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.


Creepy Crawlies

This afternoon, my daughter eagerly summoned me to the tree in our front yard. Crawling across the dark bark was a vibrantly yellow caterpillar.

Our afternoon visitor

Our afternoon visitor

Neither of us had seen a caterpillar like this before, so I grabbed my laptop and googled “yellow fuzzy caterpillar.” Meanwhile, it crawled from the trunk of the tree out into the grass at least a foot away. I didn’t realize caterpillars could move so quickly!

American dagger moth (Acronicta americana)

American dagger moth (Acronicta americana)

Turns out this is the American dagger moth (Acronicta americana), a common species to Colorado.

The moth into which the caterpillar will transform

The moth into which the caterpillar will transform

I maneuvered it onto a fallen piece of bark so that we could look at it more carefully. My daughter was chiding me the entire time to be careful–that is, she wasn’t concerned that I might get hurt (some people have developed rashes after touching this species of caterpillar), but rather that I might hurt the caterpillar. She then determined, through her “instincts,” that the caterpillar wanted to go over into the flowerbed by the house, so she dutifully carried it over to a rock. Apparently she was right, for rather than hightail it back into the grass, the caterpillar then spent several minutes crawling up and down across the brick facade. Perhaps it was checking out the view?

Having lost interest in the caterpillar, my daughter then decided she wanted to be a cat, and she brought out a tennis ball so that we could play fetch. This went on for a while (including some variations where she was an invisible kitty, the grass was actually the road, etc.), but suddenly she balked at fetching. No, she didn’t suddenly realize that dogs, not cats, like to fetch. Rather, there was a bee on the sidewalk.

Now, I’m glad that my daughter knows to be cautious around bees. She’s not been stung, but I can recall several painful stings from bees, wasps, and hornets in my childhood. This particular bee, however, was on its back, struggling to gain a foothold on something, anything.

“You can go around it,” I told her, “and I’ll find a stick to help it.”

“Why?” she asked. “The bee won’t help you.”

No fear for my safety. No fear for the bee’s safety (who was happy introduced to a neighboring flower). Yes, I did launch into a miniature lecture on the merits of the bee. And yes, my daughter quickly lost interest in the bee and its merits. She didn’t care that without the bee, we would not have flowers or the foods that result from flowering plants.

I was struck, however, by her comment that my kindness to the bee would not be returned. Why should it matter? And why was she so concerned about the caterpillar but wanted a wide berth of the bee?

There’s certainly an aesthetic appeal for the former, which was bright yellow and more importantly, incredibly fuzzy; we were both tempted to stroke the little creature to ascertain its softness. Although the spikes on its back may have been potentially harmful and it was fairly fast for a creepy crawlie, the caterpillar’s actions were smooth and regular. No erratic movements, no sudden darts.

But bees are beautiful creatures as well.

They too can be bright yellow, with fuzzy thoraces. Of course, I don’t think I can explain away the ominous stinger, but at the same time, it is a defense mechanism of the bee, rather than a weapon of aggression. If we are mindful of our surroundings, we can easily avoid giving a bee cause to sting us.

In The Parliament of Fowls, a fourteenth-century poem by Geoffrey Chaucer, the dreamer poet encounters a lovely garden, drawing careful attention to the types of trees and most importantly, the flowers therein:

A gardyn saw I ful of blosmy bowes
Upon a ryver, in a grene mede,
There as swetnesse everemore inow is,
With floures white, blewe, yelwe, and rede,
And colde welle-stremes, nothyng dede,
That swymmen ful of smale fishes lighte,
With fynnes rede and skales sylver bryghte.
190 On every bow the bryddes herde I synge,
With voys of aungel in here armonye (183-91)

He makes note of the birds, the deer, and the rabbits, but there’s no mention of insects of any kind, least of all the bees which would make the diverse blossoms possible.

People were aware of insects during the Middle Ages, of course, but whereas large animals were accorded large amounts of textual space (for example, the Aberdeen Bestiary devotes three pages to the lion), smaller creatures merited less space. As a result, the Aberdeen Bestiary ignores the biodiversity of the insect species and lists only a handful of insects (the caterpillar, the bug, and the silkworm) alongside arachnids (spiders, scorpions, and ticks) and annelids (worms, etc.)–and does so in just two pages.

Folio 72r of the Aberdeen Bestiary,

Folio 72r of the Aberdeen Bestiary, Caterpillars are described near the bottom of the page.

