On Being A Bear

It’s May and the northern hemisphere has woken up, as have its bears. Humans, stirring about after another long winter, are entering the woods, and reports of bear activity are filtering into newspapers and popping up on community social media sites. The uneasy relationship that has existed between our two species for well over a million years is entering yet another season.

These animals inhabit our minds for many reasons. Their sheer power is the obvious one. Hardly a summer passes in Alaska without a fatal mauling. And less deadly attacks will also be reported (although few if any of the bears that humans will kill in coming months will make headlines). But along with fear comes intrigue. Bears share many characteristics with us. Perhaps most unsettling is their appearance. It’s famously known that the skinned bodies of bears and humans are remarkably similar, although most of us will take this claim at its word rather than confirm at least one half of that comparison for ourselves.

Rémy Marion is a French documentary filmmaker and writer who has dedicated his life’s work to bears. He’s come to see the animals human siblings of sorts. Reflections of ourselves in some ways, opposite of us in others, and crucial to our understanding of the natural world. In his somewhat unfocused but philosophically challenging new book, “On Being a Bear,” he lays out his case.

Marion approaches his topic from scientific, literary, historical and experiential viewpoints. While not a researcher, he draws on science for knowledge, which he applies to his own encounters with bears in places as remote from each other as Hokkaido, Kamchatka, Alaska, Finland, the Pyrenees, and beyond. He’s a naturalist fighting for the preservation of bears, but also a realist who, despite his examinations of the similarities between humans and bears, never devolves into anthropomorphizing. He knows that most bear-human encounters end amicably, but recognizes their unpredictability. When he briefly mentions Alaska’s most infamous bear victim — Timothy Treadwell, who believed he understood bears and their thinking — Marion sagely observes, “if you think you know what a bear is going to do, you know more than the bear does ... stay humble and remember never to kid yourself that you can read a bear’s mind.”

Over eight chapters and roughly 200 pages of text, Marion assesses our relationship with bears in the past, present and future, seeking to understand how humans have and haven’t coexisted with the animals over the centuries. Many traditional societies ascribed near godlike status to bears, something the early Christian Church sought to strip the creatures of. Thus in more recent centuries, off the northern coast of Christian Scandinavia, polar bears were at one time nearly exterminated, even as the Inuit to the west saw no existential threat from the animals.

The way bears have stymied our minds is perhaps captured best by the scientific name given to them. Ursus, of course, is Latin for bear. And arctos derives from the Greek work arktos, which has dual meanings, one of them being bear. So, Marion tells us, the scientific name for the brown bear, Ursus arctos, translates into English as “Bear bear.” Were that not enough, the Eurasian brown bear is classified as Ursus arctos arctos. “Bear bear bear.” Something many Alaskans have found themselves crying out to alert bears of our presence, or to alert companions to the presence of a bear.

Marion has spent untold hours filming bears, and far more hours waiting for them to appear. He draws on some of these experiences to illustrate points he wishes to make about the creatures. He also looks to literature and the arts to evoke the proper image. He likens the emergence of a polar bear on an arctic tundra horizon to the opening scene from the movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” “when the camel comes into sight amid the waves of heat rising from the desert.” What a memorable analogy.

Marion offers a wonderful chapter on the evolution of bears, tracing their emergence and spread across the globe. He summarizes the scientific understandings of why hibernation occurs, and what bear bodies do in this state of being. And later he shows how our knowledge of bear physiology could help us in treating human medical conditions, and even offer a means of allowing astronauts to maintain healthy bodies that don’t atrophy, should we ever send humans to Mars. Bears, while hibernating, barely move. Yet they emerge from their dens with muscles fully intact. Idle human bodies begin decaying within days. Space explorers could benefit from the chemicals responsible for a bear’s ability to survive months of confinement.

Marion’s book, much like this review, wanders. This allows him to pack countless facts and anecdotes into these pages, although readers will find themselves wishing he’d pick up some of the ideas presented here and expand upon them more. The book is a meditation on the animals rather than a natural history, and it could have been better organized. Although that said, there are fascinating points raised on nearly every page. Sometimes two or three per page.

The most focused chapter, and hence the most successful, takes up the cause of the polar bear, which has become the living symbol of our warming world. Polar bears are ubiquitous in marketing campaigns for causes and products. As Marion reminds us, this appropriation of the animals for human objectives has a long history. And today we see ourselves reflected in this animal threatened by our industrialized economies. So we buy a Coke with a polar bear on the can.

Marion seeks to understand bears on a human level, without rendering them as ersatz humans. “They reflect the wild side of human nature,” he writes early on, “as they once shared our habitat and stirred our imaginations.” Without metaphysics or spiritualism, he makes bears seem magical in their own right, simply for being what they are. And in so doing, he makes our lives seem a bit more magical as well.

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

“On Being a Bear: Face to Face with our Wild Sibling”

By Rémy Marion

Greystone Books

250 pages

2018

First English translation, 2021

 $24.95