Peter and the Wolf
From Dresden to Chernobyl to Oriental Bay, Justine Jungersen-Smith reflects on a children’s story and how we simultaneously seek to fear, tame and contain nature.
How burned she was by the weather!1
One day I noticed that I no longer read Peter and the Wolf to my son. He was too old. He had grown older without me noticing.
When he was small we lived in a city made of stone with a large forest and a big wide brown river. It was a very good place to read Peter and the Wolf, and I did, often, to my then-small boy. The version I read to him was a little A5 book with a yellow cover and “splendidly Russian pictures”.2
The story, remember, goes like this: it is very early in the morning when Peter unlocks the gate and wanders out into the meadow. Everything looks as it should: green grass, blue sky. There is a pond, dark and still from the night, all glass until a white duck splashes clumsily into it. There is a tall tree, one small bird sitting on a high branch. Peter stands in the grass, watching the duck swimming in a circle. The bird watches too, unaware that a cat has woken up and, hungry for breakfast, has begun moving toward it, all tail and eyes.
When the cat springs, Peter shouts. Perhaps she would have made it all the way to the bird’s bright feathers if Peter hadn’t shouted so loud. But he does shout. He waves his arms in the air and he jumps up and down and the bird is saved.
The shouting wakes Peter’s grandfather. Here he comes, heavy on his feet, full of angst and fury, the image of a wolf very clear in his mind (Peter so small, the wolf so hungry), his body acting ahead of his brain, so that Peter’s hand is snatched and held up by the old man’s heart, too high for the small boy; he is marched back through the gate with his arm above his head. The gate is locked. All is quiet. Everyone is waiting for the wolf.
One day soon after we had arrived in Dresden we went to collect wood with the family from the apartment upstairs from us. We drove to a forest, and walked for some time away from the road so that one of the teenage twins from the family upstairs could chop down a tree, ensuring there would be enough wood to have bonfires in the garden all winter long. We stood aside while the teenager chopped at the tree, and after it had fallen to the ground we all moved in and sawed it up into parts small enough to fit in the car. It was quiet. We were busy. And then the mother of the twins put her head up, like an animal listening, and she scanned the trees, or so it seems in retrospect, and she said: there are Polish wolves in this forest now. It is a very easy step to go from this sentence to imagining wolves slinking across the borders of Europe, flitting through the shadows of cities and towns, making their way to their new home, there in the forest, where we were all busy at work on the fallen tree. Borders are meaningless to animals. Borders are meaningless in the air, too; the weather doesn’t take any notice of lines on a map.
Imagine it is 1986. A cloud of radiation is moving slowly but surely across Europe. Now imagine a young woman, a girl actually, just fourteen, alone in a Polish forest, riding a black horse. She’s been out for two days, she’s stayed overnight under a tree, it’s warm, and perfectly safe. She returns to the city feeling tired and happy, and she finds that in her absence a cloud has rolled across the sky. Everyone in the city has been taking iodine pills to protect them from the iodine-131 which is now floating in the air all around them. The iodine pills are busy in their bodies, preventing a future full of: cancer? Depression? Strange imbalances, certainly. She stables her horse. She rubs him down. She feeds him, this fine friend. She goes to the chemist and purchases and consumes the iodine pills, as instructed, despite knowing that she has breathed in this polluted air for two full days, and the wrong iodine will already be making its way around her body. She takes the pills anyway (though there are none for the horse), and she gets on with her life, for what can you do when the future is already at work inside your body?
The radiation from Chernobyl didn’t have a sound, or a smell or a taste. When the cloud started moving across Europe people did not know what it meant.
My friend says: I was seven. Eight? Seven. We lived in an apartment in Wrocław (once Breslau), an apartment that used to belong to Germans. I remember walking down the corridor to go and play with my friends. My mother ran out of our apartment, she ran after me yelling Stop! Something’s happened! I talked to my mother about this after you asked me. It didn’t happen as I remember it. Actually it happened like this. I was walking down the corridor with my mother. We were going for a walk, and our neighbour ran out after us yelling Stop! Something has happened! It’s a small thing. Either it was my mother who told me, or it was a neighbour. Does it matter? People were afraid that facts were being withheld. And now, of course, it’s hard to remember the facts. But I do remember that the whole country had to go and line up outside clinics for iodine. Can you imagine the lines? The whole country in lines, waiting.
