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Gilbert had a part of his face ripped off by a female Grizzly bear. Yet he has spent his life devoted to undoing the demonizing of this complex, highly intelligent creature. Warning: graphic, bone-crunching description ahead.
ALMOST 45 YEARS AGO, not long after sunrise dappled the remote ridge they were climbing in Montana’s Rocky Mountains near the borders of Idaho and Wyoming, a Canadian wildlife biologist and his graduate student emerged from the stunted tree line on a cold, windswept height three kilometres above sea level.
This was Bighorn Pass. For sake of comparison, that’s almost twice the altitude of Mount Arrowsmith, the craggy, snow-clad peak that so dramatically dominates the skyline above the pass separating Nanaimo from Port Alberni.
The two men were there to observe and study how grizzly bears responded to back country hikers and mounted outfitters with pack trains. It was part of an ambitious research project at Utah State University, where Barrie Gilbert had landed a faculty position after graduating from Queens University, taking a doctorate at Duke and then doing field research in Alberta.
To get there, they’d spent a week humping their 20-kilogram packs through the foothills, fording rushing creeks and paddling 30 kilometres across deep, icy Yellowstone Lake, itself almost 2.5 kilometres in elevation.
It hadn’t been an easy passage. They’d endured a series of marching cold fronts which spawned thunderstorms, hail, drenching rain and lashing squalls that repeatedly forced them ashore when the short, steep waves threatened to swamp their aluminum canoe.
The canoe itself was cause for concern. There was frequent lightning. The prospect of getting fried by a strike on the lake or while huddling under the up-turned hull to shelter from pelting rain loomed large in his imagination.
So did grizzlies. At night, they’d camped well off the trail and they’d dragged in snags and branches from deadfalls to create crude barriers around their tent that, if they gave no real protection, at least offered an early warning should a bear approach.
Eventually they reached their destination and, to their excitement and delight, soon encountered what they’d come to observe—a grizzly bear in pristine habitat. It was a female with three cubs digging roots in an alpine meadow.
They watched enthralled as she stood down a male that approached, a mortal threat to her cubs. Male grizzlies, like lions, will kill the offspring of competitors. Later the bear family ambled down the meadow they shared with a small herd of grazing elk.
The next morning, Gilbert decided they should circle behind and climb the back side of the adjacent Crowfoot Ridge so they could observe the bears more closely from above.
Just as they left the scrubby trees at the top, Gilbert felt a call of nature and moved ahead of his partner to find a spot. He hunched over, keeping himself low to avoid spooking the elk with his silhouette against the skyline.
That was when he met the bear. It had unexpectedly come up the other side of the ridge.
Gilbert realized later that the unfortunate encounter—for him at any rate—was shaped by two things. First, because of the menace of the big male to her cubs, the female grizzly was already on hair-trigger alert. Second, approaching in a hunched-over stance, the biologist must have resembled a stalking predator.
There was one explosive “woof,” a blur of brown hurtling out of the scrub and in seconds he was on the ground.
“Her teeth felt like a row of pick-axes scraping across my head as she tore my scalp off,” he recalled later, although strangely, he says, he felt no pain in the moment.
“Her second bite came down on my face, a big canine tooth punching into my eye-socket. ‘This is how you die,’ I thought as I felt bones crunch. One bite removed my cheekbone and sinus, exposing brain membrane.
“As my life drained onto the ground”—it was later determined that he was hemorrhaging almost half of his blood supply—“I went limp and the biting stopped.”
The grad student, Bruce Hastings, courageously yelled and the grizzly retreated.
The bear, Gilbert later realized, was simply being a bear—reacting to his presence as a threat to her cubs. She wasn’t interested in killing him for the malicious reasons humans attribute in their deep trait of anthropomorphizing other animals. She simply wanted to neutralize an unknown and unidentified threat and once it was no longer a threat, she left.
A less resilient person might have surrendered to the terrible wounds and died on the mountain. But Gilbert was tough. He was also very lucky.
