Wolf Tone by JM Miller


Wolf tone is a dissonance—a tremble within a pattern. Imagine the tiny drums between heartbeats as flutters of air between wingbeats. The tone is a background vibration howling through a song, not so much echo as result. A wolf tone is necessary if we ever hope to hear the planet’s whirling; if we ever hope to hear it.




Turn left onto Offut Drive, just passed the Powder & Keg Grille where the carpet smells like musty beer and mayonnaise, and the mounted deer’s eyes see somehow into you—then cross the railroad tracks, through the black iron gate: it’s here that Cat-tail moss weighs the conifers into green repose and rain spits in the wind’s direction through the watery calls of raven pouring over you, then yips flood into howls opening doors in the forest to times of old growth ecology (that’s what we call it)—suddenly a train pulls its chain—a nearer sound, and you are back, rusted and gesturing for the sound that opened time, the sound of what you think is wild—the one that seers your backbone into memory of what it used to mean to be.

To be: I am here. The voice inside me is soft, the kind you crane your neck to hear. I once owned a pewter sculpture that listened this way, a violinist tilting his head low to the sound, the strings vibrating against the air’s stillness, the wooden echo in the hollow chamber catching and releasing vibrations. There’s time here, too—the porosity of sound caused by friction and ease. I lost the sculpture, but remember how it taught me to listen. I am here; startling, the voice inside the body, its proclamation of existence. But where is it?

The rain stops and I am led through the gates to the wolves; picture a series of round, fenced landscapes, each with a wooden structure inside to act as a den. Lakota, a white wolf scoffed with grey bristles, looks at me for a long time. He raises his large shoulders, bulging the two blades in what looks like playful ambition, and I can see his eyes recognize human more adeptly than the eyes of other wolves I’d seen. To see human in those eyes is to see a cage in a breeding lot; the bed of a dirty pick-up, probably a Chevy or Dodge, probably red or black; to meet the rural Washington breeder making hybrid wolf dogs that sell for $1,000 per pup. For Lakota, human is cage and boundary, human is spoiled meat and hose water.
+++++I feel known in his gaze. Implicit in the way he screws his neck, tilting his ear and eye into me. I feel utterly made in this moment: no gender, no story. To be made in the eyes of an animal is akin to being restored to a natural state: it is a healing, the kind I’d run away from if I could because it’s the kind that doesn’t keep.




Wolf tones occur naturally in stringed instruments: a note’s vibration matches the resonating vibration of the instrument’s body. Therefore the tone created is sympathetic—an amplification of a single moment of equanimity; a howl.




Wolf Haven is a sanctuary for wolves tucked a few miles back from the interstate near Olympia, Washington. The sanctuary houses grey wolves, red wolves, Mexican gray wolves and even a few coyotes, each rescued from various forms of captivity. Wendy Spencer, director of animal care, describes the time Lakota playfully charged a nervous cameraman—though a sixteen-foot fence was between them, the camera sailed into the bushes while the cameraman sprinted away. It was a wrap. Wendy laughs telling how his imagination really did run away with him, but how this is part of a larger problem. The mythology of the gray wolf versus the reality of this mammal predates the age of reason, and stretches its long legs into the twenty-first century—a time when wild is a curated experience; more feeling than reality. Predates and predator, you hear the distance of the unknown in those before moments, the ones before knowing, before understanding, before the bite, before the gun. Wendy admires Lakota’s instincts for human fear, an adaptation, perhaps from his former captive life. He gives a few yips, a little howl.

Wendy’s blue eyes hold a chill, but soften under the gaze of these canines. Her mission is simple: “to let them be—give them food, companion, space—let them find themselves.”
+++++To find oneself. The self tangled in a story is an obstacle to becoming.
+++++As I listen to her, I imagine that she can’t build walls high enough for these wolves under the gaze of human stories.


Here, sanctuary is a noun—a person, place or thing. It has to be given action, a verb, in order to exist in a complete sentence. It must be given a subject, or it must be the subject, so it doesn’t become a wolf tone. So it doesn’t howl inside a pattern. In the English language all syntactical roads lead to nouns, stacks them like so many pancakes, but offers them very few ways to be. To be sanctuary. Close your eyes, listen: what does it mean to be that?