Chernobyl happened thirty years ago. In the days immediately after the explosion the world around Chernobyl was white. It was white, with yellow and green puddles. There were no birds. There was silence.3
The sparrows came back two years later.4 People came back too, slinking home in the shadows, hiding from the authorities, reclaiming their patches of polluted land. In the years since the explosion the animals have come back too. There are black bears there now: there haven’t been black bears in the area for one hundred years.5 And there are wolves. They’re famous: Chernobyl wolves, irradiated. Vampiric. Wild, regardless. Wolves as night, ice cold in the heart. Predators running in the shadows, tails down and ears up. In Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, Zinaida Kovalenko, a re-settler in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, tells Svetlána Alexiévich: The wolf came into the yard at night. I look out the window and there he is, eyes shining like headlights. Now I’m used to everything.6
Chernobyl came from nowhere. No one was waiting for it. Most people in the 1980s were waiting for nuclear war, not a nuclear accident. As a child, my husband had a puzzle made from small plastic tiles which slid into place to form Reagan sitting behind a desk, his finger on the button. Even when the puzzle was complete there was no way of knowing whether he would push it or not.
In the 1980s all us small children had nightmares about nuclear bombs. A cartoon bomb, a black ball with a fuse, dropping on our little bodies from a great height. It certainly seemed, then, that end times were possible. They would come quickly, unthinkingly; in a blink great clouds of smoke and soot and dust would move across the sky. The clouds would block the sunlight from reaching earth. It would get very cold. Things would not grow very well. There would be famine. And there would be radiation; the very air we breathe would be changed.7
In 1947, when The Bulletin of Atomic Sciences devised their Doomsday Clock, they did so in order to provide the public with an analogy for how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making.8 In 1947, the threat was nuclear. Since 2007, the clock has also reflected the threat of climate change. In 2015, the time was moved forward to three minutes to midnight; and now, in 2017, it has inched closer still, to two and half minutes to midnight. Unlike a nuclear winter, climate change is no longer hypothetical. It has been the hottest year on record, for the third year in a row.9 The extreme weather events are here.
It is beautiful today, a sunny Sunday in winter, and I am out walking along the waterfront in Wellington with all the other humans; everyone engaged in recreation, the winter sun shimmering on the harbour, bouncing off the homes of the rich (still, at this point, housed as close to the sea as possible). Are the storms really coming? The sea looks so flat. There is nobody standing in the middle of the street screaming. Everyone is putting one foot in front of the other. Parents are holding their children’s hands, the sun is so soft on everyone’s bundled-up bodies, there is ice cream, it’s been such a good winter! Denial is, of course, one way to respond to the prospect of annihilation. Hunch down, duck low: the climate scientists are crying wolf. So says someone in the comments section of a Stuff article about the difficulty of going skiing in a warming world.10
How is it that we should be, us humans, living in a moment described as two and a half minutes to midnight? Something big is happening. And we know it happening; we can see that the future is already at work. So how is it we should be, waiting, as we are, for the wolf?
After Grandfather has locked the gate he leaves Peter in the garden. The sunflowers are taller than as he is. Peter watches through the gate as the wolf creeps out of the forest and (on a blood red page) catches the duck, swallowing her whole. Peter looks straight into the wolf’s greedy eyes. And then he disobeys his grandfather, so old and stout, his beard hanging down by his knees. Peter climbs up over the gate, he ensnares the wolf, strings it up by its tail. The wolf’s struggling only makes the rope tighter. Perhaps the moral of Peter and the Wolf is a subversive one: do not obey the wisdom of your elders, boy, for they know not what is best. Be brave. Stand up. Act, even when no one else is.
