Perishing Polar Bears

Recently, I managed to watch a movie–all by myself!–at home on our main TV. That means I beat out my sports-loving husband and my cartoon-addicted child. This rarely happens.

As I scrolled through the “On Demand” options, I came across the 2014 film The Giver, based on the 1993 novel by Lois Lowry. I had heard about the book from several students over the years, so I settled in to watch it. Overall, I enjoyed it–especially the use (and absence) of color, but there was one moment in the film that really stuck with me. While explaining the past to the new Receiver of Memories, the Giver mentions that there once were other animals (and the film cuts to a scene of a rabbit in search of food). Unfortunately, the film did not go into much detail in terms of what led to the present absence of non-human animals (at one point, some characters present a blue elephant toy as a hippopotamus, commenting that it was extra fast because it had five legs!); however, the implication is clear–the rest of the animal kingdom died out as a result of human actions. In the meanwhile, the community enjoys fruit such as apples and walks through impeccably manicured lawns. In one transmitted memory, the receiver experiences being stung by a bee, and his reaction to the experience suggests that in addition to never having felt pain before, the receiver has also never seen a bee.

But is such a scenario possible? That is, I have no doubt that humanity is capable of decimating non-animal populations–especially at the rate we’re going–rather, could humanity survive if there were no other animal species on the planet? After all, we rely on so many creatures–directly and indirectly. Large predators help keep smaller species in check, which can help overgrazing on plants–the wolves in Yellowstone National Park are a great illustration of this. Birds and reptiles help to maintain insect populations, which in turn are vital to pollination and the aeration of soil, among other things. No bees, for example, should mean that the apples in The Giver should not exist (unless, of course, their technology has advanced to  allow them to cross-pollinate plants without the aid of insects). And of course, several species make up significant portions of the human diet.

Two days after I watched The Giver, this image by German photographer Kerstin Langenberger began making the rounds on social media today. I can’t get it out of my mind.

Langenberger wrote on her Facebook account that

I realized that the fat bears are nearly exclusively males which stay on the pack ice all year long. The females, on the other hand, which den on land to give birth to their young, are often slim. With the pack ice retreating further and further north every year, they tend to be stuck on land where there’s not much food.

While I’ve never seen a polar bear in the wild, I’ve seen them at the Denver zoo (and of course through film and photographs), and one of my initial thoughts upon seeing Langenberger’s photo was disbelief–that emaciated creature surely could not be a polar bear. Are we moving towards the complete destruction of multiple species, or is there still time to halt–and hopefully reverse–these troubling declines?

Naturally, the experts are divided. A recent article (2015) in The Huffington Post quotes Ian Stirling, a polar bear researcher and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, who cautions against leaping too quickly to the conclusion that the polar bear photographed by Langenberger is typical of all polar bears:

people should be careful about blaming climate change for the bear’s condition. He said the bear was more likely old, sick or hurt — not starving because of a lack of prey or ice.

In a later Q&A, Langenberger expanded on the context in which she took the photograph:

In the past four years I’ve seen about one extremely skinny bear a year, and every summer I see about 60-70 bears. So it is an unusual sight, yet normal. This was the most extreme sight, though, as it was so extremely powerful visually, with the bear being on a melting ice floe. Usually, the starving animals were on land. This one was close to land but on one of the last ice floes to be found.

Turns out that this particular bear had been wounded (Langenberger speculates that the bear was injured by a walrus), so Stirling’s reading of the photograph is correct–to an extent. The animal is wounded, but is the emaciation a result of the wound, or did the wound result because the bear, driven by great hunger, possibly engaged another large animal (which is what Langenberger suggests) in a conflict over food resources? Furthermore, according to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Geological Survey, “Future reduction of sea ice in the Arctic could result in a loss of 2/3 of the world’s polar bear population within 50 years” (source). And the science is clear, isn’t it, that the ice caps are disappearing at a rapid pace.


With all of our technology and scientific knowledge, can’t we do more to help the polar bear–and in the process, help the other animals in its habitat (and thus ourselves in the long run)? Will polar bears be relegated to survival only in zoos–or worse–in memory?

When I was a graduate student, I took a semester of Old Norse. One of the first texts that we translated was the early thirteenth-century Auðunar þáttr vestfirska, or “The story of Auðun of the Westfjords.” Briefly, the main character, Auðun, spends all of his money to purchase a polar bear from a Greenlandic hunter in order to present the animal as a gift to King Svein Ulfsson in Denmark.

