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
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.