Bear stories: Hungry Shadows
In Steve Edwards bear story, he writes about when was a caretaker at the Dutch Henry Ranch, a 95-acre wilderness tract along the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon. The job required that he must, "learn to coexist with black bears," but it also led him to think about the edges of our interest in and curiosity about bears.Edwards lives in Massachusetts with his wife and young son. If you enjoy this story, you will want to pick up his menoir Breaking into the Backcountry, a full account of his time as the caretaker.His writing can be found in recent issues of Orion, Electric Literature, AGNI Online, Terrain.org, and The Good Men Project. He is also on Twitter @The_Big_Quiet.__Hungry Shadowsby Steve EdwardsA black bear waded through the bracken at woods’ edge and into the meadow a couple hundred yards below the cabin’s deck, enticed by the smell of our Mongolian pork on the grill.This was Dutch Henry Ranch, a 95-acre wilderness tract along the Wild and Scenic Rogue River in southwestern Oregon, where in 2001 I would spend seven months as caretaker. This particular night in July 2000, however, I had come only to visit and see what kind of trouble I was getting myself into.A line from the job description kept sounding in my head: “You must learn to coexist with black bears.” A flatlander from agriculturally colonized Indiana, I couldn’t begin to understand exactly what this meant.But the ranch’s owner, Bradley Boyden—the one grilling the pork and offering me Jim Beam over ice and cursing so ebulliently, his trademark—gave some idea that first night.The bear wandered our way up the mountainside, head-down in the long grass, sniffingthe base of a ninety-year-old apple tree. “Now that’s a big cocksuckin’ bear,” Bradley said, arching a fuzzy eyebrow in my direction and turning the meat.I grabbed a pair of binoculars. Magnified, the bear seemed much bigger than I’d first realized—250? 300 pounds?—and I tried to photograph everything in memory: the reddish-black hairs on its back, the doglike wetness of its nose, how its mouth hung half-open and its tongue lolled. Then Bradley started banging his grill tongs on the deck rail and shouting: “Get outta here, you cocksuckin’ bear!”The bear glanced up, somewhat startled but not terribly concerned. I got a good glimpse of its brown muzzle, its individual whiskers glinting sun. And the bear, squinting up at us, got at least a blurry look at me.It was only after the bear had turned away and started back through the bracken—casually snorfling off but duly rebuked—that I noticed a bright yellow tag in its ear, like a hoop earring. At some point in its recent history, this bear had been trapped, tagged and relocated. It was either part of some study or a “problem” bear or both. I asked Bradley about it and he said it was probably the latter, probably a “marauding” bear. Then he pointed out a few of the sugar pine shakes on the cabin wall right behind me, evidence of what a “marauding” bear could do. The shakes had been severely hacked and scored by bear claws. He opened the sliding glass door and revealed an arcing scratch right down the middle pane. “And what’s the only thing sharp enough to scratch glass?” he said. “That’s right—diamonds!!—a diamond-clawed fucking bear!!”I watched the woods’ edge, where the bear had first appeared and where now it dissolved into darkness, feeling lucky despite the taint of the tag (which meant what, that it wasn’t a real bear?) to have been in the presence of such a large and beautiful animal. A hundred years before, had Dutch Henry, the ranch’s namesake, seen a black bear in his orchard, that bear would have been shot. Now, at least, this ranch and its scenic easement against future logging, its protected-status as part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, serves as a something of a sanctuary for black bears. Yet I’m hesitant to call this progress too quickly.For if the price of the bear’s existence here is a tag in the ear, which to me represents prisoner status—any bear at any time and for any reason can be subjected to a number of invasive and violent scientific studies—then we’re still operating under the assumption that bears are ours to do with as we please. Ethically and ecologically, this is wrongheaded.For an example, one need look no further than the genocide upon which we became this land’s new arbiters. Like Native Americans, bears have been forced onto reservations and made wards of the state, been made into mascots, been sentenced to death on mere suspicion of wrongdoing, and are now in TV, films and books brutally mythologized as both “savage” and “wise”, are now at the center of land-use lawsuits and hunting-rights cases, are now “in the way” of an industrialized economy.
