Discover more from Too Much at Once
other languages, other views (wildlife part 1)
looking through the lens to a "wild older world"
I hope to be on my way soon to see wildlife across the continent. But for now, I continue to rediscover meaning in older photographs.
Like most of us, I find myself particularly attracted to the larger mammals with whom we share our landscapes. And over time, I’ve grown to consider them much more than just a spectacle of nature or a scientific curiosity.
They are sentient beings who have their own personal lives, experiencing the world in ways that I believe are broader and deeper than humans see and understand. And when I encounter an animal, and especially if I’m subsequently allowed a photograph, it often raises questions for me about where I fit inside their world.
You see, I taught biology and natural history for a lifetime. But who can say what wildlife really sees and experiences? How much do we understand of them? And what do they make of us, most of the time moving so quickly into and out of their lives?
Down From the Mountain by Bryce Andrews
There’s two books I’ve read in recent years that have expanded my empathy toward animals. In this post, I’ll talk about one here and save the other book for another day.
Down from the Mountain by Bryce Andrews (Harper/Collins, 2019) is a consuming and tragic account of a female grizzly bear who comes into conflict with Montana farmers. As the narrative begins, Andrews is beginning a new job as a conservationist, viewing the world through the lenses of science and wildlife law. He’s hired as a problem-solver, experimenting with ways to keep the bear out of a cornfield. But as he witnesses the bear’s struggle to survive in a landscape controlled by humans, Andrews moves from observer to participant in her world. He tries to see things from her perspective. He questions his personal fears and biases, and soon he starts to see bears with deeper compassion. It turns out that the problem isn’t the bear but it is the situation and place she finds herself in. She doesn’t understand the world she lives in, and the humans around her don’t fully understand hers. And there is no blame on her for her misfortune.
I’ve yet to encounter a grizzly in the wild (although I hope to on this upcoming trip), but I’ve run across more black bears in my life than I can ever remember. Those meetings are always benign and brief. This photograph below is from Big Bend in Texas. It’s a mama bear carefully keeping watch over her cubs as they are all feeding close to the national park lodge.
When one enters a US national park, especially one on the southern border like Big Bend, they become a participant in a world of regulation, science, and control. There are rangers and border patrol agents, biologists and other scientists, posted signs and warnings, mile markers and fences. Every road, every map is set up to take the visitor from one vista to the next, all carefully planned to give us that great photo opportunity and wildlife experience while giving us a sense of security, knowledge, and understanding. Appreciation and national pride. It’s a grand illusion of ownership.
But here was a bear on her way through the parking lot with her cubs looking for dropped potato chips. She was making sure she knew where I was at all times. I remember thinking, “Despite all the ways that humans try to control this landscape, I’m still the trespasser here. She’s doing the best she can.”
“When a human meets a bear, their gazes join like halves of a split stone. A charged arc is struck between two creatures, and the rest of the world disappears in the glare. That fire is treacherous and tends toward destruction. It also contains a measure of recognition…
…Nobody can say what a grizzly makes of that moment, but I know what it means to me. Looking bears in the face—an experience as consuming as falling—has given me a better grasp of what I am and how I fit into a wild older world.”
— Bryce Andrews, Down From The Mountain
These last two photos are of a snowshoe hare along a high elevation trail in Olympic National Park.
The one above is the original shot, but if you look closely in her eye below, you see me reflected there with my camera. It confirms that she saw me in that brief encounter, but more importantly, it makes me wonder how much of her “wild older world” I truly saw as well.
Again, I’ll say thanks for being here. Let me hear from you. Be well.
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All photos and text ©Joel Rhymer, 2023.