Canadian forests and bears, and where we got our racism
by Rob Tiller
Last week I went out to the west coast of Canada to photograph bears. I stayed in Klemtu, B.C., a small community in Great Bear Rainforest, which is the largest temperate rainforest on the planet. It was vast and beautiful there, with evergreens covering mountainous islands surrounded by intricate waterways. The area is home to the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation, members of which served our group as guides.
The travel involved some bumpy boat trips, hiking, and sitting for hours, often in the rain, watching hopefully for bears. I found the waiting challenging, especially when the rain got heavy, but also learned some things. Sitting in the woods or on the boat watching and listening very closely for long periods became a type of meditation. Getting really externally focused helped in making a good shot.
We had good close views of black bears, grizzlies, and a rare spirit bear, a white relative of the black bear which is found only there. We also watched humpback whales and orcas diving and occasionally breaching. There were lots of bald eagles and ospreys. One day we saw an osprey that had caught a fish drop it, and then an eagle caught the unfortunate fish in mid-air.
The trip was organized by Muench Workshops and led by Kevin Pepper, who gave me friendly encouragement and guidance. The six other amateur photographers in the group were very well traveled and experienced. We were all surprised to find that every one of us, including Kevin, had the same camera: the excellent Nikon D850. My equipment worked well, except that I maxed out my hard drive halfway through the trip. I ordered a new one, and should have a few more wildlife photos to share next week.
It was a long trip home, starting from Klemtu by boat, then a cab to the Bella Bella airport, and a prop plane to Vancouver, and the next morning a flight to Seattle, and nearly missing the connection to Raleigh.
One thing I like about long travel days is the chance to get immersed in books. On the trip home, I finished Bill McKibben’s recent book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? The book is about the existential risks that we’re now facing, especially climate change. McKibben strongly lays out the imminent threats of rising temperatures, storms, fires, droughts, ocean acidification, and others. His account of how the fossil fuel industry consciously misled the public and prevented remedial action is clear and infuriating. Some of the factual information was familiar, but I still found McKibben’s framing readable and worthwhile, and appreciated his note of hope.
It was good to get back to North Carolina. On Friday, I stopped by Jersey Mike’s for lunch. I like their veggie sandwich (the number 14), which I get dressed “Mike’s way.” They know me there, and I usually get a smile when I order. But this time I noticed a young black man behind me did not get such a friendly reception when he ordered. The woman at the counter, who’d been friendly and warm to me, turned sour and cold to him.
Did it have to do with his color? I’m pretty sure that it did. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about this: in our racial caste system, a lot of people treat others less well based on skin color. Sometimes it’s subtle, and for those of us in the privileged caste, it’s easy not to see.
As I noted here recently, I’ve been thinking about some of the non-obvious effects of American racism, including its polarizing impact on our politics. I learned more about those issues this week from the 1619 Project, an excellent series of essays in the NY Times on American slavery and racism. The series makes a strong case for viewing slavery not as a momentary aberration in the American experience, but a central element of our foundation that continues to affect us today.
The 1619 Project notes how the heritage of slavery explains many of the problems in our housing, schools, employment, health care, and criminal justice systems. The essay by Matthew Desmond was particularly intriguing. Desmond points out that the version of capitalism that Americans think of as normal is actually quite different from capitalism in most countries in that it largely ignores concerns for workers’ welfare. He argues that this is the result of attitudes and practices worked out in the extremely profitable cotton plantations of the early 19th century. Plantation owners pioneered many modern business and financial systems, and also developed a mindset that tolerated extreme inequality with wealth and privilege only for a lucky few. Their success depended on the brutal exploitation of kidnapped Africans.
The brutality of that system was justified by the pseudo-science of racism, with otherwise respectable scientific minds purporting to show that Africans and their American descendants were inherently inferior. Ian Frazier has a very fine piece in this week’s New Yorker on that subject, including the early 20th century work of Madison Grant and his popularizer, Lothrop Stoddard.
Reading this history is helpful in showing that our racism is not natural. It was a human invention. It’s turned out to be surprisingly durable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be undone. Since we had the power to set it up, we clearly have the power to undo it. But plainly, fixing it will take hard work. For most of my life, I thought that the system was gradually disappearing on its own, but recent events have shown how wrong I was.
If we take on the hard work of breaking down our caste system and its underlying psychology, it’s bound to make us better, at least a little. Less hatred and fear equal more happiness. Our current system requires that we accept as normal unfairness, injustice, and brutality. It desensitizes us and leaves us morally numb. As we overcome that system, we’ll be better able to connect with people different from ourselves, and even with ourselves.
The moral numbness of our racist system may also account for part of our problems connecting with other living things in the natural world. As we clear away racist ways of thinking, we may find ourselves seeing more of the beauty and wonder of nature, and how fragile it is. It might motivate us to get to work on mitigating the existential threats facing our planet.