Read an Excerpt
The Bear: Out of the Wilderness and into the Human Psyche
Whenever the bear lumbers across the path of North American travelers and into human imagination, it arrives with the force of an omen. It is seldom ignored. Its presence is seen by some as an unexpected and delightful epiphany. And by others as a threat and reason for panic. The bear's reputation for unprovoked charges and the killing of humans ison occasiondeserved. But this behavior is extremely rare. When viewed instead from a safe vantagepoint, the bear is a wonder of roundness and fluidity. Its shambling flat-footed gait, its amiable curiosity, and its long connection to some of the most enduring characters of childhood fiction foster, in fact, an assumption that the wild bear is nothing more than an oversized Winnie-the-Pooh or a Paddington with claws. This is not true. Between the hugely exaggerated lore of the bear as a wilderness terrorist and the bear of myth and fables lives the real bear: a loner for much of its life, a meditative creature, a wanderer far smarter than previously credited, an animal whose winter hibernation is still surrounded with mystery, a dutiful mother, a survivor of centuries of human predation, and the largest terrestrial carnivore on Earth.
Of the eight species of bear worldwide, three range across wide expanses of North America: from the black bear's southernmost retreat in Florida's cypress swamps to the brown bear's salmon-rich streams of coastal British Columbia to the far-wandering polar bear of the high arctic ice. Because of their unpredictable nature and sizebrown bears and polar bears have weighed in at 650-plus kilograms(1430 pounds)they have held a fascination for humans since earliest times. Neolithic humans depicted them in European caves 30 000 years ago and the Asiatic explorers of North America, crossing the Bering Strait during the Ice Age, 12 500 years ago, had to contend with monstrousand now extinctbears the size of small cars. The bear's history, of course, goes back much further
As the lineage of the bear developed during the last 30 million years, some became miniaturesuch as the prehistoric, raccoon-sized dawn bear. Others became gargantuan like the recently extinct, 1000-kilogram (2200-pound) North American short-faced bear, the largest mammalian carnivore to have walked the Earth. The Ursidae, as the bear family is scientifically known, spread over much of the planet thanks to its evolutionary divergence from the rest of the toothy, carnivore clan. While most other meat-eaters have restricted their diet to fresh prey, most species of bear gradually adapted to an omnivorous diet, eating grasses, nuts, and berries during the lush summer and fall months and eating fish, insects, and carrion when available. This dietary shift accompanied a change in the bear's teeth over the millenia as cusps for grinding vegetation came to replace sharper molars. This shift included, as well, an increased ability of the bear to consume dailyespecially in the fallhuge amounts of plant material. It also explains the population explosion that began five million years ago among bear species as they fanned out with their newly acquired ability to forage in territorial niches previously off-limits. The spectacled bear of South America, the sun bear of Southeast Asia, the panda of mountainous China, the sloth bear of the Asian subcontinent, and the Himalayan black bear scattered across the Earth.
The tree-loving black bear (Ursus americanus) conquered most of the forested North American continent, later retreating in the face of human agriculture to Canada and 32 American states, where it is found today. Small pockets of the black bear also survive in the bayous of the southeastern United States. But the black bear has been a victim of a widespread slaughter that began well before Davy Crockett, a legendary early nineteenth-century bear-hunter, "kill'd him" not one, but hundreds in a misguided effort to rid the East of the creature. The brown bear (Ursus arctos) came to occupy much of Europe, northern Asia, andwhen the Ice Age freezing of the Bering Strait permitted it 30 000 years agothe western half of North America, as far south as central Mexico. Since this expansion, however, the brown bear has in the last hundred years been driven out of Mexico and most of the 48 contiguous American states, occupying today just one percent of its former range there. It now numbers fewer than 1000 south of the 49th parallel, a population isolated along the U.S-Canada border and in Yellowstone National Park. The polar bear (Ursus maritimus), the largest of all living bears, evolved in the last 200 000 years when a group of brown bears apparently became separate from the parent stock. Adapting through color, body shape, and gastronomic preferences to the northern icefields. it is the only bear that is primarily carnivorous. Despite centuries of human predation, the polar bear population has survivedand is increasing againfilling a vast and inhospitable territory that circles the entire arctic coast, including a southerly population centered along the western shores of Hudson Bay.
Around the world, wherever humans and the bear have met throughout time, they have formed an uneasy relationship, sometimes worshipped by primitive tribes, sometimes killed for medicinal and ritual uses, often the source for myths and folktales. The bear's appeal comes not only from its shaggy, almost comic manner, but also its capacity to inspire dread. When startled, they stand on their flat-soled hind feet, sniffing the air. in a strange, humanlike posture. This behavior, rare among large mammals, is not a sign of imminent attackthough humans, not surprisingly, usually view it that waybut simply as a way the bear can better see and smell its surroundings. This posture has led to a widespread anthropomorphic rendering of the bear as a sagacious and powerful spirit figure that is not to be taunted. Assyrian amulets from 3000 years ago show bears in this upright position wielding a raised club. The Greeks put Ursa Major, the Great Bear, into the sky where it's now known as the Big Dipper. The Romans bred bears for public gladiatorial contests.
