by gannonned

Recently, a friend in town convinced me to part with this drawing, Symbiosis. Part of a series I called the TINAW drawings, the occasion caused me to reflect on why I made them in the first place. So I have posted these thoughts along with one other drawing called, Halflight. Copyright, 2012, Text and Images.

Balancing Act
By N. Gannon

“They say not to anthropomorphize…” – Rick Bass from Ninemile Wolves

“Wolves, when you get down to it, are a lot like us.” – Douglas Chadwick from “Wolf Wars,” National Geographic, March 2010

“Seventh heaven may be
The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass.”
– Seamus Heaney from Seeing Things

Is the evidence in? From just about any perspective, wolves are not detrimental to the eco-system in Yellowstone National Park where they were re-introduced—just as Aldo Leopold surmised so many years ago. One element that interests me about the whole process is what made a few environmentalists and biologists so doggedly determined to fight through the animosity of a group of ranchers, hunters, farmers and politicians in order to re-introduce the wolf? Without conclusive evidence, what made these people so sure that wolves would thrive and not send the eco-system into a nose-dive catastrophe rather than a beneficial Trophic Cascade? (For more on this science, please see Chadwick’s article, or Douglas Smith’s excellent book, Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone).

For that matter, what made Adolph Murie begin the push for wolf re-introduction almost a half-century before it occurred? What made him traipse all over Mt. McKinley National Park (now called Denali) collecting wolf skulls, scat, and kill, trying to determine wolves’ effects on Dall Sheep? It is worth noting that Rolf Peterson refers to the use of these skulls decades later in his own research. Of course, Murie was hired by the government as a naturalist, but upon reading his own accounts, it is clear how he felt about the wolves of Mount McKinley as well as the other flora and fauna found there. Murie valued the wolf before he could prove that it was valuable. In fact, his pain-staking research may have all been done in support of a subjective knowledge, a sense of things. Where does one get an internal compass like this? Do we even value such an ideal anymore? Can it be taught?

I have a particular interest in wolves for many reasons. One reason is my belief that tolerance for this once despised predator will act as a case study to determine whether the United States, as a whole, is prepared to dedicate itself to real preservation of wilderness. Wolf tolerance is a test of the environmental movement’s mettle. Or as Paul L Errington said, “Of all the native biological constituents of a northern wilderness scene, I should say that the wolves present the greatest test of human wisdom and good intentions.” The opening quotes by Bass and Chadwick epitomize the dilemma from my perspective. On the one hand, sympathizers are not to anthropomorphize, as Rick Bass points out in his account called The Ninemile Wolves. Attributing wolves with human characteristics would deny that wolves are distinct entities with unique traits which we must appreciate as such.

Paramount objectivity in the scientific community has spilled into all aspects of cultural thinking making us uncomfortable with even minor allusions to an emotional reaction, as evidenced by Douglas Smith’s response to the question put to him during an interview for PBS about wolves. He describes an incident in Yellowstone after an Alpha male’s female counterpart is killed. “…and the Alpha male, pardon my way of putting it, seemed to mourn. He howled for two days after. More than anybody had seen him howl. And he wailed and he wailed and he wailed.” (Nature: The Wolf That Changed America) Pardon my description? Why?

In many circles objectivity has been confused with open-mindedness and equality. In his book with Jean Mohr, John Berger warns of a world where everything is quantified, “…not simply because it can be reduced to a statistical fact, but also because it has been reduced to a commodity. In such a system there is no space for experience…Nor is there space for the social function of subjectivity. All subjectivity is treated as private, and the only (false) form of it which is socially allowed is that of the individual consumer’s dream.”

Etienne Gilson distinguished artistic knowledge from other forms of knowledge in the sense that it is derived from experience and action and can’t be passed through academic learning in the same manner as other forms of knowing. Even the part that is craft, which can be passed on, must be informed by another kind of ingenuity or innovation or it remains merely craft. Gilson says, “On the part of the consumer, the enjoyment of beauty is a kind of contemplation, but on the part of the producer, art is action.” (The Arts of the Beautiful, Page 57).

Magritte’s painting, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, or “This is not a pipe” seems to epitomize this ambivalence. Magritte’s tension between the thing (meaning the painting), the thing it references (meaning the pipe), and the contemplation the painting evokes, as well as the contemplation the pipe the painting references may generate, begins to feel like a conundrum that represents how artists are trapped between the subjective impulses that inspire, generate or create art and the very cognitive forces that define it and contextualize it.

Education is certainly not immune to this ambivalence, and, as an educator, I often contemplate the tension that arises between offering students knowledge and offering them “a way of doing things”. Not to say that “a way of doing things” isn’t helpful, but when encouraging independent thought, “a way of doing things” can seem more of a hindrance.

Joyce Cary states in art and reality, “To suppress the freedom of the artist is not only to cut off knowledge of the actual movements of human feeling but also, and more disastrously, contact with the realities of life. For those contacts can be renewed only by the continually new intuition of the artist.” (Art and Reality, Page 40) Cary later refers to a mode of seeing that many of us lose. “It is said that when you give a child the name of a bird, it loses the bird. It never sees the bird again, but only a sparrow, a thrush, a swan…” (Page 49) This seems in some way opposed to science’s goal of naming and identifying things. Psychologist Michael Gazzaniga’s studies have implied that the right side of the brain absorbs information on which humans act that the left brain can’t process. Perhaps Paul Valery referred to this when he said, “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” So what kind of knowing is this, if it deliberately eschews categories?

Art has the potential to generate mutual understanding through experience. It remains one of the few domains in culture in which intuition and the subconscious alter our perceptions of the world. Shared experience generates a bridge between the impersonal facts of life and the personal experience of life, between the objective realities and the subjective realities. Art reconciles our feelings of what we know to be true with our observations of what is qualified as true. But generating this response in a viewer requires a work of art to affect in its viewer both a surprise or shock and the recognition of an experiential truth exclusively recognizable in its existent form. Rebecca Solnit addresses this in her book, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. “To believe that conscience is an imposition upon consciousness is to regard engagement as a hijacker rather than a rudder, interference with one’s true purpose rather than perhaps at least part of that purpose.”

I titled a series of wolf drawings with the prefix, TINAW, This is Not a Wolf. Beyond the humorous reference to Magritte’s pipe, I wanted to stress the importance of the existent. Rick Bass was not objective about wolf re-introduction. To quote Bass more fully from the Ninemile Wolves, “They say not to anthropomorphize—and I’m learning not to—but in some respects, it seems bend-over-backwards ridiculous not to, for if a wolf does not have a spirit, then what animal, ourselves included, can be said to have one?” (Page 131)

Learning how to live is a balancing act that requires us to feel and intuit. Einstein put it this way, “It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who does not experience it. The individual feels the vanity of human desires and aims and the nobility and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence strikes him as a sort of prison, and he wants to experience the universe as a single, significant whole…In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.”

Maybe all artists are like Adolph Murie, lost in the primal wild of Denali Park, having shed civilization’s rules, knowing that their thing of value, their wolf, is of inestimable worth to the world, finally in step with everything that has escaped them, trusting their sixth sense, and hoping that they can be receptive enough to recognize the evidence that proves it.