Category Archives: Animals

The Ice Bear: A Beast for the Ages – Guest Blog by Michael Engelhard

I met Michael Engelhard in the Grand Canyon in 2012, when as one of our superb river guides he steered us capably through one massive rapid after another. In calmer waters our conversations took us through philosophy, anthropology, nature writing, and the importance of the wild. Michael’s naturalist expertise and characteristic deep thinking led me to want to stay in touch. He has recently published the marvelous book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, which I highly recommend: it is beautifully written and illustrated, and engagingly conveys our complex relationship with this astounding creature, the Polar Bear, gorgeous and powerful. The following guest post, in honor of World Polar Bear Day on February 27, is by Michael, whose website is at this link.

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Fig. 1. Study of a sleeping polar bear, by the English sculptor and painter John Macallan Swan, 1903. (Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

These days, no animal except perhaps the wolf divides opinions as strongly as does the polar bear, top predator and sentinel species of the Arctic. But while wolf protests are largely a North American and European phenomenon, polar bears unite conservationists—and their detractors—worldwide.

In 2008, in preparation for the presidential election, the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate, the governor of Alaska, ventured to my then hometown, Fairbanks, to rally the troops. Outside the building in which she was scheduled to speak, a small mob of Democrats, radicals, tree-huggers, anti-lobbyists, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other “misfits” had assembled in a demonstration vastly outnumbered by the governor’s supporters. As governor, the “pro-life” vice-presidential candidate and self-styled “Mama grizzly” had just announced that the state of Alaska would legally challenge the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Listing it would block development and thereby endanger jobs, the worn argument went.

Regularly guiding wilderness trips in Alaska’s Arctic and feeling that my livelihood as well as my sanity depended upon the continued existence of the White Bears and their home ground, I, who normally shun crowds, had shown up with a crude homemade sign: Polar Bears want babies, too. Stop our addiction to oil! I was protesting recurring attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the area with the highest concentration of polar bear dens in Alaska, to drilling. From the top of my sign a plush polar bear toy dangled, as if in effigy. Though wary of anthropomorphizing animals, I was not above playing that card.

'Arctic Rising' in London

Fig. 2. Greenpeace activist at London’s Horse Guards. The bear’s shape and behavior make it particularly suited for impersonations as part of political “theater.” (Courtesy of Elizabeth Dalziel/Greenpeace.)

As we were marching and chanting, I checked the responses of passersby. A rattletrap truck driving down Airport Way caught my eye. The driver, a stereotypical crusty Alaskan, showed me the finger. Unbeknownst to him, his passenger—a curly haired, grandmotherly Native woman, perhaps his spouse—gave me a big, cheery thumbs-up.

The incident framed opposing worldviews within a single snapshot but did not surprise me. My home state has long been contested ground, and the bear a cartoonish, incendiary character. Already in 1867, when Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska from Russia, the Republican press mocked the new territory as “[President] Johnson’s polar bear garden”—where little else grows.

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Fig. 3. This cartoon from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper lampooned the purchase of Alaska 150 years ago. The sign reads “A present to [Secretary of the Interior] Bill Seward & Co. by the inhabitants of Walrussia,” and polar bears carry an ice bloc to cool the congressional majority that ratified the treaty.

The White Bear looms large in human history and not just because of its size. In part, our fascination with it springs from the charisma all large predators share: their quickness, intensity, and acuity, magnified by their strength. It is the idea of their unfettered existence, their calm in the crucial moments, that attract us. We see ourselves in them. “Their courage is in their breast, their resolution in their head,” the anonymous scribe of the thirteenth-century Aberdeen Liber de bestiarum natura explained. “They are called ‘beasts’ from the force with which they rage . . . They are called ‘wild’ because they enjoy their natural liberty and are borne along by their desires. They are free of will, and wander here and there, and where their instinct takes them, there they are borne.” Unlike us, polar bears are not very gregarious. Neither am I, and that, as well as their nomadism partly explains why they so appeal to me.

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Fig. 4. Nomad of the sea ice and tundra. Norwegian postcard, 1915. (Collection of Michael Engelhard.)

Deeply held preconceptions keep us from seeing the true nature of some animals. The polar bear is a prime example. Over the past eight thousand years, we have regarded it as food, toy, pet, trophy, status symbol, commodity, man-eating monster, spirit familiar, circus act, zoo superstar, and political cause célèbre. We have feared, venerated, locked up, coveted, butchered, sold, pitied, and emulated this large carnivore. It has left few emotions unstirred. Where the bears’ negative image prevailed, as so often, a perceived competition for resources or a threat to our dominion were the cause.

