- An image from _Wolf Empire_ by Scott Ian Barry
Scott Ian Barry’s photographs were once described by Ansel Adams as “striking and generous portraits.” Maybe that’s because Woodstock resident Barry focuses his viewfinder on the passion that’s ruled his life: wolves. His first book, Kingdom of the Wolves, won an award from the National Science Teacher’s Association. Now he’s created Wolf Empire: An Intimate Portrait of a Species, a compilation of images and essays for grown-ups, and has two local events coming up—a reading and signing at Mirabai in Woodstock on June 9, and another at the Kingston Barnes and Noble on June 22.
His adventures have taken him to Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian Institution, Alaska, a Sioux reservation, hundreds of classrooms and local museums, and the White House. Since 1972, wolves have been his constant companions; he has diapered and bottle-fed them, romped with them, mourned their passing, and been on the receiving end of mating overtures from a female in heat. Scott Ian Barry loves wolves, and it would seem they love him back.
He’s a proud Luddite, eschewing digital cameras and doing his writing on legal pads. He’s an activist, fighting tirelessly to prevent the slaughter of his beloved canids.
“More than once, when I’ve lectured in ranch country, some guy will come up to me, point to the wolf beside me and say, ‘Yep, shot one just like that last week,’” he says. “I answer, ‘Well, we all make mistakes.’ Who’s going to keep arguing with a guy who has a wolf standing right beside him?”
AP: Did you always feel wolves were your destiny?
SIB: I don’t want to sound too New Agey or disingenuous, but I describe the fascination as immediately postnatal and enormously powerful. It’s as if I were one of them, as if I had a wolf inside of me. When the other kids were being Superman, I’d be a wolf. There’s an old European legend of the Wolf Charmer, a spirit-man who lived among them; I felt that was me. That may be odd for a boy from Flushing, Queens, but that was me.
I started actually working with them in my late teens and never looked back. Everything I love most—photography, the outdoors—became tied into one with wolves at the center. It came to me, not so much me to it, as naturally as breathing air.
AP: Why do you think wolves exert such a powerful pull on the human mind?
SIB: Early on, human and wolf-pack social structures probably evolved on a sort of parallel track. Both species had to band together to hunt large game. Wolves were smart enough to follow human hunters and get the remains of the kills.
You would have thought there’d be a natural blending, but as so-called civilization evolved—cities and so on—there arose a competition over resources that continues to this day. Wolves have been so slandered—remember Little Red Riding Hood? They became “that thing out there.”
Then there’s the howl. That eerie sound went a long way to taint their image. Scientists have found that wolves howl the same notes that humans sing, so it’s a kind of primal resonance.
AP: You’ve actually taught humans to howl like wolves?
SIB: Most memorably, perhaps, on the stage of Carnegie Hall in front of a packed house—2,200 people all dressed in their best [for a Paul Winter Consort performance]. I thought they might be reluctant about it, but they couldn’t wait to howl!
My goal now is to teach everyone how to howl like a wolf. It’s life-affirming—very therapeutic.
AP: I notice there’s a lot of controversy surrounding wolves out West right now. What’s that about?
SIB: I’ve been fighting these same battles for 30 years. Wherever humans are, they won’t allow wolves to live in peace. The very same organization that restored the wolf to Yellowstone National Park, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is now proposing to kill them if they set one paw outside of the park. The wolves make a comeback, they rebalance the ecology, and then everybody wants to kill them.
Then there are the aerial hunts in Alaska—they take small, low-flying planes and literally run the wolf to exhaustion, then blast it. It’s inhuman and inhumane, and so wasteful. Wolves have the potential to teach us a lot about what being human should mean. Unfortunately, we have the worst administration in history right now on environmental issues.
AP: Touring the country with wolves must have had some interesting moments.
SIB: We were environmental pioneers. Nobody was doing anything like this—it was highly suspect. I’ve been detained by border agents, spied on by a special agent while doing work at the Smithsonian. They thought we were out to overthrow the country.
Then there’s the flip side—we were the “wolf people,” and we got treated like rock stars. I’ve met Robert Redford and Jimmy Carter. Wolves have made my dreams come true.
I’d love to see somebody make a biopic about the whole saga. We could call it "The Wolfman Cometh."
Scott Ian Barry will read and sign copies of Wolf Empire at Mirabai in Woodstock on Saturday, June 9, at 2pm. (845) 679-2100; www.mirabai.com.