Imagine it is 1980. Wellington, the night before Easter service. My aunt (through love, not blood) collects her first lieutenant (devoted to her and all her schemes) and a tin of paint, and a brush, and a camera, and they move out in the dark night until they reach St Gerard’s (Church and Monastery) where, despite the too-bright streetlight, and the traffic, they manage to paint, in big white letters, on the side of the very church itself: THE MEEK DON’T WANT IT.
Surely it is time, now, for rage. Surely it is time for graffiti, and screaming in the street and, somehow, grabbing hold of the idea that we can change the world. “Everybody talks about the weather... we don’t”, spat Ulrike Meinhof in 1969.11 And now the weather, the source of so much harmless small talk, is no longer harmless.
As a child, my father looked up one day and saw that the sky had turned red. It was the glow of the Johnston Atoll atomic test, red spreading across the Pacific, bleeding into the sky of a small boy standing, looking up, somewhere in the middle of New Zealand.
Would we all start doing something if the sky was red?
In Angela Carter’s 1985 reimagining of Peter and the Wolf, the wolf is a girl, raised by wolves. Her cousin Peter sees her on his first expedition up the mountain, and the following day she is captured and taken down to the village. She is wild, the wolf-girl. Filthy, hairy. She rages at being held captive in her grandmother’s house. She smashes the place up. She is rage; an animal. She growls and grunts. Oh, horror!12
While I walked along the waterfront I listened to T. C. Boyle’s 2004 short story Chicxulub, as read on The New Yorker fiction podcast by Lionel Shriver. At the end of the story, Shriver remarks to the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, that “one of the most distinguishing features of being human is the experience of loss. The asteroid could hit. The phone call could come in the night. It is amazing we manage to function in the world.” And Treisman responds: “we function through a form of denial.”13
An article I read recently by Jodi Dean described “climate change’s anthropocenic knot of catastrophe, condemnation, and paralysis.”14 It is a useful triad. I do feel paralysed. I feel at once beset by nostalgia for these present times, and filled with despair that I cannot let go to the things that are causing them to disappear. And even if I was to let them go, would it make any difference? Will the polar ice stop melting if I stop driving my car? If I somehow manage to stop my family from producing so much waste? Will living a more pure life somehow stop the coral from dying? God feels very close in this narrative of guilt and shame; there he is, the bastard, frowning. Bad. You bad children. Don’t you know how long it takes disposable nappies to break down? You lazy mothers. You privileged motherfuckers. Look what you have done, the BFG smiles kindly, looking straight at me, where I sit in the movie theatre with my children. You will not be forgiven.
Why aren’t I acting? Imagine a wolf painted on velvet, some kind of cosmic shit floating all around it, a shooting star in the background; an asteroid, some crazy shit. The world is so full of things, so very many things and what am I?
When people returned to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone they did so because of their attachment to their way of life. It seems a reasonable thing to want to hang on to the things that feel familiar. Knowable. Safe. Our attachment is fierce. It is wild. Perhaps we humans are the wild ones.
Was Peter right to catch the wolf? There he is, in Prokofiev’s version, being led off to the zoo, the rope around his neck, tears rolling down his cheeks.
I do not know how to be, in these present times. I do not know how to act. All I know is that I am one of many. Eula Biss has argued, in her book On Immunity, for imagining ourselves as part of a community inextricably linked together by (in her argument), shared immunity against disease.15It seems a good place to start. We do need to think of ourselves differently – not as individuals, but as part of a group, a mass, held together by sameness rather than difference. Our mass does not observe borders and boundaries. We must move together as if we are under the sea, or leaning into the wind; a great weight above us.
I can remember going on marches as a child, the whole primary school lined up in a crocodile: two by two into the fray. In my memory the whole country was out on the streets, I can smell the uranium on your breath written in neon across the sky. Only last year, I said to my friend (music swelling under my speech): how glorious to have been part of something all together. To have all felt the same thing, and to have stood up and got what everyone felt was right. And she threw back her head and laughed. The whole country wasn’t behind David Lange. Are you mad?
