Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, January 05, 2006


A painting says less about its subject than about the painter's perception of that subject. This is particularly true when viewing an artistic canon as a whole. The genre of wildlife art is a good example, providing a chronicle of Man's ever-changing relationship with nature, from the Cro-Magnon murals at Chauvet to the latest releases in Art for Collectors. Today, no species of animal is more commonly portrayed than the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus), the most iconic creature in our culture's wildlife mythology. In fact, so clichéd has the poor animal become, that I'm unable to bring myself to paint one, and am forced to illustrate this entry with a pair of distantly-related South American Maned Wolves.

A century ago, the American attitude toward wolves was largely inherited from the Eurasian model, where several thousand years of coexistence with mostly shepherd humans produced a relationship of extreme aggression between the two species. In 1914, the U.S. Government began a program of wolf eradication, and within 35 years the species was gone from the lower 48.

The past 40 years have seen the public sentiment shift 180 degrees. Where hysterical hatred once reigned, romantic schmaltz now has the day. A century ago most Americans grew up with livestock. Today most of us grew up with Marlin Perkins. The average mall rat has a greater fondness for wildlife than did her great-grandmother, but in gaining that, traded away a familiarity with it. Little Red Riding Hood has given way to another mythology of half-truths equally pernicious. The noble wolf, who kills only to weed out the sick and old. A creature maybe a bit like Lon Chaney, Jr.’s whiny Lawrence Talbot, who would really prefer a more peaceable lifestyle, were one only available.

As agents of a representative government, wildlife managers are deeply influenced by these conceits. In the early ’90s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the same agency that decreed a policy of wolf annihilation in 1914, decided to replace them.

Today, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton is scheduled to sign an agreement with Dirk Kempthorne, Governor of the State of Idaho, that will formally hand authority to manage Idaho's wolves back to the State. Activists on both sides of the issue are up in arms, but any great change stemming from the agreement isn't likely. The new policy is more than anything symbolic of the surprising success that wolf reintroduction has been.

We're at a cultural crossroads with respect to wolves, and the tension comes from trying to write a new mythology for the species. We restored them to the Rocky Mountains not because they're a crucial part of the ecology, but because they're a crucial part of what we want the region to represent. Look at a few recent paintings of wolves by the current masters, and compare them to Victorian wolf paintings. That will point the direction our mythology is headed. The fate of Canis lupus is in our hands. If the fickle public changes its mind and decides it no longer wants wolves, that’s a problem we can solve. We’ve proven that.
illustration: "GOSTOSO!--MANED WOLVES & THREE-BANDED ARMADILLO (1997) Acrylic 20" x 30"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, these predator reintroduction programs, if successful, always run into trouble. Like the mountain lion "problem" in Boulder, Colorado, people will have to decide how best to interact with animals.

Will legislation help, or just inspire more folks to feel that Big Brother is getting involved where He shouldn't be? Will preservation win out over conservation? (I certainly hope not.) Will a kill 'em all attitude trump all other camps? Ugh...

After having spent much ink on the subject, I find it tremendously discouraging. As an East Coaster, it's all too easy for me to say "live and let live," but then again, my father traps and shoots red foxes and raccoons to keep the populations in check. He's be pretty damned furious if that landowner right were taken away from him. It has to be a result of individual conscience.

Anyway, great blog. I'll be here often.

11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Carel... welcome to the blog-o-sphere! Have to start checking this out weekly.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

h.h.--I hear ya brother! Not an easy nut to crack, but it's one we'll be perpetually gnawing on. Stay tuned!

t.m.--Thanks for stopping by! Love that bridge!

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s simpler than our old or new mythology of the wolf. Like over-developing, over-populating, and over-indulging, we reintroduce and don’t want to have to deal with or bear the responsibility for the results. How people “feel” about the wolf is irrelevant. They’re in the way again. It doesn’t matter whether they were reintroduced or returned naturally. We are now everywhere. Wolves living wild need more room than we will spare them.

I like you very much HH, but when I hear you use phrases like “landowner rights”, “to keep the populations in check” and “individual conscience” I have absolutely no hope of Americans ever learning to live with wildlife. Conservation is a 20th Century hunter’s concept that will never be replaced because it provides targets and allows people the simple expedient of killing for the supposed purpose of “managing”. Preservation is sticking your head in the sand thinking if you don’t see problems, they don’t exist. It’s hard for me to believe that we’re the same species that abolished slavery, found cures for smallpox and polio, and discovered the background radiation from the big bang. I think that the reason I paint so many long extinct creatures these days is that it’s easier than dealing with the dying of the living. Reading your words makes me glad I’m an old man that won’t be around much longer. It hurts too much.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Always good to have you stop by, Carl! I can't disagree with any of your points, or deny that our hunger for land leaves us in ultimate conflict with wolves, but I contend that how we "feel" is very relevant. It's why we develop management policies that are oblivious to much of what you just said.

9:40 PM  

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