“I always felt a deep affinity for nature and animals but it was seven wolf puppies that drove me, through love, into action.”
Susan B. Eirich, PhD
A Story of Grace and Grit
By Susan Eirich, PhD
Co-Founder of Earthfire Institute
I wasn’t exactly searching for a life-changing event. I was happy with my life, absorbed by my career as a psychologist and periodically taking time off to explore other cultures around the world. I’ve always been drawn to seeing the world through the eyes of others, whether those eyes were human or animal, and to looking at things from the broadest frame possible.
I originally earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. The curriculum at the time was heavily oriented to the hard sciences, but I was more inclined to become a naturalist and didn’t see a career path forward. Disappointed, I then followed my interest in learning about my own species and earned a Ph.D. in psychology.
I’ve been fortunate to spend time with the Waonari tribe in the Amazon, a Sherpa village on the border of TIbet, and with the Inuit peoples of Sanikiluaq Island. In between travels, I worked in the prison system as a psychologist, including at a supermax facility in Colorado, and I taught at universities in the US and around the world, including the US military in Japan. My life was interesting and fulfilling, and yet… I missed nature.
Coming back from a year teaching psychology in Greece, I took a job directing a preserve with The Nature Conservancy.
Shortly thereafter, I met professional animal handler Jean Simpson. His deep affinity for animals set him apart from anyone I’d ever met. His innate ability to communicate with and understand any and all living beings is astounding. I was especially captivated by his work with wolves. He invited me to help him on a Disney film for which he was training wolves. When I arrived on the set, Jean surprised me with seven 10-day old pups, asking if I wanted to help raise them.
That was the end of life as I knew it and the beginning of my lifelong commitment to connecting humans with wild animals.
Soon after our introduction, the wolf pups fell desperately ill and needed around-the-clock nursing. While holding them close, bottle feeding them, and feeling their hearts beat, something profound happened to me. Willing them to live and sensing their intense vitality and intelligence, I felt a connection that has lasted all these many years. The depth of this experience opened me to the possibility of connection with all forms of Life and became the driving force for the founding of Earthfire Institute. I couldn’t keep this to myself, knowing that we humans are all capable of finding such joy, beauty, and meaning in our lives.
Disconnection from nature is at the root of all of our difficulties. When we connect deeply with other living beings, we begin to understand the interconnected relationships among our Earth’s ecosystems and make better choices about how we consume natural resources. It’s hard to destroy something we love—something that nurtures, heals, and sustains us. The need to expand our definition of community to truly include all Life and reach back to our wild origins is the basis of Reconnection Ecology®, an approach to conservation that is urgently needed during these times of environmental crisis.
Together, Jean and I have built Earthfire—literally. Starting In 1998, we were able to secure land and permits and constructed a bridge to the undeveloped property. Working 24/7, we built every structure by hand and developed the mission in partnership with the animals under our care. Over the decades, we’ve worked to place Earthfire Institute at the forefront of an experiential, creative, and joyful approach to Life that expands our sense of community to include all the incredible beings we live with on our Earth.
It has been a difficult and joyous journey since 1998. Each day, each week, and each year is a delight, a trouble, and an amazement. An ever-increasing awakening. A microcosm, I believe, of our human journey. In the end, the story of Earthfire is simply a story of applied love, as we work to make a meaningful contribution to conservation on a global scale.
Earthfire Institute is named after one of the original wolf pups. She was a lovely silver gray creature, so hesitant and easily startled that we thought for a while she could barely see. Yet it was also she who stopped the squabbles between siblings from getting out of control, always with gentleness, as the pups fought for their place in the pack. She emanated the quality of Earth Mother, with the sense of a fire in her belly to protect anything vulnerable. Earthfire: a fitting name that symbolized what we set out to accomplish on our land.
“The soil, made up of finely ground stones and the leaves of plants that once soaked up the sun, is a miracle of intricate life whose secrets we have only begun to understand. It is full of tiny microbes living their lives, supporting more life. The roots of the trees in the forest are connected by a vast, unseen, underground network of fungi. Trees communicate with each other from one end of the forest to the other through these living conduits, sharing information and nutrition.”
Susan B. Eirich, PhD, A Love Song to the Land
Earthfire Institute rests on the native land of the Shoshone-Bannock people, comprising 160 acres within the broad, ancient basin of the Teton River, now the last major free-flowing river in eastern Idaho. It flows north from its headwaters to eventually join the currents of the Snake River. To the east rise magnificent young mountains, the Teton Mountain Range, reaching far into the sky, catching the clouds which bring rainfall and snow. Sunlight outlines the peaks with the rays of dawn, turning them a warm gold in the late afternoon, then a glowing rose in the evening. Curving from the south to the west, our riparian valley is hugged closely by the Big Hole Mountains, completing a horseshoe-shaped embrace of mountains around our community. Earthfire borders South Leigh Creek, the last best wildlife route in Teton Valley and a part of the expansive Yellowstone to Yukon Migration Corridor.
Caribou-Targhee National Forest and the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area are managed by the National Forest Service and offer rich habitat for our native wild animals, providing homes and migratory pathways for grizzly and black bears, cougars, wolves, and other predatory mammals. Elk, mule and whitetail deer, marmots, skunks, and ermine are also part of the fauna. Within our property lines, the South Leigh Creek corridor widens and narrows in sections by ongoing development, still capable of providing prime nesting and foraging for great gray owls and other raptors, as well as serving as vital breeding waters for Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Grasses, sagebrush, cottonwoods, aspens, and a variety of conifers line the creek, giving cover for the flow of wildlife within. All of this wildlife is at risk of disappearing—in fact, there has been a notable decline in observable animal activity.
From Microbes to Mountains
As people from all walks of life gather in the Tetons to partake in their beauty, it is imperative to acknowledge the history of the land and the stories of its inhabitants throughout time.
Development along South Leigh Creek has increased exponentially since the beginning of 2021 with new residential structures and platted subdivisions cropping up along an 11 mile pathway that is critical for a thriving wild population. Through the framework of Reconnection Ecology®, we’re working to preserve the corridor by spreading the message about the unique qualities of the land we live on and its importance for all of Life. Raising funds to purchase and preserve available parcels is ongoing.
When we talk about reconnecting with all that’s wild and alive, it should be understood that we’re talking about land and water and all of the life within. The land itself has a voice that needs to be heard. When we listen and act to fulfill the needs of the land, we ensure our own ability to live along with myriad ecosystems that breathe life into all flora and fauna.
Earthfire land is particularly vibrant because it is still relatively connected and undisturbed, its full vitality able to express itself. But land everywhere is the source of renewed life and hope and magic. Even paved over, the asphalt cracks, plants push through, and life reasserts itself.
Coming to us through a variety of circumstances, our domesticated wildlife cannot survive in the wild. Some were kept as pets, some came from fur or meat farms, and others were surrendered to us. All of them are cared for throughout their lifetimes. Our animals serve as vibrant, evocative emissaries for their species and for species individuality, opening the door for all of us to see ourselves and nature through different eyes—eyes that recognize and embrace our interconnectedness with all of Earth’s ecosystems.
In the years since Earthfire’s inception, we have built up a team of like-minded individuals passionate about reawakening our deep connection to wildlife and nature through Reconnection Ecology®, expanding our sense of community to include all living beings, and moving us to protect thriving habitats for all life.