King of the Currumpaw

Art, Nature, Literature, Philosophy, and Wolves

Category: Wolves

Sierra Club – Colorado Posters

Wolves of Douglas County helped sponsor a showing of Medicine of the Wolf by Julia Huffman in Madison last October for which I designed a few posters, one of which was used. Recently, Sierra Club, Colorado picked up the two unused designs for two different commemorative posters for screenings on two separate campuses, Breckenridge and Spring Valley. Here are the posters as they ended up out west.




Poster Designs

Here are three poster designs created to promote a screening of “Medicine of the Wolf” a documentary on wolves by Julia Huffman, which won several international film awards. The screening is in October at the Barrymore in Madison. The spare, black and white design was chosen, but I am kind of attached to all of them. Maybe I can use the others for some other purpose in the future. All designs feature my artwork. Here’s the link to the trailer for the film

Wolf Patrol – Benefit Auction

Borders, an India ink drawing (11×15), is part of an art auction to benefit the non-profit group Wolf Patrol.

TINAW Borders Small

No Grounds for Hounds

The “No Grounds for Hounds” design was created to place on t-shirts that a local group and I intend to have printed. The idea is to draw attention to, and discourage, the use of hounds to hunt wolves which will and already does (through bear-hunting) result in vicious encounters bad for both hounds and wolves. I had been researching some Celtic animal patterns and so they inspired this project, which in turn may fuel future work. But in the meantime, I plan to post the design on my Facebook page on October 15th, the beginning of the season as a minor but visible form of protest, and I will encourage my friends to do so at that time also. I will assert rights to the image if it is used in a manner inconsistent with its spirit, but if other wolf advocacy people wish to utilize it, they may with my permission.

Wolf Totem

Wolf Totem

2014 marks the release of a film called, Wolf Totem, based on the novel by Jiang Rong (Lu Jiamin). The book’s wild success in China reveals that it is not only the United States that has a paralyzing ambivalence when it comes to the radical ecological changes that beset the next few generations. Ultimately, the tome of over five hundred pages (english hardback edition) proved to be political, violent , preachy, informative, full of beautiful description, desperate and sad, and ultimately visual and moving for me. The warnings that it evokes will likely fall unheeded by those uninterested in its arguments, but Wolf Totem can stand on its own as a wildlife adventure novel or as an elegy to the Mongolian grasslands and will not fade from the collective conscience, especially China’s, for some time. In fact, its radical success evidences growing concerns about sustainability, agricultural capacity and urban expansion in China. Pankaj Mishra, writing for the New York Times, has said, “It’s even more remarkable that a novel so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic has become a huge best seller, second in circulation only to Mao’s little red book.” Scientifically minded readers have criticized the book for its anthropomorphizing of wolves. This, to me, is a failure to see that the animal is tied up in the spiritual beliefs of the Mongolian people as well multiple metaphors for the writer.

In the United States, the Obama administration recently removed federal protections for the gray wolf in the lower 48 states. Obviously, the goal of any recovery program is to deem an animal recovered. But even as recoveries are pronounced a success, problems persist. The California Condor made a modest comeback after intense recovery efforts were made. But the nature of the animal is scavenging. Recent studies show that lead from shot has been killing the birds, and now efforts move forward to ban lead shot from the Condor’s range.

Heated arguments over wolf recovery fly between wildlife groups, legislators, ranchers and special interests, such as the International Safari Club which gave a presentation at a state hearing in Wisconsin recently where legislators such as Scott Suder are adamant about hunting wolves (the current kill quota discussion for next year stands at 275 but is likely to change). Suder wants to allow dogs to hunt down and fight wolves on the ground in addition to trapping, shooting and archery making Wisconsin the only state to use dogs in such a manner. Both sides insist that science is on their side. The hunters in Wisconsin say recovery is complete and the original quota (set in the nineteen-seventies at around 350) has far been surpassed. Arguments from wildlife advocates say it is obvious the state can sustain the current numbers and the original numbers were arbitrary estimates or even inventions. In addition, current numbers (750) may be leveling off, suggesting a natural carrying capacity. From a personal perspective, I haven’t ever heard a rationale for the use of dogs. It strikes me as heinous in nature, and I have been frustrated every time I have asked for an explanation from anyone.