A team of highly trained medical technicians attached to a smoke-jumping crew had just deployed from a nearby fire base. And the helicopter pilot who picked him up had just done two combat tours in Vietnam war, landing under the most difficult conditions. Finally, a team of military surgeons experienced with battlefield trauma had just been assigned to the nearest medical facility.
Gilbert’s first surgery, the one that would save his life following a bear mauling in the remote Rockies, took 11 hours and exhausted the hospital’s suture supply.
The lead surgeon, Earl Browne, who has since died, later showed Gilbert photographs from before they began reconstructing what remained of his face.
“All my facial skin and scalp was pinned out like a rat dissection in Biology 101,” he writes in the preamble to his astonishing memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears.
Scientific curiosity and a fascination with methodology trumped squeamishness.
“I wasn’t repelled,” he writes. “I asked Dr. Browne if he had seen this kind of damage before.
“‘Well, yes,’’’ the surgeon replied. “‘But not all on the same guy.’”
So, through a combination of luck and fortitude, Gilbert survived the extraction and a round of intensive surgeries. His maimed face was rebuilt—although the massive injuries left him blind in one eye and his face permanently disfigured.
Barry Gilbert closely observing a young grizzly bear on a river at Geographic Harbour, Katmai National Park, Alaska. Photo courtesy Barrie Gilbert.
IF THIS STORY SOUNDS LIKE THE MAKING OF A BOOK, IT WAS. But not the book you might expect. This gripping story—a journalist like me might have made a whole book out of it alone—occupies a mere 15 pages at the beginning of Gilbert’s recently published memoir, One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears.
Gilbert went home to convalesce, to endure his 15-minutes of fame as the media descended to pester him for lurid details—mostly, he concluded, to advance a stereotype of grizzlies as “rogue killers in the woods eager to eat your children”—and to grapple with the post traumatic stress disorder that came with the cold reality of people staring at his facial disfigurement.
Some might have withdrawn. “I chose to see the staring responses of others as their problem,” Gilbert writes. “I was a handsome guy and still am (inside).”
Instead, he rejoiced that his hands still worked. And his scientist’s analytical brain. It reminded him of something equally important—point of view.
Which is why the following summer found him sitting beside half a tonne of black bear just stirring from anaesthesia after being darted in his new research project. With only the slightest misgivings, Gilbert stayed with the bear while it recovered consciousness—staying with bears in such a state is essential, he notes, because a handicapped one invites opportunistic attacks from other bears, another trait they share with humans.
“Fear of that bear was not an issue for me, but I could only guess why,” he writes. “Maybe long experience with animals and my short dose of terror carried the day.”
We should all be grateful that Gilbert didn’t succumb to the kind of risk-averse apprehension regarding bears that might have gripped the rest of us, because he went on to almost half a century in the field, exhaustively studying bears in their habitat and in the most intimate proximity, at that. He sat with them, walked with them, observed them more closely than the benighted rest of us might get in a zoo with cages.
His field work took him from the American Rockies to the Alaska wilderness and deep into Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest.
One of Us charts that remarkable journey, not just through the bush in search of the great predators, but also through the devil’s club thickets of contradictory political policy; the technical disagreements spawned by what he calls “conservation contrarianism” and “science friction”; and the baser economic conflicts between the imperatives of ecological integrity for a threatened species and the special interests of industry, from tourism to timber harvesting to the powerful big game hunting lobby.
There’s far more than the science of observation and dry statistical analysis here. Gilbert’s memoir takes us on an extraordinary excursion through the history—and pre-history—of relations between bears and humans.
First, it explores the thousands of years of bears’ coexistence with indigenous peoples, an entanglement of mutual tolerance that populates the innermost of First Nations’ sacred spaces and endures into the present.
Second, it examines the fatal contact between bears and a settler culture which demonized the animals as a precursor—and rationalization—for their systematic extirpation from vast areas of their range, particularly in the United States.
Explorers, fur traders, cattle ranchers and sheepherders shot them, trapped them and poisoned them in great numbers. Trophy hunters preyed on the remnants. Then loggers, farmers and urban developers set about destroying their habitats. Once abundant in California, for example, the last grizzly bear was shot there in 1922 and the species survives only on the state flag, a reminder of our propensity to make icons of what we destroy.