While it might initially boggle the mind that a person could travel nearly three thousand miles with a polar bear in captivity during the Middle Ages, Auðun’s story is not as far-fetched as it might seem. William Ian Miller, in his translation of and commentary on Audun and the Polar Bear (Leiden: Brill, 2014), writes that

Other sources note on several occasions that polar bears were given as gifts by Icelanders to rulers in Europe. So when Isleif Gizurarson sailed to Europe in 1055 to be consecrated the first bishop of Iceland he brought with him a “white bear from Greenland and the animal was the greatest of treasures,” using the same word—görsemi—that Audun’s Story uses to describe its bear, and which Isleif gave to the emperor Henry III Conradsson. Gifts of polar bears are unusual enough to get noted, but nary a word about the logistics of transporting or provisioning them in any of the sources in which such a gift occurs. Bears, polar or otherwise, it should be noted, were not native to Iceland. When a white bear appeared, it was because it was shipped over from Greenland, or because it arrived on drift ice. . .  (17-18)

There is a moment in Auðunar þáttr when the bear, along with Auðun, is on the verge of starvation (Auðun has run out of money), but Auðun finds an investment partner of sorts and the bear is saved. But other than this brief incident, there is little commentary on the bear itself. The king is grateful for the gift (and another king is quite envious), but there’s no mention of the bear’s ferocity (or tameness), its size, its hunger, etc. The bear is simply an object used to gain the favor of a king.

I’d like to think that we’ve progressed a bit in our thinking to recognize that these creatures, along with our other neighbors on this crowded planet, are not here for our pleasure. Rather, we must work together, and in the case of humanity, for these creatures–particularly since we are the primary causes of their difficulties in finding suitable habitats and food resources.

How many of us fell in love with the polar bears featured in holiday advertisements for Coca-Cola? (You can find a brief summary of the evolution of the Coke bears in a 2014 New Yorker article here.) I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw them–but I still will pause whatever I’m doing and watch their onscreen antics.

I was happy to learn that as a result of the success of the polar bears, Coca-cola has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund in the last few years to try and preserve the Arctic.  I just hope these efforts are not too little, too late.

The world of The Giver has no appeal to me. Despite the overhanded use of the apple imagery to suggest a Garden of Eden, the lack of diversity does not lead to harmonious living. I’m reminded of the closing lines of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer:

Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,
her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð!

As I discussed with my Old English students earlier this week, these lines open and close with the same words–symploce is the rhetorical term for this pattern–with the result that emphasis is placed on the transient and ever changing centers.  Roughly translated, the first line is “Here is treasure lent (or transitory, etc.) here is friend lent,” and the subsequent line continues the list of things that just do not last. The poem as a whole emphasizes the mutability of the mortal world and it has a strong Christian bent to it (as does most extant Anglo-Saxon poetry), but these lines always stand out to me, particularly the final line–all the earth shall become idel, “idle.” The absence of movement, the absence of variety, the absence of life. The absence of polar bears.


Forest Management

We’re moving in less than a week, and I find myself wondering how on earth I’m going to get everything packed.

But at the same time, it’s nice to be able to go through everything and purge the household of a lot of things we no longer use. That stuffed cat massager that’s been hiding at the back of the hall closet? Goodwill. That metallic shoe rack? Goodwill. That beautiful yellow prom dress that my grandmother gave me when I was in college (come on–there’s no way I could pull off yellow with my complexion)? Goodwill. The husband’s made several trips already.

When we first moved here, it was in stages. I moved out first, with just the essentials (read: the cats) while my husband stayed with his job until he found a new one here in Colorado. Later, the rental house that we had lived in previously sold, so the husband lived in his mom’s basement for a few months until he moved out here with me permanently. That meant that the husband packed up everything in the rental house. And I mean everything, even if we no longer used it. I wasn’t there to supervise or help pack, so rather than wonder if we really needed something, he (and my parents, who helped him pack up the house) put it on the truck. I was pregnant and exhausted, so I didn’t go through all of the boxes. And I learned what “packing” meant to him. He would take a large box–say, three feet high by two feet wide and long–take one of his desk drawers, and dump it into the box. With a layer of about 4-5 inches of stuff, he would then tape the box shut. Needless to say, once we decided to move this time, I told him to leave all the packing to me, and he graciously accepted (he gets the bulk of the cleaning in return; a fair trade to my mind).

