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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.

Hooting, drumming, flights so fine…will you be my Valentine?

Trileigh Tucker

Love is in the air! It swoops in graceful dark-winged arcs across the drooping tips of Western Hemlocks, rings through the forest in resonant baritone duets. Love hammers its name on strong bare tree limbs. And just before 5AM in yesterday’s misty gray morning, love hooted lustily in the cedar outside my bedroom window.

How do I love thee? the birds ask. Let us count the ways.

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The Fragile Season

Midspring was a time of astonishing busyness in the forest, with May Day full of singing and sprouting, building nests and tending the eggs of this year’s hope.

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Then things got tough. Continue reading

A Million Bird Miles: International Migratory Bird Day

(reposted with slight modifications)

“Congratulations – it’s a FOY!”

Janeanne, Mark, and I were peering last week through binoculars at a fuzzy blob on the top of a Western Hemlock on the other side of the little clearing. Janeanne, a far better spotter and diagnoser than I, called it: a Western Tanager. Since it was the first tanager any of us had seen this year, that made it a FOY (first of year), always very exciting.

Tanagers are lovely little birds, the males glowing yellow with an incandescent reddish head. So you’d think in our fifty-shades-of-green Pacific Northwest forest, they’d be easy to spot. But no: it turns out that these beautiful feather-people love to hang out in Pacific Madrones, whose peeling bark is a translucent brown-orange and whose aging leaves turn yellow and then deep orange. Perfect camouflage for a brilliantly-colored traveler.

Fortunately, in today’s fresh clear morning, an energetic tanager chose an east-facing Madrone to forage through, and I finally got my first-ever recognizable photos of one. Continue reading

New Lincoln Park bird list available

I’ve just compiled and posted—with the help of several other local birders—a list of all the birds we’ve personally confirmed at or close to Lincoln Park. There are almost 100 species in our little corner of paradise!

Please click here to go to the bird list page. (You can also use the pulldown menu under “Lincoln Park Info” at the top of each page.) There you’ll find a list of birds, some of which have links to photographs and other species information. I’ll be regularly adding photos and information to that list. There’s also a one-page printable version of the list that you can take with you as you go exploring the avian life in our back yard.

Coming to the Celebration of Lincoln Park Nature on April 23 (talks) and April 27 (field day)? Bring this list with you and come to one of our bird walks on the field day! Walks will leave Shelter 2 at 11:00, noon, and 1:00. Make sure to take your binoculars and good warm clothing layers as well.

The salmonberries are blooming, the hummingbirds are humming, everyone’s looking for nests – the world is alive!

Anna's Hummingbird at salmonberry flower

Anna’s Hummingbird at salmonberry flower

Have fun!

Song Sisters on the Shore

“Time to get up!” The 4-year-old girl sang one of her wake-up songs, her mother kneeling encouragingly by her side. Since she was now wide awake, maybe she she figured the other baby should wake up too.

On the beach below, the seal pup stirred. They have really good hearing, and perhaps the music in the girl’s voice had attracted her attention in a way that regular speech hadn’t.

Harbor Seal pup on Salish Sea shore

Harbor seals have to be able to hear well. Imagine that the little human girl on the beach was a baby seal girl. Let’s call her Lina, since her species name is Phoca vitulina. She’s swimming in murky Puget Sound waters on a day like today, with a stiff south wind chopping the sea surface, tidal current going in and out, other animals swimming by. If you’re Lina, it’s pretty hard to see your mother even if she isn’t far away, and hard for her to see you as well. How could you feel safe and secure, and be reassured that your mother knows exactly where you are?

Like other baby harbor seals, Lina probably began to “talk” just a few hours after she was born, making what scientists term “mother attraction calls.” [1] In just two days of life, she developed her own individual calls — for those babies to successfully follow their mothers on land and sea, it’s important that the mothers can pick out their baby’s voice among the other pups calling their own mothers.