A butterfly darts in a sense. Literally inside a sense. It darts and swerves, fluttering golden symmetries fringed in black. It isn’t me, but a story of me, so it is an other.
+++++I learn from it. It is small, so I don’t fear it.




At the old Vashon Island theater I see four older white women howl at the piece of visible moon, but this isn’t the story. I just watched Into the Woods, originally a musical that tells the story of consequences. Four famous Grimm’s fairy tale characters had a wish: to be this, to have that—to gain some sort of freedom from perceived oppression. There was also a witch, of course, and an evil wolf included in the cast of fairytale heroes steeped in longing and hope, making these two the musical’s quintessential others: those who aren’t us; those so far on the fringe of what being means that they might as well be aliens from the moon (I’d include “night” as an equal other). The witch, played by Meryl Streep, endures most of the movie under a curse from her mother because she hadn’t protected the garden that grew magical beans. At first the garden is portrayed as a magical backyard, but as the movie progresses the garden takes on heavenly symbolism: those magical beans are heaven’s apple—the source and consequence of longing—and it was her job to protect them, placing the witch in a nearly holy role.
+++++In the song “Last Midnight,” nearly a manifesto, she distinguishes herself as the other: “I’m the witch, you’re the world,” she sings, placing herself outside of normative human culture. The roots of the outsider in recorded human lore extend past the Middle Ages and intersect with stories of evil, benevolent or sexualized werewolves haunting the outskirts of villages; half man, half wolf; man in touch with his animal self and wrought as an outsider because of the connection.
+++++“I’m the hitch / I’m what no one believes / I’m the witch,” she sings elegiacally with a singe of rage. She is the hitch because she challenges everyone’s beliefs of what’s possible, of what is right, and goes against the majority’s decision to protect the boy at the end of the movie.
+++++She is radical. She is what no one believes because she is outside of their constructed realities—a true wolf tone.




+++++A wolf interval is another measurement: a severely dissonant moment of tonal frequency. One whose dissonance is so present that it is likened to a wolf howl. This has also been called the wolf fifth. Other Wikipedia subject headings include “Temperament and the Wolf” and “Taming the Wolf.” The writer suggests that the sound must be reduced from the two-dimensional plane to a single dimension. (S)he goes on to state, “The wolf can be tamed by adopting equal temperament.”




Near the movie’s end, the witch is swallowed by the earth. She calls upon her mother—and here we infer a holy mother or mother earth—to come for her, make her hunched and ugly again. She is done with the human world. Just before the earth swallows her, she places a final curse upon humanity:


++++++++++I’m leaving you alone.
++++++++++You can tend the garden, it’s yours.
++++++++++Separate and alone.
++++++++++Everybody down on all fours.


She abandons them to suffer alone, in dominion over the planet, forever disconnected, down on all fours trying to remember what it really means to be.




A refuge is inherently solitary and appeared in language in the early 12th century as a house for God or perhaps God himself. The term sanctuary came later, beginning also as a house for God, then for humans to feel God, then as evasion from evil. Finally it was used as a way out.
+++++I recently moved from Seattle to an island off the coast of Washington. I think I used the move as a way out, though I’d like to say it is was a step toward sanctuary. I like the comfort of sanctuary, how it seeks, how it is a refuge that is available and offered. But that stinks of illusion: that the land is there waiting to house me. That I will find something there. I left the dense urban noise of Seattle because my nerves were on fire, my senses charred. Vashon Island offered a reprieve, a more natural state of living. I am grateful for this. I am learning the land’s rhythm again, but I must admit that it was a way out; a way out to find a way in. Another objective use of place.
+++++And as a trans person—one who doesn’t inhabit gender—I am other here—rendered as “outside” of the usual narrative of the island that boasts a liberalism clouded by privilege. The local coffee roaster has an annual event in which they light up a hundred pumpkins to celebrate Halloween. There’s the evil smiles and spiky eyebrows, crooked lids and cats carved from homogenous patterns. But that night all I could see were luminous eyes upon me—a non-gendered creature in the discomfort of another culture’s sanctuary. That night, I was the witch, and they the world.

