and look at his trees. I didn’t know who he was or where I remembered this from but it felt like a memory and it came to me as I stared across at this tree in the lane. He was an old man he wore a tweed jacket and a flat cap and he planted trees. Perhaps they were fruit trees. I remembered that this man whenever I passed he would be in his garden walking slowly between the trees shuffling between them and inspecting them looking at every leaf turning the blossoms over smelling them sometimes. What goes on in the head of a man who looks at trees like that? He did it for years perhaps he had always done it perhaps he is still there doing it now. What went on in the head of someone who could do that same circuit every day for years forever? Why couldn’t I do that? Who was he that I was not? Today the thought of his circuit the thought of his silent circuit of the trees filled me with horror. How much I hated trees how much I feared things that grew. I was surrounded by trees surrounded by things that grew surrounded by this horrifying green abundance and it all wanted to swallow me and it was so silent so slow it spoke no language I could understand. How I hated it how I hated it and how I wanted to run.

I stopped looking at the tree. I found myself back in the churchyard leaning against the yew but now the church seemed to loom behind me like some presence. Now that I was aware of it I couldn’t put it beyond me I wanted to turn to look at it to make sure it wasn’t moving towards me coming to claim me. Now the church felt like a threat. What if God was a tyrant? The Bible’s God is a tyrant he destroys worlds because people won’t obey him he flies into rages and floods everything he burns down cities he slaughters children he hands down rules which must be obeyed by all and for eternity. He sent his son to die for us and he demands our gratitude for this though we never asked for it he demands that we gather in squat stone buildings and sing his praises if he is not to flood and burn us again. God the Father of all the men who feared their fathers over the centuries all the men who built up his church and who feared their fathers and whose sons feared them.

And outside the church where they go to worship God is god humming in the air god who is the air the unmeasurable and strange thing. This god who is not in books and did not live or die and is not a father or a mother and will not be obeyed and will not be denied. god who is the molecules and the air and the trees this forcing light this strange light roaring out. Before words before language before thought before speaking everyone must have been able to see this clear white light. Now it is all clouded. But you can make the cloud fall away or it can fall without you and then you can see again what is underneath the trees the soil the ideas the opinions what was always underneath them. The light has nothing for you it makes you no promises. It is in the small things it is in the tiny things we walk over and past the tiny things that run the world and we never see them because we believe we are running it ourselves and we are walking past to lay our claim on it first. The beetles the bacteria the earthworms the centipedes the viruses the mycelium the seeds lying dormant in the soil waiting for us to burn ourselves out. For the meek shall inherit the earth.

I was a stranger here I could see it now I was a foreigner an invader an immigrant and they were turning on me. The trees the hedges the beetles the things that live in the soil they were turning on me hissing at me they wanted me out they wanted me gone. The anger inside me had shifted and now it felt like a fear like a great anxiety. I felt all alone in the world I knew there was nothing here for me nothing at all. A bottle of water a walking stick a pair of boots was all I had between me and the trees the grass the gods and the gravestones and they all wanted me gone they were coming for me. This was their world and they would take it back they would take it back from me soon there would be no lane here no church no paths I could see the future and in it was nothing but trees nothing but the things living in the trees and in the soil a great silent green orchestra spread across the whole of the world. I had walked out too far. I had walked to this lonely place and now I was surrounded and they would eat me.

I had to leave. I had not seen what I came for but I didn’t want to not now. It was ridiculous it was impossible it was nothing. I raised my stiff body up and I began to walk back up the lane towards the farm. I carried myself across the moor as fast as I could but it was not fast I leaned on my stick and my rhythm was awkward and all across the moor I felt there were things in the heather surrounding me coming for me I was being watched some great force was just behind me shadowing me stalking me and I couldn’t turn and look back. I just kept walking with this fear this anxiety inside me I didn’t know what it was but I walked I had to walk and I didn’t look back.

Paul Kingsnorth is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project (with Dougald Hine). His previous novel The Wake was published in 2014. You can find out more about Beast, and his other work, on his website.


Congregation, Total Chaos and Greed

About three weeks after moving to Montana from East London urged on by a restless mid-life state of mind, I find myself waking up in a motel room in Gardiner, Montana at 4:30 a.m. on a drizzly August day. The sister of a friend of mine, the poet and naturalist Ilona Popper, picks me up and we drive for an hour along the northern range of Yellowstone National Park in the pitch black towards where she thinks a pack of wolves known as the Junction Butte Pack will be hanging out doing whatever it is wolves do.

