Sitting around a campfire on the MacKenzie River Delta in Arctic Canada,sharing stories about animal aesthetics and ethics with two working artists, Daniel Dancer and Jonathan Churcher. I tell them about the Inuit village of Shishmaref, located on a windy sand bar three miles offshore in the Bering Strait of northwest Alaska. The village was served by a 400 yard long road, and owned a single truck for delivering groceries off an airplane to the thirty neat houses overlooking the ice-clogged strait. On the day I visited, the truck served as a leaning post for the ten men who gathered to meet me.
One man responded to my question about beluga whale behavior by describing the scene of a hundred whales caught in shifting ice, sharing one small breathing hole for four months. The belugas took turns breathing, eventually developing a precise rhythm, granting each podmate just enough time to inhale. He described the cadence of breathing and snorting as "very even, like the way a person plays the drums," then concluded, "We went out on the ice a lot that winter to listen to the whales breathe. They taught us how to get along with one other through hard times."
When I finish my story, Daniel asks a rhetorical question. How would human society be different if, instead of shaking hands or hugging when we meet, people breathed in synchrony for a few moments. Jonathan wants to know if animal's truly possess music, or is it, instead, a cultural artifact we human beings overlay upon a mindless world. I answer obliquely, declaring that all art is gift-giving. It exists primarily for the audience, not the creator, and the hardest lesson every artist has to learn is to let the audience reinvent the performance, giving to the newly-initiated full power to perceive what's happening, whichever way they prefer to experience it.
Jonathan asks why biologists are so ungenerous when the discussion turns to whether animals possess culture. Complex behavior? Certainly. But ethics? Aesthetics? No way. "It's all in the way they look," answers Daniel. By contrast, the three of us are conceptual artists. We look at world differently, neither avowing objectivity nor pursuing data. We seek our reckoning with shapeshifting truth by paying more attention to the implicit and the metaphor.
The campfire dwindles. My two companions decide its time to explore the bush. Jonathan heads toward a vast marshy area where he hopes to photograph the moose whose enormous hoofprints we chanced upon earlier this morning. As he does every time he travels alone, he slings his shotgun onto his shoulder, an act which predictably draws a protest from Daniel who hates guns. Daniel won't accompany Jonathan as long as the latter carries a weapon, so he points his feet in the opposite direction, off searching for whale bones in an ancient Inuit midden he's found just back from the shoreline of the Beaufort Sea.
I pull out the book I'm reading, entitled Beyond Geography. The author, Frederick Turner, asserts that at the start of the sixteenth century, the leadership of Western Europe was spiritually and morally bankrupt. Drawing their strategic impetus from the horror of the Crusades and the intolerance of the Inquisition, they intentionally crafted a holocaust for the newly discovered continent. This began on the very first day of the conquest as documented in Columbus' initial log entry upon meeting the Arawaks on October 12, 1492:
They should be good servants and very intelligent, for they soon repeat anything that is said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, for they appeared to me to have no religion.
The Europeans won the holy war, although Turner believes they never found peace within the American landscape because the tradition from which they originated was founded on a concept of nature as the Devil. Wilderness existed only to be conquered, cut, dug up, cropped, bought and sold. By comparison, the spirituality of the native cultures--the camouflaged non-religion of the long-extinct Arawaks included--was based upon a deep respect for nature. This creed, which taught native people to harmonize human community with land, permeated every aspect of aboriginal life. Turner reaches the grave conclusion that the potential merger of European intellectual prowess with Native American spiritual ecology remains the foremost lost opportunity in the history of human civilization. We live with the legacy of that tragedy today.
I spend the remainder of the sunny evening before a smoldering campfire, feeling lusciously alone within the largest wilderness in all of North America, perched as it were, on the front line of the battlefield where the Christian god's minions who rule my culture have spent the past five hundred years dueling with Satan. A circus parade of images floods my senses: Christian soldiers in metal armor shooting tattooed Arawaks, a snorting moose disemboweling Jonathan, the same moose getting blown away by a shotgun blast.
The violence of the parade ruins my mood, causing me to rhapsodize a cloud of mystical grief. Turner didn't go far enough in his damnation of the conquerors. Just as we people of European heritage annulled the spiritual contribution of native people, so we also annulled the spiritual contribution of the animals.
