Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Grizzly Man

I frequently tell this story for a laugh at my own expense:

I was in New York last September. I went to Central Park to get away from the noise for a little while one evening and because one section of the park is quite a good bird-watching area. And indeed it is. With the Atlantic Flyway so overurbanized from Washington through Boston, any green spaces are extremely attractive to birds who need to land, rest, and eat. I saw a couple of cardinals and a bunch of birds that I really didn't recognize. It was pretty cool. But anyway, there were all of these squirrels around. That's fine. I like squirrels. But these squirrels were used to getting food from humans and in fact in the 30 minutes or so I was there, I did see a couple of people feed them. This makes the squirrels very brave. Unfortunately, they saw me and engaged in a pincher action to force me to give them food. 2 started sneaking up toward me from either side. This made me very nervous. I'm watching them warily while hoping they go away so I can watch more birds. Then I look over and one of them had jumped on the bench right next to me. I got the hell out of there as fast as I could go without looking like I was in terror. The joke is that I am the only environmental historian afraid of nature.

A similar thing happened to me in Costa Rica last month when a white-throated magpie jay landed on the table I was eating at in a popular beach town. Same thing--I threw some money on the table and told my friends to meet me at the truck. And maybe I am the only environmental historian afraid of nature. Lots of environmental historians are what you'd expect environmentalists over the age of 30 to look at--fit white men with closely cropped beards who probably hike every weekend. While I'm not overly unfit and I am most certainly white, I don't have a beard nor do I spend much time in the wilderness.

But I think all of this is OK because I believe there should be boundaries between humans and other animals. I generally don't think that it's the place of humans, the most destructive animals ever to populate this planet, to get as close to other animals as possible. Has this ever ended well? We have a certain humanness and that's OK. Fear of other animals is a good thing, even if that fear includes squirrels, jays, and most animals who are not my cats. It is protective of both humans and the other animals. After all, you don't see the squirrels trying to get away from their inherent squirrelness to hang around deer. They are squirrels, they know their place, and they don't take risks they don't have to.

This brings me to Werner Herzog's documentary, Grizzly Man. No doubt a large percentage of readers have seen this film already. It's hardly new now, but I just saw it and think it's worth discussing, even at this relatively late date. Grizzly Man tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent 13 summers with grizzly bears in Katmai National Park in Alaska. In that 13th summer, a bear ate him and his girlfriend.

Treadwell violates what I believe should be the first rule of environmentalism. Don't romanticize the non-human environment. By anthropomorphizing the bears, through giving them names, through calling them peaceful creatures, by steadfastly refusing to understand the actual violent nature of bears, by touching them for Christ's sake, he got himself and a woman who didn't want to be there in the first place killed. Worse than that, he made a major contribution to the all too prevalent tradition of the environmental movement to separate humans from nature. Treadwell viewed the world of the bears as perfect and the world of the humans as corrupt. What he (and too much of the environmental movement) didn't understand was that neither assumption is true. The human world is a natural world in its own right that only coexists with other species. The place for humans is with other humans. Treadwell didn't belong in Katmai any more than grizzlies belong in Central Park. Interactions between humans and most other animal species results in the animals being killed, and sometimes the humans too.

This isn't to say that humans should play no role in managing grizzly populations. We have a vested interest, in strictly humanistic terms, to lessen the damage to ecosystems and animal populations as much as we can. In order to survive on this planet, we have to keep it at least reasonably healthy. We don't do a particularly good job of that and the National Park system as well as hunting regulations and criminal penalties for poaching help out with that a little bit. Through these regulations, Alaska has a stable grizzly population. But Treadwell saw them all as evil, as evinced not only in his hatred of poachers (understandable) but in his self-filmed rant against the Park Service (completely off the map bat-shit insance).

Both humans and the non-human world will be in a much better place when the environmental community, who does do a lot of good things, moves toward a more humanistic perspective of the environment. When they use their collective power to push for humans living in conjunction with the environment rather than separating wilderness areas away from humans, a truly progressive movement may result that will lead to more protections for both humans and non-humans.

As for the movie itself, well, it's awful interesting. Of course, being a Herzog movie, it's about Herzog at least as much as Treadwell. Herzog edits the movie to show that Treadwell's views on nature are whacked. Herzog, as he says in his role as narrator, believes that the natural order of nature is "chaos, violence, and murder." That belief is clear in all his films, whether fiction or documentary. Treadwell's friends claim that Herzog edited the movie to make Treadwell look like a nut and to justify Herzog's own views. All of this may be true (in fact, I'm sure of it), but even if Treadwell was more rational and reasonable that he is seen in Grizzly Man, he's still completely offbase on human-environmental relationships and he was still living with grizzly bears for 13 summers. So honestly, how sane could he be?

Interestingly, 2 people I know who have never met each other and both happen to have watched Herzog films a perhaps unhealthy number of times believe that the movie is a fake. They believe that the whole thing was staged. I think part of the argument behind this is that all of Herzog's movies are really about Herzog and he has been known to make his fictional films all too real and to stage semi-real scenes in his documentary. However, I don't know that I can go so far as to say that Grizzly Man is a fake. Treadwell is, after all, definitely dead. One of the people who espoused this theory suggested that Herzog and Treadwell agreed on the way he would die (and this is the way Treadwell wanted to go) and Herzog perhaps said he would get Treadwell's story to the world. This may be possible. But I don't think so. What is quite possible is that Herzog and Treadwell had met because Herzog was interested in making a movie on Treadwell. Herzog has shown interest in these kind of weird human-natural world interactions before, both in his fictional and non-fiction movies. He did get the footage Treadwell shot of himself. But that's some awful nice equipment that poor environmentalist Treadwell had. And he must have had a shitload of batteries, since there is over 100 hours of footage and no electricity. There was at least 2 cameras and a hell of a sound system.

Whether any of this is true or not, I don't know. But any watching of Herzog's movies and reading about Herzog's philosophy on making films does make one question the whole premise behind Grizzly Man. If these claims were made of just about any other director, I would completely blow the accuser off. But with Herzog, you at least have to take the idea semi-seriously.