Grizzly populations dwindled to about 1,500 in the lower 48. There are 600 in Wyoming, 800 in Montana, 400 in Alberta, maybe 70 in Idaho and 20 in Washington.
In Canada, there are about 25,000 bears, of which about 15,000 are in BC. When Europeans arrived by land it was estimated there were 25,000 in BC alone.
One of Us takes us back to 1805 and the first scientific expedition of discovery by land across what’s now the western United States by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. The party shot and killed 51 grizzly bears and wounded another 18, probably mortally. From then on it just got worse for the bears.
And yet humans and bears can safely coexist, Gilbert argues, and provides the evidence from deep personal experience. He disrobes the enduring myth of the demon bear and reveals a complex, highly intelligent creature with a fascinating social system and crucial roles in the natural ecosystem.
As Vancouver Islanders get used to the idea that they might soon be sharing the outback with grizzlies, particularly along salmon rivers north of Campbell River, One of Us would be a good resource to put on the bookshelf. It’s $21 in paperback.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
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ACROSS THE WORLD, politics and political structure as a system of social management, as a way of expressing and apportioning individual and social power, and as a vocabulary, a framework or methodology for describing social behaviour and aspirations, is either waning or failing. It lacks the tools to respond to the complexities of a global civilization managed electronically—something that never existed before in human history—a civilization rendered geographically global by economic interactivity and the abstractions of finance and digital technology. We are, if I can resort to cliché, being ruled by money, by financial flows. Rulership, leadership, governance is passing from the various historical arrangements of political power to the power of capital and those who run its systems. People everywhere, in every nation and culture, are feeling a growing bewilderment and powerlessness, losing social meaning; and this may conceivably presage the dissolution of the nation-state, the national ‘tribe’—the current retreat from globalism, assertive nervous boundary conditions and national drum-beating attitudes notwithstanding.
Today’s terrifying lurch to the right and the rise of the autocratic, authoritarian personality—the US under Trump, Brazil with Bolsanaro, Hungary with Orban and so on—itself implies a near-future bereft of citizenship as we currently understand it. Politicians no longer dream of changing (improving) the world, daunted by the sheer chaos of its contemporary design. All political leaders can do is cosmetically manage the thinly veiled control that financial services, tech, and energy companies exert over all of us, while offering narratives of good and evil, or of limitless possibility, that seem increasingly vapid and hollow. All of these forces and trends are producing a mounting, spreading state of unreality in social life and significantly weakening the foundations beneath a number of social institutions. Privacy, for example, has practically evaporated and given way to surveillance and commodifiable transparency; and with that, a certain kind of selfhood or autonomy is vanishing. (You can tell privacy is going when you receive so many assurances that your privacy is being respected.)
We are facing the central question of how to (and who or what intellectual regime should) manage a post-political future, and what is the shape, what are the goals, of human culture in such a future. (Structuralists might add that the arrival speed of such a future will determine if humanity can even endure such change.)
This is human and social evolution—not betterment or greater maturity, necessarily, but change. Our minds, our customs and culture, our social protocols, structures and institutions are still based in political sensibility, in ideology, but all of this, argue contemporary thinkers including sociologist and social theorist Ulrich Beck, is a remnant condition simply caught in a final moment of poise, and steadily hollowing out in favour of economic management—management by finance—and the information flows such management requires.
Ideological ideas about social management decreasingly define this emergent human condition. It’s all being washed aside, like the Age of Royalty before it. My language makes it seem as if these trends are absolutes and, of course, they’re not. They are evolutionary, messy, incomplete, approximate, and their human consequences are unknown.
But here’s the point, if I may circle back to built form, by which I really mean the scope and degree of consciousness that a community brings to built-form decisions: there really is a connection between physical form and social empowerment, that feeling of being a stakeholder in a community, of being a citizen. This stuff is abstract and resists measurement, but it isn’t imaginary. (This, by the way, is something Victoria’s regional amalgamation, bigger-is-cheaper advocates seem not to get. Bigger is just bigger.)