I can find no better example of this ingrained and inherently flawed attitude toward nature—especially as it applies to bears—than in lauded nature-writer Edward Hoagland’s essay “Bears, Bears, Bears.” The associative implication of the title alone (“Girls, Girls, Girls”?) is enough to strike an off-chord with me. The essay has two major components: 1.) It’s a laundry-list of all science has taught us about bears, black bears in particular, and how this information differs from what we know about wolves and mountain lions; and 2.) It’s the story of a week in which Hoagland shadows a bear biologist/graduate student at the University of Minnesota, a man named Lynn Rogers.Early on in the essay, one learns of what Hoagland feels is important in the venture, “On a seven-mile stretch of highway near Rogers’ headquarters thirty [bears] were shot in one year. This was before the townspeople became interested in his work; now they let the bears live”. To Edward Hoagland, science and the kind of stories it allows us to tell about animals like bears, so big and mythical, functions as a kind of savior.Throughout the essay, Hoagland characterizes Rogers’ work as “first rate” and laments that such work receives only a “modicum of funding from the state’s Department of Natural Resources”. He especially admires Rogers’ “enormous hunger for data,” categorizing his discoveries as “exciting”. And in the end, Hoagland—who has been described as the Thoreau of our generation—states, “I thought very highly of him—thisadmirable animal-catcher, this student of wild foods and smells, this scholar of garbagedumps. Because his bears like dumps, so does he”.It’s a rosy enough picture—Rogers’ work saving bear lives—but I’m troubled that an essayist as revered as Hoagland is so seemingly oblivious to the dilemmas of acquiring such data on bears. With the proverbial glee of a boy who’s found his father’s gun, Hoagland rifles off these sketchy details: “In the past four years Rogers has visited a hundred and six dens”; “Occasionally, when an animal is too bulky for the trap. . .he sets foot snares at its favorite dump”; “Once Rogers live-trapped seven bears in a single day, and once in the winter he handled five bears in one den—four yearlings and their mama”; “Rogers has put radios on seventy-two over the years, and when he’s trying to enlist someone’s support or testing a student who wants to help him, he generally goes to a den”; and “for his blood-tapping and temperature-taking he must haul the bear outside, and if there are cubs he deals with them. . . . After he’s through, he replaces the family just as it was—wriggling inside the den, dragging the cubs and mother in after him, adjusting her posture and limbs so that she’ll wake up feeling natural”.The temptation, I suppose, is to say, well, it’s better to have these bears trapped and handled than it is to have them shot dead because people see them as a threat or a nuisance. But this point of view—Hoagland’s—completely ignores the fact that the fear and annoyance leveled on bears comes from a Western culture that, often with the aid of science, has isolated itself from the natural world. No amount of information—no matter how many molars Rogers extracts from black bears—can erase the suspicion and doubt of a people who themselves lack any experience of the wild. Neither outcome (bears shot dead vs. bears exploited for science) addresses this most basic disparity. And, of course, what exactly do we suppose any of this detailed science proves in terms of bear salvation that we don’t already know heuristically? Bears need ample habitat and to be left alone.Isn’t that enough? That we press on, however, in the face of this absurdity—basing our knowledge of an animal, and possibly our love, on its sheer physicality, its teeth and body fat and blood-type, rather than on the amazing fact that, like human beings, bears exist at all—leads me to believe that there is a more ominous agenda we should be worried about.In the end, what scientific data like Rogers’ and so many others’ seems best suited for is showing states and municipalities how they might “manage” wild animals like bears on as little land as possible, with as few as possible of these animals to “sustain” a healthy breeding population. For regardless the intention of scientists—especially the ones who would decry this usage of their data as an unconscionable usurpation—facts themselves have no inherent ethical value but are ultimately what we make of them.In God is Red Vine Deloria Jr. echoes the point that our environmental problems are not the result of a lack of scientific information but are rather cultural, stemming from a lack of experience and insight, and are finally the product of a dominant worldview that at best has not adapted itself to the needs of the land and at worst is hostile toward that land. And as the dominate Western metaphor/discourse/religion, science now has a near-sacred obligation to poke and prod everything in the environment, without a sense of limits.Deloria points to the example of Native American gravesites looted in the name of discovery/preservation, railing against this as sacrilege because “they [contemporary Native Americans] did not believe their ancestors had buried their dead for the express purpose of providing summer adventures”.That the archeologists apparently had no moral or ethical qualms with this work at all, however—and indeed some were even upset because they saw the work as an attempt “‘to preserve Native culture, not destroy it’”—demonstrates again just how completely this ideology, information for information’s sake, has permeated Western consciousness.So when Native Americans protested their ancestral gravesites being tampered with, they were also protesting the dominant worldview. “It would have been nice,” Deloria writes concerning a dig in upstate New York in the early 1970s, “if the settlers of the region had learned something from the Abnaki when they were contemporaries so that the dig would not have been necessary”. The same holds for black bears today. Instead of searching for clues that will help us save bears down the road, why don’t we stop doing what we know is killing bears right now, like destruction of habitat by human encroachment and global warming? Efforts aimed elsewhere—like Rogers’ work with the bears of Minnesota—are further justifications, however slight, for the continued exploitation of these animals, for mining information from them in the way the Black Hills were mined for gold.
