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Neighborhoods are alive … with the sound of howling

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"van Gogh Never Howled At The Moon" by painter Aja
CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST

The other day, an announcement circulated via social media—it went viral—inviting people to light a candle or luminaria on April 1 to show appreciation for first responders and public healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One alert person responded that people ought to be careful with how they deploy the flame, for fear of burning down a house or starting a wildfire.

But here in Montana, Wyoming and now as part of a “national movement” spreading to towns large and small, especially in the West, people have started to howl at dusk. There’s a catharsis in it.

The first “howl in solidarity” was held in late March in Mill Valley, California, north of San Francisco. 

As an American answer to the stir-crazy Italians singing to each other from their balconies, shuttered-in citizens are engaging in group howls to honor doctors, nurses and EMTs in their community, and to make sonic contact with others in their pack—albeit from at least six feet away. 

The mimicking of Canis lupus by Homo sapiens has spread and what’s cool is that in some of the rural communities around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem there’s a chance it could be answered by real wild wolves.

To get a sense of how the new COVID-19 ritual started playing out in our neck of the woods, Amy Crider told me she created a Facebook page called Howl for Missoula, saying she was inspired by other grassroots howling occurring in places ranging from Sun Valley/Ketchum, Idaho to outside hospitals in New York City. 

“Oh gosh, it’s growing,” she said. “It started out here on a Tuesday with a couple hundred people spread across town. I heard from a few folks who said they howled in their neighborhood the first night and they felt like an idiot doing it all alone. Then the second night arrived and everyone started to howl, and by Thursday there were over 6,000 people signed up on the Missoula howl Facebook page.”

That number today: 13,000. It’s a joyous primordial expression outpacing the rise of novel coronavirus positives and it shows that not only do our local villes have spirit, but that we’re pretty excited to be living in a place where, unlike the very pleasant confines of Mill Valley, wild nature is just beyond our doorstep.

It exists because we as a society have learned how to better coexist with nature and we’ve managed to move our culture beyond having modern attitudes shaped by Old World fables that sought to distance ourselves from creatures we did not understand.

By new tradition, the howling commences at around 8 p.m. every night and if you listen, whether in Big Sky, Bozeman, Livingston, Gardiner or Jackson Hole, the vocalizations have become more audible. (How great would it be if they continued to become a pre-dusk nightly routine—and certainly much to the delight of our visitors?)

Crider, who has lived in Missoula for 20 years, is a stay-at-home mom and retired hairdresser with two kids. She is immunocompromised with diabetes and needs to be isolated. Her husband is still working. 

“I hate to say this is fun because these times aren’t fun; they’re stressful,” she said. “But it’s become something everyone looks forward to, and kids are saying they can’t wait until they can do it tomorrow. We’re all going crazy, bunkered down [and] I figured howling would take off because we’ve got a great community. It is for the healthcare workers but it is also for neighbors who are really struggling. Howling reminds them they aren’t alone.”

Releasing pent-up feelings is good for our mental health, Crider adds. Best of all, there’s nothing dangerous about it and early reports are that even family pets seem to enjoy it. Catharsis, by the way, comes from the Greek Katharsis meaning “purification” and “cleansing” of emotions. While in old horror movies the sound of a wolf howl meant trouble, it now signals belonging.

In the still-wild West, it’s also an opportunity to express your gratitude for nature, our civil servants working for federal and state government agencies, and our unparalleled collection of public lands that will be there waiting for us when this all ends. If a spontaneous eruption of howling happens in your community, please share any short cell phone video you have at Greater Yellowstone Forum FB page. We all would especially be interested in hearing the vocalizations of young howlers.

Howl for those on the front lines trying to help us stay healthy. Howl to the animals that give our public lands added character. Howl to your heart’s content because soon enough we’ll be out there again, roaming this great place we get to call home.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He’s also the author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.

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