This particular bestiary does not mention bees, but it does have a brief mention of the caterpillar:

The caterpillar is a leaf worm, often found enveloped in a cabbage or a vine; it gets its name from erodere, ‘to eat away’. Plautus recalls it in this way: ‘She imitates the wicked and worthless beast, wrapped in vine leaves’ (Cistellaria, 728-30). It folds itself up and does not fly about like the locust, which hurries from place to place, in all directions, leaving things half-eaten, but stays amid the fruit that is destined to be destroyed and, munching slowly, consumes everything.

Other bestiaries mention the bee, drawing on classical authors such as Pliny the Elder, who notes in Book 11 of his Natural History that

[bees] belong to neither the wild or domesticated class of animals. Of all insects, bees alone were created for the sake of man. They collect honey, make wax, build structures, work hard, and have a government and leaders.

I’m struck by the parallels drawn by Pliny between human societies and those of bees (Isidore of Seville in the seventh century will note that bees wage war much like humans), as well as the anthropocentric perspective that bees exist only for humanity’s usage.

Of course, bees do appear elsewhere in medieval literature. For example, there is an Anglo-Saxon metrical charm designed to prevent bees from swarming (the Anglo-Saxons, like many other cultures, kept bees). Here’s Karl Young’s translation:

This charm offers a different perspective than that of Pliny, one which raises bees to the same level as humans–they are both “mastered” by the earth–in part by acknowledging the bees as “wise” creatures who are capable of harm to humans but yet may be persuaded to do otherwise.

So where am I going with all this? Are my thoughts as unpredictable as the fluttering butterfly, struggling against the whims of the errant breeze to move from flower to flower, or are they more purposeful, intent on getting at the nectar of the flower while inadvertently spreading pollen? I think the end result, for me at least, is that I will continue to find ways to help my daughter see anew the natural world around her, that she may appreciate the bee as much as the caterpillar.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My

Facebook informs me that yesterday was World Lion Day, so I think it’s appropriate to jot down a few thoughts on Cecil the lion, among other things.

Cecil the lion and park icon. Photo: African Bush Camps

Over the last few years, a lot of my scholarly research has led me to hunting manuals such as Edward, Duke of York’s The Master of Game and bestiaries such as the Aberdeen Bestiary. I’m fascinated by their implications for medieval literature, for these incredibly detailed (and often beautifully illustrated) texts reveal much about medieval attitudes towards animals and their relationships with the natural world and with humans (as well as what it meant to be human).

Bodleian Alexander manuscript (MS Bodl. 264)

A hunting scene from the Bodleian Alexander manuscript (MS Bodl. 264)

I still fondly remember reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the first time as an undergraduate and absolutely loving the symbolism of the three hunts described in that fourteenth-century text and their relationship to a similar hunt occurring in Sir Gawain’s bedchamber. In my Middle English surveys now, I love working through these scenes, line by line, with my students, talking about what the details reveal about medieval hunting practices (and how they continue to inform our understanding of the bedroom “hunts”).

Another favorite was Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet “Whoso List to Hunt, I Know where is an Hind”, particularly once I was able to compare it to its Petrarchan source. I loved the metaphor of the romantic chase reimagined as a hunt.

Of course, there is a certain irony in my love of hunting scenes in medieval literature.

I don’t hunt.

I never have, and I never will. I’ve never had any kind of desire to do so.

There’s a scene in the 1995 film Powder in which the main character (a naive yet profoundly wise figure) goes on a hunting trip, and he is horrified when one of his companions shoots a deer. He has special powers which allow him to extend the suffering of the deer to its killer. I’ve only seen it once, but this particular scene has stayed with me over the years.

I’m not necessarily against hunting. Animal populations lacking predators can spiral out of control, decimating their habitats and causing great suffering as the animals compete for rapidly decreasing resources. I get that.

But I hate what happened to Cecil the lion. This was recreational hunting–done for the thrill of the chase and the adrenaline of killing.

I can’t help but think of a moment in Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game”:

“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general. “So I said, `What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’ And the answer was, of course, `It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.”‘

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one that can.”

“But you can’t mean–” gasped Rainsford.

“And why not?”

“I can’t believe you are serious, General Zaroff. This is a grisly joke.”

“Why should I not be serious? I am speaking of hunting.”

“Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.”