The Navajo of the Southwest, the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Athapaskan of Oregon, and the Inuit of the arctic all celebrated the bear as an inspiration in hunting and a powerful source of human medicine. No other animal in North America assumed such a widespread and honored position in the pantheon of tribal mythologies. The Tsimshian of northern B.C. believed the kermodea rare, white-furred black bruinhad tremendous power as a "spirit bear." The Carrier tribe of the same region collected oil from bears' carcasses for use as a medicinal against arthritis.
In Asia, too, myth and medicine combined to attribute to various parts of the bear restorative, healing power. This belief has brought most of that continent's bears to the verge of extinction. The bear's gall bladder, when dried and powdered, is supposed to alleviate everything from headaches to heart disease to hemorrhoids. It doesn't. But the bile does dissolve human gallstones. And bear paws, served in a soup, are believed to be beneficial to people's health. Unfortunately, with a shortage of bears in Asia, poachers have turned to North America's black bears. One paw or a gall bladder can earn the hunter several hundred dollars. In Asia, a bowl of bear paw soup sells for U.S. S800 and a single gram of bear gall bladder for U.S. $50 ($1800 an ounce).
Beyond the superstitions and myths, beyond the evolutionary history of the bear, lives a remarkable animal that has survived in North America, despite centuries of persecution, by its adaptability to an enormous range of climates, terrain, and food sources. Like the wolf, with whom the bear shares a number of similarities, the three species of North American bears walk out of the tundra or forest and into the human psyche because they symbolize the contradictory nature of wildernessan unexplored place both peaceful and dangerous.
Each of the three North American bears occupies a distinct, though in places overlapping, area. The seal-eating polar bear is an inveterate wanderer, spending most of its time scanning and sniffing the ever-drifting ice, covering a circumpolar range that coincides with the Arctic Ocean and its fjord-filled shoreline. One radio-collared polar bear was tracked over a range of 300 000 square kilometres (116 000 square miles), an area larger than Oregon. Unlike the female polar bear, the male seldom dens, preferring instead to roam endlessly, even amidst the months of endless winter blackness when temperatures may drop to -57°C ( -71°F) and the only light is from the aurora overhead. These very conditions have, strangely, protected the polar bear from its only real enemy: humans. Today, well protected legally, with hunting of polar bears limited to licensed aboriginals and Inuit-guided sport hunters, the species numbers 25 000 in North America.
The brown bear has had a much more tenuous relationship to humans. Since it traditionally occupied the same territory people preferredopen woodlands, valley bottoms, estuaries, and meadowsit has been the victim of constant human harassment. Of the two North American subspecies of the brown bearthe rare Alaskan kodiak (Ursus arctos middendorffi) and the grizzly (Ursus arctos horribilis)the Latin name of the latter reveals mankind's view of North America's most dangerous animal. The brown bear was eliminated from most of its range in western Europe during the past millenium and from half its range in North America in the past century, as farmers, ranchers, and hunters tried to eradicateto use a nineteenth-century, anti-bear crusader's words"the tyrant of all animals, devouring alike man and beast." Today, the brown bear numbers 50 000 in North America. its population continuing to decrease in the face of western deforestation, habitat loss, and hunting. Its range now centers on Alaska. the Yukon. B.C. and Alberta. Still, with its massive 15-centimetre-long (6-inch) curved claws, with a weight usually between 158 and 317 kilograms (350 and 700 pounds), with a known propensityespecially among mothers with cubsto charge intruders, with its surprising speed, the brown bear deserves the respect it usually, but not always, gets.
The forest-dwelling black bear is the most widespread, most numerous, and most adaptable of the continent's three bear species. Its range extends across the northern boreal forest south of the treeline from Alaska to Newfoundland. This range also extends southward in three fingers of black bear populations that trace the coastal mountains of the West, the Rocky Mountains, and the Appalachians. Smaller populations of this ubiquitous bearit may number 750 000 in North Americaoccur in the Ozarks and the humid forests of the Gulf Coast and Florida swamps. Smaller than its other two North American counterparts, the black bear thrives by being an ursine garberator. It eats practically anything: berries, roadkills, acorns, garbage, ants, crocodile eggs, grass, dead fish, clams, campground handouts, the occasional hapless human, and, of course, its favoritehoney.
Out in the forests of North America where the bear is usually encountered, its appearance almost inevitably provokes a sudden sequence of considerations. Although even experts may find it difficult to decide whether an encounter is threateningan assessment the bear is also makingfrom a safe distance, a human observer can enjoy the creature's patient, almost lugubrious behavior. Perhaps it is September and the blueberry bushes are thick with blue-black pearls. The bear gorges, its nose snuffling among the bounty, its curled tongue stripping off the berries, packing on weight for the approaching time of denning. It is easy then, studying the bear, knowing what is ahead, to find a deeper meaning in the moment.
The bear will eat all day, every day, sometimes gaining 14 kilograms (30 pounds) a week, bulking up like a furry sumo wrestler for the six-month hibernation period. When the first deep frost hits the forest leaves, turning the blueberry bushes to mauve and the aspen along the creeks to jasmine, the bear will disappear like an apparition lost in the darkness of an early-winter snowstorm. But the bear will be nearby still, underground, sleeping, the female pregnant or nursing her new cubs, the male dreaming perhaps of early spring and the taste of skunk cabbage. In this way, the bear is like life itself, a reminder that, as Ecclesiastes said, "For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven."