Under OrionPublished by Erica Berry ’14
I stumbled across the Bowdoin recluse while I was home in Oregon, researching wolf repopulation for my English-Environmental Studies thesis. I had just returned from a semester abroad, and I was missing my friends, eager to be back in Brunswick.
In one way, the story starts here: me, alone in a rural corner of my home state, thinking about Bowdoin—and about wolves.
In another way, my story with Harold Wilder—the recluse—had already started, though I didn’t know it at the time. It began during my first months of college, in fall 2010, when I received a friend request on Facebook from a Harold Mitchell. The profile picture was sepia, a historic image of young men in old-fashioned suits. I didn’t know any Harolds, but I soon learned that his name was a stand-in for our newspaper, The Bowdoin Orient, which I’d just joined as a staff writer. It turns out that my friend Toph Tucker ’11 had named the page after two Orient founders he read about in Louis C. Hatch’s A History of Bowdoin College. Harold Wilder 1872 and E. P. Mitchell 1871 weren’t the only Orient editors, but they were the ones who had been struck by the brightness of the constellation Orion while walking across campus one night, brainstorming names for their fledgling paper. Inspired by the sun on the Bowdoin crest, they eventually riffed their way to the unlikely name of The Orient.
Knowing what I know now about Harold Wilder, it’s hard not to read that pause to admire the stars as a clue. After all, maybe our futures are writ not in the résumé lines of college—in grants, grades, extracurricular triumphs—but in what leaks between. The zigzagging walks we take with friends, heads tossed back with laughter and haloed in frozen breath. Looking at the sky.
By the time I was a sophomore, I was walking across campus nearly every Thursday night around four a.m. The cold was often obscene, the stars often shocking. I was an Orient editor then, nearly 150 years after Harold. By senior year, I was a coeditor-in-chief. Sometimes we celebrated sending off the paper by going for hot donuts at Frosty’s, but mostly we tried to sleep. How could I realize, then, how rarely I would see this hour in the future, or that, when looking back at being an editor, I’d remember those blurry walks between night and day as their own reward?
I play this out now because I wonder what Harold recalled about his Bowdoin nights. Decades later, when he stood on the cold floor of that Oregon canyon and tilted his gaze toward Orion, what did he see? Did he think of the Quad? Of Bowdoin? Of The Orient?
I learned that Harold Wilder was born in Rochester, New York, in November 1850. His family was well-connected; his sister, Maud Wilder Goodwin, would go on to carve a prolific career as a writer of novels and histories. Trying to decipher who Harold was at Bowdoin feels like trying to follow a soggy map. The road that emerges suggests the path of someone giddy to be there. Harold was in the Psi Upsilon fraternity, and later the Bowdoin Alumni Association. During his junior year, he received a $50 gold medal—“The St. Croix Medal”—as the best debater of the Athenaean and Peucinian Societies. It’s unclear if this was the prize that got him a sentence of note in that July 1871 New York Times, but there he is, right beneath a notice about three Iowa men going “insane by the excessive use of tobacco”: Harold Wilder won a prize at Bowdoin’s “Junior Exhibition.”
The Orient was founded by a committee of members from Harold’s Class of 1872. It came as “the result of a deep-seated conviction... that Bowdoin should have a representation among college journals,” wrote Harold, the chairperson, submitting a correction to the editor of an 1872 book about Maine media. He was upset that not every Orient editor had been acknowledged by name. Each deserved credit, he wrote, for “conducting the Orient during the difficulties and uncertainties of its first year.” A letter to the editor like this is inked in love and loyalty, but also, it seems, the protective spirit of a natural leader. A person who wants to make sure nobody gets left behind.
The first issue appeared during the spring of Harold’s junior year, when, as the paper reported, unseasonably pleasant weather had “lessened the demand for rubber boots” on campus. It was sugar season, and milk pails hung on the chestnut trees. “It’s no time to be writing essays when billiards are only ten cents a game,” said a sophomore anonymously quoted in its pages. The parties were lively—one masquerade had costumes ranging from the “dark robed monk to ‘Ye horrid Sophomore’”—and graduation was near. As the Orient quipped: “It is said that all the seniors intend...to go into either law or matrimony.”
Harold did neither, at least not yet. After graduation, he moved to Leipzig, Germany, to study as a teacher of Latin and Greek. In its alumni news section, the Orient wrote that Harold had shared that he’d “never appreciated how slow he was in moving until lately, when he came near being run over by a hearse.” At that time, Leipzig was a hub of Central European railway traffic. Harold had arrived during a period of rapid expansion, with new museums opening, an Opera House just built, shiny trams creaking down the streets.
