I didn’t seek this one out. I had all kinds of ideas for books, but this wasn’t one of them. Plus, I had several books-in-progress stewing: a memoir about traveling with and homeschooling my son, a collection of essays, a novel, a book of poems . . . a messy pot, with never enough time for cooking.

But when Gordon Haber’s research plane crashed into the mountains in Denali National Park, I dropped the pot. Gordon had studied the wolves of Denali and northeastern Alaska for over four decades, and had been a fierce and persistent advocate for their protection.

After the initial shock and disbelief came this: we can’t let his work go down with him. Especially not now. Not with Denali National Park’s wolf population at an all-time low because of trapping and hunting along its boundaries. Not with predator control throughout Alaska amped up beyond anything we’ve seen since before statehood. Not with the famous Yellowstone wolves getting hammered along park boundaries, and the federal government planning on delisting wolves in the rest of the country.

Thirty years ago, I moved from North Carolina, where red wolves were being reintroduced into the wild, to Alaska, where people were gunning wolves from the air. The contrast wasn’t lost on me, and has threaded through countless essays and poems since. Times I’ve seen wild wolves stand out in memory like the most crisp photographs, as does the first time I heard  Gordon Haber speak, not just with knowledge but with passion for this animal that he wrote “enlivens the landscape.”

 A wolf assesses the odds of stealing scavenged frood from a grizzly, while a pair of ravens feast on the bits. photo by Gordon Haber.

 

At Gordon’s memorial, one of Gordon’s former pilots grieved that now nothing would come of all Gordon’s work. That haunted me. I wrote to all who had spoken so eloquently at his memorial and said, what if we made Gordon’s decades of ground-breaking research into a book? Well, everyone thought it was a great idea, especially Gordon’s family, who promised me unlimited access to all his papers and photographs. But no one had the time or inclination to take it on. So--I did.

Don’t ask me where I got the chutzpah. I’m no scientist. But I did, thankfully, have a cadre of scientists as lifelines, and some experience translating scientific writing for a general audience. That, and a writer’s passion for revealing truth. I needed all of this, for there was doubt, since this project didn’t look anything like where I thought my writing was heading. And there was frustration over the other projects languishing, staring at me with sad puppy eyes.

One thing I did simplify: I went straight to University of Alaska Press. I knew they’d want it, and they did. I just couldn't deal with the book proposal being batted around among agents and publishers for years. I wanted it done, out, read. Gordon died in October 2009; the book is out this month, October 2013.

Gordon never published a book of his own, but as I excavated piles of papers in his apartment, his dry cabin near Denali, and his storage unit in Anchorage, I uncovered a book proposal from the mid-1990s. With sample chapters. Plus, he’d written scores of field reports, magazine articles, and scientific papers--and a blog. Not to mention his field notes and thousands of photographs dating back four decades, amazing sequences of wolves in the wild. There was a plethora of material. Way too much. How to choose?

 

Toklat alpha pair, Denali National Park. Mated pairs typically stay close together year-round. photo by Gordon Haber.

 

I let the wolves lead. I sculpted core chapters by sifting and editing Gordon’s own writing, and structured them around the lives of wolves: how they bond, raise pups, hunt, and play. And I revealed Gordon's life among wolves--sometimes through stories about his adventures in the wild, like the time a young brown bear, recently rebuked by his mother, tried to bond with Gordon at his campsite near a wolf den. That bear just wanted some company, but Gordon said he wouldn’t feel comfortable going to sleep with the bruin just outside his tent.

To provide a glimpse of this man who so passionately dedicated his life's work to wolves, I also interviewed his friends and colleagues, and wrote their stories as separate vignettes. Then, to illustrate the life of a field biologist, I included some field notes culled from three big boxes crammed with rite-in-the-rain pads dating from 1966. Finally, I added a selection of tweets Gordon wrote in his last year of life, some so poetic that it’s clear they arise from doing work he loved. Here’s one: “Raw, wild beauty at the den tonite with the wolves howling a great chorus for me as rolling thunder from a passing storm shakes the valley.”