So today, as I was weeding through a pile of dresses, I found myself thinking back to the various weddings at which several were worn (a favorite was a spaghetti-strap black floor-length one–it had a long and wispy cape-thing in the back, perfect for the “I’m Batman” look). Many of these dresses only saw the light of day once, and they’re too fancy to teach in. So which box do they go in? Goodwill or new house? The husband wandered in and began looking through the donation pile. “How can you get rid of your sunflower dress?” he teased. “You’re denying your Kansas roots.” The sunflower dress went, but many more stayed. Even if I never wear them again, they still remind me of friends I no longer see, of the joy of sharing momentous occasions with loved ones. Of being younger and healthier and skinnier.

It’s hard to declutter.

When I was an undergraduate, I majored in both Biology and English, and one of my favorite science classes was Wildlife Ecology. Not only did we learn about best practices for forest management at the time. We also learned some of the history of forest management practices and how they evolved over time. It’s always fun to think about how the classes I took as an undergraduate still influence what I do today. My love of Celtic mythology came from a class in which we read A. S. Byatt’s Possession, and a recent academic project deals with medieval forest management in the Robin Hood ballads.

Not only is it difficult to declutter a house–there’s a lot of junk in my mind (clearly).

But back to my point. Forest management has changed drastically over the years. During the Middle Ages, coppicing was a common treatment of trees to ensure faster and plentiful growth.

People still coppice trees today (I accidentally did this to a tree in my front yard before I learned what coppicing was) but not as frequently (there’s mixed feelings as to its sustainability and efficacy). Here’s what a forest that has been heavily coppiced looks like:

During the Middle Ages, the forests belonged to the king, and from the time of William the Conqueror and on, several laws–the “Forest Laws” were established to protect forested areas and its wild inhabitants. Not out of any sense of ecological sustainability or love of nature, mind you–rather, the kings of England loved to hunt, and they wanted to be sure to have plenty of game when the desire arose. This is the main offense of Robin Hood and other medieval outlaws–he hunted the king’s deer. In A Gest of Robyn Hode, the king arrives in Northern England, and he retires to one of his reserves to hunt:

All the compasse of Lancasshyre
He went both ferre and nere,
Tyll he came to Plomton Parke;
He faylyd many of his dere.

There our kynge was wont to se
Herdes many one,
He coud unneth fynde one dere,
That bare ony good horne. (1425-32)

Now, I have my own ideas as to why the king does not find any deer, but I’m not going to go into that here.

I’ve been to a few of these royal parks–one just this last summer–and I was very fortunate each time to not have the king’s luck. Years ago, I saw two stags fighting, and this last summer, at Fountains Abbey, I saw a herd of fallow and red deer:

Fallow and red deer at Fountains Abbey, UK

Fallow and red deer at Fountains Abbey, UK

Notice that it’s not a heavily forested area in the sense that there are not a lot of trees. Rather, medieval “forests” often encompassed quite a range of landscapes (after all, the word “forest” is from the Latin forīs, “out of doors.” Wood, in addition to venison, was always a highly-sought after commodity during the Middle Ages. Thus, not only did the Forest Laws restrict locals from harvesting the deer; as Jean Birrell notes, “it was forbidden even to remove a branch from a tree” (“The Medieval English Forest” 78). Collecting downed wood was okay, but it was illegal to sell the wood. Of course, many people broke these laws (and the Crown was often okay with it because the fines that were developed to deal with vert and venison offenses brought in significant amounts of revenue). People still used forested areas for livestock such as pigs, horses, and cattle, and the landscape would benefit from the droppings left behind by the grazing animals. The collection of branches on the ground would help prevent clutter that could result in large wildfires.

Later periods saw carefully cultivated forest areas, where human senses of order were imposed on landscapes. Any undergrowth was considered “clutter” and removed, trees were shaped and spaced neatly in lines (sorry that I can’t remember the specifics, and my wildlife ecology book is packed away!). These highly artificial forest management trends were quite harmful in that they discouraged the biodiversity that a healthy landscape needed. Fallen trees and branches were removed, with the result that small creatures could not use them for homes, and any nutrients and minerals that had been locked inside of the wood could not then return to the soil through the process of decomposition.

Fortunately, our senses of forest management have evolved to the point where we understand that the “clutter” is necessary. We do controlled burns here and there, which help to decrease the intensity of naturally-occurring wildfires and which also benefit the local ecology by returning nutrients back to the soil.

But are we really necessary to the process, or is this yet more evidence of our anthropocentric perspective, our need to master nature? I remember hiking through a section of the Appalachian Trail after Hurricane Hugo hit. Thanks to many crews–paid and volunteer–the trail had been cleared of major debris (someone wrote “Hugo was here” on one of the tree trunks along the trail), but even so, the damage was extensive. Massive trees had been uprooted, and trunks were splintered. But the only real reason why the crews were so hard at work was for the human element–so that hikers could get through. The forest would survive. It would regrow. Hurricanes–like the wildfires in Yellowstone–had hit that region before, and they would do so again. We weren’t needed.