After about an hour, we park up in the Lamar Valley behind half a dozen cars while a quarter of a mile away twenty or so Gortex-clad wolfers are planting their scopes on the crest of a hill. Ilona introduces me to ‘Rick’ who is getting out of his car. As the biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project, Rick has spent more than fourteen years observing wolf behaviour and pack dynamics. He is locally famous for chalking up more than 5,000 consecutive days (‘without even one day off,’ Ilona whispers at me) watching wolves. Much of what we know about the Yellowstone packs comes from his observations.

Ilona and I scale the small hill and set up our scopes in the rain just as the sky is lightening. After observing a few bison lazily grazing, we spot what Ilona thinks is the alpha female of the pack — the leader and breeder. She is a mottled charcoal colour, very relaxed, lying on her side nonchalantly watching five wolf cubs. The cubs tussle, jump on her and run in circles. As I watch the cubs roll in the grass like puppies, I feel I am watching something forbidden. Their play seems private, intimate — something between them and the land that I have no place witnessing. I am not expecting to have an emotional response to these animals but a kind of awe begins to creep over me — the awe of the European on the Grand Tour when confronted with a waterfall or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It is the awe of the spectator. But then something strange happens. I begin to be able to tell them apart, to identify these cubs as individuals. ‘Look there’s the one who nips ears,’ I am saying to myself. The awe shifts from that of observer to participant. I start to feel part of this land of theirs.

Since their re-introduction to Montana in 1995, the debate still rages as to the extent of good or harm these animals effect. With wolves in Yellowstone hunting and killing prey, the elk population has been reduced, thus increasing the growth of young willow trees, and also invoking the wrath of hunters whose prime target is elk. To conservationists, however, the regrowth of trees is seen as necessary for providing food and habitat for many animals in the Park. By bringing back the apex predator, some scientists and conservationists believe that a healthier balance has been restored. The doomsayer in me who believes that ecological meddling rarely has a happy ending sees this issue as one that is so complex, with so many variables, that our limited human brains cannot fully comprehend it.


A month after seeing the Junction Butte Wolf Pack, I keep hearing about wolves. They are in the news a lot. They have a lot of enemies. People are angry. A quick Google affirms that a lot of Westerners see the reintroduction of wolves as an assault on their hunting rights, on their cattle, on their sense of being the top predator, on their whole way of life. It seems too easy for me, someone who has been living in a large urban centre thousands of miles from the American West for the last twenty-five years, to say that killing these predators is wrong. What do I know? There must be reasons for laying steel in the ground and making war on wolves?

Which is why I have come to Missoula’s Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on a sunny September day. From the outside, the building is part ski chalet, part country club. I walk into the large open foyer and am greeted by what I will soon learn is a Montana specialty: taxidermy. Tons of it. Lynx, cougars, elk, bears, bighorn sheep, antelope, foxes, martens, badgers and whole dioramas populated with once living, stuffed animals chasing plastic grasshoppers and dragonflies dangling from nearly invisible fishing wire.

elk mountain foundation.03

I follow some deep voices that lead me to the room where the wolf-trapping course is taking place. It’s carpeted in gun-metal grey and chairs have been set up in very neat rows. It looks like we might be gathering to pray. There is one other woman. We clock each other. I smile, but she makes it clear she’s not here to socialise. The men, around thirty of them, wear baseball caps or cowboy hats, and sunglasses are placed backwards on their necks — a look I associate for some reason with military personnel. Three generations head-to-toe in denim, leather boots with spurs and cowboy hats silently fill the back row. The youngest, maybe four years old, is a tiny version of the adults: same clothes, same stoic expression.

On a table at the front of the room, where we have written our names onto a sheet of paper, is an assortment of metal contraptions, pelts and skulls. If someone had told me these metal devices were medieval torture instruments, I would have believed them. But these are foothold traps designed to snap onto the limb of an animal. Conibears (which grip the entire body) and snares (which strangle the animal) are illegal in Idaho and Montana. I am madly writing this all down while a guy behind the table is talking unofficially to a few attendees who make it clear they have used a lot of these traps. They handle these clanking things with familiarity.

