by Janie Elizabeth Miller
My partner made me ears from old suede gloves the color of charred brimstone. She pasted fake sheep’s wool in the center; an illusion of depth. I glued the ears to cardboard and pinned the ensemble to a headband.
Hearing seared me: my neighbor’s spit dissolving venison between his teeth, the cat on the first floor breathing on the window’s glass, a rustle in the crisp leaves below the old alder across the way.
I robed my neck in a fur stole, painted my face with whiskers, felt a coarse growl fill the low space of my throat. Just under my chin I fastened the GPS tracking collar, a hand-forged mechanism made from a headlamp and tinfoil. I left quietly, a cloud slipping over the moon.
I measure distance from a certain point: 36˚7’44”N, -121˚37’4”W, a mountain cliff in the Santa Lucia Mountains. We rose when the flickers left their nest a few yards from our airstream. Kyeer flushed the air sienna above their spotted breasts. Chatter of the first birds already woke up the canyon, but we waited in the half-light of morning while the black-capped chickadees chortled in the dry branches of the sycamore. This was right before the crickets quit their humming, just before the sun reached the crest of the Santa Lucias, just after the planet spun us away from the full body of our only moon and the stars became the idea we leave them to be when we are not looking.
The jays heard us first, I think, and brought their dry caw to our doorstep. The air in their throats a rusty door creaking open as we lit the stove burner with a spark. We heard the heavy fog unfurl from the Pacific, flooding the canyon into silhouettes of shapes like sheets drying in the sun. Seconds after, light warmed the flutes of fuchsia, the ruby-throated hummingbird looped down to its core. Nature’s performance fused to my body through my eyes and tongue, through the shifting birdcalls drumming my anvils into recognition and the sun turning the mist against my skin into heat-cracked rock.
Distance may be a condition, an interval, a length. An avoidance, a space, reticence. An aloofness from the equator intersecting an aloofness from Greenwich, England. Where Am I? the coordinates ask.
You are here, my dear, you are here.
But where is that?
Loneliness, too, is distance: a condition, a length, an interval between body and experience; aloofness from the present moment. I am writing this, so I am lonely: my senses on pause so my mind can move through the space of memory. You are reading this, so perhaps you, too, are lonely.
A lone wolf settles for a moment under a shade tree in a tuft of Junegrass, sniffing miles of breeze. Lone: the myth of the isolated wolf howling on the periphery of what we see and know. Here we make a distinction between isolated and lonely: the wolf seeks a companion from the wiring of his senses. The DNA map of his species whispers through his spine: find. a. mate. He uses his nose, ears, tongue, the gallop of his paws grabbing miles. The wolf is fully embodied. He will not rest until he finds a mate, and will tear the flesh and muscle of rabbit and deer to sustain his journey.
Our human loneliness, on the other hand, is a state of being that distances us from our bodies. We are more surrounded than ever by our own species, we are loved and comfortable, yet we are catastrophically lonely.
The day my partner and I left the airstream nestled on the cliff, our host drove us down his long driveway, a dirt path winding along a ridge overlooking Highway 1 and the Pacific. I rode in the back of the truck with Piha, a protective and affectionate grey dog who sprung into the truck bed on cue. Her archaic canine jaws snapped at branches that lined the driveway, peeling off leaves and stems; a sensuous form of trimming the hedges, I supposed. Our host, Richard, invited us to come back, maybe stay for a season if our schedules cleared up. I think he meant: if you can figure your lives out, or: if you’re willing to risk transformation from your life in the city.
My partner and I told him goodbye and sat in our car, an unfamiliar rectangle of metal and plastic.
She said, I miss you.
I said, I miss you already, too.
That’s when the measurements began. We stopped in Monterey (36˚36’ 85”N, -121˚53’40”W) for fuel, watching the California coast slip past us. My seatbelt crossed my neck in a suffocating twist as we passed highway construction and cars from all over the west. I suddenly wanted to stop at a bakery. I suddenly wanted cake. I suddenly wanted a latte. I suddenly wanted to fill myself with stuff. I was becoming lonely.
We spent the day in San Francisco, about 1˚ farther north and .73˚ more west, to stay with my partner’s brother. We ate a spread of tapas, talked about the sun and birds and quiet in the past tense and slept in a teenager’s bed that smelled like the loneliness of a boy who lives most of his life attached to a computer. We had trouble making love for the first time, our bodies a seam pulling slightly apart.
No one understood my costume. In fact, no one even asked about it. It was warm in the bar, and I could smell my body’s nervousness as I looked at slutty vampires, femme fairytale princesses and masculine super heroes numbing themselves with whiskey and beer. I was introduced to read my poems and my body tightened. The GPS collar gripped me snugly, its two red lights beaming eyes at the audience.
Holy holy land of the hunt, holy holy powder keg, I read.
The only wild wolf in California goes by two names: OR-7 & Journey. The first name was created by scientists to categorize the wolf, alluding to the Inmaha pack’s origin in Oregon, while Journey came from the imagination of two children—“Name the Lone Wolf of California” contest winners. You can imagine the submissions: Night Traveler, Moon Howler, Wayward Wolf, Inspiration, Lonely Hunter. But Journey captured the essence of this wolf who broke with his pack to travel south to Siskiyou County, to crisscross the invisible border into California, then ultimately head homeward to Oregon.
Journey isn’t nature’s name, but it does rest in metaphor and myth, casting a hero who beats the odds against otherworldly protagonists: Odysseus on the hull of a ship following starlight, colonial settlers establishing a city on the hill, Luke Skywalker manifesting his destiny. Journey reaches out to our imaginations, though it is a word rooted in a day: a day’s portion of life. Only later did journey take on a lifetime. A term of time undeterminable and lonely.