The irony of this story (sorry, spoilers) is that the hunter (Rainsford) becomes the hunted as General Zaroff grows tired of the ease of pursuing lesser creatures. The distinction in this story between humans and animals hinges on one point: humans, unlike other animals, can reason.

But are non-human animals truly devoid of reason? (And if they are incapable of reasoning, are we still justified in killing them for sport?) What is the relationship–or rather, the difference–between humans and non-human animals? Why, when General Zaroff tracks Rainsford with the intent to kill him, is it considered murder, but not so when he hunts other creatures?

In the eighteenth century, David Hume asserted that “no truth appears to be more evident, than that beast are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men.” A century prior, René Descartes wrote that “[A]fter the error of those who deny God, there is none that leads weak minds further from the straight path of virtue than that of imagining that the souls of beasts are of the same nature as our own.”

If you’re looking for a definitive answer here as to whether or not non-human animals are capable of rational thought, you’ve come to the wrong place. I don’t know, although my gut tells me they are.

I can, however, tell you about lions in medieval literature.

A lion playing the violin in the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, France, 1302-1303

I love the story of Yvain, told first by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century. Here’s an excerpt from David Staines’s translation:

Absorbed in his thoughts, Sir Yvain was riding through a deep forest when he heard a loud cry of pain from the trees. He turned in the direction of the cry. When he reached a clearing, he saw a lion and a serpent, which was holding the lion by the tail and scorching his haunches with burning fire. Sir Yvain spent little time looking at this strange sight. When he considered which of the two he would help, he decided to go to aid the lion, because a serpent with its venom and treachery deserved nothing but harm. The serpent was venomous, and fire was darting from its mouth, so full of evil was the creature.

Intending first to kill the serpent, Sir Yvain drew his sword and advanced. He held his shield before his face as a protection against the flames gushing from the serpent’s throat, which was more gaping than a pot. If the lion attacked him later, there would be a fight; yet whatever happened after, he still wished to aid the lion. Pity urged him and pleaded that he help and support the noble and honorable beast.

Once Yvain rescues the lion, it becomes as docile and playful as a puppy, and soon Yvain gains the epithet “The Knight with the Lion” as the lion refuses to leave his side. Even when Yvain attempts to restrain the lion in order to take part in a challenge, the lion breaks its bonds and rushes to save Yvain (and just in the nick of time, too!).

The passage above reflects medieval thought about the serpent, which it associated with Satan, as well as the valorization of the lion. Most bestiaries list the lion first among all animals because according to the Aberdeen Bestiary, “the Greek word for lion is translated ‘king’ in Latin, because the lion is the king of all the beasts.”

In other medieval romances, lions occasionally appear in more conventional roles. In one (sorry, can’t recall the name of the romance at the moment), a captured lion gets loose in Arthur’s court while all of the seasoned knights are away (out hunting, if I remember correctly) and menaces Queen Guinevere. A young untried knight proves his mettle by defeating the lion. And of course, there’s the Middle English romance of Richard the Lion-Hearted, where the titular character earns his epithet by reaching into a lion’s throat to pull out the still-beating heart and then consuming it (with just a dash of salt).

Peterborough Psalter

Image from the Peterborough Psalter–either of Richard the Lion-Hearted or Sampson (can’t remember, sorry)

While lions once did inhabit parts of Europe, none would have existed in that region during the Middle Ages, although people who traveled widely through the known world would have brought back descriptions or even images of lions, and captured lions would have been presented as gifts to kings and other powerful leaders. Several lions are featured in heraldry; perhaps the most famous appear on the Plantagenet coat of arms.

Henry II of England’s coat of arms

In medieval romances, then, lions were viewed as powerful and noble creatures, dangerous to their enemies, but meek to their friends. To conquer a lion was to demonstrate great strength.

A lot of these ideas still persist in our society today, and films such as Disney’s Lion King help to perpetuate these concepts. So it’s not that surprising that someone would pay tens of thousands of dollars to have the opportunity to hunt a lion.

But what does this say about our society? What does it mean that a person would rather spend this kind of money to travel far from his home and pay others to lead him to the animal (or in this case, lead the lion out of the wildlife preserve to the hunter)? That he would then kill the animal and proudly display pictures alongside the head of the lion?

Multiple friends circulated a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions,” that responded to Cecil’s killing. I found it an interesting read that offered an important perspective. Goodwell Nzou grew up in Zimbabwe, and when he learned of Cecil’s death, “the village boy inside me instinctively cheered: One lion fewer to menace families like mine.” Nzou went on to share anecdotes of encounters with lions–usually deadly–leading up to his conclusion:

We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.

