Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong (Trans. Howard Goldblatt)
a book review by Dana (the photo is of coyotes, not wolves)
A beautiful, fascinating, exhilarating, tragic story of the way the Olonbulag grasslands of inner Mongolia were quickly ruined by the short-sighted and hubristic agents of “progress.” As one official says impatiently, we don’t need wolves to control gazelles and marmots and mice when humans have guns and trucks to eradicate all of them.
During the 1960s Cultural Revolution, “Old Man Bilgee” teaches the visiting Han Chinese student Chen that “wolves are the divine protectors of the grassland” (20, 123). The real source of wealth, what’s at the bottom of everyone’s livelihood, is the grass, which is put at risk from rabbits and marmots and also (especially) gazelle and horses and the fact that Han (outsider) farmers are quickly replacing Mongolian (native) herders. The grass is “the big life” and all the others lives, including wolves and humans, are “little lives,” dependent on that big life. The grass is “fragile,” “miserable,” has “shallow” roots in “thin” soil, and “cannot run away” (45). And “when you kill of the big life of the grassland,” says the wise Bilgee, who the visiting students call “Papa,” “all the little lives are doomed.”
But the inexorable pride, ambition, and blindness of people working in a punishing bureaucracy mean that the expected tragedy unfolds. This “semi-autobiographical novel” is a detailed, almost anthropological study of the problem with messing with balanced ecosystems. It’s a warning tale about thinking humans can easily re-engineer nature, changing the rules so we get all the advantages with no downsides and as little effort as possible. I think it’s a tale of optimization using models that fail to take everything into account. It’s also a tale of what happens to people in this situation: they don’t need dogs anymore so they no longer have big, enthusiastic families of dogs around them; they get satellite dishes; they have less community and less purpose. As Rong writes, “After the disappearance of the wolves, the sale of liquor on Olonbulag nearly doubled” (494).
It turns out, of course, and again, that nature has already solved complex problems, and that human short cuts to prosperity (because we don’t want to put up with the trade-offs nature demands) fail because we barge into new situations, ignore the wisdom of the knowledgeable people who already live there, and ignore most of the variables in our eager, optimistic simulative imaginings. One resource that helps engineers become more aware of the variety of ways nature might have already solved a problem that they are contending with is AskNature.com (https://asknature.org/), which describes “biological strategies” for problem-solving that are already in action.
For one, then, this book is about geo-engineering, a kind of terraforming that has happened all over our earth, a simplication that seems nice and straightforward until we see all the value we’ve lost. That’s a warning.
On the other hand, this is a story about grass. One might hear similar, more local, estimations about the value of grass from Virginia farmer Joel Salatin (who figures prominently in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma). They both make me want to change my “Food not lawns” bumper sticker to another that says “grasslands not gardens” (and I love nothing more than a garden!).
I will add that this is a beautiful book and that it let me spend days on the grasslands with the wolves and swans, with thoughtful, morally conflicted people, and with their exciting adventures in that stunning landscape. The book has some strong views on ethnic character, which I translated into ideas about the way landscape fashions cultures and people. It shares a deep respect for the wolf totem and for Tengger, the sustaining sky that gives them all things and to which they hope to return at death. And finally, it let me spend some time not just in China and Mongolia, but in the minds and hearts of people there.