Ian Royce Chamberlain is the new Featured Writer. His book stumble into grace shows his deft wordsmithery, his natural impulse to weld and forge sound and rhythm with meaning. You can see this at work in all three poems he chose for this site. His readings are always animated and surprising. I recommend you go to one.
But was it a lone wolf I spotted loping up the slope? (We were near Marguereis in Val Pesio on the border between France and Italy, having crossed another border between Liguria and Piedmont, teetering perhaps on other kinds of borders, too.) I was transfixed. With the prick of its ears, the curve of its tail and its nose near to the ground my mind screamed ‘wolf’. It was long-legged, its coat greyish and it seemed well grown, but thin and scraggy. Unconcerned by our presence further down the hill, it ran along the ridge and then returned to squat and pee to make its mark. Then, nonchalantly, returned to the lope to descend from the crest towards empty mountains.
Being alone is not quite wolf behaviour, perhaps: I don’t know enough about them. It might have been one of the large shepherd dogs that guard the flocks (from wolves and suchlike) but the cows had just been taken down the mountain road that very morning to lower pastures and there was no stock left at this altitude. Autumn was beginning. The snows come early here. Guard dogs are notoriously fiercely loyal to their flocks and do not stray: it is their job.
Lupine research in the Ligurian and Piedmontese Alps shows the presence of three if not four wolf packs. Italy made them a protected species in the 1970’s. With some individuals taking themselves off to find new territory, they have spread much further out from the Mercantour National Park where they were re-introduced in 1993. They do kill cattle, goats and sheep as it is hard work being a predator: catching and killing requires a lot of energy. For farmers there is a system of compensation so its not surprising the wolves are blamed, especially when you realise that slaughtering one of your own animals is taxable in Italy so the police are informed and keep the reports of wolf depredations. Wolf conservation is a very delicate balance.
But a wolf on its own is certainly strange….
An hour later we saw a pair of eagles, so enormous we guessed they must be golden. They were gracefully circling and swooping over some peaks it would take us hours to reach. Minutes later one of them appeared overhead before tipping sideways and disappearing from our view into a steep, forested valley. And later that same morning, we heard the sound of sliding pebbles and looking up a huge flock of chamoix were leaping nimbly over the scree and boulders, fleeing not from us but from something else that had caused their alarm. Seeing us in the middle of their flight path they had to divert their course. We counted at least fifty badger-faced animals of varying ages, in different colours, some with dark fur and others chestnut.
Mountains have marked psychological effects: I tend to forget time and days of the week. It might have something to do with the utter depth of the silences or is it the altitude and the oxygen? The rock seems to be almost energised and living, and has a capacity for reflecting and magnifying. I consistently dream more wildly and savagely than anywhere else. I dream vividly: often of terrible events, of having to descend steep and rocky precipices, of being stuck in small spaces with no easy way out, and of all the things that frighten me most. I feel most fragile and exposed asleep on a mountain as if all my edges are laid out raw and vulnerable. I wonder what is hidden in the crevices. Yet I am drawn to walking along high ridges, open to the sky and to immerse myself in river pools.
But I did not dream that wolf. My husband saw it, too. Neither of us feel any doubt.