Not everyone has held a polar bear head in their lap. I have. Luckily for me, the actual bear was not present. I was holding a polar bear rug.
One of my jobs in the early days with Bob Scriver in the Sixties was to put the backings and edgings on bear rugs. In fact, with local bears that we mounted, I also had the task of cutting a gusset in the tanned bearhide armpits so the hide would lie flat and then dyeing the remaining relatively hairless area (in that respect bears are the opposite of humans) with alcohol tinted with shoe polish to blend with the fur.
Bob mounted the heads -- one does not say “stuffed,” and anyway the skin is mounted on an empty papier mache form -- and then tacked the hide out flat on the “bear table” (two pieces of plywood side-by-side, so 8’X8’) to dry. When they were ready for edges, I cut felt (green and gold) strips and scalloped the edges with a little tool that clamped to the edge of the table and worked by turning a handle. Then I climbed up on the table alongside the tidily folded bears and rolls of felt and spent long hours pleasantly while I sewed the edges onto the hides, turned them over to cut out their silhouettes in the gray backing, and then went back around the edge to sew the backing to the felt. Most bears, even grizzlies, fit on that bear table.
The polar bear, mounted by someone else, had been a rug for enough years to need new backing and felt edging, in its case, blue and white. It was way too big for the bear table. I took it out to the studio-residence and spread it out on the carpeted floor where it covered the entire twenty foot square area. We looked at it a long time, petted the rather yellow fur, looked at the molded face and glass eyes, rubber tongue, plastic teeth -- tried to imagine meeting this monster out in the dark snow of the Arctic.
A grizzly can’t help echoing a teddy bear a bit, but a polar bear -- though it is believed to have evolved from grizzlies -- has a sly, ravenous, flattened look about it. The most sympathetic photos show cubs, all fluffy and button-eyed. I used to know a polar bear in the Portland Zoo back in the Forties and Fifties when barred cages kept the animals in and a simple pipe railing kept the humans just a bit more than an arm’s length away. One day I found the lion sleeping with one long leg thrust through the bars and stroked the top of his paw. He woke with a start and stared at me in amazement. I often shook hands with the monkeys. But the polar bear cage was wrapped in extra heavy mesh wire. An admiring little boy had approached too closely and been swept against the bars by the bear, whose paws were so strong and jaws were so clever that even through the bars the boy was killed and partly eaten.
That bear had only one pipe dripping into a shallow cement pond. Now the polar bears are behind heavy glass that also sides a proper pool where they can plunge and cruise to an imitation ice floe, like the ones they depend upon as rafts and decoys for hunting -- done so cleverly that they hide their black noses with their paws. We’re told that their fur is not actually white but rather clear like fiber-optical filaments that carry messages. The fur conducts light to their skin so that they can make enough Vitamin D to store it through the six month winter. If you ever hunt a polar bear, remember not to eat its liver, which has enough Vitamin D to kill you.
Polar bears probably evolved from grizzlies because of climate change when the planet glaciated -- not so long ago that they can’t still crossbreed with grizzlies. Already good salmon catchers and not at all afraid of water, the animals gradually learned to catch seals and to swim longer distances. The darker ones died out and the bodies streamlined until the bear looked quite different. There is not enough time for them to make more adaptations before climate change catches up with them. The grizzlies are not yet affected by the thaw and will resent intruders.
I once talked about global warming with a professional geologist, a crusty old fellow who said in no uncertain terms that we are in the NORMAL last stages of a retreat of polar glaciers that began ten thousand years ago, stimulating humans to develop agriculture, cities, and all the resulting consequences -- including industrialization and the production of greenhouse gases. If the political right has refused to even admit that global warming happens, the left has refused to admit that even if we subdue our own contributions, the planet will still keep warming -- no one knows how long. Until it begins to glaciate again. The only safe prediction is change. We are not in control, though we may have a little influence and ought to use it for our own sake.
The human population of the Arctic, as dependent on ice and permafrost as any polar bear, has already begun changes that will slowly erode and then eliminate their culture as it is today. Culture and climate go hand-in-hand to form the substrate of life that sustains all humans, varying from one place to another, from one time to another. Easy to say “change,” if you don’t have to give up the place where you’ve always lived, the foods and songs and clothing you’ve considered part of yourself. Will we be more gracious than grizzly bears when the Inuit move south?
The polar bears are already resorting to cannibalism and drowning at sea because of having no ice floe resting places. The effect on humans may become just as destructive unless we become both more resilient and more generous with each other, weaving a meta-culture to sustain nations. Perhaps this is the logical next step in the human changes that caused the first farmer to pick up a hoe. Still, I grieve for that polar bear whose massive head overwhelmed my lap, while I am grateful that I knew even a bear who wasn’t really there.