Category Archives: Mythology

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.

fig-00-copy-2

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.

seward_1868-copy

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.

fig-03-copy

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.

fig-06-copy

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.

The Herald Pelican—Hark!

Lipari Town, Island of Lipari, near Sicily

Lipari Town, Island of Lipari, near Sicily

As I climbed up the steep cobbled path to the ancient Sicilian church, resting on its rock by the sea, I didn’t expect to encounter a haloed pelican inside. But there she was, a glowing mosaic at the front of the altar: wings slightly spread, neck arched gracefully over three young who were begging with open beaks. Her halo and her backdrop shone with tiny gold squares.

Pelican feeding young (mosaic, Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Lipari, Sicily)

Pelican feeding young (mosaic, Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Lipari, Sicily)

Looking more closely at her breast, I could see chips of red among the delicate aqua and white glass squares. What was she doing here, shining like a beacon in this baroque-looking 16th-century Catholic church replete with life-sized crucifixes and saints?

The images here in Chiesa di San Giuseppe struck me as unusually kind ones. A life-sized statue of Joseph with his lily-topped staff, holding 6-year-old Jesus by the hand as he listens affectionately to the boy’s stories. Mary in an earthen grotto, beaming as she received the news of the gift of life within her. Jesus leaning with concern over Lazarus, who is dying on a bed with loved ones around him.

So a pelican feeding its young seemed in tune with the loving images in the rest of the church. And Lipari has long been a fishermen’s town, probably for all of its 7000 years, so its people would have admired the bird’s exquisite fishing skills. Still, I was surprised to see a bird so prominently displayed: her gold setting shone like a beacon in the church’s dim light. Why was she here?

The “Pious Pelican,” it turns out, is one of the major avian symbols in Christianity. Another bird, the dove, is much more familiar to me as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. But the pelican has widely been used as a metaphor for Christ since about the second century AD.

Woodcut of a pelican in her piety

Pelican in her Piety. Woodcut by Cecco d’Ascoli (1269–1327). Click here for further info/permissions.

In this woodcut and the beautiful mosaic in Lipari, the pelican is piercing her own breast to generate drops of blood that will provide sustenance for her hungry children—a clear allegory for the sacrifice of Jesus. Thomas Aquinas referred to the bird’s generosity back in the 13th century:

Pie pellicane, Jesu Domine
Me immundum munda tuo sanguine
Cuius una stille salvum facere
Totum mundum qui ab omni scelere.

Pelican of Piety, Jesus, Lord and God,
Cleanse thou me, unclean, in thy most precious blood,
But a single drop of which doth save and free
All the universe from its iniquity.

(Translation: Edward Caswall).

* * * * *

The Great White Pelican pictured below is  the species that likely would have been familiar to Sicilian churchgoers. You can see why early observers, without the benefit of contemporary optics, might think that pelicans pierce their own breasts:

Great White Pelican preening. Photo by Eviatar Bach (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Great White Pelican preening. Photo by Eviatar Bach (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

And looking closely at the beak tip of this Great White Pelican, you could imagine it had been dipped in blood:

Great White Pelican - note red tip of beak. Photo by Frank Vassen [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Great White Pelican – note red tip of beak. Photo by Frank Vassen [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

 Finally, when a pelican feeds his young, he may flatten his beak against his chest to promote the regurgitation process—looking like he was poking his breast for blood.

Whatever the source of the symbol, it’s clear that pelican parents sacrifice themselves for their young. They share nest-tending duties and spend lots of energy catching food for their chicks. They literally open themselves up to nurture their babies: as the young grow bigger, they’re able to reach far back into their parent’s beak to grab the goodies. Sometimes the babies are so persistent that hints that dinnertime’s over don’t work—meaning the pelican has to shake her head hard to dislodge the hungry beggar from her throat, literally knocking it off its feet. Parents put up with a lot. But it’s worth it.

