[Full Disclosure: I’m about to violate the book reviewer’s code of conduct here, which includes somewhere the warning that a reviewer should not write about a book whose author he/she knows well. And, boy, do I know the author of In the Temple of Wolves! He’s my kid brother (a relative term, of course, since we’re both eligible for Social Security and Medicare, though I got there four years ahead of him!). But, seriously, I’ve been watching Rick Lamplugh develop as a writer for almost a quarter of a century now. During that period, he has regaled his family and friends, in a series of privately-printed volumes, with his musings on the joys, frustrations, and lessons of parenthood and, especially, with accounts of the experiences he and his wife shared on what they laughingly refer to as “vacations.” These works revealed a thoughtful, sensitive soul whose summertime experiences as a biker, hiker, climber, and jogger tested him, both physically and mentally, time and again. Yet, the book under review, which began as his latest “adventure” volume, in 2012, is different from the earlier ones. True, he and his wife Mary had visited Yellowstone before—and written two books about it—but only as visitors and students during winter “courses” offered at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Then, however, Rick and Mary volunteered to assist those who taught the Lamar “Wolf Week” course, a task that probably sounds grander than it is. They drove a bus, cleaned and maintained living quarters, helped train students for their encounters in the wilderness, and did anything else the instructors asked of them, all in an effort to ensure that guests experienced Yellowstone, and especially its wildlife, to the fullest. What follows is a “book review,” but with a difference, or at least that’s my hope.]
In the Temple of Wolves is a thoroughly entertaining and very thoughtful book. The author, Rick Lamplugh, is an amateur naturalist, but a serious one, as he shows in his account of one winter’s immersion, along with his wife, in Yellowstone National Park. The two of them volunteered, helping visitors who attended the park’s “Wolf Week” seminars. And, for Rick and Mary, the winter’s “immersion” was nothing less than the culmination of a growing interest in the flora, fauna, and ecosystem of Yellowstone, especially the multi-faceted role of the wolf.
The author’s style is clear, forceful, even lyrical at times. He terms his approach “creative non-fiction,” and, while he doesn’t overdo it, he makes the label stick, especially, for example, when he considers the clash between a pack of wolves and a lone elk, from the viewpoint of the elk. He often points out that, no matter how graphic or bloody some of the scenes are that he describes, they are part of the “cycle of life” in the wild, an important concept that not all of the participants in the park’s “Wolf Week” classes seemed to grasp, at least at first. Of course, those who attended the seminar did not have the same opportunities the staff had, as, for example, when the author and a couple of other volunteers assisted in taking a bison, apparently killed by a motor vehicle, on its “last ride,” off the roadway and to a spot where wolves and other predators and scavengers could perform the final rituals of the “cycle of life” on the bison’s carcass.
The author does not spare his own foibles when describing that winter in Yellowstone. See, for instance, the wonderful chapter, “Vanity at Trout Lake,” where what was supposed to be an easy cross-country trip to a quiet place, for a time of reflection about wildlife, takes a nasty turn, thanks to an immovable bison and the author’s stubborn determination not to let the animal keep him from reaching his goal, even if he must do so by choosing an alternate route. And–wait for it–that “Plan B” leads to a lost snowshoe and a lesson in wilderness-induced humility for the abashed writer, which he describes in some detail. While the episode seems sort of funny in retrospect, it clearly did not strike the author as humorous at the time!
Rest assured that this volume is not simply some sort of “how I spent my winter vacation” tome. There are elements of a travelogue here, to be sure, and finely wrought ones at that, but the writer is not afraid to set aside his journals and his camera and to demonstrate a real talent for analysis. For example, he devotes one chapter to a review of theories about the wolf and its place in the ecology of the western United States, and another to assessing the factors that have created what he calls “a world of wolf haters.” His views on these topics are heartfelt, yet, in expressing them, the author also treats fairly a variety of opinions about the wolf with which he disagrees. He is, in other words, an advocate for wolves, but a thoughtful, fair-minded one.
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Now, if the author of this book had not been related to me, would I have read In the Temple of Wolves? Don’t think so, because I’m not really a “wilderness” kind of guy. On the other hand, having read it because the author is a relative, I’m awfully glad I did. I learned a lot: about the ecology of a Yellowstone winter, especially the place of the wolf in the grand scheme of things; the experiences of those who go there to observe it; and, not least, the writer’s view of that world and of his place in it. I recommend In the Temple of Wolves without reservations. Moreover, since Rick and Mary are currently doing another “volunteer winter” at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, I eagerly await the sequel. (No pressure, Rick. . . .)
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: