Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Grizzly Bear!

Our book today is Thomas McNamee's 1982 natural history masterpiece, The Grizzly Bear, the best, most poetic, most memorable book ever written about one of the world's most famous oversized Pleistocene holdovers. This is higher praise than it sounds, since the grizzly bear has inspired quite a few really good pieces of writing in the last hundred and fifty years. These animals have been hunted mercilessly, trapped, tormented, eradicated from over 90 percent of their old North American ranges, but they've also always held a particular fascination for human beings, and the reason is twofold. First and most obvious, grizzlies are spectacularly dangerous animals - the true size and heft of an adult male has to be seen up in person to be believed, and although the females are smaller, their legendary ferocity in defense of their cubs has been the well-known (and in once case, even, in the last artistic activity of the man's life, well-photographed) cause of many bear attacks. And second, grizzlies are oddly, very noticeably like human beings in many ways. As McNamee points out in his book, these bears are highly individualistic - they do things their own way, figure out problems with disarming speed, and are seldom too busy to stop and amuse themselves once in a while.

If you happen to do any back-country hiking in norther and western Canada, it's probably the first of these two things that'll be on your mind. It's a land-equivalent to the experience of swimming in the ocean with the possibility of sharks: there's something incredibly unnerving about knowing there's a larger-than-negligible chance you could run into a smart, irritable animal powerful enough to kill or maim you without even really trying. If you're hiking with a group of true and valiant dogs (basset hounds need not apply), you probably don't have to worry about the killing or maiming (even a full-grown grizzly is unlikely to attack a well-coordinated dog pack), but if you're without such company (McNamee has a hilarious, withering section about a whining young hiking couple coming witlessly close to encountering some bears) and you meet a bear in the wild, you're about as helpless as you can be. It can put a damper on even the prettiest walk.

McNamee knows his animal well. His book follows a fictional, slightly idealized trio of bears - a mother and her two cubs - for a year of seasons and problems and challenges. By taking his readers this way through the cubs' experience of learning how to be a bear (including "the three fundamental rules of grizzly bear cubhood: follow mother, obey mother, have, within those constraints, as good a time as possible"), he's hit on the perfect means to teach his readers the same things. The best parts of his book are the many places where he shows us just how much there is to learn:

A well-educated and experienced grizzly bear's knowledge of his home range is astoundingly comprehensive and precise. Our mother bear remembers not only where she found good things to eat last year but also where, six years ago, in a summer of drought, a low moist spot in an otherwise sere expanse of sun-parched timothy still held a pocket of lush bluegrass.She remembers which slopes and ridgetops are the first to be blown free of snow in spring. She remembers, even before their aerial parts appear, where the richest starchy roots and tubers may be dug. She knows the buried whereabouts of pocket gopher populations. She remember where, each fall, the squirrels have harvested and hidden their hoards of pine nuts. She knows the locations of all the avalanche chutes in her range, where the frequent snowslides have limited the vegetation to that which can withstand all that cascading snow - the grasses, supple-stemmed shrubs, and forbs (soft-stemmed plants that die down to the ground in winter, most of which are familiar as wildflowers) - and she remembers which of those avalanche chutes, facing south, are first to catch the sun and therefore first to green up. Even now, as they learn to grasp the blades of sedge in their back molars and roll their heads to snap it off, the cubs are storing up essential memories.

And that mention of squirrel pine nut hoards comes back later to demonstrate another of McNamee's strengths - his droll sense of humor. You very much want that in a natural history writer, but you don't often get it:

the bear is superbly adept at gobbling them [the hoards] up: she smashes the cones with her teeth or paws, spreads the debris out on the ground, and delicately licks up only the nuts. The few pine cone scales that find their way in with the nuts, she spits out the side of her mouth. With singularly ursine fair-mindedness, she will often also smash and eat the squirrels themselves.

I can't recommend coming anywhere near a wild grizzly (even the dog-company option runs the unfortunate risk of costing you a dog or two), but I recommend The Grizzly Bear whole-heartedly. It should be on every bookshelf of truly great works of natural history.

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