The Casual Blog

Tag: Alaska

What animals say

I wasn’t planning on sharing any more of my Alaska brown bear pictures, but changed my mind.  Processing the pictures took me to a happy place.  I really enjoyed being with these animals (at a respectful distance, of course), and learning a little about their lives.

This has been a particularly sad week in animal news.  There was a huge bloody slaughter of dolphins in the Faroe Islands.  The U.S. government has authorized hunters selected by lottery to kill some of the few remaining bison at the Grand Canyon.  And as usual, with no headlines, hundreds of millions of farm animals were killed to provide human food. 

The way we think about non-human animals obviously affects the degree of brutality we’re prepared to inflict on them, but it has less obvious effects on how we think about ourselves.  We generally see them as distant and inferior, with no concerns as important as our own, and lacking in our intelligence and cultural achievements.  We attach great significance to their lack of human language.   

But animals teach us something about human language without needing that language.  First, they get along without it just fine.  That is, in the wild they manage to do the same things that are our highest priorities — get food, shelter, reproduction, friendship, community — without human language.  Indeed, it is likely that homo sapiens got along well enough for many tens of thousands of years without the language abilities that we now think of as setting us apart.

So animals demonstrate that language is not really as fundamental to our lives as we tend to think.  Of course, at times language is very useful, and also fun to play with. But while it helps us solve problems, it also creates them.  One example is how easily it creates the illusion of a vast divide between humans and other animals, and how easily it justifies human domination of other groups and forms of life.   

We often forget that words are only symbols, with no fully reliable connection to objects or actions.  No matter how beautifully and elaborately they are grouped together, they can never completely and fully reflect reality.  At their very best they are heuristics, practical shortcuts for thinking and getting things done.  

A merganser family

This shortcutting utility also accounts for a lot of problems.  Our word choices direct focus our attention in one direction, so that we have trouble seeing in another.  Once we’ve got firmly in mind the definition of humans as superior creatures, it’s difficult for us to think about the significance of, say, bears to other bears, or chickens to other chickens.  

A similar problem occurs with racial categories.  Once we’ve concocted a definition of racial characteristics and decided which ones are desirable, we have a hard time not favoring the ones we initially desired.  Language around race is part of how we built our racial caste system, and it also makes it very hard to dismantle it.

This is a problem inherent in the way we usually think.  But it helps, I think, to recognize that language is flexible, not fixed, and our intuitions can help us modify or work around linguistic limitations.  Some part of us already knows, despite the limits of our received language, that our cruelty to animals is wrong, and we have the capacity of finding new ways of communicating and acting on that.  

Bears and a whale, and where bad ideas come from

I finally finished going through the pictures I took at Katmai National Park and the Alaska coast, and I wanted to share a few more that I liked.  Katmai has one of the densest concentrations of brown bears in the world, but there aren’t really very many there — about 2,200.  Each one is unique.

Along with bears, I am particularly interested in whales.  I’ve had the privilege of seeing them in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and I’ve been learning more about them in recent books by Carl Safina and Rebecca Giggs.  Humans have just started understanding the intelligence, social structures, and cultures of whales, but for centuries, we’ve been mindlessly killing them.

So during my Alaska trip, I had mixed feelings about seeing a fin whale that had died from unknown causes and washed up on the beach.  The poor creature had been there for a few days, decomposing, and had become food for other animals, including a lot of brown bears.  Despite feeling sad for the whale, I was glad it could provide calories for the bears and other  creatures.  

David Brooks is a NY Times columnist I generally respect without getting particularly excited.  He’s a sensible conservative who loathes Trump — a nice but usually predictable guy.  However, last week in his column on contemporary currents in neuroscience, he briefly pulled together some powerful ideas that I’ve been mulling over but hadn’t imagined he’d ever entertain.   

According to Brooks (and various scholars), we’ve all learned to think of seeing and imagining as entirely separate things.  But they aren’t.  Neuroscientists are finding that the brain structures and processes involved are much the same for both.  That is, from the perspective of the internal physical operation, we can’t reliably distinguish between seeing and imagining.  Seeing may be believing, but believing may also be seeing.   

Similarly, the distinctions that we draw between brain and body, between memory and experience, and between reason and emotion are nowhere near as clear and clean as most of us have assumed.  Indeed, it may not be possible to box off any half of these pairs as independent.  Like yin and yang, they are starting to look interdependent.

Even starting to think about these ideas may be disorienting, since we’ve long understood these distinctions to be rock solid.  But they may explain some widespread-but-wrong notions.  With this new perspective, we can start to understand how some people can truly believe that covid vaccines are dangerous, a newly fertilized egg is fully human, scientists are lying about climate change, and a liberal cabal is trying to take away personal firearms and legalize child abuse.

It’s probable that we all have sincere beliefs that have no basis in reality, though some of us seem to have a bigger collection.  When we’re part of communities with extreme views and bombarded with media that confirms our biases, we can dig into some sad and dangerous positions.  

There’s no simple solution here, I’m afraid.  But I find it helpful to remember that we’ve all got imperfect brains, and even the kookiest of us is not entirely personally responsible for his or her terrible ideas.  Also, people do sometimes change, and might one day be grateful for our helping them to change. 

Alaska natives, more bears, and Safina’s Becoming Wild

At Brooks Falls

These are in many ways dark and difficult times for both humans and other animals.  Humans get most of the headlines, so I’m focusing here on other animals.  I’m still processing my recent experiences with brown bears in Alaska, and still working my way through their pictures.  Some of these moments were shocking, and some were wonderfully peaceful.  