He has a point–several, actually. Lions are dangerous creatures.

Here in Colorado, we have mountain lions. Although I have yet to see one, I’ve read reports of them coming down into urban areas and making off with domestic animals–even entering houses through pet doors in search of food. We also have bears. I’ve seen several–one running across a highway in Estes Park early in the morning, and another high in a tree alongside the same highway at the other end of Estes Park. A few weeks after my daughter was born, we saw a mother bear and her two cubs walking along a path as we drove back from Bear Lake.

At no point did I feel endangered–largely because I was in a car each time, and at a safe distance. And I imagine bears would rather feast on berries than on me.

I’ve encountered bears while hiking along the Appalachian Trail as well, but again, always at a safe distance. We knew to place our food in bags high in trees each night. Most summers, we had two of our dogs hiking with us. One was a white German shepherd named Ivory. Sweet dog, but lacking in brains. She loved to chase anything and everything, including a bear. Good thing that black bear never bothered to look behind it. Another summer, we were amazed (and relieved) that Ivory did not catch the scent of the large black bear that wandered past the shelter on its way to some berry patches.

While camping outside of Baxter Park in Maine (near the base of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail) one summer, we were awakened by a large bear foraging in the trash bin right next to our RV (the previous campers had thrown their leftovers in before departing, so the bear found itself quite the feast), and the next day, the park rangers had captured and tranquilized the bear. We were able to stand several feet from it, marveling at its girth.

Bears do kill humans. A friend recently posted an article about a Grizzly bear that is suspected of killing a Yellowstone hiker. A bear has been captured in the area, and if it is found to have human remains in its digestive tract, it will be “euthanized.” (Why not just say “killed”?)

But here’s the thing–the bear has cubs. Chances are that the bear was defending its territory and protecting its offspring. But that doesn’t matter in the larger economic picture:

Julena Campbell, a Yellowstone spokeswoman: “We have 3.5 million people coming to Yellowstone each year and risking those lives is not a chance we’re willing to take.”

And later:

Campbell said the bear would have a better chance of surviving if there had been witnesses when Crosby was attacked who could confirm that the animal was defending her cubs. Because the attack lacked witnesses, park officials are unwilling to risk another attack without knowing what provoked the first one, she said.

I admit that my experience with bears is nothing compared to that of Nzou. I grew up in a developed world at a distance from such dangerous beasts, and even when I ventured into their territories, I did so out of choice rather than economic necessity, armed with strategies to either avoid bears entirely or to prevent myself from becoming a target. And bears are typically shy creatures, more prone to run away than to turn and fight. Lions are clearly the greater threat, especially for a human population that must co-exist with them in the same habitat and which is a potential food source.

I’m still bothered by Cecil’s death, though, as well as one of Nzou’s final comments:

Don’t tell us what to do with our animals when you allowed your own mountain lions to be hunted to near extinction in the eastern United States. Don’t bemoan the clear-cutting of our forests when you turned yours into concrete jungles.

He’s right–we have destroyed so much natural habitat here in the US, and the public outcry over Cecil’s death seems to be excessive (Nzou calls it “an absurdist circus”), especially when we consider the number of lions killed annually without a whimper from the media–although I am glad to see that the media attention has resulted in money being donated to the maintenance and preservation of wildlife habitats such as where Cecil once dwelt.

But just because we have destroyed (or nearly destroyed) the ecology here, does that strip us of any responsibility elsewhere in the world?

To what extent are the lions reacting to human encroachment on their territories and the resultant scarcity of resources? The world is out of balance, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when nature bites back.

I’m not saying that Zimbabweans deserve to die by lions or that Yellowstone tourists should be dismissed as easy prey for bears–far from it. Rather, we need to find better ways to either co-exist with these dangerous creatures (all creatures, really) or to find ways to prevent our paths from crossing. It’s not just our world, and lions and bears play a vital role in the world ecology–even if we do not fully grasp the extent of it. We’re constantly learning more about non-human animals and their capacity for intelligence.

