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Friday, 3 September 2010

Wolf history: Agents in hiding

[Abstract of paper accepted for presentation at the sixth ESEH conference, see previous post]

Humans are so accustomed to being the subjects of history that to many, it is provocative to claim that animals too can be actors of history. Such attitudes are enthused by our age-old philosophical dismissal of animals. A hundred years ago, nature writers William J. Long and Ernest Thompson Seton caused controversy by claiming that their writings were accurate representations of natural history. Their depiction of wolves sparked a debate about whether animals were individual creatures subject to learning or instinct-driven specimen. Charges of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism have never silenced, and the relation between science and folklore remains troublesome.
The cultural baggage at play in the discourse about wolf policies is so overwhelming that even an environmental historian can be excused for confusing the map with the territory. While in a strict sense we cannot go beyond having cultural perceptions of the wolf, it does matter how we treat the wolf in environmental history. Attributing agenthood to the wolf entails, for a start, to regard it as an animal that acts. Naturally, there is a whole range of different actions (biologist Jakob von Uexküll operated with seven categories). In many cases, wolves are decision makers. They make informed choices (typically based on what Michael Polanyi calls tacit knowing).
Being an actor may not in itself qualify anyone as an actor of historical significance. But some individuals stand out. To illustrate the function wolf agency can play in environmental history, I will make use of three examples:
1 The beast of Gévaudan: Man-eating wolf(s) that caused havoc in 1764-1767 (disputed).
2 “Ivan”: An immigrant from the East that was shot illegally (contemporary Norway)
3 The Galven bitch: Unaware of management zones, this sheep-eating female was the first to be relocated (contemporary Norway)

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