When I was in high school in rural Maryland, my mom took me one day to the house of my great aunt Dottie. She had decided to move into a retirement community and wanted us to come and look through her huge collection of books to take what we might be interested in. I didn't realize at the time (we never do, do we?) that I was about to acquire an object that would influence my artwork for the rest of my life.
I remember my great aunt Dottie as a lively and opinionated woman who was extremely entertaining to have a meal with. She would talk about life, politics, current events, travel and, amusingly to me, the men she was dating. Her bookshelf certainly reflected that wide variety of interests. Even considering that, however, it is hard for me to imagine why she would have a book length scientific study of the wolves of Isle Royale, a small island in Lake Superior. Nor do I understand why I, a high school student in semi-rebellion against his scientist father and brother, would pick that to keep. Even more remarkable is that I read the book, cover to cover, like a novel.
L David Mech studied the wolves of Isle Royale because in its isolation, it was possible to study the predator/prey relationship between the wolves and the moose of the island. The isolation created a level of control that would not be possible in a larger territory. It was possible to know of every individual and almost every kill that took place and to chart the ebbs and flows of the two populations. Sometime in the distant past a pack of wolves migrated across the ice bridge that periodically forms between the island and the mainland and made Isle Royale their home. Every now and then the bridge reforms and a few wolves join or leave the pack, but the study has lasted over 50 years and continues today.
The book looks at every aspect of the wolf and its behavior, and though it is a work of science, much of it is written in a manner that was accessible to me as a high school student. I felt for the first time that I really knew something about a subject after reading The Wolf. I felt like other people around me might know a few interesting facts about wolves, but that I understood a bigger picture of what a wolf was. I later had this experience with pigeons and now I still try and read and learn about my subjects before I make art about them. I didn't immediately start making art with wolves as the subject, but I think it was inevitable that once I moved from painting landscapes to painting animals, the wolf occupied me for quite some time.
The story of the wolves of Isle Royale returns to me today because they are in danger of disappearing like the other animals I have included in the Natura Technica series. As temperatures have risen the ice bridge has not formed as often; only twice in the last seventeen years. Due to the lack of new genes brought in by new wolves, the remaining animals have become extremely inbred. There are only two left.
Many people are asking the question of whether human beings should intervene, a question involved in all of the species I have explored. Should we create an artificial "ice bridge" and bring a few animals to the island and release them? Should we let "nature take its course"? Is that even possible when humans have altered nature to the point where it no longer functions as it once did? Or are not we also a part of nature and have a role to play in balancing out the changes that are occurring? The National Park Service itself is confused on these questions since it first decided against introduction in 2014 and has recently reopened that discussion.
On his website Mech points out that several key points about wolves that are made in the book have been updated and altered with new information. Thus, he (and I) have continued to learn new things about wolves and will continue to regardless of whether there are wolves on Isle Royale or not. The island and its wolves can be seen as a significant piece of ecology or as an accidental zoo that has run it's course. It is up to us to determine which one.
An early wolf painting ~1998
The Natura Technica Red Wolf, 2014