I admit that it is easy for me to sit inside my well-constructed house on the other side of the world and pontificate about these creatures and our need to just get along. But I hope that more conversations can take place. We hunt–but so do these creatures–for survival as well as for entertainment. I think that we can learn a lot about ourselves through the lions and bears. Perhaps we’ll find that we’re not really that different. And I can’t help but wonder, given that nearly every day brings more news of racial violence, if we really questioned why we hunt, we might find some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. In Richard the Lion-Hearted, for example, Richard justified slaughtering and devouring Saracens by claiming that they were not human (and weren’t similar arguments made in support of slavery?). We’re so desperate to separate ourselves from the “animals” that I wonder if we aren’t becoming just as–if not more–violent as they are purported to be. According to Karl Steel in How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages,

Humans attempt to form themselves as human by (mis)recognizing themselves as ‘not animal,’ and then by subjecting themselves to the impossible demands of living up to this ideal self, one distinctively rational, ensouled, responsible, linguistic, and so on. Faced with a constitutive and irreparable disparity between themselves and their human self-image, humans assert that animals lack what uniquely afflicts humans. To give this assertion strength, they treat animals ‘like animals’; as instruments available for labor or slaughter, violence which does not count as morally significant violence and which therefore qualitatively differs from the violence humans suffer. (5)

But it’s late and I’m tired, and a stack of student papers awaits me in the morning, so for now I will let sleeping lions lie.

British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 4r

But be aware that the lion sleeps with his eyes open. Perhaps we should as well.

The Marshes of My Mind

Emergent vegetation in Night-Heron Shallows - 2

I’ve been working on an article on Layamon’s Brut for a while, and I keep hitting figurative walls. Some of my difficulty is due, no doubt, to the numerous demands on my time—I’m teaching two online classes, I’m packing my house, and I have a young child. At some point, I need to start thinking about the upcoming semester. But having started this blog, I’ve come to an important realization: I really don’t like academic writing.

In my experience, academic writing requires a firm hand and lots of structure, and I can do it. I just would prefer not to. My mind is constantly meandering despite my best efforts, and I keep discovering interesting threads in a text that threaten to draw me off course.

Like this morning: I was suddenly struck by the use of marshes in Layamon’s Brut, particularly in the Arthurian section. There are two notable instances. First, when Arthur is fighting against the invading Saxons, he drives his enemies to a deep river and manages to deny them the ford. As the Saxons drown by the thousands, the narrator interrupts the battle scene with this lovely simile:

Summe heo gunnen wondrien swa doð þe wilde cron
i þan mor-uenne þenne his floc is awemmed
and him haldeð after hauekes swifte,
hundes in þan reode mid reouðe hine imeteð.
þenne nis him neouðer god, no þat lond no þat flod:
hauekes hine smiteð, hundes hine biteð.
þenne bið þe kinewurðe foȝel fæie on his siðe. (10061-67)

Here’s the translation by W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg:

Some went wandering as does the wild crane in the moorland fen when his flock is scattered and swift hawks pursue him, hounds ruthlessly attack him in the reeds. Neither the land nor the water is safe for him then: hawks strike him, hounds bite him. Then the royal bird is doomed in his tracks. (43-45)

Here, the fens are presented as a threatening place, one devoid of sanctuary of any sort and filled with predators. Consisting of neither land nor water, it is not a place to enter on one’s own.

Later in the Brut, Arthur hosts a feast and invites the nobles from the various countries he has conquered. Not surprisingly, a fight breaks out. Arthur’s response? Kill the instigators and mutilate their female kin. I’m going to ignore the second part of Arthur’s command here (my article addresses it to some extent) and focus just on the first part. Arthur is quite specific in how the instigators shall be put to death:

[D]oð wiððe an his sweore; and draȝeð hine to ane more,
and doð hine in an ley uen þer he scal liggen. (11394-95)

And Barron and Weinberg’s translation:

[P]ut a cord about his neck and drag him to a marsh, and thrust him into the bog where he shall lie. (111)

I’m intrigued by Arthur’s choice of wetlands as an instrument of death. What does it mean to be bound and thrown into a bog? Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment” immediately comes to mind. Heaney addresses one of the “bog people” (bodies preserved in Danish marshes from 2-3 thousand years ago; you can learn more about them here), imagining a backstory for how she came to be entombed in that marsh (and the link above offers a new understanding of that particular bog body, one which contradicts much of what Heaney imagined).

Why a marsh? Why not death by fire or beheading? Why not death by dismemberment? These men have violated Arthur’s court, and their actions could be seen as treasonous, and dismemberment was the usual punishment for such crimes.

