A couple of days ago a fifty year old man hiking alone in Glacier Park, which is near here, encountered a female grizzly with a second bear. She bit his arm and leg, picked him up by the foot and shook him, then dropped him and left. He had been making noise but didn’t have time to use his bear spray. He hiked back on the trail, met a ranger who called for help and was treated in Browning at the Indian Health Service hospital. Everyone took care of business, including the bear. This happens at least once a year. The bear was considered to be defensive and will not be shot, though the trail is closed.
A few days earlier a 17-year-old boy, part of an adventure group on a remote Norwegian island doing studies and reclamation, was dragged out of his tent in the middle of the night by a polar bear and killed. Four others were badly hurt. Their early warning trip-wire surround had either malfunctioned or been evaded somehow. They were equipped with rifles and shot the bear in the act. They had been trained for this. In future a night sentry will be posted. Present camping is closed.
Polar bears are protected from hunting on this island, but they themselves are arguably the most dangerous predator on the planet. DNA analysis only recently revealed that they evolved from big brown bears (grizzlies) in Ireland a very long time ago when one of the periodic millenial glaciers moved down to cover Britain. Now the polar ice pack is withdrawing so that the way of life that sustained them -- riding the ice to prey on seals -- is leaving them starved and even more relentless than before. There is evidence that they are remixing with the circumpolar grizzlies and brown bears. Human behavior has not redeveloped to meet the challenge.
When I was a little child, right after WWII, the Portland OR zoo was old-fashioned. The cages had bars wide-enough apart that one day a big male lion was sleeping with his huge paw stuck out through the bars. A railing that was supposed to keep the patrons back was easy to duck under. So I petted the lion’s paw. He jerked it away, staring at me with big orange eyes like any startled cat. Then he went back to sleep.
Nearby was the polar bear. Its bars were wrapped with strong wire mesh because not long before a little boy had done something like what I did and the bear grabbed him, dragged him through the bars, and killed him. I stood close to the cage and stared a long time. Waves of morose hatred and insanity came off that bear.
Polar bear cubs are white, fluffy, and, like any predator baby, very playful. Our media abounds with video of their antics. There is a YouTube of a woman so escaped from reality that she jumped into the polar bear tank of a major zoo. She was barely rescued. The last polar bear display that I saw had the bears behind thick glass walls, the inaccessibility being compensated by the ability to see the bears underwater. They are excellent swimmers but now the distances between ice floes are too much, even for them. The seals don’t like the distances either.
The British culture of adventure and exploration is saturated with notions of bravery, risk, and the science of the planet in the 19th century, the sailing years. Robert Falcon Scott has always been a hero of mine, partly because of a 1948 movie called “Scott of the Antarctic” that was played over and over at my brothers’ scout meetings as an example of stubborn persistence in the face of all discouragement and calm acceptance of his own death. These were qualities crucial to winning WWII. Roald Amundson, the competing explorer who made it to the South Pole first, was Norwegian and the film was made in Norway. Scott was played by John Mills, whose daughter Hayley Mills is inextricably mixed in my mind with the African “Flames Trees of Thika,” part of the same British colonial drive to inhabit far lands.
We are coming close to the limits of this near-religious understanding of life as something that must be dominated according to a hierachy using science and profit as a sword. Horatio Chapple, the boy killed by the polar bear if you are remembering, belonged to a family strongly imbued with Victorian values of bravery and action. The shocking comments of many Brits in the blogosphere -- cheering for the bear because the boy was at school at Eton, an elite school -- are part of the post-colonial world, roiling with newly released planet-wide class rage over oppression.
But also they represent raw fear in an overwhelming world as the "polar bear" of unknown fate grips them world wide. They are flailing and screaming in a wilderness they don’t know how to leave. Ironically, it might be the stubborn persistence of a man like Scott that would let them hike out in spite of their wounds. Instead, exceeding the deadliness of polar bears, they are like the Norway killer who gunned down scores of young people out of insane resentment of privilege. Lest Americans think they are off the hook, let me remind you that Glenn Beck was quick to attack these young people as privileged “Hitler youth” who deserved to die. Since he is a multimillionaire, he gets away with it.
There is another example Norway was quick to hold up: Hege Dalen and her same-sex marriage partner, Toril Hansen, were part of a group picnicking on the back of the island where Anders Breivik was systematically murdering youngsters. In an eerie echo of Dunkirk the group used their small boats to ferry kids to the nearby mainland, picking many out of the water where they had jumped to evade bullets. The rescuers returned and returned in spite of bullet holes in their boats.
They tell me that Robert Falcon Scott is a special hero of lesbians. Ursula LeQuin’s feminist novels, particularly “Left Hand of Darkness” draws on polar imagery. Certainly we are all in uncharted territory now, desperate for role models. Who cares what gender or nationality they are, or whether they are rich or poor, liberal or conservative? The lucky have partners and use their small boats to save others. Even polar bears. Horatio’s grandfather was not only a top army commander in England but active in many conservation organizations working hard to save endangered species. Like the rest of us, he lives on the cusp of the transition and pays a high price.
I have never forgotten that feel of that lion’s paw under my child hand. Nor the image of Scott struggling to write in his journal as he froze to death.