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How to appreciate the bear on its own terms | Book Reviews

If you want to see a bear in Alaska, it isn’t difficult. Go hiking and sooner or later you will. You might not need to even go that far. I’ve seen countless bears in Alaska’s wilds since arriving in 1990, but one of the most memorable sightings was the largest black bear I’ve ever seen, indifferently foraging near a sidewalk along Tudor Road in Anchorage while I was running the Mayor’s Marathon one year. Like my fellow runners, I was clad in shorts and a t-shirt with nothing at hand for protection. Fortunately the bear appeared indifferent to the presence of dozens of nearby people.

Like all of my bear encounters, it was memorable to me. For the bear, however, my presence likely went unnoticed. As Paul Schullery writes in “The Bear Doesn’t Know,” “it all means so much to you, but the bear disregards it almost right away; not forgetting where the encounter occurred, but hardly as thrilled or impressed as you were.”

So it goes. Schullery is a bear obsessive who began working in Yellowstone National Park in 1972 and spent his professional career there. His degree is in history, not any of the sciences, but he has written dozens of acclaimed books on natural history, especially in regards to Yellowstone and bears. He’s fascinated by these animals that are both fearsome and enticing to humans who see a creature that “can look about as threatening and almost as inviting as your old favorite sofa,” but could, without warning, “abruptly chase and overtake some four- or two-legged animal and crush its skull.”

Schullery devotes substantial time to observing bears, as well as to reading and writing about them, and a number of the pieces included here, previously published and now updated, detailing his experiences in the field.

Wildlife viewing requires patience, he cautions, but the payoff can be substantial. Once Schullery watched a black bear in Yellowstone spend two days encroaching on a bison carcass protected by a grizzly, only to be repeatedly chased up trees. Grizzlies usually win these standoffs, Schullery writes, but not always. A large black bear can intimidate a young grizzly. The urban black bear I spotted could have easily overpowered a much smaller Interior Alaska grizzly with a submissive disposition.

Schullery has a gently rolling, frequently humorous writing style reminiscent of outdoors periodicals from the early twentieth century, where the focus was on beauty and camaraderie, and the kill itself was only incidental to the story. Schullery shoots bears with his camera, not his gun, but he’s an aficionado of these old writings, and their influence informs his writing. He’s drawn, he explains, to how bears were perceived back then, when little was known about them on a scientific level, yet behaviors now intensively studied by biologists were familiar to observers.

Perhaps the most fascinating example of his blending of modern science with century-old observations concerns reproduction. Bears mate in springtime, but the fertilized egg remains a microscopic blastocyst until late fall when the sow dens up for winter. That’s when the egg adheres to her uterine wall for a brief gestation before cubs weighing less than a pound are born. It’s called delayed implantation, an adaptation found in many animals. For early twentieth century outdoorsmen, the long gap between mating and the birth of cubs was a puzzle. By going through articles from dusty old outdoor magazines, Schullery finds writers speculating on causes for the phenomenon, from which the historian in him draws insight into human thinking of the time.

It’s this old school literary perspective that makes “The Bear Doesn’t Know” such a marvelous read, and Schullery tells us where he got it. He closes the book with a lengthy reading list of his favorite “vintage” (as he calls them) works of bear literature. Some 40 pages are given over to brief summaries of volumes written no later than 1967, and often well before, when attitudes and understandings of bears and ourselves differed substantially from what we know now. He doesn’t always endorse the views held by some of the authors, noting that cruelty toward animals — and sometimes racism toward other people — can be found in their writings. He seeks instead to learn from them so we can grasp how we arrived at our present moment. It’s the historian’s craft, and that impulse sets this book apart from the many other contemporary tomes about our ursine neighbors.

For a man so obsessed with bears, Schullery has spent surprisingly little time in Alaska, but he’s made the best of it when he could, zeroing in on a 1998 visit in the third section of this book. Schullery first traveled to Denali, where he discovered that “the National Park Service had a fine system for getting visitors out among the wild animals with the least possible effect on the behavior of the animals and the highest possible odds of the people seeing them without losing any vital organs.” Then it was off to Brooks Camp, where he and his wife “were treated to a terrific professional presentation full of the specifics of getting along with bears in this remarkable place.” Both places have been the setting for horrible bear-human incidents, but these have been remarkably few considering the concentration of people and bruins. The mandatory safety precautions Schullery celebrates are why he could safely marvel at the gargantuan behemoths gorging themselves on salmon in Brooks Falls. As many authors have noted — and as I learned during a marathon — Schullery notes how bears can be remarkably tolerant of people.

Until they aren’t, of course. For all his love for bears, Schullery is a well-grounded realist, not some Timothy Treadwell-styled romantic, adhering human behaviors and motivations to another species. Schullery tells readers they must not view bears through a human lens, but to instead look, listen, and learn to “accept that animals are best appreciated on their own terms, no matter how those terms may differ from our terms.”

“The Bear Doesn’t Know: Life and Wonder in Bear Country”

University of Nebraska Press

David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be emailed at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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