I imagine death by bog to be a slow process. Whereas decapitation offers a fast release, a marshy death might allow more time for reflection. Dismemberment and death by fire would be painful experiences (I’m guessing–absolutely no firsthand experience with any of this), which might prevent any kind of meditation while conscious.

Many people in Layamon’s Brut are drowned, especially women and children, but Arthur’s enemies as well, but perhaps the type of drowning that takes place in a marsh would be worse. The weight of the water-sodden mud pressing down upon one’s chest. The mouth open to scream, only to be silenced by an influx of sludge. And bodies that drown ultimately float back up, don’t they? Entombment in a marsh might have struck those living in the Middle Ages as a more permanent location. After all, the bog people were only discovered thousands of years later, often by people in search of other things (like peat, for example). Long before death, though, those doomed to die might endure a worse suffering–the mental anguish of isolation from human society, or the verbal assaults of demonic creatures believed to dwell in such spaces (Guthlac’s demons, for example, in Guthlac A).

My personal experiences with marshes have been, on the whole, fairly positive (I hedge only because, you guessed it, I’ve come across a lot of snakes in these venues). My undergraduate university owned several hundred acres of wetlands, and we would often spend a few hours each week, weather permitting, exploring or managing them in my science courses. I still vividly recall watching what seemed like thousands of swallows swooping through the air to feast on insects. We found a young owl in one of the duck houses one time, its feathers incredibly soft. We waded through shallow ponds to catch minnows in our nets to  determine the diversity and quantity of the fish in the spring.

A few years back, I taught a course on J. R. R. Tolkien, and so when it came time to talk about the Dead Marshes, I was excited. We started out talking about World War I and the experience of trench warfare. I showed them photographs of the trenches, of the injuries, of the massive scarring upon the landscape and the eternal mud. It was easy for the students to find connections with Tolkien’s marshes, especially given the dreary depiction brought so vividly to life by Peter Jackson.

The Dead Marshes in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, from

Then I asked my students to look at the marshes in a different way. We talked about the terminology used to describe these particular habitats, and we learned that there is a lot of diversity between words such as “bog” or “marsh.” “Wetlands” seems to the the umbrella term for what is in reality several different landscapes. Here are a few examples, taken from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Slide12We talked about the ecological functions of wetlands. Here’s a handy chart that we looked at:

urlWetlands are such a vital part of our world. Some people view them as “wastelands”–that is, “waste” in the sense that they are not useful to humans, and therefore should be drained and turned into something more productive, such as arable land (and this is a long-held perspective, going back at least to the tenth-century Benedictine Reform in England, if not further). During my time as an undergraduate, my university’s wetlands were threatened by the city’s desire to build a highway right through the middle (yeah, it happened). Wetlands are easily dismissed, and they shouldn’t be.

We then turned back to Tolkien’s The Two Towers to re-examine Chapter II, “The Passage of the Marshes.” Tolkien did not settle on one term, but rather uses a variety: “bog,” “fens,” “mires,” “marshes.” Such a place is, I think, difficult to describe, and this is reflected in Tolkien’s language. What seems to be a uniform landscape (particularly in the cinematic depictions) is really quite diverse. Of course, there is little color (the “only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters”), and the sun fails to give any hint of warmth. There is an absence of birds (often a marker of ecological problems), but there is the movement of air, movement in the water. There is life.

So must we read the passage through the Dead Marshes as a funereal experience? The presence of dead grasses and rotting reeds might lead us to answer, “yes,” but it’s winter. Might the fact that the plants are “rotting” suggest that new life can be restored? That this remains a place of change? There is so much activity in these pages. The present participle of “rotting” reveals ongoing activity and change; the water becomes personified–it is “sullen”; and the weeds are “livid.” After all, the name “The Dead Marshes” is merely a mortal interpretation of natural landscape.

To return to Layamon and his marshes–in a sense, death by marsh may have been seen as a sort of obliteration in the literal sense–an erasure of one’s identity. Given that by mutilating the men’s female kin, Arthur intends to prevent future generations from being created (“‘swa ich wulle al for-don; þat cun þat he of com'” (11400)), so it may be that by condemning the men to a burial in the marshes–a place of constant change–he removes them from the pages of history, their tombs never to be found (at least, not until centuries later). Marshes were seen by some during the medieval period as places that either had never felt the touch of civilization or had overcome it to return to a purer state, so they seem an appropriate place for those who threatened Arthur’s rule to be swallowed up by them.