Both human mothers and seal mothers want to make sure their young ones are safe. Human parents rarely leave their child alone, but seal parents often leave their pup on the beach while they go fishing; for seals, the beach is safer than the sea because their predators—for instance, the orcas that we humans so admire in this region—don’t usually make it up there. And for the same reason, often a seal will just haul out on the beach to rest after a long hunt.

Lina was fortunate because a couple of devoted people were watching out for her, including a kind passerby and Robin Lindsey, one of the founders of Seal Sitters. And the neighbors who were out for a Sunday morning walk along the beach were interested and respectful, especially the little girl who spontaneously sang to the baby on the beach.

"Lina" looks out to the Salish Sea

Young seals are known to pick up and mimic human sounds. And some seals appear to be singers; another contemplative naturalist writes about an encounter with seal song here.

After a few minutes, the seal pup stretched, then turned itself around and glided back into the sea.

Harbor Seal pup "Lina" heads back to sea

Might the young human’s wake-up song now enter Lina’s vocabulary, so that when she calls, her seal mother will hear the gentle echo of the human girl’s voice? And might the human girl on the shore forever feel a connection to her song sister of the sea?

Solstice Snapshot: Salmon(non)berries, Elderberries, and Kids in the Shrubbery

At long last, after one of the coldest, wettest springs on record, it’s solstice time in Seattle! The sunset has rolled over to the north end of the Olympics, and after a deliciously slow fade, overnight the horizon light seems to just shift slightly around north until the glow reaches its sunrise location. We Seattleites live for this time of year.

So what’s up in my urban wildland at this end of the ecliptic ellipse?

Savory salmonberries! Their deep pink flowers were duly fertilized by insects and probably that lively little rufous hummingbird I regularly saw defending his territory around here, and now they’re hanging temptingly from the shrubbery along the trails.

Salmonberries

They taste like sunrise, and aren’t actually berries in the technical sense—each berry’s seeds come from multiple ovaries—but somehow “salmonaggregatefruit” doesn’t have quite the ring that “salmonberry” does, so I’m going to keep calling them salmonberries.

Elderberries, which actually are berries because each fruit comes from a single ovary, are just now beginning to acquire their gorgeous red color. At this point, before they’re ripe, they look sort of like a flopped-over, decorated Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Ripening red elderberry

Once the berries fill out and the cluster gets heavy, I always love to feel its tickle in the palm of my hand. And there’s something so satisfying about running my fingers through that jumble of tiny red balls.

The flickers have just fledged, the young pileated woodpeckers are expanding their range beyond their nest hole, and the mother hawk is feeding her as-yet-invisible babies regularly, tail high above the nest’s edge as she tilts in with scraps of prey. Any day now I’m hoping to see a baby head or two up there in that secret place of theirs in the tall thin tree.

I’m always on the lookout for my own good secret places in my park, ones that offer some privacy, a fairly comfortable log that’s more or less horizontal, and a reasonable prospect of seeing birds. Yesterday I was poking around a cleared area near the salmonberries, and saw a nice log toward the back, behind some sprouting Himalayan blackberry plants. With the forest behind me, the blackberries to screen me from the major trail, and a view around the cleared area to trees where I’d seen chickadees, fox sparrows, and hawks, I figured it might make a good sitting spot. So I parked there with my notebook out to jot down some descriptions of the elderberries.

Soon I heard voices along the smaller trail to my right: two children and two young mothers. Their chatter faded as they walked south, and I went back to my field book—but not for long before first a small face and then a larger one appeared through a gap in the trees, asking each other whether the overgrown path they were bushwhacking through actually made it to the clearing.

Children! Exploring the forest, making their way along tiny hidden tracks, excited about seeing what came next! Even with all the time I spend in the park, I almost never see this, and I felt so encouraged. The kids weren’t entirely on their own, which would’ve been even more hopeful, but at least these terrific mothers were letting the kids take the lead, scratches and all. If we’ve got kids scrambling through the shrubbery, getting to know a place and building an intimate relationship with it, there’s hope for our ecological future.