The Wolf Moon

This is the time of the Wolf Moon, the time of year when food stores in traditional cultures are dwindling. This is when cold is probing its sharp fingers through iced windows. The nights are still long, but usually by the Wolf Moon the lengthening of daylight is perceivable. This subtle shift was once marked by an odd English Candlemas custom. On the morning of 2 February, the steward of a large estate would give a candle to the manor lord, symbolizing the declining need for artificial light during the morning chores. 

This is the coldest time of year in the North. This is likely to remain true even as we head deeper into climate change. First, at this point in the solar year, the northern hemisphere has experienced short days for many months. Stored surface heat has dwindled and can’t moderate temperature as effectively as it did in the long nights leading up to the solstice. This moderating effect is why we see a time lag between the length of daylight and the seasonal temperature peaks. It’s colder after the winter solstice; it’s warmer after the summer solstice. It takes a while for heat to build up on the surface in the long days of summer and then a while for it to dissipate again in the short days of winter. 

Another reason the north will remain cold at this time of the solar year even in the midst of climate heating is down to climate change itself. Several factors are woven together. In the northern Atlantic region, there has been a sharp increase in cold glacial meltwater from Greenland, cooling the ocean and the coast. This is coupled with a decrease in tropical ocean currents bringing moderating warm waters north as the North Atlantic Current shifts south under pressure from those cold glacial meltwaters.

There is also a destabilizing effect from the warming of the Arctic. Remember that while it is warming, it is still colder up there than further south. Any air flow that comes from high latitudes is going to be relatively colder. But now there is less of a temperature gradient between polar regions and the temperate regions to the south. This softening of a formerly hard boundary is letting more air circulate between the two regions.

The circumpolar air flow, the polar vortex, sends projecting loops of arctic air into the temperate south, pushing the northern jet stream deep into the south and inhibiting any air flow from the south. Which all makes for long chains of very cold days — even weeks — in the period around the solstice. These bulges in the polar vortex will only become more common as the polar region warms and that smooth circumpolar air flow breaks down. So for the short term (geologically speaking, long term for humans), it will be cold. It will also very likely be drier than it used to be because the air flowing from the north is not able to take up ocean moisture. So the time around the Wolf Moon won’t be as snowy white as it once was. But it will be cold!

After that long digression establishing that it is going to be cold this time of year (sorry, once a geology teacher…), why Wolf? First it is the traditional name, in both European-derived cultures and in many of the cultures of Indigenous North America. Northern humans have always seen the wolf at the door at this time of year because it is cold, dark and nothing is growing. There is no food except what small game you can hunt. And there are equally hungry hunters who might be hunting you in the long darkness. I’m not sure I believe that wolves regularly attacked human settlements, but it’s probably a healthy caution if you’re going out in the woods at night. At any rate, the hungry canids may well be carrying off your livestock — because a caged animal is very easy prey, like food on a stick to a hungry wolf. Hard to turn down when your belly is grumbling.

But another reason this time of year is associated with wolves is their breeding cycle. Wolves have but one breeding season — late winter. Our ancestors heard wolves howling at the moon at this time of year not because those wolves were coming for them — though that made a good metaphor for the hunger that was stalking humans and wolves alike — but because those wolves were singing love songs to potential mates. I tend to think our ancestors, being much wiser in many ways than we are — and certainly wiser than we pretend they were — probably knew about wolf breeding cycles. They were keenly observant of the natural world. As evidenced through widespread adoption of the wolf as clan totem, many of them felt deep kinship with wolves and would thus have been extra aware of these fascinating beasts.

And besides, it’s just good policy to keep track of the animal that’s most likely to kill your sheep. 

So today is the full Wolf Moon. And after you patiently sat through that natural science lesson, I’m going to reward you with a story. Well, I think it’s a reward. You can be the judge.

For a lovely counterpoint play the Nordic lullaby, the Wolf Song, while you read the story.

Wood under the Wolf Moon

Love Story

The full wolf-faced moon shone through the trees as she followed the hare’s trail deep into the night. The scent was not strong in this fresh snowfall, but yet just detectable. It was the only hint of a quarry she’d found tonight. The starved doe her daughter brought to the den back at the dark moon was gnawed to the marrow. It hadn’t yielded up much to swallow in days. Her belly clenched in cold hunger.