But like so many political arguments, I feel the big picture has been lost. The truth of the matter is wolves, along with dozens of other wildlife, are losing their habitat to expansion, often of energy mining but also to suburban sprawl. Foxes, and to some extent coyotes, have adapted to this. Chicago even released coyotes into one of its largest parks to control rodent populations.

But wolves are different creatures.

In Wolf Totem, the book’s primary voice, Chen Zhen says,

“You can tame a bear, a tiger, a lion, or an elephant, but you cannot tame a Mongolian wolf…These thoughts made Chen aware that his understanding of wolves was still incredibly shallow. For a long time he had thought that food, and hence killing, was the most important thing for wolves; obviously that was not the case. He had based that assumption on his understanding of human behavior. Neither food nor killing was the purpose of the wolves’ existence; rather, it was their sacred, inviolable freedom, their independence, and their dignity.”

The existence of wolves will depend almost entirely on human’s ability to recognize an intelligent, outside entity that will not bend or bow to humans’ demands—in short, it will depend on tolerance. What is the cost if we don’t protect wolves and their contributions to a thriving ecosystem? Would deer populations become unmanageable in states like Wisconsin? Would they become more unhealthy and eventually be ravaged by disease or famine? We can only speculate.

Great Britain eradicated its land of wolves long ago. Would their eco-systems be richer if they had not? Evidence is growing in support of how biological entities are essential to the whole.

But again, we can only speculate. Wolf Totem describes transformation of the thousands-of-years-old Mongolian grassland’s ecosystem into a desert in a matter of years, recalling Aldo Leopold’s words, “If the land mechanism as a whole is good then every part is good, whether we understand it or not…To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” (Conservation (1938), RR 145-146)

Wolves represent the last remnant of whatever anyone means when they say the wild. But if we allow wolves to slowly lose their habitat, to slowly lose their range, we are condoning the anesthetizing and amputation of what we now define as wild. If the wolf is eradicated, we will need a new definition of wild—one that is less fierce, less independent, less dangerous, less beautiful. This new definition will look less vital and inspiring and more like something we cultivated in our backyard.

Local Independence Interview

New Work for an Exhibition at Volume One

A Wolf is a Force of Nature SmallJust a simple ink wash drawing.

See a story in Volume One, here.

In Progress – Personal Illustration Project (Copyright N. Gannon, 2013)

An Unusual List

Image borrowed from White Falcon, White Wolf, Nature

Image borrowed from White Falcon, White Wolf, Nature

Some of my Favorite Wolf Documentaries:
1) White Falcon, White Wolf: This documentary follows the lives of gyrfalcons, owls, wolves and other wildlife on the remote Ellesmere Island in Canada and contains some of the most spectacular wildlife photography ever.
2) The Wolf That Changed America: This documentary focuses on Ernest Thompson Seton and his experience with a marauding wolf in New Mexico called, Lobo, or the King of the Currumpaw. My grandfather knew Seton, and this wolf is my blog’s namesake.
3) The River of No Return: The River of No Return area in Idaho is the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states. Isaac and Bjornen Babcock chose a year-long honeymoon there. What starts as a biologists’ romance turns into something much more meaningful. Some have said the narration is somnolent, I found it quite moving to have narrator, videographer and researcher all wrapped into one, or two as the case may be. The photography is beautiful.
4) In the Valley of the Wolves: This documentary focuses on the return of wolves to Yellowstone, highlighting the now legendary Druid pack and a season of travails.
5) Radioactive Wolves: 25 years after the Chernobyl radiation leak, the area surrounding Chernobyl, the “dead zone,” is the home to one of the world’s largest concentration of wolves.