What then for our western wolf who wanders and settles territory by senses rather than language? Whose urine and olfactory sense is his language of identification? European settlers journeyed to what would become the western United States as protagonists, then eradicated the wolf (antagonist). Perhaps now the roles have shifted: our lone wolf as protagonist, on a journey to re-discover the west.
I’ve always felt uncomfortable with naming. My college writing instructor professed the importance of learning names. Learn the birds! she exclaimed, in deft alliteration. But I was a painter then, working abstractly. I wanted essence by way of lyricism, not representation. I needed so badly to feel something, that the distance created by language was unbearable. American Finch vs. Cedar Waxwing held no magic in those days, so locked I was from my body.
So how can we even regard a name for canis lupus, whose jaws clench enough force to break bone; whose howls travel through octaves for fifty miles. Who fills human imaginations with terror and heart and moon song. The grey wolf is the very essence of wild which cannot be contained by representation.
In the only photograph of him, he follows the trail of a mate invisible now for ninety years. He is nearly imperceptible in the green and purple grasses of a California meadow. The effect is a Monet painting of impressionistic light and color. If you didn’t know to look, you might miss it.
I once felt a wolf attach to me, so I followed it. My partner had showed me an article in The New York Times, “‘Famous’ Wolf Is Killed Outside Yellowstone.” In the photograph of 832F, the wolf’s belly is a study of whites against the early winter snow of Yellowstone, her back a mottled gray granite. She stands alert, curious, perhaps playful next to 754, a wolf from her pack killed a month earlier. She was the alpha female of her pack, which roams the lower Lamar Valley, an area heavy with human tourism. There is no fence around the park; it simply eases into the landscape named public land. She was killed on the wrong side of it, her $4,000 GPS collar a silver can slumped in the snow.
I woke up and she was there, a warmth by my right ear.
A New England blizzard piled over three-feet of snow on the region. I was six, so the snow towering above me became the world. I scooped the powdery crystals in my palm and held all of existence there for a time. I wondered if this was magic.
And this: the palm, and how it holds the world roundly; rocks, jacks, dice, dirt, bowl, water from the sink or a muddy puddle in central Ohio that I thought was the sky. My mother’s palms lifted me under the hard bone of my sacrum and the fragile arc of my cervical spine. I don’t remember this, but when anyone’s palm cups my neck my nervous system eases and I still.
We arrived home in Seattle (47⁰37’8”N, -122⁰18’30”W) the following day, after a 97-minute flight from San Francisco that was delayed 24 minutes from the heavy drape of summer fog. We had stretched over 11˚N and -1˚W from Richard, Piha and the airstream on the Santa Lucia cliff. We said three sentences as we shot along I-5 toward home. A friend had assembled us a gift basket of local, organic foods to ease our return, but the lonely city rose before us anyway, thousands of mirrored squares reflecting the clouded sky we had come to know. My body tightened under the angles, my jaw slipping into a rigid pattern. The vulnerability of my body covered in measures of glass, plastic and metal, wrapped in the finest linen.
To catch a wolf is to capture an idea of wildness buried in the physiology of our bodies. Every quarter I ask my environmental writing students, do you feel you are an animal? At 18 or 21, it seems that most don’t. Some say they are God’s children, separate and in charge of caring for animals. Others suggest that their consciousness separates them from animals. Many just don’t comprehend the question. This is a “good question” I tell them. One that leads to deeper conversations about science and existence. What I don’t tell them is that we learn good questions as a way to understand our lives until the day comes when we realize that questions never end. Language is like the galaxy, and questions are hot air balloons floating into the ever expanding future that we can only imagine. So we ask more questions, send up more balloons until we’re left realizing that time constantly moves away from us. We are grasping the invisible, living our entire lives in the realm of mystery, a place where the body is a carrier of myriad unknowns.
Perhaps the only structures that have remained that don’t cause loneliness are connected to the planet: the sun’s measured appearances, the moon’s shadow and glow, the seasons. Crimson maple leaves force heavier coats and wool socks. The violet crocus makes its annual February promise of spring and light. Only through perception do we experience loneliness from these constant companions.
I sometimes still grieve the return to Seattle. Longitude and latitude are minimal now: home, work, grocery store. 47⁰37’8”N, -122⁰18’30”W are less a distance from California, and more a measurement of memory stored in the muscles of my body. Every Northern Flicker is morning fog unfurling, every match is a morning with my love when we were connected by our very presences. Here at 47⁰37’8”N, -122⁰18’30”W I witness our slow pull from each other; phone calls, emails, text messages, work, friends, goals. We still turn to each other every night, our eyes warm with love, yet quick with the loneliness from our own bodies.
After the Halloween reading, I walked my neighborhood alone to see the late crowd of trick-or-treaters. Teenagers, mostly, crawling along the streets, slithering between car bumpers covered with smeared moths. The moon hung as an anchor above, and not one costumed human checked their phone. The lights of my collar shone like eyes behind the dense cedars of the forest as I smelled the air for the wild nature of life.
JANIE ELIZABETH MILLER lives just off the Washington coast on Vashon Island. She won the Grand Prize at the Eco-Arts Awards in 2014 and was a poetry finalist at terrain.org. She directs poetry studies at the University of Washington in Tacoma and writes book reviews for Poetry Northwest. Her work can be found at Cimarron Review, The Los Angeles Review, Poecology, CURA, Written River, Five Fingers Review, Columbia Poetry Review and others. Find more at janieelizabethmiller.com.