A couple of years ago, on the slopes of a steep hill high above an alpine valley in Sweden’s Abisko National Park, my father and I stumbled upon what was one of the most astonishing, mesmerising, and unsettling sights I’ve ever seen in the natural world. Far below us on the valley floor was the small and simple hut we were staying in, its triple-glazed windows and thick wooden walls creating within the building at atmosphere of close snugness and absolute silence; beyond where we were standing, on the plateau of the hill we’d scrambled up, was an immense boulder field, imposing beneath the flat grey sky and dotted with occasional thick drifts of autumn snow; and between the snow and the hut, beneath a rocky overhang by which we stood for a few uneasy moments, were hundreds upon hundreds of bones.
All the bones were stripped bare, though some were still reddened with the last traces of unlicked blood and occasional tufts of matted, bloodied fur were visible amidst the ruination. Some of the bones were clearly from Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus): among the assorted ribs and vertebrae and leg bones, antlers stood out like trees in a field; some of the antlers were still attached to skulls and some were not. In fact it’s probable that most of the bones were from Reindeer: they were too large, those I dared to look at, to belong to any other prey animal in that environment, though Reindeer were certainly not the only such creature to be found in those Arctic hills: a few days earlier my father and I had frightened an Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus), which but for its nervous flight from us would have remained unseen.
We didn’t linger by the bones. I can’t speak for my father but I didn’t want to linger: the red of blood nearly luminescent in that colourless landscape indicated that the lair was still in use, and though as a human I had little to fear, there is, at the sight of so much conspicuous death, a visceral disquiet which is more ancient and more pervasive than logic or rationality. I was appalled and yet fascinated; each in equal measure, if not to equal effect. We continued on our way, our walk into the hills only a short one to explore the small valley, and of what we’d seen barely a word was spoken.
Though we’d caught no glimpse of the animal that had wrought such destruction, we took it to be a Wolverine. A few days earlier, in the large hostel-cum-lodge built alongside the railway line that takes thousands of skiers and hikers into Abisko National Park every year, we’d chatted over a meal to a couple of Swedish scientists who were taking water samples from Torne träsk, one of Sweden’s largest lakes and a body of water whose shores the National Park abuts. The scientists were cheerful: though they were in the area for work, the water of the lake was so extraordinarily clean that analysis of it was more like a holiday for them. In the fluent English that most Scandinavians under the age of fifty seem to possess, they told us about their work and their lives and about the life amid Swedish nature in general; one of the things they told us about was Wolverines.
The Wolverine, they told us, is an animal that is particularly shy of humans, despite being a ferocious hunter, and so it’s rarely seen – and if seen, usually only glimpsed for a moment. Yet despite its reserve it’s an animal that is despised by the Reindeer herders who populate the Arctic regions of Europe – from Norway through Sweden and Finland to Russia – most of whom are the indigenous Sami people: the Wolverine is an unforgiving killer, and our Swedish companions that day told us that in heavy snow, when Reindeer with their narrow feet are bogged down, the smaller, broad-footed Wolverine is able to run across the surface of the snow and kill entire herds. It’s said that a Wolverine will kill many more Reindeer than it will eat, and I wonder if, aside from loss of income, it’s a sense of waste in a land of sometimes extreme scarcity that so outrages the Reindeer herders: traditionally, the Sami have used every part of a Reindeer they’ve killed: the meat for eating; the fur for clothing; the sinew for string; the bones for tools. Such frugality is not necessary now, in a world of modern materials, modern comforts, and modern affluence, but cultural memory is long-lasting and pervasive.
Wanting to play my part in the conversation, I mentioned to our Swedish companions my understanding that the Wolverine was the largest of the Weasels (Mustelidae). The Swedes looked at me doubtfully, and said that they didn’t think so, and though I knew it to be true I demurred to their opinion; after all, the Wolverine was of their country, and they ought to have known more about it than me – it was a small point, and there was no need to embarrass them.
The Wolverine, though, is indeed one of the Weasels, a group of animals which has long been of particular fascination to me because of both their beauty and their elusiveness – and because of their ferocity: again, there’s that delicate balance between fright and fascination. Death is never more overt or more horrifying than in the act of one animal killing another; and death is never less than hypnotic. Unlike Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), European Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), Hares (Lepus europaeus), Pigs (Sus scrofa), Cats (Felis catus), and many others, Weasels were never introduced to Australia, other than the odd pet Ferret (Mustela putorius furo). New Zealand was not so fortunate: there, Stoats (Mustela erminea) have had a devastating effect on a native bird population unaccustomed to mammalian predators, and since their introduction to control rabbits in the late nineteenth century they’ve been implicated in the extinction of numerous species.
Though the Wolverine remains invisible, I have had the good fortune to see two members of the Mustelidae. The most recent was in 2003, coincidentally also when I was on a trip with my father. We were driving in the Scottish highlands and a Pine Marten (Martes martes) dashed across the road in front of us. Though we stopped the car to search for it, by the time we did so it had disappeared into the long grass on the road’s verge.
The other Mustelid I’ve seen, and an animal which until writing this I had not even realised was related to the Weasels, is the Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris). Years ago, when I was a child, my family and I went on a round-the-world trip. It was the one and only time thus far that I’ve ever been to the USA: we went to visit friends who were then living in Berkeley, just outside San Francisco, and we took a trip south to Monterey Bay, of which I remember nothing except that we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and that en route we took a detour to go and see Sea Otters. My older brother and I broke away from our parents, stepped beyond the protective rail atop the cliffs, and gazed over the edge to get a better look: there, far below, we saw a Sea Otter lying on its back in the Pacific Ocean, hammering open a Sea Urchin (Echinoidea) on a flat rock which it rested on its belly. In the lead-up to the trip we’d absorbed every piece of information we could about Sea Otters, and this is the first time I can recall having seen a wild animal exhibiting behaviour which I had previously read about or seen on TV. I remained enraptured by Sea Otters for years afterwards. Though the destruction of that Sea Urchin is just as brutal as the killing of Reindeer by a Wolverine, somehow it seems less so: perhaps it’s merely that the Sea Urchin has no bones, no face, no resemblance to us humans at all: and so its death is more abstract, less horrifying. Perhaps the Sea Otter is just a more attractive animal than its terrestrial cousin.
One last thing about Wolverines, a coda: when I was a child the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were at the height of their popularity. The cartoon was on TV seemingly every day; my best friend in primary school had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles computer game which was almost the sole reason for me visiting his house every afternoon after school. By the time I got to high school the fad had waned, but like any once deeply-held passion a lingering affection for it remained within me. I was by then interested in more sophisticated, though no less fantastical, distractions, and I dabbled in tabletop gaming and in role-playing games. One of my best friends at the time brought into school one day a role-playing game based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and he and I and several other friends all spent an afternoon playing it. We each had to create a character, and each character had to be some kind of mutant animal; through circumstances I can no longer remember, my character was a Wolverine. It was the first time I’d ever heard of the animal, and I had no idea what it looked like – but it was vivid in my imagination, all the same. It still is, now, years later, though I’ve never seen one and probably never will.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org