Category Archives: Ecopsychology

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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Eclipse

Between Christmas and New Year’s many years ago I was hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, descending through geologic time past tan, brown, red, and gray layers, pages in the book of Earth’s history—but reading it backwards, starting at the end and working my way to the beginning.

All through our hike, I’d been kind of dreading the descent into the Inner Gorge, because the rocks looked so dark and foreboding, unlike the lighter-toned sedimentary layers we were passing through. The Inner Gorge is walled by igneous rocks and gnarly twisted metamorphic remains of much more ancient sediments over a billion years old.

We finally reached the lip of the Inner Gorge, where the hard crystalline rocks have been etched into steep cliffs by the turbulent Colorado River below. And the scary dark gorge was filled with light! The huge crystals of mica and feldspar bounced sunlight at every different angle and I was immersed in shimmering beauty for two glorious days, basking in the warmth along the rushing brown river.

We finally had to leave the world of sparkling ancient rocks and climb back out of the canyon to fly back home, ascending back into the present both in geologic time and in our lives. It was a long haul, a vertical mile in just two days, and the temperature dropped rapidly as we climbed back up towards the plateau.

The last day, New Year’s Day, we rose before dawn. My partner lured me into keeping going with the promise that if we reached the rim by 11:00, we’d have time for a sumptuous champagne breakfast before we had to pile our stuff into the rental car to drive to the Phoenix airport. So I was hustling much faster than my normal pace, along the icy trail.

An hour or so before reaching the top, I saw a spotlight appear at the horizon. What concessionaire would have the gall to shine such a glaring light down into the natural dark and quiet?

As I ascended, so did the light. Finally I realized that it wasn’t a spotlight, but Venus, rising brilliantly over the horizon into the utter dark of the wilderness, the light of the goddess of feminine beauty perfectly complementing the shining dark liquid of the Inner Gorge.

That was one delicious champagne breakfast.

Before dawn this morning, I watched the moon grow darkeningly redder over the sparking lights of the Puget Sound shore during our total lunar eclipse: a rare part of its cycle, probably frightening to our ancient ancestors, now a source of wonder. Where do young women these days, eyes and minds glued to electronic screens large and small, find the feminine in nature?

Eclipsing moon over Puget Sound

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

My Mother’s Goldfinches: Elder Ecopsychology

Sunset walk

“That’s us in a few years,” I whispered optimistically to my partner as we walked along the bluff trail behind an affectionate older couple. They’re out there frequently around sunset, always holding hands. Since walking this path is one of my favorite things to do, it gives me hope to picture us still doing it in our 80’s and 90’s … and hopefully beyond.

As my mother began her decline into Alzheimer’s, one of her few constant joys was the pretty little goldfinches that flitted enthusiastically around the tube feeder outside the kitchen-table window. I often think she must have felt, not that she was changing, but that the world was inexplicably changing around her—that people had grown surprisingly unkind as they regularly told her she was wrong about things like what day it was and who this lady was who kept claiming to be her daughter. How did everybody get to be so critical, I imagine her wondering.

But those goldfinches were reliable in their small beauty, appearing in the same place every day, all year long. They didn’t criticize her or ask anything of her; they just chittered and hopped in front of the cherry tree by the window where they always had.

We begin shedding roles in later adulthood, as we retire and as our children become self-sufficient, and our lives begin to once again have space for a renewed connection with nature that can provide some stability for us. Increasingly free from those earlier self-definitions and tasks, we can return to some of our basic “natural” loves—gardening, walking, birdwatching. And so many of us in our later years have lost our human life-companions; time in the vibrant natural world can provide solace with its own form of companionship.

There are easy things we can do for elders that help provide that natural solace and stimulation. My mother grew up in Tampa, so walks along the beach always helped her feel especially calm and relaxed, even when her eyes began to take on that achingly vacant look. Having outdoors green spaces that make it easy to walk in nature helps elders stay healthy[1]. Being outdoors helps older people with dementia in assisted-living facilities become less agitated, and sleep better to boot[2]. If you’re stuck inside, a view of living nature out the window does far more to increase your sense of satisfaction and well-being than a view of buildings[4]. Want to further add to your elder friend’s sense of well-being and help her stay more active? Give her a plant to water in her nursing-home room—one that she takes care of rather than the nurses[3]. (This kind of contact with nature—animals, plants, views—is one of the foundational values of the Eden Alternative approach to elder care.)

Lilies for my mother

Is there an elder in your life who might appreciate a walk in the woods or along the beach? Or a companion plant to take easy care of with a bit of watering? A little nature goes a long way, especially in those last precious years. How about a goldfinch feeder?