Bears, and in particular polar bears, might not dwell in our neighborhoods but they do live in the collective consciousness. I have turned to this creature as other, in the words of ecologist-philosopher Paul Shepard, “in a world where otherness of all kinds is in danger, and in which otherness is essential to the discovery of the true self.”

Far from being intertwined exclusively with its Arctic indigenous neighbors, the polar bear has lately assumed iconic status in the dominant culture. With the wholesale domestication or destruction of wildness that marks industrial civilization, the polar bear has become a focus of our self-awareness, contentious as no other animal is. Its ascent from food to coveted curiosity to pampered celebrity may seem incremental, inconsequential even, but it speaks volumes about our relations with nature. Transferring polar bears—or their body parts or representations—into highly charged cultural contexts, we share in their essence and employ them for our own purposes.

In the wake of its first importation into Europe, the bear triggered scientific curiosity and inspired artworks and nationalistic myth building; it enlivened heraldic devices and Shakespeare’s plays; in naval paintings, it defined the self-image of a nation. On the eve of industrial revolution, Britain turned bear slaying into a symbol of manhood and expansionist drives. With the waning of Arctic exploration, the bear’s economic and even symbolic importance diminished. It was relegated to advertising, trophy hunting, or popular culture until, starting in the 1980s, conservationists promoted it as both an indicator of environmental degradation and also a symbol of hope. (Ironically, oil companies co-funded some of that period’s polar bear research, fulfilling government stipulations.) Where wildness is threatened the bear has been elevated. Its revived economic clout boosts films, fundraising campaigns, eco-merchandise sales, and high-end wildlife tourism.

My biggest surprise in my research has been the longevity of attitudes involving the polar bear, which is particularly striking in fast-changing countries such as ours. The bear is sometimes still a sexual predator or a “stud;” it still is protector, is killer, is idol; it can still serve as the embodiment of a nation, as figurehead for a group of people.

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Fig. 5. Greenland’s coat of arms, showing the bear with its left forepaw raised, as it is thought to be left-handed, according to Eskimo lore. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

In gathering the stories and myths, the ideas and perceptions of many societies—including our own—I’ve sought to highlight the interplay of external and internal landscapes and the bear’s place in both. For the lore and awe it inspires, for the diversity and the sheer life force it adds to the world, I hope that the Great White Bear will continue to prowl both our internal and external landscapes for millennia to come.

 

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

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Arachnitecture: Season of Spiders

Oscar has once again made her summer home in a corner of my bathroom.[1]

Oscar in our bathroom. Discarded debris from his meals is below his web.

Oscar in our bathroom.
Discarded debris from her meals is below her web.

The season of spiders began here a couple of months ago, with the appearance of the first obvious webs in dark corners. Then I began having to dodge webs strung across my favorite forest paths. Now they’re all over, indoors and out, helping their owners make a living extracting bugs from their territories.

My grandmother called all spiders “Oscar” and allocated them an honored status in her home on Dauphin Island, Alabama. Oscars ate the mosquitoes and gnats that plagued us kids on our spring-break visits to her dockside ranch house. So although some of my best friends are arachnophobes, I’ve always enjoyed having spiders around.

This Oscar’s dining room is a tangle-web, an extravagantly three-dimensional array of strands that’s particularly difficult for the unfortunate prey to find its way out of. Maybe that explains why Oscar’s so healthily chubby. (My cleaning habits have nothing—nothing, I sayto do with that.)

Some of my forest spider friends, the Cross Spiders, build those familiar iridescent orb webs that catch the light so beautifully.

Cross spider's orb web Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Cross spider’s orb web
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

By autumn, they’ll drape the forest as spiders grow larger and need more prey.

Forest air filled with webs; look closely to see them at all levels

Forest air filled with webs; look closely to see them at all levels.
Click on the photo to enlarge.

Here’s the exquisite builder of those shimmering dreamcatchers:

Cross Spider Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Cross Spider
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

But my current favorite is the Sierra Dome Spider, who builds this wonderful Buckminster-Fullerish type of web, about four to seven feet off the ground, specially designed to capture bugs rising from the vegetation below: an angel’s tiara accidentally left behind in the forest.

Sierra Dome Spider's web Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Sierra Dome Spider’s web
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Such a stunning home also draws romance.[2] Male Sierra Dome Spiders, dreaming of love, are attracted to females with their striking dome nests—and see how beautiful she is! That lovely orange thorax, those delightfully translucent blue legs!

Sierra Dome Spider

Sierra Dome Spider

But after their romantic encounter, he’ll then destroy her nest by rolling all those carefully placed threads into a ball, to keep other males from sniffing around. She has to rebuild the whole thing, strand by strand, in order to feed herself.[3]

Tangle-webs, orb webs, dome webs: three different architectures, each tailored for what its builder needs. But there are a few essential functions they all have to fulfill. They have to be able to trap prey and hold it long enough for the spider to get there. They have to hold the weight of the spider. They have to be able to stay basically intact under the influence of a struggling bug, and as the spider wraps and removes her prey. And they have to be strong enough to withstand wind and rain.

Cross Spider with wrapped prey

Cross Spider with wrapped prey

Look at her web after she’s trapped and removed prey. It’s full of gaps where strands have been broken.

Cross Spider's orb web showing prey damage

Cross Spider’s orb web showing prey damage

Yet removing one thread, or even many, doesn’t cause the whole thing to collapse.[4] Spiders have developed the ability to produce different kinds of silks to serve the various functions of different parts of their web.

For instance, consider the strands that are sticky to capture bugs. Most solid materials break more easily if there’s already a surface rupture. To keep such initial cracks from developing, spiders coat their capture threads with a watery coat that lets those strands absorb vibrations more easily, giving them more elasticity. That means they can hold the prey longer, giving the spider time to get there.

Spiders’ strands also have a strange but really useful three-part response to being tugged. The whole web of threads shimmies with the prey’s wiggling (alerting the spider to its presence), holding together, but as the bug’s struggling puts more stress on the threads near it, they suddenly get very pliant, taking the stress off of more distant threads—which can then continue to hold up the web. Finally, under lots of stress, the buggy silk once again gets stiff, meaning it will break at the stress point, leaving the rest of the web intact.

On the other hand, when wind puts equal stress on the whole web (as opposed to a bug stressing mainly one thread), the whole thing stays strong. Amazingly strong, in fact: your neighborhood spider’s web can stand up to hurricane-force winds.

These architectural marvels are everywhere during this season of spiders. Even though “you’re never more than three feet from a spider” is probably one of those spider myths, there’s probably one closer than you think.[5] Thank Oscar for his excellent work next time you see her.

Sierra Dome Spider, waiting

Sierra Dome Spider, waiting



[1] I have left in embarrassing details about the state of our bathroom to show how helpful he’s being in cleaning it up for us. [back]

[2]  Apparently it works for some humans too; a realtor friend once told me back in my single days that if I were to succeed in buying that adorable quirky little cottage tucked into a Seattle greenbelt, I wouldn’t remain single for long. Although I did not buy that particular quirky cottage, I did later buy another. I did not remain single for long. [back]

[3] My companion has not yet destroyed my home, although he is planning some extensive remodeling. [back]

[4] Unlike a major bridge in my state. [back]

[5] Sorry, arachnophobe friends. [back]

Blockwatch

Taking a break from working on a writing deadline, I loaded up my binoculars and camera and headed down my street toward the park. I didn’t make it farther than the end of the block.

Atop the light pole on the corner was a Northern Flicker, calling loudly to an unseen companion (who joined him later).

Northern Flicker with mate

Northern Flicker with mate

Then he made his way vertically down the pole, investigating various holes tiny and large.

Northern Flicker examining hole

Northern Flicker examining hole

Northern Flicker examining second hole

Northern Flicker exploring hole #3

Northern Flicker exploring hole #3

Let’s look at that last photo a little more closely:

Northern Flicker extends tongue into cavity

Northern Flicker extends tongue into cavity

Woodpecker tongues are really amazing. The structure supporting them wraps all the way around their heads, in some cases looping around their eyes.

https://i0.wp.com/www.sloshtheory.com/Anatomy/files/collage_lb_image_page4_0_1.png

Woodpecker bone and tongue structure. Click on link for source.

This gives most woodpeckers lots of tongue with which to explore tree cavities—and that means they have to spend less energy on excavation. Then when they encounter delicious bugs, their elegant barbed tongue is sticky enough to grab the bug and bring it back to where the woodpecker can enjoy his meal.

Tongue of Hairy Woodpecker. From "The Woodpeckers," by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (1901)

Tongue of Hairy Woodpecker. From “The Woodpeckers,” by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (1901)

But that’s not all we can learn by observing what’s happening on our block! Let’s go back to the flicker’s exploration of the second hole. Did you notice anyone else?

Black-capped Chickadees monitoring flicker

Black-capped Chickadees monitoring flicker

These two Black-capped Chickadees flew in together, at first scolding the flicker and then remaining silent as they watched him poke around in their prospective nest holes. They waited until he left, then went back in — maybe to assess what damage he might have done with that huge beak and strange-looking tongue?