What does it mean to be “other”? What am I referring to if I say that there is an other under there? On June 17, 2015, nine African-Americans were killed inside a sanctuary—a church in South Carolina. They were the other, and in the United States they have always been the other. The not us; the us defining refuges. Jelani Cobb explains that, “For black Christians, the word “sanctuary” {in the late 16th Century} had a second set of implications. The spiritual aims of worship were paired with the distinctly secular necessity of a place in which not just common faith but common humanity could be taken for granted.” In this sense, then, sanctuary was a way to not be other in the face of white supremacy.

+++++Placing this event side-by-side with the occupation of the Malheur Refuge in Oregon, we see the glaring cultural disparity between the notion of a sanctuary. The Bundy militia is part of the group who define refuges, and they want to change the definition. Through the use of arms and an incredible sense of privilege they intended to take back public land—land that never belonged to white people in the first place.


The history of land in this country is a drawer that, when opened, is filled with millions of ghosts that come screaming out. All of the swallowed witches and wolves rolled in the dense fog of silence. All of the people of color killed for land or that which is held by it.




+++++Yes as a trans person and poet—a person who knows I have a body—I still seek the other other. The one buried under each of our stories. The one that wants to simply be; to have what Wendy described, in which one has enough food, companionship and space to simply find oneself. The tension here, then—the howling chord in the human pattern—is in the universalization of meanings. That we might skip the necessary cultural landscapes of a sanctuary, in order to seek refuge in the universal because of a whitewashed perspective. The tension is that sanctuaries are human notions that are far more diverse than the notions of the ones who have written most of the books and dictionaries, therefore the audience for language makers—for most nature writers—is not universal, but white and normative.

+++++We need wolf tones—the discordant howls in the pattern—to creation friction. How else will we discover the ease without friction; without disturbance.

Here’s a wolf tone: an allowance to myself; to exist in a constant state of grief instead of hope. It is this very grief that keeps me going, that may align us. The grief is personal, it shapes my spirit, keeps it hungry. I keep writing and teaching and loving because I am so far inside the loss that the losses become the very shape of myself. Rilke may have referred to this as the Lament King; follow him, he wrote.
+++++Others use hope. In fact, hope is marketed as the primary response to grief. But if you remember Jack Gilbert’s poem, “Michiko Dead,” then you remember that grief is a box we carry. We never put it down. We learn to live with it. Hope, on the other hand, is a Western construction. It is an ideal to live by. An ideal that keeps our hands clean and our minds bright with illusion. It is a metaphor that we see in the Earth, a metaphor that keeps us going in the face of maddening destruction. It is a magical bean. But it is not the moment. The moment is our beings in this place now. These words, your breathing mingling with the room’s air. This is the moment. Hope is the future – the hope for things to become better; to become—not to be.


As I leave Lakota and Wolf Haven, do I hope for the wolf in its sanctuary? The wolf in Yellowstone? Last week when I drove away from Yellowstone the animals disappeared instantly. Eight hundred miles home, they never returned. It already happened. The extinction happened. The boundaries are set. So I choose to not carry that hope. This is not a hopelessness as our cultural language would give to you, but a distinction: I choose the burden of loss. I choose to live vulnerably through my senses, to center my self in the order of all sentience so I can engage in open-ended inquiry with the world. I feel the vibration before the sound, then I make its meaning. This is my wilderness and my survival. This is my wolf.


JM Miller is a trans-identified poet, essayist, instructor and healer living on a 10-acre organic farm on Vashon Island, WA. JM has published one poetry collection, Wilderness Lessons (FutureCycle), and a chapbook, Primitive Elegy (alicebluebooks). They won the Grand Prize for the Eco Arts Awards in 2014 & was a finalist for terrain.org’s 2013 poetry contest. JM teaches poetry and creative nonfiction writing at the University of Washington in Tacoma and is an instructor at Richard Hugo House.