It was easier before. When he was alive, somehow the flow of living went more smoothly. True, he was sometimes in the way and often a careless, bumbling oaf. And he always ate more than his share. Yet he was good. A good mate; a good father; a good hunter. It was warmer in the den with his long body curled in front of the door — his kind habit, keeping the cold off his lover and children.

She knew she ought to think about finding another mate. But who? Where? And how could she replace the heart space filled with those eyes, that wolf smile, the very particular soft warmth of him? It was too much to consider in these challenging days of dearth.

Still, that was the very reason she needed to try. Her daughter would leave the den soon. Her sister was too haggard to hunt, would soon be gone. Next winter would be cold and terrible in an empty den. Maybe it would be her last. And yes, maybe that would be the unremarkable end to her story. After all, she’d seen many winters, borne many healthy children, loped in wide-eyed wonder over hills and along streams in her homeland through many starry nights.

But she did not feel ready for the end. She was strong, still sound and able in body and mind. She was not done with rambling through the world. She was not finished with life and all its intriguing mystery. She wanted that next revelation around the bend or over the hillock. She craved the new, the unexperienced, the untasted savor of this juicy living. She was curious and could not give up what the world would reveal to just her. Not just yet.

So she needed someone to help her, to carry some of the load, to keep the den warm. She needed a companion, someone who would walk with her into old age, keep her on the right path, keep her on her feet. Because this hunger, this cold, it was so wearying. She almost — almost — wanted to lay her bones down in this deep snow and just stop.

A sudden soft scuffle in the brush ahead interrupted her morbid musing. She stilled and heeded, directing all her body and mind at the soundscape, at the scents washing over her face, at the chiaroscuro patterns in the snow. Seeking her prey, willing the appearance of an end to hunger for this night.

And it came. A stronger stream of the scent she followed. A frantic heartbeat. A shadow that shifted where no breeze rippled the air. With her upper body fixed and her senses locked, she began to move. Silent, holding her breath, placing each foot into the snow in slow deliberation. She knew one infinitesimal puff of sound or scent would be the end of her hunt. She was no match in speed or agility for a deathly frightened hare.

But then a crack fractured the night into a cascading chaos of sound and motion. A dark blur shot out of the brush; another leaped from the trees to her right. Snow flew in whirling eddies. Snow-muffled footsteps pounded a terrified tattoo in circles around her. She did not know where to turn. She threw her head back and howled in sheer baffled frustration. 

As the noises and scents receded, she pieced together a picture of her lost quarry. Another had pursued the same prey. She should have been more alert to the competition. Hers was not the only empty belly. But here she was, oblivious, ruminating like a stupid lovesick doe. Though, in fairness, it was difficult to remember there were others on the edges of her territory in these days of unwonted isolation.

She blew out a breath and turned back. Maybe her daughter had found better luck. Maybe there was just enough left of the deer carcass to stave off starvation for this night.

But then there came heavy footsteps padding behind her, followed by the sharp must of a stranger. She halted and crouched in preparation, the ruff on her shoulder standing in a nimbus of fear and anger. Perhaps he hadn’t detected her. Perhaps she could live out this night without a fight. Perhaps he could be satisfied with merely stealing away the alleviation of her wretched hunger.

She saw the dark shape of him stopped in the shadow of an oak. His mouth was oddly distorted. She realized she smelled hare’s blood. He was carrying the dead animal. Was he flaunting his kill? Was he not satisfied with causing misery, but he must taunt her? What sort of idiot, who with plenty in his grasp, turns back toward confrontation and risk? 

Still, a part of her angry mind stopped to marvel that he managed to catch a hare in desperate flight. Whatever he was, he was an accomplished hunter!

She began to growl deep in her throat, wishing to flush him out, to move this fight forward if it must be. She wanted her den and sleep. She wanted to not be standing, paws frozen in this snow.

He came forward. Cautiously. Head down. In submission. Then he laid the hare’s body in the snow and backed away.

What was this? What should she do? Was it an offering? Or bait? 

After an agonizing moment he turned and slowly loped off into the night.

She waited a moment more. But she would not turn away nourishment free for the taking. She bounded to the hare and gripped its body in hungry jaws, relishing the taste of warm fur and blood over her tongue.

And as she turned back toward her den with the end of this night’s hunger hanging from her mouth, a full-throated howl pierced the night. She did not stop. She did not turn. But she did listen. For this was a message to her.

From that keening cry to the wolf moon, she knew she would be lonely no longer.

© Elizabeth Anker 2021