* * * * *

A few winters ago, I had pushed myself to get out for a walk in my park even though the weather was dreary and soggy. I was coming to the end of my loop, and as I shivered in the dusk’s chilly air, I thought how good it was going to feel to come into my warm hobbity home just a few minutes’ walk away.  I stood overlooking Puget Sound for a moment before turning into my street, when puffing up the steep trail from the beach came a ridiculously fit-looking runner. Seeing my binoculars, he asked me if I’d seen any interesting birds.

“Just the usual,” I said. “Towhees, juncoes, bushtits—guess they’re able to stay warm under those feathers.”

“Well, I saw a pelican just now as I was running along the beach.”

No way, I thought, we don’t get pelicans here. Like me when I was just starting birding, novice birders can sometimes think they’re seeing rarities when really it’s just a normal bird, perhaps in unusual light, or juvenile, or molting. Perhaps this was a gull fluffing its feathers, looking large in the dim light.

When I asked politely if he were sure of what he’d seen, he laughed and reassured me that it was definitely a pelican. I sighed. On the off chance that he was right, I was going to have to haul myself and my gear back down to the beach just in case, then trudge back up again when there was no pelican. I thanked him for the tip and headed down the wet trail.

At the beach, the light was fading fast. Bracing myself against the stiff wind, I scanned with my binoculars. And to my amazement, there it was: an American White Pelican, far outside its regular range, flying up and down along the beach, occasionally plunging into the cold water for fish. Would he still be here in the morning, when I could hope for good photos?

Yes! In the brighter light, and yet stiffer wind, the pelican shone like a beacon against the rocking, whitecapped water.

10631243964_cf3db74223_b

American White Pelican, West Seattle

Looking more closely, I could see the red tip on her beak.

American White Pelican, West Seattle

American White Pelican, West Seattle

I alerted the birding community, and soon I was getting texts asking where the pelican was now, and now. The birding website eBird shows that an American White Pelican (presumably this one) was sighted occasionally around Puget Sound for the remainder of that month, but then not again—until this year. Suddenly we’re getting lots of white pelicans all over Puget Sound.

Why? Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Katie Campbell reports that these birds may be climate refugees. Their usual freshwater nesting sites in eastern Oregon and Washington are experiencing drought, shrinking the inland lakes they depend on for security from predators. The white pelicans are failing in their efforts to be the good parents that the ancient Christian symbols show they’ve always been. And they’re apparently hoping that perhaps the Puget Sound area, even with all of its human disturbances, may provide a manger when there’s no room back at the climate-changed inn.

Like a visiting white-winged angel, the rare pelican brought a message from beyond our local world. She and her fellow refugees need our help. Not gold, frankincense, and myrrh: but perhaps bold, frank incentives to slow climate change—and a bit of mirth to keep our own spirits buoyant and resilient.

At this darkest time of year, the pious pelican remains a beacon in the dim light. The hope of Christmas will soon face a challenging New Year. Can we find it in ourselves to pierce our breasts for our family, shedding five drops of our own blood—five personal practices to help reduce climate change this coming year? Can we make this small sacrifice to feed not only our own children, but those of the herald pelican and all her fellow birds?

Let us hope so. These white-winged wonders are worth it.

Pelican piercing her breast to feed her young. Photo by Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo for attribution/permissions.

Pelican piercing her breast to feed her young. Photo by Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons. Click here for attribution/permissions.

P.S. – Good news! In comments below, my friend Véronique Robigou, naturalist and artist extraordinare, points out a Seattle Times article by Annette Cary, which came out just as I was finishing up this post. Cary reports that on Badger Island in Washington’s Columbia River, our state’s only American White Pelican nesting area, the pelicans seem to be rebounding. So we can start 2017 with a cheer of good hope for our avian angels!

american_white_pelican_creche_7462472830

Creche of young American White Pelicans. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie, via Wikimedia Commons. Click here for link and permissions.