Over the weekend, far to the north, a backpacker was mauled and killed by a grizzly bear in Denali National Park. This was the first human killed by a bear in the ninety years since the park was established. Up till now, as Britta and I set out for backpacking trips into various park units, it was a way I reassured myself. People here die from falling or exposure, not from bear attacks. Not here. In Yellowstone maybe, where people seem to think they are in a giant wilderness theme park, and walk right up to animals to get photos. In Denali though, so few people get off the bus and step foot on tundra, that the number of possible human-animal interactions are limited. Denali park service has also instituted a mandatory bear aware training required for a backcountry camping permit.
I’d been intending to write a post for several days now, and have had several nice ideas buzzing around my head. Ideas about how humans are fascinated by animals and how they experience the world, and how we crave meaningful interactions with them. Ideas about how perhaps people too have a tiny piece of wild buried somewhere deep, and it responds to the wildness of animals, provoking us in unexpected ways. I wanted to combine these reflections with some thoughts about vocabulary of venery, or collective animal names, which seemed to be one way people respond to animals, in brief poetic descriptions.
I first became aware of vocabulary of venery on a bus driving through Denali National Park, in 2008 or 2009. John Allen, bus driver extraordinaire, was entertaining an audience of tourists with his poetry. People around me listened half-heartedly, napped, or stared out the windows at the rain-blurred tundra. Britta and I were rapt, hanging on John’s every word. After he recited several poems, his big white mustache barely moving, he started talking about animal group names, and listing off examples. A charm of goldfinches. A tower of giraffes. An exultation of larks. A shiver of sharks. A tiding of magpies. I love the way the word that describes the animals has a twist, like a good metaphor, that sheds light on some aspect of the animal. Magpies, for instance, a member of the corvid family that also includes crows and ravens, are known for their loquacious chatter.
Of course this is anthropomorphic, but then, how can we avoid it? We come at the world from a human-centered perspective. We can’t quite shake ourselves loose from our logical brains and experience the world with our long-buried animal senses. We stare at skeins of geese winging high above us and feel something in us take flight. We gaze at bright-tailed foxes who stare back, and glimpse their canny animal sense. If we are very lucky, we watch bears grazing in meadows, and wonder at the mystery of their animal lives.
And as I am thinking about sleuths of bears, and tidings of magpies, I imagine the hiker’s last moments. I can’t help it. The tiny figure, alone on the vast bouldered plain of the west branch of the Toklat River. The braided river shines like molten silver before him. I haven’t been exactly where this hiker stood, but last summer I camped on the east branch of the Toklat, just around the other side of Divide Mountain.
I know how easy it is to feel tiny and far away from anything human. I know the heart racheting startle at the sight of a large golden bear, partially obscured by the willow shrubs. But this is where my knowledge diverges from the hiker’s. When I see a bear that is too close, I back away. I get the hell out of there, for my safety and for the bear’s. According to the time stamps of photos found on the hiker’s digital camera, he stood for at least eight minutes, snapping photo after photo of the bear grazing in the willows. I don’t know what happened after that, aside from the brutal end, of both the hiker and the bear, who was shot by rangers the next day as he guarded his food cache.
As I’m mulling over animals and the words we use to describe them, and imagining this story that happened in a place I love so well, I’m discovering an internal shift. The shift has to do with the ways we sometimes perceive animals, the ways we can reduce and flatten them. We want so much to make them into pretty images or poetic words. We try to make them what we want them to be: a good story to tell to friends back home. A souvenir of a place. But when animals respond to our presence according to their own unwritten laws, laws we only partially understand, we kill them. One of the meanings of the word “venery” is, after all, the sport of hunting.
It strikes me that if we wish to have meaningful interactions with animals, if we want to go beyond tapping at the greasy glass at zoos and venture to the few remaining places where animals still live in their natural habitats, then we are opening ourselves up to new experiences, on terms not always dictated by us. They don’t always hold still for the camera.