Some of my favorite Wolf Books:
1) Of Wolves and Men: The classic book by Barry Lopez that helped bring wolves to light that covers everything from biology, the myth, to U.S., Native American and international history.
2) The Ninemile Wolves: A slim volume with a big punch. Writer Rick Bass tracks the sparks that are set off when a pack of wolves wanders down into the Ninemile Valley in Montana from Canada as ranchers, hunters, environmentalists, government FWS workers, biologists, and animal rights activists all see the wolves as a symbol of their cause.
3) The Last Wild Wolves:Ghosts of the Rainforest: Ian McAllister spent years studying the wolves in British Columbia famous for living off salmon as well as other mammal prey. His text is illuminating but his beautiful photographs make this book something to hold on to.
4) Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone: Lead biologist on the re-introduction project for Yellowstone takes the dry details of a biologists’ work and shifts them into an engaging read about Yellowstone’s packs that are now world famous all the while maintaining the objectivity that contemporary science demands from him.
5) The Wolves of Isle Royale: A Broken Balance: Rolf Peterson spells out all of the complications involved in what is a fairly isolated predator prey relationship. The study on Isle Royale represents the longest ongoing study of a large mammal in North America.

New Parables

In 2010, a Nature program aired on Wisconsin Public Television entitled, The Wolf That Changed America. The story of Ernest Thompson Seton’s ordeal trying to track a wolf called Lobo, King of Currumpaw unfolded. One segment of the tale follows Seton as he soaks leather gloves in cow blood to disguise his scent on five hunks of cow meat that he poisons and leaves for the wolf on one of its common trails. He returns after a few days to find the first hunk gone, the second chunk gone and finally all five pieces of meat piled with wolf feces topping the heap. Seton gained so much sympathy for the animal, he later went on to become an advocate for wildlife, even aiding Roosevelt in the creation of the National Parks.

Completely exhilarated, I called my dad. I knew he would at least hear me out, even if he did not get quite as excited as I did about this tale. What he told me after I had finished relating the story was that my grandfather had gone on hiking expeditions and boating trips with Seton. Here they are pictured on a hiking trip (Clell Gannon left, Ernest T. Seton right)

Recently I mused on my suite of drawings about wolves for a presentation entitled, New Parables. I post the essay here with the photo.

COPYRIGHT, Text and Photo, 2012

Clell Gannon and Ernest Thompson Seton

New Parables

By N. Gannon

November, 7th 2012

In her philosophical treatise on the Iliad, Simone Weil argues that power is the central character in Homer’s epic. She implies that power’s ultimate purpose, in the form of violence, is to rob an individual of their humanity so that they can be crushed, literally. Unless, the human spirit is extracted from the body, bludgeoning a fellow human being is unthinkable. So we must demonize that which we oppose—this is the first step in any power relationship in which a party seeks to overpower another. We must cauterize any leaking sympathies. Facts, in these instances, mean nothing, because it is the humanness or spirit of the opposed thing that we hope to diminish or obliterate in order to allow the violence to ensue. In our society this becomes a game of propaganda, of information exchange and of media dominance—in short, who can shout the loudest or most often.

For me, one of the most potent elements of Ronald Dworkin’s recent book Justice for Hedgehogs was a segment in which he outlines the contradictions in many thinking individuals’ outlooks on life. A stated belief that morals are the result of an evolved dynamic between biology, geography, and cultural or environmental factors may lead us to the belief that varied moral outlooks are simply the inevitable and determined outcomes of particular places and times—the obvious answer to the equation. This sense that things are simply the way they are because they have to be can create within a thinking individual a sense that nothing can be done. And yet, the same people shout to close Guantanamo prison, which is surely the product of some equation as well. Dworkin says that this has created, particularly in academic circles, cynicism and skepticism—skepticism has become a moral position for many.  Hope is not postmodern. To be truly postmodern may mean to be morally paralyzed between intellect and flickering conscience, as John Berger so beautifully explores in his book, A Painter of Our Time.

From 2011-2012, I have been creating, off and on, a series of drawings called the TINAW drawings. Some people have amusingly asked me if this is an Indigenous or Native American term for wolves. It is an acronym I gave the drawings that stands for “This Is Not A Wolf”. Besides a reference to Magritte, I wanted to emphasize the existent. Nothing about my drawings replaces wolves’ existence in nature. People ask, occasionally though not as often as I would like, why wolves? Depending on my audience, I give varied responses. Sometimes I quote Paul L. Errington, “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.” Sometimes I reference Barry Lopez’s seminal work, Of Wolves and Men, noting that no other animal in human history has been so despised and with the exception of the Russian fairytale, The Firebird, and a few Siberian and Native American tales, all of western literature has depicted the animal as a nuisance at best and demonic at worst. Yet other times, I reference Douglas Smith’s terrific book, Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone, in which he outlines the trophic cascade that resulted when the wolf was re-introduced, positively affecting everything from tree species such as Aspen and Cottonwood to beaver populations in the park to healthier fish and bear populations.

