A friend and I recently discovered that bears obsess us both. I wonder: what is the root of this obsession? Awe? Fear? Attraction to the mystery of bears’ lives? Remarkable individual bears? Vaguely articulated thoughts about the nature of wildness? Voyeurism? Admiration of their awesome power and omnivorous eating habits? Probably all of these things, enabled by our comfortably domestic distance from the teeth and claws of real bears. We talk about what would happen if we ran into a bear on a hike or, perhaps more interesting, what would happen if a bear ran into us. The proximity of this imagined encounter is thrilling in the abstract, but if I think about it a little too long or a little too hard, the static of my thoughts buzzes louder and louder, and then, suddenly, my brain falls silent. I swim momentarily in that darkish pool somewhere between dream and nightmare, imagine being paralyzed by awe and then fear. I would probably forget everything I have learned—and rehearsed over and over—about what to do when you encounter a bear. I would probably drop my can of bear spray and start to run.
Nonetheless, I was excited when my bear-loving friend shared this Kenneth Koch poem with me:
Aesthetics of Bears
To be a bear, be active
In the bear world–
Fur, limbs, and claws.
Rampage. Stay. Mate.
Give birth to another bear.
The poem provides fun and excellent instruction, to be sure. But for whom are these instructions written? Humans or bears? Are they instructions at all? Or are they instead an articulation of, as the poem’s title suggests, the aesthetics of wild bears? Because of its obvious reliance on language the poem seems to instruct humans in the ways of bears, many of which bear uncanny resemblance to our ways as humans. So, “be[ing] a bear” becomes a metaphor for some way of being in the human world. More specifically, these bear aesthetics seem to promote an active, engaged, and self-perpetuating artistic process.
Living animals do bear the weight of our impulse to use them as symbols. We often assume that, in comparison with our elegant or tangled webs of human feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, the lives of animals are pre-determined and “merely” physical. To paraphrase Koch, bears are physically, viscerally active; unpredictable; always wild; and constantly procreating. We might admire an animal’s keenness and “animal-impulse,” but this sincere admiration is tempered by the uncomfortable and inequitable sense humans have of our comparative complication. Nonetheless, the mystery of the animal-other beguiles us. Our rich history of fable and myth may speak to a desire to fence off the periphery of that mystery by casting animals in roles for which humans are the ultimate point of reference.
In his essay ‘Why look at animals?’ John Berger writes “The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary . . . Man becomes aware of himself returning the look. The animal scrutinizes him across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension.” We should also remember that there is a lot we humans do not comprehend about animal groups and animal individuals. Although this distance may be nearly impossible to broach, perhaps an important first step is simply to acknowledge it.