NIMBY, for its part, gets half, but only half—the “I want to protect and preserve what I have”—of the social equation right. What it gets wrong is that you can’t simply say “No!” Active citizenship requires that you conceive and implement affirmative (and inevitably compromissory) ways to say, “Yes!” You have to build and reinforce and re-strengthen democratic civic practice every day. You have to solve problems, through your own direct engagement, and not with a taxpayer’s “we have people” delegation sensibility. You have, in other words, to re-engage and re-earn your rights every day. The current culture trap makes active citizenship of this kind seems antiquated and almost silly, a waste of mental and physical time in the face of other social priorities. But I will tell you with certainty that social passivity is spreading, and that it is increasingly reinforced by electronic infrastructure and online culture that between them mediate ever more reality for us; and that our doom lies in that direction: a likely combination of ecological ruin and AI domination.
Let me use this vast amount of good news to provide a symbolic explanation of Victoria’s appeal. Our setting and traditional architecture—the planning and land use principles they express—convey the social message that Victoria is a place in which traditional, comprehensible human arrangements are still alive and well, where community and its social transactions and political opportunities are still valid. Visitors ooh! and ahh! when they come here, and use words like “charming” and “cute,” but they are actually conveying their own deep yearning and projecting their deep loss, or fear of loss, and with every ooh! they mean “your city is an island in a drowning world.”
Imagine yourself a visitor to Victoria: say, a walk along Dallas Road; a walk through Beacon Hill Park; then funky, relaxed, still sort-of heritage-y Downtown and intriguing, history-rich Fisgard/Chinatown; a driving meander through Rockland and then into residential Oak Bay and the Uplands. The fecundity (we live in a park), the human order, the success and human safety of it all!
Visitors may never articulate this to their hosts or even themselves, but don’t imagine for a second that they aren’t aware of it, taking it in through their skin and senses.
The world is not a relaxed place. It is terrifying; and order, safety, are—well, not illusions, exactly, so much as a set of islanded conditions floating in space and time and always subject to the roiling atmospherics of history and human nature which surround these bubbles, looking for a way in. Do such places, these bubbles, enjoy endless credit? Do they come with a forever, a guarantee?
You know the answer. Everyone knows the answer. And while they may appear to be the gifts that keep on giving, their perpetuity should never be taken for granted. There, quite bluntly, is the case for engaged citizenship.
Owing to some combination of good luck and the accidents of history, Victoria has been given a gift never to be taken for granted, but to be renewed through vigilant attention and hard work: the promise and possibility of plenty, safety, order, culture, civility, and more.
However understandable and excusable, our failure to eradicate homelessness and associated social risk and outsider-ness; our failue to conceive innovative built forms and the appropriate policies to deliver urban density without social damage; or to achieve high (or higher) levels of urban and architectural design in public and private settings; or to deliver thorough and relaxed public safety protocols for which a police force should never be the surrogate; or to serve as a model and a beacon of ecological urban design; and to invent new public ritual around all such achievements (“Ritual,” states social critic Richard Sennett, “is an emotional unity achieved through drama.”)—in summary, to engage—are the challenges that confront our civic community. They never go away.
View Towers still stands to remind us of the costs of inattention; and high above it is this message written against the blue sky: Do not abandon the hard work of citizenship.
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.
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July 3, 2020
THE FOREST AROUND OUR QUADRA ISLAND HAVEN is aglow right now with droopy white plumes of ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor), ruby-jewelled salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) and huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium).
I feel so lucky to have been here through the full pandemic-infused spring as I have been able to watch and photograph each stage of these plants’ evolution from bare branches through the unfurling of their leaves, blossoming of their flowers and swelling of their berries.
The salmonberries and huckleberries are plump and juicy, thanks to copious rain over the past few weeks. I have been picking them regularly to use on my oatmeal in the morning, but now that the huckleberries are ripe, I am thinking more ambitiously about pies and preserves.
Mostly, I am enthusiastic about such kitchen production because it gives me an excuse to hang out in the forest. I find berry picking among the most calming, meditative-yet-productive things to do.
