Wolves. They haunt our fairy tales.
Little Red Riding Hood is lost in Grimm’s Fairy Tale forest. She is going to her grandmother’s house. But the wolf gets there before her and assumes the role and even clothes of her nana, ready to eat the girl.
Wolves prey on humans.
Or do they? Wolves are only dogs, or close relatives. Man’s best friend.
I have been visiting the town of Atina, Lazio, for four years now, each summer. For three years I have been curating the arts residency of Passaggiatina with the fellow artist Chris Simpson.
In 2016 I studied and drew sheep and looked at the pastoral life of the mountain community. In 2017 I wanted to look at the traditional rural enemy of the sheep. The wolf.
I have been interested in drawing animals for a long time. I love gestural drawing, the movement of a live subject and often find animals more interesting than people. They are more natural and I find their whole body expressions more compelling, certainly than life models. So I was keen to find live wolves to observe to inform my characters.
In the search for the wolf Massimiliano Battista took me and a small group from the residency on a trip to Citadella Alfedena in the heart of the Parc d’Abruzzo. In this journey we had to go higher up the mountains, seeking for an area where there were less people and more room for the large predators. I had read there was a wolf sanctuary close to the town and that here it was possible to see wolves, even through through the safety (for both animal and human) of a wire fence.
This witness of the wolf was very moving. It was sad that the animals appeared confined but we were informed that the wolves here here for their own health and well-being. Sick, injured wolves, wolves with difficulties in the wild, were brought here for healing and recuperation. The sanctuary has a beneficial and supportive role to play in the existence of the wild wolf in the Parc d’Abruzzo.
The wolves I saw were pacing up and down along the same path. It reminded me of my dog who patrols his garden, keeping an eye against intruders. He has a regular route that he likes to take repeatedly. He is a wolf on the prowl. It was disturbing to our amateur eyes. Were the wolves showing unhappy, distorted behaviour because they were confined, twisted into prison-style ways? We didn’t really know. But the wolves themselves were beautiful.
They looked different to dogs. They were so grey. Their hair was long. And they drooped distinctively, with low hunch and straggling tail. So thin and long bodied. And their tongues flopped, long and free from their long mouths. They were above all incredibly element. They loped and loped. They looked like they could run for miles, should that be necessary.
We learned more about the wolf from the wolf museum, but it had nothing to compare with the experience of seeing a wild wolf. It was a useful enhancement to the experience. Part of the thrill was being so high in the mountains, with a different appreciation of mountain life to Atina, which now felt as though it was only a hill. There is a vertiginous aspect to the mountains that outranks the Atina area of the Val di Comino in visual experience. The angles. The flora. The rocks. The pines. The nothingness, or apparent nothingness. Because there are giant deer and wolves in the trees.
My visual sequence drew on what I learned on the trip but also on my imagination of the wolf. I wanted to draw the community of the wolf. How it relates to other wolves how it lives in a family and moves in a pack. How it works as a team with complex social communications. I wanted to paint the wolf in the mountains, how it sees for miles in these high landscape, and how the pack moves across the landscape to hunt, find water and look after its family members. I wanted to paint what the wolf saw and what it felt internally. The dreams of the wolf. The religion of the wolf. The wolf goddess. Not a goddess-wolf that would have meaning to humans. But an imagined goddess of the wolves. I drew all that, achieving something but I still have much unfinished business and would like to return to this theme.
There is a programme of rewilding going on in the Parc d’Abruzzo and the wolf is very much part of it. It is under threat and needs our protection. Individual wolves do not live long in the wild. Only five years. It’s a dangerous and hard life in the wild. We can help by supporting the parks and by not doing foolish things like going walking with our pet dogs, an invitation to wolves to attack even if our dogs are on a lead. Dogs do not need to be walked in the wild parts of the park, especially at winter when dogs are hungry. When this has happened in the past, wolves have ended up being shot. They are still demons.
It is an interesting and successful strategy of writing to depict wolves as the enemy. They work together and the image of being surrounded by these hostile creatures, especially at night, can be a terrifying one. But in reality they are very vulnerable. If we wish to have these incredible creatures in the world they need as much help as we can give them in order for them to survive, multiply and live as long as they can. It is a hard life for animals in the wild. Let’s help them live as best we can and preserve their great environments.
I am very glad that the rewilding programme is going forward in the Apennines and hope that eco-tourism will become an increasing way of earning money which can be put back into maintaining the park for the benefits of the great predators and other animals which it supports.
Long live the megafauna.
*In the mouth of the wolf (an expression to wish good luck in the opera)