Love (and Fear) of Bears

By Kurt CaswellDecember 12, 2013

Dominion of Bears by Sherry Simpson

IN THE CHRISTIAN MYTH of the world’s beginning God sets down the terms for earthly life in a simple, yet problematic edict:

And God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Let us break this verse down into its three basic parts. To be “fruitful and multiply” is to populate the earth. To “replenish the earth” is to give back what is taken — in essence, to love the earth. Next comes the charge to “subdue [...] and have dominion over [...] every living thing,” which is the command to take, to use for the benefit only of the user. God’s charge is an enigma, for how is it possible to love and to subjugate at the same time? Subjugation leads to taking dominion, and so it is love’s antithesis. Looking objectively at humanity’s current relationship with the earth and all its creatures, it is difficult to conclude anything but that the second part of God’s charge, to “replenish,” has been abandoned (except on a small, individual scale). We take; we do not give.

The key to reading Sherry Simpson’s new book, Dominion of Bears: Living with Wildlife in Alaska, I think, is understanding this biblical charge, and asking who has taken dominion over what? An initial expectation based on the title might be that inside the cover we’ll explore the domain of bears, particularly Alaska, a state where, Simpson notes, “almost nowhere else do so many people live in such close quarters with so many bears.” Organized into 11 chapters, each chapter title centers on a word that expresses one way in which humans regard bears — “The Metaphorical Bear,” “The Unseen Bear,” followed by: hungry, social, urban, fearsome, hunted, disappearing, watched, predatory — and ending with the book’s denouement, “The Story of Bears.” While readers learn a great deal about the animals all the way through, we also learn about the dramatic loss of habitat, as well as state and federal management strategies that include the simultaneous destruction and protection of bears. In Alaska (and most places on earth) it’s human beings, the inheritors of that biblical charge, who take dominion. A further consideration of Simpson’s title then, and really of her book, must include people and our complex and often antagonistic relationship with the world. Simpson’s book is as much about us as it is about bears.

These days, with the option of purchasing books in electronic form, the design and physical and visual appeal of the print edition is an important consideration. The University of Kansas Press has done well on this count: Dominion of Bears is a beautiful book — a sturdy, attractive object pleasurable to the hands, just the right size and shape and heft — and worth owning (though expensive at $30). It’s a book I feel good about stacking on my shelf next to others about Alaska and bears. Moreover, the book is an admirable piece of research, as bountiful information is its greatest achievement, evidenced by the 119 pages that make up the Notes, Bibliography, and Index, along with a gallery of 26 photographs in 16 plates. Dominion of Bears is a survey that adds up to a story, the way flowers scattered in a field can be gathered into an expression of love in a vase.

As a survey, the book’s merit rests on what a reader learns. Simpson includes, for example, a fabulous exploration of what bears eat, a grocery list of supercharged variety and fascination. Emerging from hibernation in the spring, Simpson tells us, a bear will slowly come into its appetite, and take on the leftovers from the summer and fall before, then move on to new foods as they come into season with the unfolding of spring: bearberries (of course), carrion (moose, caribou, deer, whatever) killed by winter or wolves, Eskimo potato and alpine sweetvetch, horsetails, grasses, sedges, the buds of willow branches, insects (especially ants and cutworm moths), whitebark pine cones stolen from squirrel and bird caches, earthworms, pondweed, trout, salmon, voles, intertidal creatures, sand lances (those little fish you see in photographs hanging from the beaks of puffins), herring eggs, salmon eggs, strawberries, salmonberries, soapberries, paper wasps and their nests, the flowers of cow parsnip, purple lupine, and angelica. Toads. Whales, washed up on the beach. Not only is this an impressive list (which says something about bears, their resourcefulness and thoroughness, their complete utilization of their world), but Simpson’s ability to assemble such information and make it palatable is a wonder, too. As readers, we trip lightly through wild Alaska, a fecund bounty where bears are completely at home. Simpson writes, “To say that a bear is an omnivore [...] doesn’t say enough. To say that the world is the bear’s larder goes a bit further. To say that the world shapes the bear, and the bear shapes the world—now we’re getting somewhere.”

If, as a reader, I were to make a request for something more, it would not be a longer, more fascinating list, but rather to better understand what Simpson means by the above passage, to know more about the somewhere we are getting. I understand that the world bears inhabit shapes them as they shape it, but I do not quite know how. How does a bear shape the world? You remember Robinson Jeffers:

What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?

The poem need not explain itself, and readers of poems rarely make such burdensome requests; poems are felt, perhaps more than they are understood. But Dominion of Bears is not a poem, and I find myself wishing Simpson had worked harder to open up her compelling evocation, in this and other cases. Instead, the section in the book ends here with a line break, and just as she is “getting somewhere,” she picks up and moves on.

According to her bio, following a childhood in Alaska, Simpson studied journalism at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF), going on to work at several papers, including the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and the Juneau Empire. She was a columnist and features writer for various other publications: the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska magazine, and the Anchorage Press. Later, she completed an MFA at UAF and has since taught nonfiction writing, publishing essays in various prestigious magazines and journals like: Alaska Quarterly Review, Creative Nonfiction, and Orion. She is the author of two other books about Alaska: The Way Winter Comes, and The Accidental Explorer. Her early training in journalism is one of the observable strengths in Dominion of Bears; her practiced skill of accuracy and attention to detail recommend it, even as a reader might continue to ask how and why.