Decades later, when he stood on the cold floor of that Oregon canyon and tilted his gaze toward Orion, what did he see? Did he think of the Quad, of Bowdoin? Of the Orient?
Can’t you see him—a body frozen amidst the carriages and people? Lit with excitement, maybe, but also the dawning sense that he ticked at a different pace. A churn of longing to be somewhere quieter, somewhere he could see the stars. I see this in Harold, of course, because I know it in myself.
The spring before I went to northeastern Oregon, I studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh. By the time I got to my dorm that first day in early January, it was 9:30 a.m., and the sky was still dark. It began to sink in that I knew nobody, and nobody knew me. Because I had opted out of an official study abroad program, enrolling directly at the University instead, there was nobody waiting to show me around, no built-in student cohort. I had no obligations outside of class. Compared to the rhythm of Bowdoin life—a Tetris of meal dates, Orient meetings, Outing Club trips, and parties—the number of unfilled hours felt astounding. I loved wandering alleyways and reading in the windows of ancient pubs, but even later when I had made friends, the thrum of relative isolation lingered.
I was a face in a city of so many faces. From the front door of my dorm, sliding into the current of people on the sidewalk, I would take stock of my loneliness. There were euphoric days when I didn’t feel it at all, and other times when it prickled, like a mosquito bite I couldn’t ignore. On the hard days, when I felt near waterlogged with homesickness, my best antidote was to escape entirely. I’d bundle up and put on my running shoes, then jog until the streets turned to trails that snaked their way up Arthur’s Seat. Bent against the wind on the grassy bluffs, my breath the only human sound around, I’d feel a boost of sustenance, a calming glow.
With nobody in sight, there was nobody to remind me I was alone. As the chatter of self-consciousness evaporated, I tuned to another voice in my interior: the part of me that dreamed, observed, and wanted to write.
After Germany, Harold’s life settled into the rhythms of house and work. He got married, lived and taught for over a decade in Barre, Massachusetts, and at some point had two daughters, Delia and Ruth. What were those years like? When did things change?
Years after Harold died, Clarence B. Boote, the principal emeritus of Northampton High School, would send a telegram to Oregon, fleshing out the details of his old acquaintance’s life. Boote wrote that Harold had fallen sick in Massachusetts, in a “serious and prolonged” way, and doctors prescribed him fresh air. Was the illness there all along, a shadow beneath his Bowdoin days, or did it only crystallize in his forties, the tunnel of his future narrowing to a point he could not bear? There were rumors—that another man had entered his family, or that he wanted to escape from alcohol—but here is the only truth I am confident in: something in Harold broke. “He disliked formal society, and preferred to be much to himself, or with one or two intimate friends, and the habit of seclusion was growing upon him before he left New England,” wrote Boote.
What made Harold go west, and what, in that mountainous, northeastern corner of Oregon, made him eventually stop and stay? He landed in Joseph Canyon, ten miles south of Washington and twenty miles west of Idaho. The canyon was formed fifteen million years ago, after a wall of basaltic magma poured out from fissures in the earth, boiling groundwater and volatizing everything in its path—the largest eruptions in North American history.
A decade before Harold arrived, the US Army had forced the Nez Perce to abandon the homeland they had shared since time immemorial. What did Harold know of them, when, in late 1888, he settled in the very canyon their tribes had wintered so many seasons? He would have found a creek full of native steelhead, shade from old-growth Ponderosa Pines, bighorn sheep and cougars toeing the canyon walls, peregrine falcons and bats roosting in their rocks, wolf howls echoing through their walls. A cantilevered cliff, and beneath it, a small cave, Harold’s home during his first few years in Oregon.
They say that cows outnumber people ten to one in Wallowa County. I went to that rural corner of Oregon because wolves had recently reestablished packs there, and their return was raising controversy, which drew me in. I did not want to write a thesis about a subject I understood, or a subject where the answer was easy. It seemed that researching how humans lived beside wolves would give me a chance to think about how we lived beside one another. I was interested in the stories we told about habitat, about family, about belonging.
While in Edinburgh, I applied for a summer research fellowship. When the funds arrived in my account, I booked a plane ticket back to Oregon and then talked my parents into letting me swap the back seats of their old minivan with camping supplies and drive five hours east. I’d return to Bowdoin in July, hunker down at the library and be with friends, but first, I’d get more practice being alone. Not in a city, this time, but among the trees.