But all of my comments are arguments for the preservation of wolves, not explanations of why I draw them. In a letter to Thomas Greevy, Wallace Stevens once wrote, “It is a queer thing that so few reviewers seem to realize that one writes poetry because one must… It is quite possible to have a feeling about the world which creates a need that nothing satisfies except poetry and this has nothing to do with other poets or with anything else.” In the end, I draw wolves for the same reason I believe most of us make art. I have a feeling about the world—a belief about the way it is or should be or a passion for something in it—that can’t be explained through traditional verbal or written discourse. And I say this as the once creative writing major offspring of two English teachers. These drawings attempt to demonstrate that I recognize the wolf. I recognize it as a taker of life and a giver of life. I recognize it as a nuisance and a creature of awesome endurance, fierce intelligence, and human-like loyalty. I recognize it as a reclusive and mysterious animal and a mythological animal of legend and fear.

In his book, The Last Wild Wolves, 2007, Ian MacAllister relates, near the end of his text, a story about the dangers of trying to garner sympathy among the masses for something about which they care very little. In an attempt to film a group of wolves living in the British Columbian rain forest for National Geographic, MacAllister’s team recruited a local outfitter, Raincoast. In November of the same year, MacAllister received a letter from the owner of the local store.

He informed me that “our” precious wolves existed no longer, that he had just killed as many of them as he could; he called it “ungulate enhancement.” He had shot them dead as they played on the beach. I found out later that he had discovered where the National Geographic crew had been filming…

My reaction to this is to batten down the hatches, or as Simone Weil states, “…to cauterize any leaking sympathies…” for the opposition. My temptation is also to become cynical and skeptical because things seem so out of whack with corporations and money writing legislation for our treatment and management of natural resources that are really the origin of everything and the source from which all things spring. As Barry Lopez has said, “I do not think it comes from some base, atavistic urge, though that may be part of it. I think it is that we simply do not understand our place in the universe and have not the courage to admit it.”

But I can’t become cynical. I can’t because to do so would be to fail at my own moral endeavor, as an activist for wolves, as a teacher, as an artist, and as a human being; because it is sympathy and understanding and patience that instill value in what I do. Many of us feel under fire lately for what we do, for what we value, for who we are, assailed and battered to the point of despair by senselessness.

Early in many semesters, I like to ask my students two questions: “What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?” and “What is one thing that you feel is absolutely true, and how will the way you think about art change if that thing turned out not to be true?” I don’t ask them this to push them toward relativism. I don’t really consider myself a moral relativist, even though I believe moral behavior is incredibly convoluted. But as the political landscape descends into an absurd comedy worthy only of Beckett, I often consider what I really want—what I want for my children—and, no, what I want is not “no taxes” on capital gains. What I really want is for my children to understand what is valuable, perhaps beyond what I can teach them, or as Wendell Berry said, “The highest moral behavior is not obedience to law, but obedience to the informed conscience in spite of law.” In her book, The Pine Island Paradox, Kathleen Dean Moore says,

Don’t all parents want the world for their children? Fellow parents, tell me, wouldn’t we do anything for them? To give them big houses, we will cut ancient forests. To give them perfect fruit, we will poison their food with pesticides. To give them the latest technologies, we will reduce entire valleys to toxic dumps. To give them the best education, we will invest in companies that profit from death. To keep them safe, we will deny them the right to privacy, to travel unimpeded, to peacefully assemble. And to give them peace, we will kill other peoples’ children or send them to be killed, and amass enough weapons to kill the children again, kill them twenty times if necessary.

Are we all children begging for this?

I won’t claim to always know what is right. And I don’t always know what to value. But in 2012, a lone wandering wolf, first referred to as OR-7, and now dubbed Journey, wandered into Northern California where Gray Wolves had not been sighted since 1924 when the last wolf was shot there as part of a predator eradication program. And that stirs me beyond the power of words. Because quite literally, if there is hope for wolves, there is hope for us.