Then the day starts for real, and like all courses it begins with introductions. At the front of the room are Mike Thompson, a wildlife manager at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP) and Jeff Ashmead, who worked as a government trapper, gunner, and pilot in the state of Idaho. He is now a trapper for hire — the go-to guy when you are experiencing cattle and ungulate depredation at the hands of wolves. Ashmead, who looks to be in his early sixties, wears reflective shades, baseball cap, a belt holding up a pair of very tight-fitting jeans, and sports a badge on his hat and shirt emblazoned with his logo of a wolf and the acronym JAWS (Jeff Ashmead Wildlife Specialist). Thompson looks more like a history teacher. He takes us through the stack of photocopied pages we’ve all been given: Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks — Wolf Trapper Education Handbook. In 2011 it became mandatory for all trappers to take this certificate course. I sense resentment in the room expressed in the form of crossed arms, legs akimbo, and faces that seem to say, ‘Can we get this over with quick so I can get back to my traps?’

Once we are through with the rules and regulations in the handbook, Mike Thompson steps aside and Jeff Ashmead rises, slowly, making the most of his six-foot frame.

‘I don’t speak for the Wildlife Services anymore, although I worked for them for thirty plus years. I’m a rancher, father of five kids, a family man’. I could feel the room relax. He is one of them.

Jeff Ashmead explains the fallacy of Mother Nature and her ‘balancing act’. He spits those last two words out in a way that leaves no doubt about his views of natural balance. We get a brief history of wolves in Idaho and Montana. How they were hunted for their pelts throughout the 1880s, set on fire, shot, poisoned, trapped, and were extinct by the 1930s. Bison were being slaughtered in record numbers as well, and their meat was often injected with strychnine to kill anything that ate the meat. There are accounts of trappers setting up camp, shooting bison, poisoning the meat, going to sleep, and then waking in the morning to a field of dead wolves (and eagles and every other scavenger who might like a little midnight bison snack).

After grey wolves were reintroduced to Montana from Canada they remained on the endangered list. Their numbers grew until in 2011 they were delisted. The point Jeff is trying to make is that we’ve been meddling with Mother Nature since we’ve been on the planet, so the idea of preserving things in any kind of balance seems ridiculous to him. He goes on, ‘I mean what is this paradise people are trying to reach? It was never even there in the first place!’
The room is silent with what I take as agreement.

Then we are made aware that the wolf counts done by the state of Montana are inaccurate. Apparently because of the wily nature of these beasts, only a small proportion of them have actually been counted.

Fear Factor Number 1: There are way more wolves out there than you could ever possibly know.

Jeff Ashmead goes into the social structures within wolf packs and something strange happens. He anthropomorphises these animals: wolf pups start trying to find territory where they can bring their ‘ladies’ or ‘girlfriends’. Once the pups are ‘at their peak, when they’re top athletes, they take their girls off to a new territory. They’ve had enough of their dad’s iron fist.’ Ladies? Girlfriends? Athletes? Dads?

He goes on for some time about the social bonds of wolves and how these creatures differ from the many wild animals out there, like bears, who use bluff as a scare tactic. These guys don’t bluff. They kill.

Fear Factor Number 2: Wolves are deadly. Or to put it in Jeff’s words: ‘When a wolf pulls the trigger, someone dies. They play to kill.’

It is essential for any decent trapper to know how the packs function — you can’t trap an animal unless you can work out where it’s going to be. We are told that the alpha males (the pack leaders) get territorial of their alpha females (the breeder of the pack). ‘There ain’t no fornication in my group!’ he shouts out in imitation of an Alpha male.
These wolves not only have girlfriends and trigger fingers, but they fornicate. I sense a vein of sexual thrill in his words, as if killing a wolf is somehow linked to an increase in manliness.

The main reason we are all gathered here today, however, is to talk about ethics. We are taken through the variety of traps before us. Pros and cons and the price options of the differing traps, which have names like ‘Sleepy Creek #4’ and ‘Livestock Protection Company #7’. The proper care and setting of the various traps is explained carefully.
‘Whatever steps in one of these, you’re going to have to deal with. A moose, whatever. You don’t want to get a cow moose in one of these because she’s not going to leave until she’s done some tap dancing on you!’

He gets a laugh.