The three plants mentioned above are very common in Douglas fir forests. All were relied on by native people who lived here pre-colonization. The ocean spray has very hard wood, which, according to Pojar & MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, was used for spears and tools by First Nations. The seeds were eaten as well.
The berries of huckleberry and salmonberry, of course, were eaten fresh as well as preserved, as were those of salal (Gaulthoria shallon). Many birds, squirrels and bears in Vancouver Island forests eat the berries as well.
The red-berried huckleberry was one of the few plant species to survive on the slopes of Mount St Helens when the volcano erupted in 1980, according to Wikipedia. In local forests it loves to grow on rotting logs and old tree stumps.
Salal berries will ripen later in summer. They produce an intensely flavourful purply-black jam I love. I hear they are also really good for making fruit leather, which I might attempt to make this year. It will give me another excuse to hang out quietly, with sticky fingers, in the forest.
These plants all seem very hardy and abundant. But the forests they depend on are getting mowed down at an alarming rate. When I hike into the backwoods of Quadra Island, I see clearcut after clearcut. (Satellite images show the same patchwork look all over BC.) Up close, a new clearcut is a hell-scape, with wide roads blasted through rock, a desiccated, scraped terrain littered with “course woody debris” (former tree limbs), and stump after stump of “harvested fibre.”
Speaking of harvested fibre—or “feedstock,” see Michelle Connolly’s excellent piece on this site, “Words Hide Truth,” about the Orwellian, euphemistic language employed by BC’s Ministry of Forests et al. The government’s deliberate rebranding of natural forests as commodities helps discourage our awareness and defence of forests as complex living systems.
Unfortunately, not enough of us are able to get out and witness the contrast between a clearcut and an intact forest. On Quadra, there are many examples side-by-side, providing for a mind-bending contrast. I certainly cannot recognize a forest I’ve visited before, formerly graced with dense, towering trees, carpeted with moss and my favourite bushes, after it’s been mowed down by the industrial machinery now used. It’s a stark lesson in the rapacious, absurd behaviour of our species.
For further elucidation on the BC government’s appalling stewardship of our once-magnificent forests, read David Broadland’s recent analysis (along with many readers’ comments) of the financial realities of the forest-industrial complex. It appears the BC taxpayer is getting shafted along with the forests we love.
I think I need to get back to berry-picking…
I welcome your response, either as a comment below or privately through the “Contact Us” button at the bottom of this page. If you are taking photos of native plants and animals, you might be interested in our Mapping Nature project, here.
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ON APRIL 21, the BC government organized a “virtual townhall” on the COVID-19 virus for the Island Health region. Given the extreme financial challenges that the virus poses for the government, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the vast sums in public funds being doled out to LNG Canada—through royalty tax credits, reduced hydro rates, a provincial sales tax holiday, a carbon tax ceiling, and cancelled LNG income tax—might be in jeopardy.
Or might the handouts even be switched to support renewable energy?
Sadly, the esteemed panel was unable to get to my question: “Given the likelihood that the climate crisis will kill even more people than the virus, should the $6-billion taxpayer handout to LNG Canada be diverted to renewable energy projects?”
Fortunately, eight days later, the government’s PR wing did answer my question. Well, sort of. The following is the verbatim emailed response I got from the Citizen Engagement Team. You be the judge.
- There is no handout.
- The provincial government developed a framework to ensure natural gas development had a level playing field with other industries in B.C., allowing investment to move forward so jobs could be created.
- This framework aligns with our climate commitments, as described in CleanBC. That plan has put us on a path to a cleaner, better future where we can continue to balance environmental protection with economic competitiveness and job creation.
- The LNG Canada project fits into the climate goals of CleanBC and allows B.C. to build a strong economy—that is even more important today as we grapple with the economic challenges created by the COID-19 [sic] pandemic.
- More details about the natural gas framework and the opportunity created as a result of LNG Canada’s investment can be found here.
Thanks, Citizen Engagement Team. That clears up everything!
Russ Francis worked as a political columnist and reporter for many years before becoming a BC government analyst. During his 10 years with the government, he worked in strategic policy, legislation and performance management for a number of ministries. He’s happy to be writing again from his home in the Southern Gulf islands.
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