Now, in no way do I mean this as a blanket condemnation of science, or Edward Hoagland and Lynn Rogers, both of whom, I’m confident, share with me a passion for bears and wilderness that far surpasses any point at which our opinions may diverge. What I want to stress, however, is that even those who would work on behalf of bears must be conscious of how the tools we use to understand them—in this case, science—can subvert our intentions. Tools, by definition, extend our physical capabilities. They allow us to perform any number of activities with extreme speed and acuity, and there is nothing wrong with that. We’re evolutionarily hard-wired for using tools. The problem occurs when we identify our personal power/value/worth with the power the tool confers upon us, whereby the tool becomes an extension not just of the body but of the body-politic. You can see it in the inner city gang-banger with a handgun or the President with a vast army—the power of the tool becomes its own justification for use.This dynamic undermines our true evolutionary genius, which is not tool-use but rather the transmission of culture (which includes how we use tools and why, as well as our sense of ethics, morality and land stewardship) through storytelling. Deep ecologist Paul Shepard argues that in addition to scientific knowledge, truly understanding bears “requires many generations of human attention, the pooled accumulation of knowledge. . .. the efforts of poets, mythologists, metaphysicians, and artists”. This way of knowing—this way of being—has very little to do with the managing of wild animals as resources and makes no claim as a kind of salvation, except perhaps for us humans who seem so hell-bent on ecological destruction.So what if instead of further objectifying bears through science, thus making them perfectly safe and less than real, we made a concerted effort to better identify with, as Shepard suggests, stories about “the wild Other who is bound to us by our membership in the natural world”? In the differences we discover, Shepard sees a “talisman for pondering analogy, kinship and otherness”. And in this light, what need or justification would anyone have for excavating an ancient Native American gravesite or removing a mother bear and her cubs from a den in the dead of winter?
For a long time I didn’t understand why Bradley cursed and shouted and banged his grill tongs when “Yellow-Tag” wandered up out of the bracken at dusk. I knew that it wasn’t good for humans and bears to get too cozy, and I didn’t want a “marauding” bear hanging around the homestead when I was caretaker. But I’d never seen a bear before, not in the wild, and I was disappointed when it shuffled off into the woods. I attributed Bradley’s behavior to his general disposition (at dinner later, for example, he threatened to shoot me if I didn’t eat more corn). It wasn’t until nearly four years later that I better understood.From a mutual friend I learned that at a young age Bradley had shot a foot-trapped bear who’d been raiding the cabin, and that the event—which my friend John Daniel called “a giddy experience . . . but not one he sought, an initiation too early and too severe for a lad of fourteen”—still troubled him. Yet on that night of my first bear sighting, on the deck with a mug of iced Beam and looking out at stars more copious and colorful than I’d ever imagined, the Milky Way a pale splotch, Bradley was in high spirits. He told me one of his favorite stories. They’d brought in a trapper the spring after “Diamond-Claw” hacked its way into the cabin. The trapper set up a cage and baited it with a dozen marshmallows set atop beads of peanut butter and left with instructions to call the minute they found a bear inside—and in no uncertain terms was anyone to venture into the cage. A colleague of the trapper had made that mistake.He’d tranquilized the bear and gone in to determine its sex and check its teeth, and the door accidentally swung shut behind him, locking him in with the large ursine, who upon waking was sure to be cranky. Now, had they been in a laboratory where co-workers swarmed in and out in a constant hum of activity, it might have been a funny story. Maybe they’d have taken some pictures, made the man a screensaver. But this particular biologist, the story goes, was locked in a cage with a huge black bear in a remote backcountry location where it could be days before help arrived. “What did he do?” I asked helplessly, laughing a little at the outrageousness of the situation, at the irony of our human intelligence, and wondering if maybe the biologist somehow strangled the bear to death. “What did he do?” I asked again. “He had a pair of toenail clippers,” Bradley said, rattling the ice in his Beam and taking a long sip. “He took out the file part, you know—and it had this tip, like a knife—and he found the bear’s jugular. Bled it to death.”We both got quiet awhile and contemplated our drinks and the stars and the hiss of the propane lamps inside the cabin. Though it was past their prime feeding hour, a few bats circled noiselessly, skimming mosquitoes and moths from the air all around us. I watched them, their almost comical fluttering, and thought about the biologist covered in blood and waiting for someone to come along and free him from a trap he himself had set. It sounded a little too good to be true, and I suspect it’s more than likely a cautionary tale common to trapping circles. Yet isn’t this the beauty of a story? That it doesn’t have to have actually happened to be true, to reveal something about who we are? Isn’t that image of a caged biologist covered in blood, the bear beside him just a lump of fur and bones and teeth—isn’t that image completely emblematic of a Western failure of the imagination?When I hear about glaciers melting in Greenland, aerial wolf hunts in Alaska, the slaughter of wild horses in Nevada—and all the other ways we destroy the planet—it echoes with the cold finality of a cage swinging shut.