A CONVERSATION WITH
SUSAN IMHOFF BIRD
In addition to your experiences researching wolves and the people affected by them, you write about very personal, sometimes difficult, aspects of your life—your children, your marriage, scenes from your childhood—would you tell us about the interplay between the wolf research and the more personal sections, and what it was like to write that woven narrative?
The more I researched wolves, the more I reflected on lupine traits that could serve as wisdom and guidance for my own life, and suddenly the pieces began dovetailing. Doug Smith’s comment about a wolf hunting with an obviously broken leg, their commitment to family and pack, the different roles wolves take on within their packs that showcase unique personalities, the marginalization (and killing) of wolves just because people don’t like aspects of their behavior. A fabulous freedom exists inside being who you are meant to be, and this became clear as I came to understand wolf behavior. Writing these entwined stories felt completely natural, as I connected the plight of the wolf with the very human struggle to know our place in the world.
What is the most surprising thing you learned about wolves while researching the book?
I had no idea that wolves shared such intimate social relationships. I was surprised and delighted to learn how playful adult wolves are with the pack’s pups—tossing bones or sticks, nudging and nipping, even playing dead after being “attacked” by a pup—all of these interactions are indicative of incredibly intelligent, creative, and curious minds.
What advice would you give to those wishing to incorporate their appreciation for wild places into their writing?
Craig Childs taught me to be completely silent, to take my socks and shoes off, to close my eyes, and to use all of my senses to experience what surrounds me. To then put pen to paper, after a few moments of silence, and write whatever wells up. I find this incredibly helpful when I’m trying to access the truth of my experience.
What was the most difficult scene or section to write, and why?
I found it challenging to write about why wolves have the right to be here, because we all hold such different beliefs. In general, it’s difficult for us to talk about religion and spiritual beliefs because they are so deeply personal—I struggled with how I might present my beliefs without offending those who might believe differently, and wrote this section numerous times, eventually scrapping most everything I’d written.
You spoke with many different people—ranchers, park personnel, etc—about wolves, and discovered wildly different emotions and points of view. But what about commonalities—did you observe any among the people you spoke with?
Researching such a fabulous subject meant I talked to only outdoor-oriented people—everyone I spoke with loves and appreciats the lands on which they live and/or work. In addition, my experience is that most people are truly doing the best they can in any given moment. Everyone I met felt strongly about their own experience, and justified their position with some form of “evidence.” The challenge, however, is to use critical thought to question some of that evidence, and this remains an opportunity.
What would you like to see happen next in the conservation and/or wolf reintroduction movements?
This is easy: buffer zones around protected areas. Wolves are protected right up to lines drawn on maps, and outside of those lines they are fair game for hunters during hunting seasons. Numerous Yellowstone wolves have been killed within miles of the park, all of them research subjects. A five-to-ten mile protected “buffer zone” seems both reasonable and realistic.
What projects are you working on now?
I’ve been digging into the story of wild horses here in our country, which is another fascinating window into the human experience. We have a long, involved history with the horse, and feelings about the thousands of wild mustangs out on the western landscape run the gamut—just like with wolves—from love to hate. I’ve also been working on a project about humanitarian work in Nepal: the wildest creatures I saw there were monkeys, however, which aren’t nearly as charismatic as wolves or horses.
You are a very active person—an avid bicyclist and you enjoy hiking and snowshoeing. How do you “translate” the activity of, say, whooshing down a canyon on a bicycle, (or straining up a canyon on a bicycle) into words? Is that something you think about in the moment of activity, or later on at your desk?
Absolutely in the moment! I am always, in my mind, trying to put my experience into words. However, the words aren’t always available during those swoops and strenuous climbs, and many times I revisit the adventure behind closed eyelids, fingers on the keyboard, begging the words to work their way through me and out of my fingers.
Which writers would you recommend to those seeking to learn more about wolves?
Rick McIntyre’s A Society of Wolves is filled with photography, stories, and facts, and gives a fabulous “picture” of wolves today. Gary Ferguson and Doug Smith worked together on Decade of the Wolf, a more lyrical presentation of the first ten years after wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone and Idaho that shares individual wolf stories. Marybeth Holleman’s Among Wolves tells the story of wolf researcher Gordon Haber’s work in Alaska—beautifully written and full of Haber’s spirited connection with the wolves he studied. And Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men is a treasury of lupine and human history, explored in impeccable detail.
Where is your favorite place to howl?
There is a section of road—part of my daily bicycle ride—that runs alongside a small reservoir. No houses in sight, very few travelers, just hillsides and reflecting water, big sky, and creatures hidden in shrub and tall grasses. I am usually here alone, and it fills me with extraordinary peace. My howl, here, is one of joy.