Jack London wrote in his classic story "White Fang" these indelible words in describing the wolf cub learning about the Law of Meat: "The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was: EAT OR BE EATEN. He did not formulate the law in clear, set terms and moralize about it. He did not even think the law; he merely lived the law without thinking about it at all."
I thought about that law, the Law of Meat, in the Boundary Waters a few weeks ago. While lying awake in my tent early one morning along the rocky shores of Agnes Lake, a lone wolf howled just a few hundred yards from where I rested. A haunting howl, rather high-pitched, probably a youngster, all alone, had me spellbound as I listened to the wolf's voice fill the forest with one of nature's most primal sounds.
I arose, slipped quickly into my clothes and boots, and quietly exited my tent to make haste in the direction of the wolf. My hope was to catch a glimpse of the animal, but I resolved to be content with only a sign, perhaps another howl or two, something. And so I carefully weaved my way through cedar trees and lowland shrubs in pursuit of the lone wolf.
Not surprisingly, I didn't observe the wolf. It undoubtedly detected my approach long before I was aware of how close I might have been, well in advance of the wolf slinking into the shadows and disappearing. Undaunted, I continued onward until I encountered signs left behind -- patches of deer hair . . . the consumed carcass of a deer . . . scattered bones . . . fresh wolf dung; indeed, spread out on the ground before me was, unmistakably, the Law of Meat.
Pausing to study the signs, I imagined how the Law was probably played out. How the wolf and the deer crossed paths. How the hunt began, the ensuing chase, and the capture, the struggle, and the ultimate death of the deer. As it was, and as the Law is written, the deer's death meant life for the wolf, if for only one more day.
This story reminds me of other experiences I've had where London's Law of Meat applies. For example, I remember the day I learned what the peculiar, bird-like sounds I heard coming from the wetland vegetation surrounding a basin I once found myself within were.
On one particular hot July afternoon, I stopped what I was doing long enough to conduct a search for the source of the strange, unidentified sound. I began a slow stalk through sedges and cattails with utmost care, believing, at the time, that the call might be from a bird or insect or some other wary creature that would likely flee from a careless and noisy approach.
After a few minutes of stealthy searching in a dense patch of cattails, I was sure I was upon the source of the incessant and mysterious vocalization, because, as I soon discovered, the sound seemed to be coming from close to where I stood. And as I peered down to the ground while spreading apart the cattail leaves for a clearer look, there it was -- a full-grown leopard frog producing the curious birdcall that I had been hearing.
However, the reason for the type of vocalization I was listening to was now very much apparent; the frog was emitting a distress-call because, as I also discovered, a garter snake had the hapless amphibian halfway down its throat. The frog was utterly helpless as it was being slowly swallowed, hind legs first.
Millimeter by millimeter, as the snake's grotesquely disjointed jaws clutched the frog, I watched as its jaws "walked" gradually forward over the frog's body. Many minutes later the frog was completely overcome and inside the snake. The Law of Meat applied once again.
And once while hiking in a woodland along a wetland near Crookston, I noticed a drake wood duck swimming in an open area of the pond. The bird appeared to be attacking something, so I brought the binoculars up to my eyes for a better look. What I saw was surprising, because I had no idea, at the time, that a wood duck's diet included living prey.
The wood duck had a fairly large leopard frog in its beak and was attempting to engulf it, but the frog was alive and struggling. In order to subdue the amphibian, the wood duck repeatedly beat the frog by flinging it against the surface of the water. The only time the duck released its death-grip was when it tried to reposition the frog in its beak for another attempt to swallow the besieged prey.
A romantic notion exists that all creatures in nature live harmoniously together. This, of course, is not true. The truth, as Jack London wrote, "Eat or be eaten, kill or be killed," is the harsh reality of most living things, but nonetheless a gripping facet of the wild world we live in as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.