But at the same time, as threatening as these wetlands may have been to some during the medieval period, their presence in Layamon’s Brut shows that not all viewed marshes as places to avoid. For Arthur, these places were merely an extension of his power, his ability to dominate all that he looks upon. And from an ecological viewpoint, the use of the marshes as a repository for the dead would ultimately benefit the land–not only by removing obstacles from Arthur’s power (and thus potentially avoiding or shortening conflicts), but by capturing nutrients from decaying bodies and recycling them though uptake by plants and insects.

Bring the Dinosaurs Back!

No, not really.

Although I’ve not seen the most recent Jurassic World film, I still find the idea intriguing. Years ago, my husband and I became instant fans of the short-lived TV show Terra Nova (2011) in which humans from the polluted future travel to the distant past to establish new communities side-by-side with the dinosaurs. It was a cool concept, and the dinosaurs looked pretty awesome. Yet to co-exist alongside dinosaurs proved incredibly difficult for the colonists despite their technology, and as a result, they constructed large walls to separate themselves from large predators. Some things never change.

Last year, I taught Alan Weisman’s The World without Us for a section of my university’s introductory Life of the Mind class, and we had a lot of great conversations about ecological issues and humanity’s relationship with the rest of the world. We analyzed arguments for and against deforestation and learned about the Bialowieza Puszcza in Poland. We spent a few class periods talking about Chernobyl and watching clips on its present inhabitants. We watched Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982), directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass, and then we talked about how technology impacts our lives and how technology has the potential to benefit the environment.

A side note on Chernobyl: I found it especially intriguing that several of the documentaries on the disaster emphasized the idea that “life is much more resilient than we thought,” and only a few really got into the emerging aberrations on the local animal populations. Several documentaries (and Weisman’s book) opened by focusing on the return of song birds to the area, and I initially was surprised by this emphasis across sources. But the more that I think about it, it makes sense. Why did early miners bring canaries? To test the air down in the shafts. If birds, with their much more fragile bodies and faster metabolism, can survive and even flourish in an area such as Chernobyl, so too can humans in the perhaps-not-so-distant future. Why do Snow White and Cinderella talk with birds? Because they resemble us in a variety of ways. As Claude Lévi-Strauss notes, birds:

form a community which is independent of our own but, precisely because of this independence, appears to us like another society, homologous to that in which we live: birds love freedom; they build themselves homes in which they live a family life and nurture their young; they often engage in social relations with other members of their species; and they communicate with them by acoustic means recalling articulated language. (qtd. in Dorothy Yamamoto, The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature 34)

In other words, the birds are a microcosm of human society. Perhaps we seek assurance that the disaster at Chernobyl was not as horrific as we first thought (and several documentaries attest to the initial opinion that life would never return to the area), that we as human caretakers are not complete failures. While I understand the benefits of positive thinking, I worry that too much focus on the fact that animals and plants are returning to the area will cause too many to turn a blind eye to the reality of the nuclear aftermath. For example, the Washington Post offered the headline “Chernobyl Area Becomes Wildlife Haven” in 2007 (see here) and in 2013, the Wildlife News reported that “Chernobyl nuclear disaster site becomes a wildlife area, including over a hundred wolves” (see here)–although they did acknowledge the presence of mutations (and elsewhere I’ve read about shortened lifespans among birds, the lack of biodiversity, etc.). I doubt that our nuclear footprint will ever disappear from that Chernobyl.

But back to dinosaurs. Weisman introduced our class to the idea of “re-wilding,” a practice which would re-introduce large predators and other animals to areas where their relatives had become extinct. For example, Paul Martin discusses whether  African or Asian elephants could thrive in the American Southwest (Weisman 100-101), and Dave Foreman, the director of The Rewilding Institute, works to establish “megalinkages” that would reconnect habitats for wide-ranging species such as wolves (Weisman 348; see more here).

There are some who advocate for Pleistocene re-wilding, which allows for the restoration of “animals that disappeared 13,000 years ago from Pleistocene North America” (see here). I readily admit that I was absolutely ecstatic to learn that “dire wolves” were once real, existing outside of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice on the North American continent. I was also intrigued by the arguments surrounding the decimation of these species. Some argue that natural phenomena such as ice sheets stranded wildlife populations, causing species to either evolve or die out. How is this different from the impact of human expansion on wildlife populations today? Does it matter who or what (that is, humans or ice sheets) is creating the new, challenging environments?