Early in the book, Simpson sets out to explore the way in which bears have come to represent Alaska, a point she articulates with this confounding, yet poetic pleonasm: “bears equal wildness, wildness equals wilderness, wilderness equals Alaska, therefore bears equal Alaska and Alaska equals bears.” By whatever circuitous route a reader arrives here, the point is well taken: bears have become synonymous with Alaska, as they appear as an image and an idea in the most likely and unlikely places. “They inhabit our conversations, headlines, stories, history, cultural practices, art, politics, imaginations,” Simpson tells us. Bears appear on “socks and T-shirts, book covers and snack wrappers, notecards and an entire wall of McDonald’s” at Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport. She goes on to note the dozens of Alaska place names with “bear,” and the dozens of taxidermied bears in businesses and public spaces. The state flag, too, which features the constellation Ursa Major, the great bear, designed by a 13-year-old in 1926, before Alaska was a state. “Place and animal are bound so tightly that they amplify each other,” writes Simpson, “transform into metaphors of each other, fuse into a mythos in which one could not exist without the other.”

Despite this great love for bears, Alaskans also fear them, and historically, Simpson writes, “considered [them] a dangerous hindrance to progress.” A number of chapters key in on this fact, depicting people in direct conflict with bears. Some of the strongest writing in the book comes in chapter six, “The Fearsome Bear,” which begins with the story of Richard and Kathy Huffman, who were killed in 2005 in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by a 300-pound male grizzly. What makes this chapter so compelling is our innate fear and avoidance of predators, an ancestral past in which humans were sometimes prey. Simpson quotes the eminent sociobiologist E. O. Wilson’s claim that “‘we’re not just afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them [...]. In a deeply tribal sense [and let me add, personal sense] we love our monsters.’” Simpson goes on to remark that the prospect of being killed and eaten by a bear, or anything else, “fractures our idea of ourselves as the apex species.”

And yet we are the apex species, as is evident in that original charge in Genesis. Simpson’s second to last chapter, “The Predatory Bear” — centered on federal and state management policies and strategies — investigates the greatest expression of the dominion of people. We are vulnerable when alone or in small numbers, but, collectively, there is no more destructive power on earth except the earth itself. Simpson describes how we decide what is good for bears, in god-like fashion, by the overriding standard of what is good for us.

If you know anything about public land management in America, you’ll know something about Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic,” easily summed up in a few key passages: 1) “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it”; 2) “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”; and 3) “the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land.” Though Simpson does not cite Leopold, what she makes clear in the second to last chapter of her book is that we are still operating not on a land ethic, but on a people ethic. Our inheritance from God’s charge in the garden permeates everything we do, all the way down to our present wildlife management policies. In the rooms where such policy is meted out, Simpson writes, they talk about “units, regulatory seasons, control areas, objectives, harvests, populations” with sights on managing the abundance, reduction, production, reallocation, and the idea of animals, not the animals themselves in the places they live. What they leave out is ecosystems and biodiversity. “Nobody,” Simpson writes, “really talks about bears at all.”

What the author doesn’t include is an in-depth exploration of the relationship between bears and native peoples. Simpson mentions that this relationship is older and different from mainstream culture but does not articulate that difference. I’m nearly certain she is making a conscious choice here, that perhaps the book is big enough already, and to separate out a specific cultural group (as opposed to a more general Alaskan culture, or North American culture) might be beyond its scope and better managed in a book of its own. Yet so many native cultures have stories about people — both women and men — who go off to live with bears, who become bears. To bring these people back to the human community requires a ceremony completed in a number of slow steps. Once human beings give themselves to the bears, which is to give themselves to their own wildness, a sudden extrication can be disastrous. The person must be called back slowly and carefully with patience and love. Upon reentry, these stories tell us, the person will always retain some essence of that life as a bear, of that life in the wild. This is how and why bears came into relationship with human communities: bears once walked among us, just as we once walked among bears. In this worldview, people and bears are separate now, but they live side by side and maintain a boundary based on respect.

Despite leaving native peoples out of her book, perhaps Simpson is suggesting that our simultaneous love and subjugation of bears is an expression of fear, a fear of our own wild nature. In the Christian myth, God places the first man and woman in the garden, not in the wild. The garden is a controlled and cultivated place, a place people decide what will grow and prosper, and what will be torn out by the roots and destroyed. At the time of European contact with North America, people recognized two major threats: the people who were already here and lived in relationship with the wild, and the wild itself. Those early settlers regarded North America not as the garden they were given by God, but as the howling wilderness, which had to be tamed (hence the term “settler”) to make it holy. We’ve been living in the shadow of those ideals ever since, and while the bear, as much as any creature of the wild, will not be tamed, it can be killed.

Omissions aside, Sherry Simpson has written a deep and loving study of bears in Alaska, gathering and organizing a tremendous volume of information into a tremendous resource, a resource that teaches us not only about bears, but also about ourselves. Dominion of Bears is a mirror and a window into who we are as a species, difficult to articulate in all its complexity. Perhaps there is a time and place ahead of us, Simpson seems to be suggesting in her final chapter, “The Story of Bears,” when and where we will cease to live so self-servingly:

Maybe we would do better by bears and by ourselves if we stopped insisting that they carry the burden of symbolic wilderness, if we stopped mentally exiling them into some hazy notion of a wilderness out there and started acknowledging that they have always — physically, mentally, and sometimes, spiritually — been here, among us.

And then the author tells us a personal story. She makes a journey to a cabin in the Wrangell–St. Elias Mountains, and one morning, sitting on a bench alone in that wild place, she is surprised by a black bear. “I wasn’t afraid,” Simpson writes, as she describes the moment of their encounter. “I wasn’t even human.”


Kurt Caswell is a writer and an assistant professor of creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University.

LARB Contributor

Kurt Caswell’s newest book is Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents. He teaches writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University.


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