On the day in 1789, when Alexander MacKenzie became the first European to view this river which bears his name, he set out to slaughter beluga whales for no reason other than it seemed good sport. The place he took to shooting so many without landing a single one, was fifty miles up the central channel of the MacKenzie River. No whale has been sited that far from the Sea in a hundred years.
Polar bears also march in Turner's sad parade. Fifty years ago, the local Inuit viewed bears as mentors and gift givers whose dangerous benevolence taught boys how to become men. This initiation into adulthood was guided by prayers and supplication, asking that the bear's creative spirit might forgive them their own need to live.
How different today. The modern Inuit are granted what is referred to as an aboriginal dispensation to continue their bastardized tradition. But as fast snowmobiles have usurped slow dogsleds as the hunter's vehicle of choice, biologists are noticing that the newly mechanized hunt is quickly threatening the polar bear population.
The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently stepped in to regulate the "dispensation" by instituting a village voucher program, with one voucher permitting the killing of one bear. Since snowmobiles have made native hunters as dependent on the money economy as everyone else, and since the traditional need for the polar bear fur has largely been supplanted by store-bought clothing, Inuit leaders on Lancaster Sound in the Canadian High Arctic came up with the entrepreneurial idea of marketing their vouchers to foreign big game hunters who, otherwise, would not be permitted to shoot the protected bears. Business is booming, amply demonstrated by the $13,800 market value of a voucher.
Ironically, the marketeers demand that their Caucasian clients eschew snowmobiles in favor of chartered dogsleds. This is done in a theme-park attempt to demonstrate traditional Inuit ways, and includes a staging of the now-defunct bear initiation. However, all the bears are radio-tagged. They are located, not by onerous search, but by dialing coordinates on a radio receiver.
Stringent international laws deny the export of threatened animal species like polar bears. The clients don't get to take the furs home. The reward resides completely in the act of killing, a concept as far removed from traditional Inuit values as can be imagined. It is said that the majority of clients are M.D.s hailing from Dallas Texas.
The polar bear hides are collected by the local Renewable Resources officer. When he has ten or more of these so-called "renewable resources" in hand, he holds an auction. Because Japan is one of the few countries not abiding by the CITES agreement that regulates international trade in endangered species, the Japanese are the most avid buyers of polar bear skins. Proceeds support several renewable resource programs, including the bulk purchase of snowmoble parts to speed the modernization of the aboriginal dispensation program.
A Stuffed Polar Bear
I place my cheek on the ground and blow the fire to life, hang a kettle over it, brew myself a cup of hot tea. Sipping it, I envision Jonathan in his green and black plaid jacket, swinging a machete, hard to the right and then hard to the left as he cuts through the reeds, grunting with each stroke, while humming the Beatles song he's been singing off and on all week..."Blackbird singing in the dead of night..." He slouches from the weight of the heavy shotgun over one shoulder, and an ammunition belt over the other. With every step he takes, I see the gun growing in stature, heavier and heavier.
How has it come to pass that the gun is the most common instrument employed by human beings to relate to the wild beings of this planet? I recall a conversation with a bush pilot on the day we left Inuvik by canoe. He showed some concern that we carried only one gun between the three of us. "It's the bears you need to watch out for," he explained. "Grizzlies that is. I doubt you'll see polar bears this time of year. They spend summer on the pack ice filling their bellies on seals."
The pilot paused a moment before driving home his central thesis. "If you guys make it all the way out to the bluff at the western edge of the Delta, pay attention to what you're doing. It's not unknown for a polar bear to appear in a camp, even in July."
His words enter the dreamy circus of my mind like a sledge hammer smashing the target and ringing the bell. I stand up and take a hard look in every direction. Don't see anything unusual so I sit back down on the bucket. "Well, I guess we feel OK having a gun onboard." I answered him timidly. "I have to admit, though, part of me wishes Jonathan would leave it behind."
The man stared at me as if I had just informed him the green and brown topographical map we were studying was actually a pizza. "Oh, I guess you'll be OK with just one gun." He responded gently. "Anyway, there's not much chance of seeing a polar bear in summer. And the grizzlies don't have much reason to snoop around a camp unless you leave food uncovered."