Jeff tells the room that it is important to weight the traps so that you don’t catch too much of the other ‘stuff’ such as ‘deer, elk, bobcats, coyotes, fishers, and martens’. Especially the last two as they are ‘sensitive species’. Fishers became extinct in Montana and were re-introduced in 1959. They are no longer considered endangered but are treated with some trepidation. Marten fur is what is known as ‘sable’ and is highly desirable. But you wouldn’t want to be seen trapping an animal that was ‘sensitive’ when you are trying to catch a wolf, as that would definitely put a dent in your ethical credentials.

‘You should lay your traplines as if your grandmother were watching you,’ Jeff tells us while wagging a finger. I glance down at the handbook open on my lap and see an Aldo Leopold quote: ‘Ethics is doing the right thing when no one else is looking, even though the wrong thing is still legal.’

It’s break time. A trapper I meet as I stand in a hallway of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation looking at framed photos of past donors is keen to tell me that wolves are bloodthirsty creatures who will prey on just about anything (even children apparently) and they make a point of going for the pregnant ones. That is how evil they are. There is a photo online, he tells me, showing the foetus hanging out of a dead horse. ‘Uneaten!’ the guy is smiling with what almost seems like excitement, titillation. ‘Wolves kill just for the fun of it.’ We are called back to the room for the session to resume and I tear myself away from the guy who will be sending me photos of these uneaten foal foetuses once I give him my email address.

Apart from preventing cattle depredation, the other reason people trap wolves is for their pelts, which can fetch thousands of dollars at auction. Even in death though, wolves cause problems: ‘Wolves don’t give up their hide even when they’re dead!’ Jeff Ashmead exclaims. ‘I can skin a coyote in under ten minutes, but a wolf takes five to six hours!’ Nasty old wolves. Yet despite the fact that wolves are killed in order to reduce cattle deaths and to make money, trapping is often referred to as a sport, or as Jeff Rushmead calls it, an ‘art’. Several guys in the room nod when Jeff Ashmead talks in that homespun way about trapping being ‘our right’ and it being part of Montana’s history and tradition. ‘We’ve always trapped! That’s what we do!’ Kit Carson is mentioned and there is a slight shift in the room’s atmosphere. I might be imagining it, but I feel I am surrounded by people who dream at night of having the freedom of those nineteenth-century mountain men to kill whatever they want with impunity.

But the history these guys are dreaming of is the same history that decimated the bison and most of the native population and degraded the land with intensive beef and sheep farming. How can this be held up as a golden age to which everyone living west of the Alleghenies should be longing to return?

It is almost time for lunch.

My eyes have begun wandering around the room. On one wall, is a poster: ‘It is the land, as wild as we can sustain it, that both the hunter and the hunted need to survive.’ Jim Posewitz.

I make a note to Google him while I have my sandwich. I am the only person who has brought lunch. The others all get into their pickups and drive off. I sit on a bench overlooking the empty parking lot and eat my cheese sandwich, carrot sticks and apple feeling very unlike a trapper.

But I learn that Jim Posewitz is that uniquely Western American who has made it his life’s work to improve ‘the image of hunting with an emphasis on fair chase ethics’ and has focused ‘on putting hunters at the forefront of our nation’s conservation ethic.’ He’s exactly the sort of person I find impossible to understand. Is it just semantics? When he talks of conservation, does he mean the conservation of a way of life based on when the trapper ruled and the West was won by guys who slept under the stars dreaming of the dead wolves at their feet the next morning? As Rick Bass says about hunters in his book The Ninemile Wolves, ‘there’s nothing harder to stereotype than a “hunter”.’ I would add that this is also true of trappers: they claim to love the wilderness, they call themselves sportsmen, outdoorsmen, and yet they are happy inflicting pain on animals in return for the price of their fur. Most hunters eat their prey, whereas trappers do it for money.

I am trying to understand this. Really trying with all my might, but I’m stuck.


After lunch I sense that Jim Posewitz isn’t the only person to have been Googled. I feel distinctly uneasy as the afternoon session begins with Jeff and Mike looking hard at me and talking about ‘the other side’. The funny thing is that I am not an animal rights activist. I don’t belong to any groups. But they can just smell that I am not one of them.

‘The other side’s got lots of money,’ Jeff shouts. ‘So, I encourage you to keep that in mind.’

Fear Factor Number 3: The anti-trapping lobby is rich, so watch out!

