Barbara Lawlor, Nederland. Until Jane Wodening was three years old, she was a quiet little creature who stayed in her room with her dog, Points. She learned how to read her body language, learned how to share her emotions. Their relationship, their extraordinary communication, was just the beginning of Wodening’s lifetime membership in a pack.
Her understanding of the language of animals, the subtle flick of an ear, quick licks of the lips, a paw poised in the air, became her first language.
“I always had trouble understanding English,” she says. “I learned my communication skills from a dog.”
A few weeks ago, Wodening read from her new book, “Wolf Dictionary,” published by the Sockwood Press in Nederland, at the Blue Owl Bookstore. Wodening has written 10 books about the lives of insects, animals and the humans that interact with them. She writes simply but with incredible insight to the sometimes dramatically tragic and sometimes profoundly tender moments of creatures who live in the wild.
“Wolf Dictionary” takes the reader into the heart and gut, explaining in graphic detail what it is like to have to hunt to survive or hang onto one’s home. Lethal danger exists all the time; it is seldom that prey or even predators get to relax. It is a novel with a male wolf and a female coyote as the main characters who find each other through need. Each chapter is a piece of their life and at the end of the chapter, Wodening adds notes that explain the body language that occurred.
An example of Wodening’s explanatory notes:
“When the wolf pack is strong and keeping good care that the territory is known to be theirs, any coyote who crosses into that territory is considered a competitor and killed immediately. But here, the situation is quite different. The wolf has lost both his mate and, by neglect, cannot easily claim his territory. The young female coyote is no threat to him, quite the contrary, she’s a sight for sore eyes, her canon behavior as well as her gender make her positively attractive, not to mention her blatant and repetitive submissive behavior. She has clearly asked if she might join him, and, considering the circumstances, her company might be a life-saver. When he shows himself, she rolls over, thus risking her life for the chance of his company. She know’s he’s hungry, knows also that he could and probably in other circumstances would kill her for this behavior.”
But he doesn’t. And the wolf and the coyote find themselves facing the world together. Wodening describes the motions the couple goes through to establish their relationship. No, it is not an animal romance, and no, Wodening wasn’t a fly on tree watching it take place. Her work has been created based on bits and pieces of intense research and accounts of wolf behavior. And, of course, it is based on the many dogs she has been friends with through the years.
When she lived in Yampa, she met most of the town dogs and when she went for walks, many of them would walk with her. They found ponds and meadows and cool places to play in and then she would drop them off on the way back. Each one of them taught her something.
She began to wonder what to do with all of this knowledge. She thought about writing a dog dictionary, but wasn’t sure what she wanted to say, so she left it alone.
“And then I met these three people who told me stories of one wolf they had seen when they spent a winter in the ghost town of Tolland in 1954. That was very exciting because three years before it had been said that there were no more wolves in the Rocky Mountains.”
The three people watched the wolves come to eat the leftover food they put out by the stream and when they looked at them through binoculars, they realized they were seeing a wolf and coyote acting like a mating pair. Before the people left the area, the pair showed up with a family of pups.
Wodening decided that if she wrote the story from the viewpoint of the wolf, she could make their communication clear. So she began the research and added her notes, and in 1980 she sent the book off to 15 different publishers and received 15 rejections. She says it was not a pleasant time, so she put the book aside.
She says “Wolf Dictionary” is actually the work of a lifetime; her lifetime of learning the ways of canines and she is grateful that Julian and Janette Taylor of Sockwood Press have helped her share the story, now at a time when the wolves have been re-introduced to the Rocky Mountains and people have a better understanding of their habits and nature.
Wodening raises the bar on delving into wolf culture and wrapping the story around her notes on behavior, which can be translated into dog behavior and sometimes into human behavior.
“Wolf Dictionary” is available at the Blue Owl Bookstore.