I didn't think to ask how people keep food out of reach of bears in this country with no trees. Instead, I blurted out something moronic. "I'm not really concerned about bears. They won't harm us." When he failed to respond, I asked a question. "What do local people do when they see bears?"
"Do?" he lifted his eyebrows, then chuckled once. "They shoot them, that's what they do." Though I half expected him to joke at my naivete, he turned silent, pursed his lips, then answered with a slice of local lore. "Trappers say grizzly bears are as smart as wolves, although they're not as smart as wolverines. Some bears know how to spring a trap to get at the bait. They all know about guns. That's why they avoid people." He smiled brightly. "So, hey, don't worry about it. You've got a shotgun. Keep it where bears can see it plainly." He stood up, grabbed two Doctor Peppers from his refrigerator, and handed one to me. He never mentioned bears again.
A restaurant in the nearest town of Inuvik has, as its centerpiece, a mounted ten-foot tall polar bear posed on hind legs, with teeth bared and claws raised. When the three of us ate there the night before heading out, we took turns leaving our chairs to stand next the bear, just to marvel at its size. The paws were a foot-wide, the claws three inches long. When I returned to my seat, Jonathan informed me that the bear was portrayed in a defensive posture, posed as it must have appeared to its killer in the moment its annihilation.
Daniel commented much too loudly, "Too bad they didn't stuff the hunter pointing his gun at the bear. Instead of the restaurant, they could put him on display in a bear cave."
Jonathan lives in Inuvik. He looked anxiously about the restaurant and chided Daniel to keep his voice down. "Talk like that starts fist fight in a place like this."
I peered around the room, noticing two young couples drinking white wine, and a party of four men in white shirts and ties, with thick briefcases strewn at their feet. We seemed the only Arctic stereotypes in this room, so I accused Jonathan of over-reacting.
"Maybe so. Maybe so." he answered in a whisper; then confessed that last fall he ate in this restaurant with two Inuit trappers. They also complained bitterly about the bear's pose being disrespectful to its spirit.
The Animal Disguise
I sit on a sealed plastic bucket containing Tupperware receptacles full of peanut butter, oatmeal, and parmesan cheese. At least once a minute I find myself unable to control an urge to lift my eyes to scan the landscape in search of Jonathan returning to camp with his shotgun in tow. But nothing moves in this land of the midnight sun except an occasional puff of wind swaying the cottongrass.
My mind has descended deeply into the malaise of Turner's proposition, causing me to ponder how America would be different today if the European explorers had treated the people and animals they met as teachers and peers rather than as slaves and targets.
How would this vast Arctic eco-system be different if people had not always shot at the bears who ventured too close. Of course, those bears exhibiting any measure of curiosity toward human beings were the first to be done in. Only the stealthy, the disinterested, and the fearful survived. If there had ever been a few token "ambassador" grizzly or polar bears who sought out human contact, no one will ever know about it.
Actually, the continuous killing of bears by humans dates back to the Paleolithic in this part of the world. Although the traditional Inuit conducted elaborate ceremonies to apologize to the spirit of any bear about to be slain as food, the essential relationship was always based on killing. Bears became what humans made of them: co-evolved into creatures both fearful and stealthy. Our two species live with that legacy today. An ethic based primarily on fear seems the only thing keeping bears alive in this world. Only those humans willing to entertain the proposition that bears possess ethics will ever know that.
There is a widely held belief among native people that the animal we observe in nature is dressed in a disguise it puts on to visit our world. Once home again, the animal removes the furred, scaled, or feathered costume, and shows its true form which is identical to a human's true form. In other words, traditional people conceived of animals as people. The "natural world" we moderns perceive as a resource or as a collection of habitats, traditional people perceived as a neighborhood.
"Honk honk honk honk," a flock of geese flies overhead, prying me from my reverie. Jump to my feet, listen intently to the beating of their wings, observe their long smooth glide to earth. They settle below my line of sight, and no doubt, immediately take off their costumes. If it's true, then no animal has ever been at home in a zoo. If a zoo were home, visitors would stroll between the cages and gaze upon so many shell-shocked burnouts, drug addicts, and mental cases pacing back and forth all day long.
