Today I’m taking Nephew, who shares my love of things furry and ferocious, to a writing workshop with Michelle Paver (one of his favourite authors) at a wolf sanctuary.
Yes, the UK Wolf Conservation Trust is based at a 50 acre farm on the outskirts of Reading. Wolves aren’t always popular in England, so the trust seems to be keeping a low profile – we’re almost on top of the place before we see any signs for it. Michelle Paver came here to do research for Wolf Brother, and is now one of the trust’s patrons. She’s written several books for children, including the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.
There’s some rubbish written for children (I’m looking at you, School For Good And Evil!) but I thoroughly enjoyed Wolf Brother. I want to find out what happens next, so I’ll have to borrow the rest of the series (five volumes) from my nephew.
(In fact, I enjoyed it more than a similar book for adults I read recently – Shaman, by Kim Stanley Robinson. That’s also about the adventures of a young hunter, but any believable prehistoric atmosphere keeps being shattered by the use of modern language. It’s very hard to suspend your disbelief when people from the Stone Age keep exclaiming “Mama mia”! I’m not making this up – see page 108).
But back to Wolf Brother. All his life, Torak has lived in the forest with his father, the Wolf Clan mage. But when his father is killed by a supernatural bear, Torak, just twelve years old, has to fend for himself. He finds an orphan wolf cub and discovers that they can communicate. Together with Renn, a girl from Raven Clan, they go on a quest to the Mountain of the World Spirit, to find a way to defeat the demon bear.
It’s a good story, simply told but all the better for it. It rattles along at quite a pace – I kept saying to myself “Just one more chapter, then I’ll stop” – but I read it in one sitting. The world is described vividly, but concisely, without the dense blocks of text which can be too much for younger readers. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the world seen through Wolf’s eyes. And although Torak and Wolf communicate, it’s as you would with a dog – no cute talking animals!
About twenty children and adults have come for the workshop today. Michelle is very good with the children. She talks to them about writing, and how important it is to involve all your senses. She’s brought things for them to handle – wolf hair, an antler, a pair of mittens made from caribou hide sewn with sinew, and a stone axe head.
The weather’s been dreadful, but as soon as there’s a break in the rain we go outside for a walk with Mai, a Canadian wolf. She’s a big girl, and there are two handlers holding her leash – if she did choose to make a run for it, one man alone simply wouldn’t be able to stop her. The wolf dictates the direction of the walk, and we all follow, at a respectful distance. Nephew is thrilled to be this close to a real live wolf, and is beaming – I’m pretty excited myself.
Mai leads us across a very squelchy field, pausing to roll in interesting smells and mark her territory, and regularly howls to the other wolves, who howl back – a wonderful sound. At one point it looks like she’s going to go for a swim in a stream, but she changes her mind – I suspect the handlers are relieved, as they’re muddy enough already. Wolves aren’t the only animals welcome here – there’s also a small pool for frogs, and the trees have nesting boxes for birds and bats. Overhead I can see a red kite – one of England’s rarest and most beautiful birds of prey.
When Mai decides to head back, the handlers show us the rest of the wolves. The enclosures here are good, with plenty of room to run, trees, running water. The wolves look healthy, and seem pleased to see their handlers. The trust views them as ambassadors for their species, thinking that people are more likely to care about animals they’ve seen in the flesh, rather than ones they’ve only seen on television. My favourites are Pukak, Sikko and Massak – Arctic wolves, who are totally white (or would be, apart from the mud). Nephew’s favourite is Torak, who is named after the character in the book.
Then the heavens open. We dash back into the classroom. Michelle talks a little more about writing, then we eat our packed lunches, and try to write something ourselves. Nephew starts writing a story about wolves that worship a mysterious box. I can’t think of a story, so I scribble down a poem about eating my way through the animal kingdom, and listen to the rain drumming on the roof.
The rain stops – would we like to watch the wolves being fed? Of course we would. But as the wolves hold down chunks of deer carcass with their paws, peel back the hide with their teeth and start crunching on ribs, I hear a small girl beside me say “Mummy, I don’t think I want to be a wolf keeper after all…” A couple of people who are feeding the wolves are new, so the wolves are unsure whether to accept food from them. This is what the red kites have been waiting for – four of them swoop down, looking for scraps.
The heavens open once more – so it’s back into the classroom we go. While we were watching the wolves eat, Michelle was busy reading our literary efforts. She has something constructive to say about all of them. She asks Nephew what exactly it is the wolves are worshipping in his story, and is amused to find out that it’s a toaster. She reads out part of my poem, and everyone in the room laughs. Then it’s time for a quick Q&A, book signing, and a visit to the gift shop to choose a toy wolf for smaller nephew (who can’t come on a wolf walk yet because he’s too small – bite-size!)
We’re the last to leave. As we head out, Torak, who is usually shy around people, stands at the edge of the enclosure, looking right at us.
Nephew isn’t usually talkative – but he’ll be talking about this for days.