Another intriguing idea comes from Paul Martin, who argues that the extinction of Pleistocene creatures was caused when humans arrived on new continents such as North America (Weisman 72). Humans had the necessary technology to hunt large native animals. As these animals had not developed fear of humans or survival strategies, unlike those animals in Africa who evolved alongside humans, they were easily hunted to oblivion (there are many counterarguments to Martin’s theories, but I won’t go into them here).

Of course, some see this as part of a larger divine plan. According to Thomas Jefferson,

Such is the economy of nature that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct.” (Weisman 67)

To what extent might our current—and popular—perception of extinction be influenced by this Deist / Christian concept? That we are the sole cause of extinction, and thus violating the laws of Nature (or of God, et cetera)? Or that we have been empowered to do so (“Might makes right”), that Nature has given us her blessing (that Nature would not allow us to cause a species to go extinct unless it were part of a larger plan)? As Weisman notes, “Charles Darwin would describe how these extinctions were part of nature itself” (67). Does this mean we should sit idly by as animals die out as a result of our expansion and excessive consumption of natural resources?

What prompted this post was a segment on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS that aired this morning. Normally, Fareed is background noise for me, but this morning, he asked this intriguing question:

Could we bring back the woolly mammoth? And if so, should we?

His guest was Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary (paleo)biologist at UC Santa Cruz and author of the book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (you can follow her on Twitter here).

Shapiro started out by debunking the idea of extracting viable dinosaur DNA from amber (sorry, Jurassic Park!). DNA deteriorates quickly, and amber is too porous, allowing bacteria to enter and consume the genetic matter. But bringing back mammoths? That’s an entirely different matter. Their DNA, much younger than that of dinosaurs, has been preserved in ice, and even better, they have close relatives–the Asian elephant–still existing today. We could bring back mammoths.

But I think what I appreciated most about her commentary was her response to Fareed‘s second question: “And if so, should we?” “If we do this,” she explained, “we couldn’t create just one mammoth.” Elephants are social creatures, as were mammoths, and to create just one would be cruel (just think about the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and his drive to find–or create–another like him). In addition, elephants do not do well in captivity, Shapiro pointed out, and they are cruel to their offspring in such environments. We don’t know enough about how to take care of them; how, then, can we expect to be able to accommodate herds of mammoths?

Fareed and Shapiro also discussed bringing back other animals–such as the Tasmanian tiger or the Passenger pigeon. This would be different from bringing back the mammoth largely because these more recent extinctions resulted from direct human action. For example, Tasmanian tigers were hunted to extinction because they were thought to prey on farmers’ livestock; the Tasmanian government offered bounties for the carcasses of these creatures. As Shapiro pointed out, an ecological vacuum is created. These animals existed in a biosphere that had evolved alongside them. When we remove this one species, what happens? How many animals can we eliminate from our world before we initiate a massive ecological collapse?

In the case of wolves in the US, we know what happens when an animal is driven from its natural environment by humans:

I was blown away the first time that I saw this video. I knew that wolves were important in nature, but it was fascinating to see the diverse and widespread impact that they had on the ecology of Yellowstone–the “trophic cascade” that they created.

And so, I agree with Shapiro that although we can bring back the mammoth, we shouldn’t. Not yet, anyway. If research can ever conclusively show that humans were the primary cause of their extinction and we learn more about the social needs of mammoths and elephants, then I’d be okay with resurrecting this particular species. I have no need to see dinosaurs tromping down the street in my neighborhood, though.

In the meanwhile, I hope scientists (and the politicians who fund them) continue to find ways to bring back species that have been made extinct more recently through the actions of humanity. While I recognize that change is a constant–in language as well as in ecology–I’m not sure that I agree with Jefferson or Darwin that extinction is a part of nature or the implication that we should accept the loss of such creatures. If we are “above” nature, as some argue, then we have an obligation to protect nature. Augustine and others constantly sought ways to rise above the mortal, fleshy world, to find, in Augustine’s words, a “City of God,” but I don’t believe we can (or should) seek to separate the mind and the body, so to speak.

And if we are just another facet of nature, we are attacking ourselves through our predations on other species. We are the Ouroboros, the snake eternally devouring its own tail.

Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in a 1478 copy of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius (

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.