Too bad my clutter is not so self-sufficient. So, back to packing and decluttering. As I manage the urban forest around me, I hope that I’m not adding to the waste but rather contributing to the cycle of exchange, at least in some small part.

Weeds are the World

My yard is a mess. A few weeks ago, I spent several hours pulling out thistles as tall as I am from one of the flower beds, and yesterday, my daughter squealed with delight when she found a nearly-one-foot-tall dandelion (one of many) about to bloom. Crabgrass, purslane, and foxtail are attempting to colonize our driveway. Wild violets are everywhere.

There are many reasons why my yard has so many varieties of weeds. Or so I tell myself. The neighborhood rabbits, for example, benefit from the diversity and the absence of pesticides (especially since most of our neighbors are quite vigilant in maintaining their yards). The groundwater is cleaner as a result of the absence of pesticides (particularly important given the large amount of fracking that goes on in our county). This has been an unusually rainy spring and summer, so chances are that as soon as I sprayed the yard, the rain would wash away the pesticides and the effort would be waster. And it takes time and money to maintain a weed-free yard–time and money that honestly, I’d rather spend elsewhere–in the mountains, at museums, on books, et cetera. And besides, the violets are very pretty in the spring; I’ve always loved those delicate bursts of purple. But is my reluctance to weed my yard merely a product of laziness (or an attempt to get back at the neighbors who constantly allow their dog to use my yard as a bathroom?), or might there be more to it?

A placeholder image from the web . . .

There’s a bit in my lease that indicates we are obligated to maintain a weed-free yard. And so the weeds must go. But why?

Right now, I’ve been working through Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) in preparation to finish an article on ecofeminism in Layamon’s thirteenth-century Brut, and the third chapter discusses the ways in which we as humans tend to “background” nature–a process that she calls a “common kind of insensitivity to the incredible diversity and richness of nature, treating beings in nature as all alike in their defectiveness, their lack of human qualities” (70). And this is what I (and others) do to my yard.

Weed is a word that has been around in English for a long time. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded usage came from Alfred the Great’s translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy in the late 9th century. The Old English is given below the definition:


Here’s the modern English translation:

“Whoever would sow fertile land, must first pluck up the thorns,
and furze, and fern, and all the weeds that he seeth infesting the field,
so that the wheat may grow the better.” (trans. Walter John Sedgefield)

Per Boethius (via Alfred), weeds clearly have no use–they “infest” and prevent more valuable plants, such as wheat, from flourishing. Yet this is a very anthropocentric view. I think I prefer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”

I do not directly have any use for the weeds in my yard; in fact, I’m sure the dandelions contribute greatly to my seasonal allergies. The crabgrass and the dandelions do not strike me as particularly beautiful (although the violets do). But at the same time, my sense of beauty is socially constructed. My daughter finds dandelions to be some of the most lovely flowers (sometimes I recruit her to help weed–she thinks she’s picking dandelions to decorate the house, but I know better). I dimly recall a meadow behind a childhood home. The hours I spent as a child making chains from the stems, weaving them together to make golden crowns. The hours I spent blowing on seed heads, delighting in watching each seed dance upon the wind.

What virtues do weeds have?

This last semester, my university hosted Ava Chin, author of Eating Wildly. You can check out her website here:


Chin shared her experiences foraging in New York City, finding edible plants nearly everywhere she went–plants that others viewed as weeds, if they saw them at all. I picked up a copy of her book, although I’ve not looked through it yet–but I’m intrigued by the idea. After all, I did discover earlier this summer that the rhubarb growing in my backyard was great for making jams and pies. What other virtues might these “weeds” have?

But of course, it’s not truly my yard, is it? A yard full of weeds–edible or flowering or not–does not attract potential buyers or renters, and we’ll be leaving this home for another soon enough. In our consumer-driven world, foxtail and purslane and other weeds are the inferior, the other. Why do we insist on such carefully manicured lawns? Why do weeds threaten us so? Do we yearn for conformity and shy away from the individuality that weeds can offer? Are we driven to exert (however futilely) our domination over those plants labelled as weeds? Do we fear that unweeded yards will attract more of nature’s inhabitants, thus reminding us of our close affinity to the rabbits and foxes that often dwell alongside us?

I don’t know. But in the meanwhile, the weeds will go. Sorry, rabbits.