Black-capped Chickadee checking out hole post-flicker

Black-capped Chickadee checks out possible nest hole after visit by flicker

Black-capped Chickadee explores possible nest hole after visit by flicker

Black-capped Chickadee explores second possible nest hole after visit by flicker

I haven’t seen the chickadees at these holes for the past couple of days; maybe they’ve decided to search for nest cavities on a less popular tree trunk.

*   *   *

This afternoon, lured by irresistible sunshine during this extraordinarily wet April, I headed back out towards the forest. Nope.

I’d heard frantic robin cheeping, so I figured a hawk was somewhere nearby. Another drama in our little corner of the city? Yes – but with different players. As I walked out the door, I turned away from the forest, toward the robin calls…just in time to see a crow fly off with a lovely blue egg in its beak.

Hope and tragedy, all in a few short days on one short city block.

What’s happening on your street?

P.S. – There’s a sequel to this story! Check the next post, “Blockwatch Success,” to see what happened.

Male American Robin

Male American Robin

Tangled

The air itself seemed to be shimmering and vibrating. Always in favor of magic, I peered more closely to see what was going on.

The quivering was a crane fly, one of those bugs that look like giant mosquitoes but don’t actually bite or sting, whose long legs had gotten caught in the sticky strands of a spiderweb.

via Wikimedia CommonsAs the fly beat its wings with desperate speed, I waited for the spider to come scrambling out of one of the web’s anchor points to wrap it up for dinner.

The spider I’ve most often seen in this part of the park is the Cross Spider (a.k.a. the European Garden Spider, probably introduced from there). She’s a lovely creature, dramatically marked across her back, calm and focused even when a tiny tremor triggers her race across the web to wrap her prey in steely soft silk.

Cross Spider in her web

But this was no small tremble: the crane fly, low in volume but huge in spread at an inch and a half, was violently shaking the web in its effort to escape. Where was the spider?

Finally I realized that the web was torn and shredded beyond a day’s worth of meals. Like other orb spiders, the Cross Spider rebuilds her web each morning; this web’s architect had moved on, presumably to create a new one elsewhere. (Here’s a video of a Cross Spider in the process of weaving a new web on a recent morning.)

It’s hard enough to watch a creature struggle for life when you know it’ll shortly be consumed by a hungry predator, but now it looked like if the crane fly couldn’t unstick itself, it would simply die of exhaustion and starvation, unless a bird happened to swoop by and nab it. Yes, they only live 10-15 days anyway, but that means a crane-fly day spent struggling in a spiderweb is about equivalent to five years of dire imprisonment for a human. So naturally I wanted to free it, but it was too high for me to reach.

*****

Toward the other end of the hypsographic curve are other innocent creatures caught in tangled webs—webs indeed, like the cross spider’s, originally “practised to deceive,” to lead prey into a false belief—this time on the seafloor. These “ghost nets” trap vast numbers of victims, include those brilliant mollusks, the octopi.

Octopus vulgaris. Photo © Matthieu Sontag, CC-BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons

Octopi are intelligent, playful creatures. They have personalities and think conceptually; they can unscrew jar lids and create games with water toys andjuggle tankmates.

And they die in large numbers in the deadly fishing nets lost at sea, which continue their ghost-fishing mission long after they’re abandoned by humans. In the fishing ground of one Japanese coastal municipality alone, a study estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 octopi die from entanglement in these invisible webs every single year. So do rockfish, cuttle fish, lobsters, and other finfish and shellfish. These nets can keep ghost-fishing for years before they disintegrate, if they ever do.

Yes, there’s good news—for instance, the Northwest Straits Initiative has put a lot of work into ghostbusting the lost nets in Puget Sound—but there’s a long way to go.

*****

We intelligent, playful humans are also struggling in ghost webs—for instance, of chemical sensitivity to the web of toxics woven deeply into our air, our water, our homes. As with the disused spiderweb, the chemicals were intended for other purposes, but are trapping our innocents: children and other vulnerable humans. The important work of Jennifer Lunden, Sandra Steingraber, and others in revealing this tangled web of toxicity has recently been highlighted in the New York Times, including this aptly-titled photo in a series by Thilde Jensen.

And sometimes I feel like the struggling crane fly myself, as I try to create a life of happiness and love for nature in this web of nature-denying culture I’ve been born into. How can I stay light of heart and spirit, intimate with living nature, when my feet are enmeshed in a web of car-addicted infrastructure, indoors-based education, technological communication that sucks energy from the earth, from the soul? How can I free myself from the stickiest skeins in this entangling net, those of environmental despair?

*****

When I went back to the spiderweb the next day, the crane fly was gone. I’m going to choose to believe that it finally freed itself and those tired wings found a place to rest and recover, to enjoy another few days of life.