Also, when I was in Anchorage, I learned a bit about the native Alaska cultures.  I discovered that there’s no single simple story, but a lot of complex and still evolving stories.  At the Alaska Native Heritage Center, I took a tour and got an overview of the many distinct indigenous groups with their own languages, customs, and cultures.  

A disagreement near Brooks Falls

At the Center, I  got a taste of traditional music and dance, and the various kinds of houses and tools that the different groups used.  The music used drums and voices (no other instruments) along with choreographed dance to tell stories.  The music was not my preferred style (lots of close repetition), but I was glad to know that native Alaskans made and enjoyed music.

I also enjoyed the Anchorage Museum, which had exhibits of traditional crafts and documentary videos about native village life.  It turns out that there were quite a few different strategies for surviving and creating community in pre-industrial Alaska.  

In addition to coping with the harsh reality of their climate, when Europeans arrived, the indigenous people got horrific epidemics, violence, and oppression.  And native communities have many serious problems today, including poverty and substance abuse.  But the fact that these cultures weren’t entirely destroyed is strong proof of their fortitude and resilience.

I’m certain I only scratched the surface of Alaska cultures, and have a lot to learn.  But one thing I definitely got:  the term Eskimo has a lot of baggage, and is considered by many a nasty slur.  As a schoolboy, I was taught that the word referred generally to the native people of Alaska.  But like a lot of my early lessons on other cultures, this was both wrong and misleading.  Some Alaskan natives still use it to denigrate other Alaskans, but probably the best course is to avoid the term. 

Cubs get a swimming lesson at Katmai Preserve

I’ve been reading more of Carl Safina’s new book, Becoming Wild:  How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace.  As in his previous book, Beyond Words, Safina teaches about the abilities and accomplishments of different animal communities.  Beyond Words concerned elephants, wolves, and killer whales, while Becoming Wild focuses on humpback whales, macaws, and chimpanzees.  

For these various creatures, Safina pulls together recent scholarship as well as his own observations.  At times it drags a bit, but there are moments of great beauty and insight.  Safina shows that these non-human animals have personalities, communities, and cultures, and their lives have inherent value.  This is message is not complicated, but directly contrary to what most of us were taught, and it takes time to get it.

I hope Safina, or someone with similar commitment and talent, does a similar study of brown bears.  Even just a few days with them was enough for me to start seeing that they were individuals, with their own personalities and customs.  They seemed to have friends, and to be devoted to their children.

These animals have gotten only slightly better PR than sharks.  In the popular imagination, they are mindless killing machines, rather than mostly peaceful co-inhabitants of the planet.  Even in this sparsely populated area of Alaska with abundant food sources, the bear population has greatly declined, and the bears continue to be threatened by humans.  

I was very disturbed to learn that in Katmai Preserve, the government grants licenses to hunt them for pleasure.  Humans are twisted in many different ways, but still, it’s hard to understand how people would find such killing to be fun.  

It would not be surprising if the bears were angry at humans for taking their territory, food sources, and the lives of friends and children.  But I didn’t observe this.  Some were leery and careful to keep their distance, while others were curious.  A few times they approached us, but speaking to them in a firm voice was enough to direct them away, and they went on with their lives.

My first Alaska trip, with brown bears and Emma

Brown bear at Katmai Park, Alaska

My Alaska trip in mid-August was fantastic!  True, American Airlines lost my bag on the trip home, but they eventually found it.  Also, there was a major Covid outbreak at the lodge where I stayed, but I didn’t get it.  There were anxious moments, and as with every adventure some minor disappointments.  But all told, it was an amazing, life-changing experience. 

Alaska is beautiful and really enormous, and impossible to take in all at once.  My prime objective for this trip was to photograph brown bears (sometimes called grizzlies).  This time of year they normally feast on migrating salmon and get extra fat for their winter hibernation.  My small group of photographers stayed at the village of Iliamna and traveled several times by float plane to Katmai National Park.  There we saw dozens of bears fishing in the river, playing on the tundra, and living their lives.  

For me, it was quite moving to spend time close to these powerful and resourceful creatures.  Their lives made a lot of sense.  When they felt hungry they waded into the water and went fishing.  When they felt sleepy, they lay down and took a nap.  Mothers nursed their new cubs.  Young ones playfully sparred with each other.  

At some point I’d been taught that bears were solitary animals, but this is not how they seemed when I was there.  Some of them seemed to be friends, and played together in groups.  Occasionally there were disagreements.  A massive bear would warn another to back off by growling and shoving, but I didn’t see any fights that involved bloodshed.

It was a big show, slow at times (such as nap times), but even then heart filling, and I could watch a long time without taking pictures.  But I also took a lot of pictures.  I’m still working my way through the digital trove, but I thought the ones here were worth sharing, and hope to have more next week.   

During the trip I had no internet or other news source.  As a long-time news junkie, I felt unsettled at first, but soon adjusted.  When I finally got back on line in Anchorage, I found that the world was turning pretty much as before.

During the trip I re-read Emma, by Jane Austen, for the first time since my college days.  I remember thinking it was wonderful then, but this time it seemed richer.  Austen is often treated as a brilliant rom-com miniaturist.  But in addition to her polished and gently humorous surfaces, she unveils darker aspects of an intensely social world.  Underneath the careful manners there’s an unremitting struggle for dominance.

We know, or at least could know, a lot more than Austen did about the slavery and imperialism that provided funding for her genteel characters.  Her degree of complicity is unknown, but even assuming the worst, she bequeathed to her readers a great gift.  Somehow, within her narrow confines, she managed to create an absorbing world and at the same time call that world into question.  Emma Woodhouse is undeniably marvelous, but addicted to deception, including self deception.  Like stage magic, Austen keeps us absorbed and curious by seeming to reveal emotional secrets, and then letting us see that bigger ones may still be hidden.