Moose High School
Searching for a kleenex, I stick a hand in my pocket, but come up with a crumpled newspaper story Daniel handed me on the day we departed for the Arctic. A sportsman's association in Michigan wants to stop the drastic decline of tourism dollars caused by a general ban on eating local gamefish due to mercury contamination from a nearby chemical plant. They recently spent $50,000 on a tagging program. A fish caught with a metal disc in its fin is worth upwards to $10,000. Now, more fishermen than ever before are arriving at the lake. Nothing is said about any money being spent to clean up the chemical plant.
I open a white food bucket and start pulling at various packages; build a stack of rye crackers on the lid, fill them one at a time with cashew butter and strawberry jam. Dump the stack of crackers onto the another lid. Walk to a small waterproof sack leaning against a tent to peruse the other choices in our three-book wilderness library.
I read the back cover blurb from The Living Arctic, by Hugh Brody, carry it back to the fire, lie down full length in the dirt, wrap the quart-container of cashew butter in my down vest, then prop it under my head for a pillow. I skim the Brody furiously until I encounter a description of dream hunting, a technique developed by the Northern Athapaskans:
They camped at the place he dreamed about and one of his sons killed the fat moose he was told of in his dreams. His son came back from the hunt and they went out to get the moose...The son asked his father, "Aba, father", how did you come to dream that I would get that fat moose? You dreamed right.'
I rarely recall my own dreams, so I can't recall if Jonathan's moose told me its whereabouts last night as I slept. No doubt, I would have fared better if Columbus had honored the Arawaks, with the result that, today, American high schools would follow an Athapaskan rather than a European curriculum. We would all have spent more class time learning to communicate with animals through dreams, and less time dissecting frogs.
I scan the bluff. Far to the East, stands Daniel in his Day-Glo purple windbreaker, reduced to a single monochrome pixel set against the tundra. Forty five degrees to the south, my eyes alight on two newly arrived sandhill cranes stalking each other through the reeds like skinny elves in heat. Another twist counterclockwise, now peering due south my eyes strain to capture two round and brown bouncing balls set upon the songline of the near horizon. They are definitely four-leggeds. I squint my eyes to bring the objects into better focus. Grizzly Bears! They have to be! The weight of temporary insanity brought on by the vapors of cruel history lifts from my shoulders.
Right and Left Brains
I squint ferociously and start playing with the angle set between my eyeglasses and my pupils, trying, just this once, to get my weak eyes to galvanize a sharp image out there on the tundra. I have already read our third book, Aldous Huxley's The Art of Seeing. Now, paying obeisance to Huxley, I flash my eyes, meaning I glance quickly at the place where the brown balls bounce, then close my eyes to reconstruct the image that fell on the screen of my retinas. As Huxley explains it, when one stops trying to see, seeing comes. Feeling ready for any revelation, I try it several times. But it doesn't work.
Hunt around camp for the binoculars that should be somewhere nearby. I am no more capable of seeing them, than the bears. Jonathan, the moose man. He must have taken them. And Daniel took the second pair. Daniel also took his camera with the telescopic lens. I stare with alarm at all the loose crackers, jam jars, and nut butter containers. The presence of two grizzly bears frolicking like Magellenic Clouds around the Milky Way of our camp kitchen necessitates a certain measure of care.
Something kicks in. My rational mind, general manager of the shaky edifice of my psyche finally announces his timely return after a notable absence. He commands me to settle down. Take a deep breath. Go find a higher vantage. I comply by standing directly on a white bucket, cup my right hand over my eyes, lean forward and gaze outward like a statue of some resolute explorer fixed for eternity upon a white plastic pedestal. The bears react by staring fully at my seven foot-tall being with a white pail-shaped foot. They run for cover behind some bushes, then reappear a moment later. Without another look in my direction, they start churning up the dirt to extricate whatever gastronomic goodness lies beneath.
I imagine that any bear existing in the Arctic must eat all day long. Eat and eat and eat. Then one day she wanders off to dig a burrow, places herself inside, covers the opening as best she can, lies down, nuzzles about to get good and comfortable, then falls into a snooze for seven months.