After being driven to extinction in the mid-twentieth century, wolves had regained a foothold in the American west. The ones that wandered into Oregon were descendants of a mid-1990s governmental campaign that airlifted wolves from Canada to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. In part because Wallowa County was on the state border, it was one of the first places where wandering wolves established packs. I went because it seemed like a hotbed of both lupine activity and political controversy. I wanted to talk to people on all sides of the issue. The livestock producers, the environmental conservationists, the government biologists, the shop owners who made a living off tourists who came from cities like mine.
Much of the coverage I read about wolves seemed to center on an invisible, mythical divide—“urban” versus “rural,” “environmentalism” versus “agriculture,” “us” versus “them”—and I didn’t trust it. My own life had shown me that people, our identities, were muddier.
Though I grew up in the city, my family was often in the country, either on the Oregon sheep farm where my paternal grandfather lived, or in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, where my maternal grandparents lived at the end of a long dirt road, with a horse and a mule. Family called my sister and me “city girls,” but back in Portland, friends joked about our “farm roots.” I was used to feeling slightly out of place in each landscape, which is another way of saying each world offered me a sense of home.
One afternoon, I was basking in the air-conditioning of the Wallowa County Historical Museum, when, hunting for stories about wolves, I flipped open a Spring 1999 copy of Signal Mountain, “Northeast Oregon’s own historical magazine.” When I opened an article headlined “The Recluse of Joseph Canyon,” my eye snagged on familiar words: Bowdoin College. My eyes popped. I hadn’t yet connected Harold with The Orient, but running into any Bowdoin person on the West Coast was a thrill—one I now learned applied even for those who’d been dead almost a century. The museum I now sat in was located in the old 1888 bank building, a place Harold would almost certainly have passed through in Wallowa County. From here, Massachusetts Hall was 3,024 miles away. What were the odds that both of our bodies would have moved between these two brick buildings, more than a century apart? It seemed impossible.
In the article, which didn’t list an author, I read that Harold eventually left his cave and built a small homestead in the canyon, where he cultivated grain and hay and kept a band of sheep with dwindling success. As another local history book put it: “The gentle scholar was not born for the rugged tasks of western ranching.” He was described as “quite likable,” a regular correspondent with family and friends in the East, the sort of man who never missed going into town to vote in an election. He wrote often and accumulated a pile of compositions. The walls of his cabin were lined with books, mostly his favorite: English literature.
When flames one day devoured his house, what did Harold try to save? “There’s no telling what was lost,” reads the Signal Mountain article. “Perhaps the world was deprived of another Henry David Thoreau.” I later found a photo from after the fire—the only one I’ve seen of Harold—where he leans against the entrance of the chicken shed where he lived after losing the cabin to flames. The building is gap-toothed, as weathered as white-haired Harold. Frowning beneath a thick mustache, he squints at something in the distance.
Before I went to Wallowa County to write about wolves, I went there to climb. It was my junior year of high school, and we spent a long May weekend mountaineering. As usual, I was one of only two girls. On trips like these, we’d swap dog-eared copies of books—Thoreau, Dharma Bums, Into the Wild—and I’d read myself into their pages.
When did I realize that the stories about how to find myself creatively, how to find myself in nature, were stories about men curling away from other people?
I wanted to be a writer, but what did I know about reconciling my twin impulses toward solitude and community, toward wandering into the woods and hunkering with loved ones by the fire? When did my focus shift away from the rugged outline of those who broke the trail and toward the people who stood behind them, who got left behind?
I last visited Wallowa County in summer 2021, spending a night camping en route to a month-long writing residency in the Midwest. Grateful for the gift of time and space to focus, I spent my first day there trying to reconcile my feelings about departure. Back in Portland, the man I was dating at the time sent me a photo from a long bike ride he had taken from our apartment. In choosing to write, was I turning my back to a life off the page?
At some point after midnight, a rustle woke me. Annoyed at my fear, I unzipped my tent to look around. I didn’t see anything really, not until I looked up. How quickly it happened, then: my body stayed in Oregon, but my head zoomed toward the Atlantic, where, on a patch of chilly Quad, Orion was looking particularly bright.
Despite living in “a section of the frontier which the United States mail often does not reach for weeks at a time,” as Harold wrote in an update to The Orient, he kept in touch with his wife and daughters. He sent money home and received socks, handkerchiefs, and, once, a box of homemade chocolates in return.