This was a challenging project, in ways entirely different than my other books. Sifting through his work, sometimes I laughed, sometimes I cried, sometimes I gnashed my teeth and wondered how I would accomplish this, but I always knew that this voice, these experiences, these findings about wild wolves need to be shared.

The lesson in all this for me? Well, it’s that John Lennon quote: Life is what happens while you’re making other plans. There I was, working away on too many book projects, playing with them like a pile of wolf pups, and up leapt this one, out of nowhere, right into my lap.

It’s important for us writers to be choosy about our material, because our time is without a doubt our most limited resource. But it’s equally important to be flexible and open to what comes along, those astonishing surprises that let us know, once we look them in the eyes, what we’re meant to do.

 

Denali National Park Alpha female nursing three pups. photo by Gordon Haber

Have you ever had a project jump into your lap? Did you seize the moment? Share your stories in the comments below!

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Comment by Marybeth Holleman on October 31, 2013 at 8:02pm

Thanks, Pamela. And thanks for your interest in the memoir. I'll be sure to spread the word on She Writes when that one comes out!

Comment by Pamela Olson on October 31, 2013 at 6:42am

This book sounds terrific, and needed. Major kudos for taking it on.

I'd also be interested to read your memoir about traveling with and homeschooling your son. I'm thinking of starting a family soon, and seeking out alternative ways to make a living, travel regularly, and educate the kids. What's readily available doesn't always seem so appealing...

Comment by Jessica Vealitzek on October 29, 2013 at 2:13pm

You too, Marybeth, and thank you for the suggestion!

Comment by Marybeth Holleman on October 29, 2013 at 11:10am

Jessica, I'll look forward to reading The Rooms are Filled. And yes, the movies. I won't watch anything with Neeson in it anymore - that was just unconscionable. Try High Country News for your commentary - Writers on the Range. Extending the comment period is a good thing, I think - at least it's a delay. SO glad to meet you here!

Comment by Jessica Vealitzek on October 28, 2013 at 9:27am

It's called The Rooms Are Filled (SWP, April 2014) and I think--I hope--I've done them justice in the story. They play a role in a boy's memories of time spent in the woods with his father in Minnesota. I agree--it's hard to believe, for example, that movies are still being made (recently with Liam Neeson) that portray wolves as these vicious killers. I wrote a commentary on the subject, which I still need to submit somewhere, and in doing so I searched "wolf hunting" on Facebook. If you feel like getting completely depressed, try it. 

Also - I wasn't aware that the FWS had extended the public comment period on delisting. Hopefully, that's a good thing.

Comment by Marybeth Holleman on October 28, 2013 at 9:15am

Jessica, that's great. What's the name of your novel? Wolves are so often mis-used in writing and art with those old cliched myths like "the wolf at the door" that I'm always thrilled to see writers and artists portray them accurately. As I'm sure you've noticed, the more you really understand wolves, the more you become aware of all the ways these false mythologies insidiously work their way into our language.

 

Kate, it's hard when an idea gets tossed, for whatever reason, but I'm sure you'll land on another one soon!

Comment by Jessica Vealitzek on October 28, 2013 at 8:57am

I've loved wolves since I started learning about them in high school--so much so I couldn't help myself and found a way to include them in my first novel. They are such a misunderstood and vital species; I wish more people would take the time to learn about them. Thanks for writing this book and continuing his work; I look forward to reading it.

Comment by Kate Bracy on October 27, 2013 at 11:39am

This is so inspiring to me.  I am "waiting" for my next story idea, having been sideswiped by my last one.  Your willingness to be inspired and then to put your hard work behind it -- wow.  I hope this is a great success for you.  (And for the wolves.)

Comment by Marybeth Holleman on October 25, 2013 at 9:39am

Wonderful, Jo Anne! One of my aims in writing this is to inspire the next generations of wildlife biologists to do the kind of whole systems, observational research, that Gordon Haber did.

Comment by Jo Anne Valentine Simson on October 24, 2013 at 5:45pm

This is a terrific story! I need to get a copy of the book for my grandson, who wants to be a wildlife biologist and "save wolves." This will probably be his Christmas present from Grandma.

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