There is much talk of how to weight the traps — at least 12 to 15 pounds — to avoid getting all those other pesky non-wolves. You have to make sure to get the wolf ‘above his wrist’. And then there is talk of the ‘dispatch’. Jeff tells us that he once shot an alpha male right through the heart. Communal nod of respect. And it’s imperative to check your traplines every 48 hours. Not only because this is ethical, but because it gives the ‘other side’ less time to photograph squirming animals who might be chewing off their own legs. Although according to Jeff Ashmead, the leg-chewing thing is a myth. But still, you don’t want to risk it.

And we’re back onto the subject of ‘the other side’. I am looking down at the papers on my lap. I didn’t come here as the other side. I came here to see what common ground I could find. But maybe there is none.

‘I got picketed going wolf-trapping for a problem wolf,’ he pauses. ‘I got poked, prodded, cameras shoved in my face and people shouting “the public has a right to know: did you kill the right wolf?”‘ He looks at me. ‘They try and get under your skin, these people. But God gave me two feet to run out of there. And I did.’

Mysteriously some mother-in-law jokes ensue and then he’s back onto the enemy. ‘You know, bear cubs used to be an hors d’oeuvre out here. City people just don’t get how it works. Animals are here for us to use, not abuse. But what I felt coming from those people is hate. Those folks just hated me. It was coming out of their pores. The toughest thing I had to face was those guys going through my pick-up. The police could have arrested them on terrorism charges after 9/11.’ But Jeff says he did the generous thing and let the protesters go free.

Fear Factor Number 4: All trappers are being watched by the media, by anti-trappers, by people who hate them, so it’s best to behave.

This is the preamble to encourage the trappers not to take photos of themselves with their prey. ‘Anyone been around Photoshop lately?’ he asks to laughter. ‘Just don’t post any photos of yourself with dead animals. OK? Just don’t.’ He talks about the recent case in September 2014 of Toby Bridges, a Missoula man, who accelerated his car into some wolves near the Montana-Idaho border and then bragged about it on Facebook, describing his bespoke roadkill in graphic detail and posting photos. The men nod. They’ve seen Bridges’ photos no doubt.

It’s eventually time to go outside and see how we are to lay one of these things. We file out of the meeting room and into the blinding sunshine. Jeff carries a trap and we follow him over to a tree. Knowing how animals work is a big part of laying your trapline. ‘I listen to the birds,’ he tells us. ‘Crows and magpies talk a lot.’ Then we are onto bait. It is illegal, he tells us, in Montana and Idaho to bait your traps. But apparently everyone does it. In the official handbook I am still holding there is mention of a company called The Snare Shop in Iowa who carry lures on their website with names like computer games:

The maker took over 500 predators on this lure alone in 3 years. None better.

This age-old formula is a cat meat based bait.
It is the last bait your predators will ever taste.
Hundreds of predators have been taken on my line with this bait.
Predators can’t resist – compare to any!

Northwest Predator and Wildlife Control Lure.
A M-44 lure that works great at trap sets also.


I had to look up what an M-44 trap was that the Greed bait ‘works great’ with. It is a spring-loaded metal cylinder, baited with scent, that fires sodium cyanide powder into the mouth of whatever tugs on it. According to a former Wildlife Service trapper, ‘It’s not a painless death.’ Animals who ingest the sodium cyanide ‘start whining. They start haemorrhaging from their ears and nose and mouth. They get paralysis and fall over. Then they start convulsing and they’re gone. They are suffering endlessly until they die. It’ll make you literally want to puke.’ A quick look at eBay and other online shops will point you to bottles of scrotum juice, urine and other fine ingredients to add to your traps.

The day comes to an end and I am not sure what the ritual is. People peel off and head to their pickups. No one shakes hands or exchanges numbers. I don’t give the foal foetus guy my email either. We are not here to connect. We are here as a formality so we can head out into the woods, lay some steel, kill some predators, harvest some pelts, make some money. My feelings are beginning to come into some kind of focus. I am a newcomer here and don’t have the right to make grand statements about how Montanans should manage their lands. However my non-relativist voice is saying that trapping is all wrong. Totally unequivocally wrong. I go home, to my new house in the American West. That night I dream of wolves running as fast as they can through the woods. That is what wolves do. They run and run. They cover ground like magic. These silver wolves look at me with hate in their eyes. They don’t know I am from ‘the other side’. That there is nothing that would tempt me to injure any one of them. Nothing at all. From me they are safe.

wolf trapping certificate