The surreal image of a stuffed big game hunter decorating the she- bear's den, motivates the illogical right side of my brain to attempt a coup d'etat against the left-side's general manager; prodding me with the lunatic urge to strip off my clothes, run across the meadow with arms outstretched to hug these two emissaries of wildness. As a child, I read fondly about Johnny Appleseed frolicking with a bear family. As every schoolchild learns, Johnny Appleseed--one of our few American saints---was a real person. If Johnny could do it, why can't I? His good deed is my good deed.
Fortunately, Shou Hsing, God of Long Life, seems to be watching over me today. He consults with the general manager. Neither is impressed by my wild flights of fancy. A soft smile settles on my lips. I move to action. Throw a stack of wet driftwood onto the embers. Get it going good and smoky then watch the black smoke waft across the prairie directly at the bears. I jog to the top of the bluff. When my separation from the camp kitchen seems adequate, I turn towards the meadow to plot the bear's status. I stare and stare, flash and flash, but they are gone.
The Scat Symphony
Daniel returns to camp two hours later, doubled over with gastro-intestinal demons. Jonathan arrives ten minutes later without a single photograph to his credit. Both smile demurely as I relate my bear story. Not surprisingly, neither man seems convinced that I actually saw what I think I saw. Jonathan wants to know how I can be so sure it wasn't a caribou.
Daniel suggests it was the shadow of a cloud rolling across a bush to give it a sense of motion.
Nothing to do but tromp across the meadow in search of some grizzly evidence. Two hundred yards from camp, Jonathan uncovers the proof we seek. There, steaming on a small hummock of wooly lousewort, lies solid proof that a bear relieved itself. I feel validated, and so happy I could just about kiss it. We drop down around it like three Robinson Crusoes discovering a strange footprint in the sand.
"Was it Aesop who first asked if bears shit in the woods?"
"Actually, the premise is false. If anything, bears hold the world record for not shitting in the woods. I mean, they don't shit anywhere at all during the six months they hibernate."
The three of us are stooped on one knee around a steaming lump of bear feces lying on the peat prairie at the western edge of the MacKenzie Delta in Canada's Northwest Territory. Daniel pokes the excrement with a stick. Shiny green flies rise from the mass with every poke, then quickly settle back on their feast.
To an outside observer, it would appear as if Daniel is conducting some kind of scientific research, perhaps attempting to determine if those shiny purple dots staining the feces are undigested huckleberry seeds. But I have spent enough time with Daniel to know he doesn't care a whit about the bear's diet. He's a damned good conceptual artist, but no biologist. The stick is his baton and he is conducting a musical symphony. The three of us are beguiled by the deft manner in which the stick prompts the flies to alter pitch and rhythm with every poke.
Do flies have a sense of aesthetics? Evidently they do, because we are their rapt audience.
Jonathan and I lay our faces to the ground to better enjoy this fly symphony in progress, then close our eyes to pick out subtle variations in pitch. One of the flies is evidently too stuffed to rise. Its wings get inadvertently stuck to the sticky scat. It whines like a singing shepherd from Tuva, appending deeper overtones to its fundamental buzz. Two more flies rise as Daniel pokes again, creating a harmonic crescendo reminiscent of the Bulgarian woman's chorus modulated by the Doppler Effect. Several more flies dine contentedly on another piece of scat. Daniel pokes them. The ensemble rises an inch, then settles back to their meal. Their individual voices are exceedingly elusive although all together they perform a tone poem. One voice rises above the choir to perform a Tamboura drone.
The tamboura player remains steady until he flies up and bumps hard against my mosquito hood. It falls to the ground injured, although it's bent wing continues to beat wildly and randomly, not unlike an oboe solo from a John Cage retrospective. The crippled fly hobbles across the ground and finally jumps back into the heart of the scat.
The moment passes, the three minute symphony ends on the sound of three human beings sighing collectively. We lift our heads, stand, and examine each other's face through our mosquito hoods.
We are wind-burned and haggard. Our eyes formidably clear. The muscles in our faces are so altered after three weeks in deep wilderness that I must wonder if we would appear unrecognizable to those back home who love us. We have turned impossibly slow to react to any stimulus in this riverine world. I stare into the eyes of one companion, then the other. "this is getting good," whispers Jonathan. He turns and walks toward the kitchen. Brews tea. We drink it. Then pack.
Not Touching Ferns