Fiennes covers every aspect of wolves in the world, from the emergence of their most distant ancestor the creodonts, somewhere around 60 million years ago (the creodonts also gave rise to a whole slew of other furry critters, from raccoons and bears to ... echh ... cats) to their establishment in roughly the form we know them today, around 30 million years ago, from their hunting methods to the methods used to hunt them, from their interactions with other members of their species (Fiennes stops short of calling this a culture, but then, most people do) to the vast literature of their interaction with mankind. He admits that few other animals have such a rich history of false impressions (when it comes to humans) than the wolf, and his book calmly and methodically sets out to correct that.
The task necessarily requires a certain amount of big-picture thinking, and Fiennes tries to make this as painless as possible:
At the border of any habitat favourable to a particular life form, there is always a 'tension zone' where different habitats merge. These form the outer limits, where the 'ecotypes' change, but there is inevitably some overlap where the species from the one habitat compete with those from the other... In such areas, species tend to change their ways of life to compete with the demands of the shifting habitat boundaries. Wolves are so resilient, and can survive on such a wide variety of foods, that when their way of life has been threatened they adapt themselves to altered conditions with an unusual degree of success. At the end of the Ice Age wolves survived in forested and mountainous areas in the face of persecution by man. The forests replaced the tundra with such great rapidity - a matter of a few hundred years - that no other large predator emerged to challenge his dominance.
The slight but appreciable tone of advocacy you might detect in that passage runs through the whole of this book. In Fiennes view, wolves have always been far more sinned against than sinning when it comes to their dealings with man. This may not seem so revelatory a stance in 2011, but forty years ago Barry Lopez's Of Wolves and Men and Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf had barely begun the work of changing the public's mind. Fiction is always stronger, and well into the 1980s the wolf was still being portrayed in novels as a harbinger of destruction. If even ten percent of the millions of people who read Anne Rice's rip-snorting The Vampire Lestat (in which young, headstrong, and still-living Lestat fights off a ravening wolf-pack in one of the book's arresting opening scenes), you can see the size of the job conservationists had in front of them.
At many points throughout his book, Fiennes takes pains to point out that the wolf is not what its press releases would have wary hikers believe:
What we have learned for certain is what the wolf is not: he is not a voracious, ravening predator, who roams the plains and snowscapes in great packs, licking blood-stained lips, tearing down every living thing he can get hold of, and devouring innocent travellers.
Quite coincidentally, Fiennes' book is yet another of those oversized heavily illustrated hardcovers I seem to be mentioning quite often so far this year. There are fascinating black-and-white and color photos on every page - shots of wolves moving through the snowy forests and tundra that are their new favorite hunting-grounds, shots of wolves playing (something they crucially do not only in puppyhood but all through their lives - I've seen adult wolves in the wild play dog-stupid games for an hour at a stretch), and shots of all the wide array of facial and body posture expressions that underscore the main characteristic wolves share in common with humans: they are inveterate and consummate communicators with each other - it's one of the key secrets of their success as a species, and it couldn't be achieved without considerable intelligence:
The brain of the wolf is small by human standards, but nevertheless, if it is compared to the brains of herbivorous animals, it will be seen that the cerebral hemispheres are prolonged at the back so as to cover most of the cerebellum. Wolves are undoubtedly extremely intelligent, and this is probably correlated with the large cerebrum.
The Order of Wolves tries its best to take us inside the world of its subject - not an easy thing to do when that subject orients itself to the world utilizing enormously different primary senses from those of humans. We are so familiar with the fact of these animals' existence that we tend to forget the gap between their senses and our own (the same thing is true in spades about dogs, the full range of whose senses would flat-out astonish even most of the humans who live with them every day). Wolves share with dogs a millennia-old propensity to encourage that forgetting - they require comparatively very little conditioning to become entirely friendly with humans, and that friendliness is always based on accommodation. No cat has ever accommodated a human owner in the history of the world, so it's easier for cats to retain an aura of the mysterious. Dogs - and wolves - are every bit as strange and different from the humans who for good or ill define their existence, but since they're happy to fawn and goof around, the strangeness isn't stressed.
Fiennes revels in it; to him, the magnificent other-ness of wolves is their quintessential charm. Even when he's describing the mechanics of their hunting techniques, he's an obviously avid fan:
Prey animals are followed against the wind, not because the scent carries better but because they are heard better. This may, at first, surprise us from our knowledge of our own hunting dogs, one group of which hunts by sight (in the greyhound group), the other hunting by scent like foxhounds. Yet, fancy a dog lying by the fireside apparently asleep. Suddenly he stirs and cocks his ears. The family has head nothing, but the faithful dog has heard the sounds of his master's car. More, he has distinguished that one care from all the other traffic on the road. So with wolves ...
Despite passages like this one, the ultimate message you take from The Order of Wolves is how different they are from their dog cousins. These are the dogs who didn't come in from the cold, who refused to be changed by human fire and will. Fiennes knows his subject backwards and forwards, and he's too much the scientist to indulge in more than the occasional touch of poetic insight. But nevertheless, he clearly shares the same opinion that so many wolf-experts can't help but have: that in trading their wildness for security, does somehow debased their common heritage with wolves.
No matter where you stand on such an opinion, it seems pretty clear that some are more debased than others ...