A musical friend of mine, Mackenzie Brown, sings a song about her close encounter of the third kind…the song is called Walking On Water:
And I’ll be walking on water baby
I’ll be walking on water with you
I’m Walking on water ’cause I’m with Great Manitou
1. Saviour, you’re my saviour
You are everywhere I want to be
Come save me great sky leader I need
Your guidance today
2. Let you spirit surround me
Let me feel your presence
I want to be part of you
I need your guidance today
To the spiritually minded, Mackenzie’s lyrics written and sung by her, are resplendent with Christian imagery: a baby and the Great Manitou. A Saviour who leads and guides. A “spirit in the sky” whose presence surrounds.
These lyrics would have resonated with Father Jean de Brébeuf, author of The “Huron Carol” (or “‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime“), a Christmas hymn he wrote in the native language of the Huron-Wendat people. He had given the song to them as a gift and referred to it during his teachings and missionary work.
But Mackenzie says she was not conscious of such metaphors when she wrote the song. She actually composed the ode after she saw a wolf pack making its way across the partially frozen Jasper Lake. To her, it looked like the wolves were walking on water. It was a profound spiritual experience.
I thought of Mackenzie’s song – the story behind it– when I saw two photos that recently went viral on Facebook and Twitter.
The first was an image of the Northern Lights in which the Aurora Borealis took the form of a wolf; a Spirit in the Sky. It was like “the heavenly dancers” meets Dances With Wolves. It was so spooky, so unreal, that some people refused to believe it was real.
The second photo was picture of a wolf pack trekking through the winter wilderness of Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park: One of the stronger wolves leads the way; breaking trail and making a path through the snow for the others to follow. Everyone has a place. Everyone has a role. No wolf left behind. It had people thinking, “We humans can learn a lot from wolves.”
Except, of course, we humans don’t learn from “brother–sister wolf.” Instead, our society is waging a war on wolves.
For example, in Alberta and British Columbia, wolves are protected and revered inside the national parks such as Wood Buffalo, Jasper, Yoho and Pacific Rim. But outside the parks, the wolf is hunted, slaughtered and poisoned ruthlessly – ostensibly to protect the even more rare and endangered caribou. But the real reason is the deep antipathy, even hatred that some people have towards wolves. Grownups are still afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.
And if the wild wolf is despised, the so-called “War on Terror” has demonised the human “Lone Wolf” among us. These days, it seems that every misfit is automatically suspect and every loner is a de facto terrorist in training. A Lone Wolf is no more a deviant or a devil than a woman in a niqab is a barbarian or a threat to Canadian values.
The Lone Wolf among us is someone who feels the strong need for independence, autonomy and solitude.
Some Things I’ve Learned
For the past few years, I’ve been part of a small group at a church in Jasper National Park.
Running with such a pack already marks you as “odd.” Jasper’s earthly paradise is a place where people worship the Creation but have little use for the Creator. They may want “spirituality” but not “religion.” Yoga and Sunday brunch have long-since replaced liturgy and Communion.
And if you talk about “Alpha and Omega” here – people won’t immediately make the connection with the God who is “the Beginning and the End.” They will probably think you’re talking about an animated film starring “an unlikely pair of wolves.”
Living in a national park, I’ve learned some things about the wild wolves that live “outside the circle.”
All lone wolves were once part of a pack. The lone wolves in the wilds are usually male, some are older males who been driven out from their pack – ostracized – by the younger males. Some are younger males who challenged for the leadership but failed – and were then cast out. Some left in search of new territory, new opportunities. Some were part of a pack that disbanded as members moved on or passed away. Many of them long to return to the pack from which they were shunned, excommunicated.
The lone wolves who survive best are those that maintain a relationship with the pack; even if it’s a distant relationship. They follow the pack wherever it roams – sometimes even participating in the pack’s hunts and feeding on the leftovers from the kill. Such relationships benefit both the lone wolf and the pack.
Even a lone wolf needs others. A wolf can survive (for a time) on his own by scavenging and hunting small game. But his best chance for long-term survival is to rejoin the pack – or to find a female lone wolf for a mate and start a new pack.
Every pack needs a leader. Every leader needs a pack. Sometimes the Lone Wolf becomes the leader. And lone wolves can make the best leaders.
The Law of the Wolf Cub Pack
When I was a boy in Wolf Cubs (what they now call Cub Scouts), an adult leader was called an “Old Wolf.” The Leader of the Pack – just like in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book – was called Akela. The name means “Solitary; Alone.” That’s right; the leader of the pack was the Lone Wolf.
In Kipling’s stories (and in the re-tellings by scouting’s founder, Lord Baden-Powell) Akela is not only the leader of the pack. His is also the close friend and mentor of Mowgli, the orphaned “man cub” that is adopted into the wolf pack. Even when Mowgli is no longer a “man cub” but a full-grown adult, Akela remains a “Yoda” to Mowgli’s “Young Skywalker.”
Here in the enchanted forests of Alberta, often talked with my “Akela” about people who want “spirituality” but not “religion.” They want to belong, to feel connected – but not if it means someone telling them what to do and how to live.
My Akela, like Baden-Powell, sees no dichotomy between “spirituality” and “religion.” For them, God – however you understand Him – is always a fundamental part of life.
Life in the pack means living by the law of the pack: doing your duty, respecting elders, putting others first and helping them – no matter what.
Even as a Lone Wolf (or “the Lone Wolf of the group”), I sometimes think that I learned “everything I needed to know” in Wolf Cubs; from Kipling, Baden-Powell and the elders of the pack:
Be Prepared. Do Your Best!
Always help others… and accept help from others. Mowgli – the Man Cub – was an orphan. He was different from the rest. But he lived and learned with the help of his adoptive parents as well as his teachers and guardians. They always had his back and helped him to find his place.
It’s a jungle out there. There will always be adversaries and foes. But courage, loyalty and love are stronger than any enemy.
You can’t be a cub forever. Eventually, the cub must grow up to be the Old Wolf. There are even times when the Lone Wolf becomes the leader of the pack. And guess what? Sometimes lone wolves make the best leaders.
A leader gives his or her life to the pack. And the pack gives its life to the leader. They thrive and survive because they are part of each other.
The Christmas season is ended. Another year over. A new one just begun.
For many, now is when the darkness sets in, people may feel the impacts of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and – to quote Canadian musician and songwriter Bruce Cockburn – we’re “trying to keep the latent depression from crystallizing.”
This is the time of year when we need an Epiphany. Light in the Darkness. A New Hope.
Long ago, in a land far, far away, there was a teacher who people said it was “The Light of The World.” He, in turn, said that his followers were the light of the world.
See the light. Be the light. To the spiritually minded, that Spirit Wolf in the Sky can be our Northern light in the darkness.
To survive, learn from the wolves.
If you can, stay with the pack.
Even if you can’t live with them all the time, work with them.
If you’re not in a pack, BE the pack. Start your own pack by being with people you want to be with.
If you don’t have an Akela, BE Akela. Be a leader.
Who knows? You could end up walking on water.
Stephen is a freelance writer, public speaker and “lone wolf of the group” living on the edge of wilderness in Jasper National Park. He has worked in media for more than 25 years – including 8 years as an editor, producer and broadcaster in Taiwan. We invited Stephen to share his thoughts about this holiday time and the importance of belongingness and our search for acceptance. (This article first appeared December 31 2015 and updated January 6, 2016).
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