One day, his daughters came to see him. I don’t know what year it was, so I don’t know how old they were when they finally stood at the edge of Joseph Canyon, staring down at the rudimentary house their father built after leaving theirs. “They sent word that they were there,” read the Signal Mountain article. Did they call down or get a messenger, someone skilled at scrambling up and down the rocky terrain? Harold’s response was resolute: he wouldn’t come up, but they were welcome to descend if they wished. The sisters had already crossed the plains and the Rockies for their father. They would not scramble any farther if he would not come up. They left without seeing him.
Because I don’t know if Harold’s cabin had already burned, I’m not sure where to imagine him going when his daughters fade from the horizon. Did he recede into his cabin, open a favorite book, and fall into its pages? Or did he sit outside, waiting for the lid of the canyon to pinken into dark, for that hunter Orion to step into the sky?
Harold had never been squeamish about his end. “It is my will and last request, that my body be burned on a log,” he wrote before signing his will. He stacked a pyre of fifteen-inch wood near the homestead for this purpose, requesting his ashes be scattered by a nearby rock spire. His wishes never came to bear. In late 1927, a friend of Harold’s found his body by the trail. He was unconscious; the doctor later suspected he had been bitten by a rattlesnake. After receiving medical help, Harold asked to be left alone. When a friend with nearby property later checked on him, though, he found Harold unwell. They carried him out of the canyon on a stretcher; a few days later, he died at the house of another friend.
That month, in November 1927, the Bowdoin Alumnus wrote that Harold had moved west after twelve years of teaching in Massachusetts, and now lived on “a large ranch...which he still maintains, although assisted by a partner, as his health has failed somewhat.” It seems likely that, by the time the piece was printed, Harold Wilder was dead.
In those early decades of the 1900s, hunters killed almost 400 wolves for bounty payments in Oregon. Had Harold ever turned a wolf pelt in, traded it for $25? A howl is a form of communication, the sonic constellation of a pack. What did he feel, lying alone in that cold canyon, if he heard the wolves talking across the land to one another? By the mid-1940s, Oregon’s nights would be quieter. All the wolves would be gone. Even Orion has two companions by his side: Canis major and Canis minor.
I became interested in wolves in part because I was interested in the stories we told about them—in how we projected our fears and desires onto them. I wanted to understand real wolves, but also the ones I so often heard conjured in idioms, metaphors, fairy tales.
The first time I heard about Harold, at the beginning of my research, he struck me as a lone wolf. Someone who preferred to wander alone. Only later, learning more about lupine biology, did I learn that popular conceptions of “lone wolf” are factually awry. Sure, a lone wolf has left its natal pack, but in the wilderness, this tends to mean that a young wolf has gone to look for a mate or new territory. A lone wolf does not set out alone because he wants to escape other wolves—he goes because he wants to find them. When I heard this, I thought of the cabin Harold had built with walls lined in novels. I liked to imagine him as someone who was searching for, rather than running from. Had he found what he was searching for?
I now know that summer of 2013 as the time I began orbiting wolves and the stories we tell about them. “Storytelling takes time. Years,” said Professor Anthony Walton on the first day of Telling Environmental Stories, the Bowdoin class I took that opened my eyes to the type of nonfiction I wanted to write. Ten years later, that orbit has found its end as a book. But when I look back on that first research trip, it’s not just the Canis lupus I think of. It’s Harold. If the wolves gave me something to write about, Harold made me think about the shape of a creative life.
The year after graduate school, I was offered a fellowship to teach as a writer-in-residence in northern Michigan. This is my chance, I thought. The first time I’d ever live entirely alone.
With my life boiled down to the bone, I’d have little to distract me from writing. But there, adrift from anyone I knew, I struggled to express myself. It wasn’t until the pandemic sent me home to Oregon—back to the entanglements of family and friends, the familiar shade of old firs—that I felt myself nested. I sold the book; I turned it in.
Every writer charts a different path through their work. So much of creativity is a mystery—opaque not only to the viewer but to the creator—and sometimes the best we can do is learn to find the footprints of those who have come before. We can never know what it felt like to make those tracks, only how it feels to trace their trail. To trust ourselves to know, under the same stars, when it is time to step away.
Writer Erica Berry ’14 lives and works in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. Her nonfiction debut, Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear, has just been published by Flatiron/Macmillan (US) and Canongate (UK).
Tina Berning is a Berlin-based artist and illustrator.
This story first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.