We were still living in Germany when Fukushima blew up. It was the end of our second winter in Dresden, and the days were just beginning to spill into spring. The explosion echoed across the world. Germany heard it as a deep bell ringing; two hundred thousand people went out into the streets across the country to protest nuclear power.16 Everyone, all over the country, wore anti-nuclear badges: Atomkraft? Nein, Danke! Eight of Germany’s seventeen reactors were immediately taken off the grid, and legislation was passed to phase out the remaining nine reactors by 2022.17
Wikipedia tells me that coal consumption has risen in Germany since Fukushima.18 I don’t know if this is actually true. Or whether it even matters, given the extent of coal consumption in other parts of the world.
On my way back up the hill from dropping my daughter at kindergarten this morning I listened to George Saunders talking about attending the pre-nomination Trump rallies. And he said, with regard to political conversations, two people from opposing sides trying to talk to each other: “I became convinced of the existential value of gentleness”.19 And I thought: I don’t know George. I don’t know if gentleness is going to work.
The wolf-girl is sadness as well as rage: she howled, in high, sobbing arcs.20
In Suzie Templeton’s model animation of Peter and the Wolf (2006) Peter’s world is cold and bleak and hard. The bird is a crow with a broken wing. The wolf has pale opal eyes, like the moon. In this version, the duck still does not quite make it to Peter’s outstretched arms in time. She is eaten by the wolf in front of Peter, but in this version it is a moment of horror, of pain and suffering. And, yet, at the end of Templeton’s story Peter frees the wolf. He lets him go, and they walk together away from the watching crowd, until, finally, the wolf runs away from him toward a big full moon.
Lately I’ve been reading the Tove Jansson picture books to my little daughter. It seems to me that Jansson’s mind was also beset by extraordinary weather events; dark clouds roll over the page, the birds fall silent, the sea itself drains away. I am her, my daughter says about Susanna, the girl in The Dangerous Journey, a girl wandering through a nightmare story wild with fearsome landscapes and feelings.
(The wolf-girl howling).
My son is too old for Peter and the Wolf. My children are growing, relentlessly, charging forward into the future. The future will be a beautiful place, right? The skateboards will be hovercrafts, as was promised to us 1980s kids. The whole world will shimmer and glow with reflections from fields of solar panels, stretching right around the very curve of the earth.
This image is only sustaining when it’s daytime. At night, in the dark, it is meaningless. At night, the only thing that makes sense is that we are animals. My daughter says: we are a family of cats, but I am a rabbit now, look I have made a coffin for this moth. She puts out her small hand so that ants will climb across her skin. I squash them only when she’s not looking. My daughter is still small enough to feel like my cub. When she climbs onto my knee her skin is warm, her insides radiating out. She has fine hairs all over her body like fur.
In the dark, I crouch down, quiet. And there she is: a wolf, slinking silently through the empty places of the world. She hasn’t seen me. If I don’t move I can watch her until she has disappeared.
You are burned by the weather, baby, you are living on a shelf of ice, far out on high seas, you have built yourself mechanical wings with which to fly from island to island, you do not see a single animal; you have forgotten how animals look, or perhaps it is just that you have become an animal yourself, your hair has grown and grown like magic so now it is down to your feet like a cape, like a cape, like a cape.
 Angela Carter, ‘Peter and the Wolf’, in Black Venus (London: Chatto & Windus, 1985), 81.
 Sergei Prokofiev, The Story of Peter and the Wolf. London: Faber and Faber, 1951.
 Svetlána Alexiévich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (New York: Picador, 1997), 70
 Alexiévich, Chernobyl, 218
; Alexiévich, Chernobyl, 25
 Karen Bauer, ed. Everybody Talks About the Weather... We Don’t. The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008.
 Carter, ‘Peter’, 82
Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Innoculation, (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014), 46
 Carter, ‘Peter’, 82
Cover Photo Credit: MrT HJ, Flicker