“I guess we all respond differently to mystery, the unknown, and being faced with something so much larger than ourselves. Some with wonder, some with fear. Some with an instinct to “get the shot.” My initial awe tends to slow my response time. I prefer to experience the moment first.”
Last week I joined friends for a week in the Great Bear Rainforest, hiking up creeks swollen with relentless rain, and sitting for hours in front of dripping tripods and camera gear waiting for the white bears to come to feed on the remaining salmon, weak and dying after the fall run. When they came, and they did, along with many black bears, they came silently. One moment you’re sitting there in their absence, sure they will never come, wondering if they exist at all, and then there she is: a white bear moving silently towards you, padding over the moss.
I’m not sure I can quite describe the feeling of being with these bears, of being so close. But close isn’t the point. Intimacy is. It’s this feeling of being given permission, by the bears, to be there, and to share in the moment. I’ve had that feeling before in shrines and temples around the world, the feeling of being somewhere sacred and full of mystery. I guess we all respond differently to mystery, the unknown, and being faced with something so much larger than ourselves. Some with wonder, some with fear. Some with an instinct to “get the shot.” My initial awe tends to slow my response time. I prefer to experience the moment first. Like Sean Penn’s character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I feel like sometimes the camera gets in the way. Sometimes the shot isn’t the point at all.
It would be too easy to anthropomorphize these bears, but it would be a shame not to recognize them fully for what they are. They are not human but that doesn’t make them any less. There’s a consciousness and emotional state of being in all animals, and that allows for intimacy, if not complete understanding. Ask anyone who’s spent time in the water with whales or dolphins. Ask anyone who’s ever loved, and been loved by, their dog. The bear we spent most of our time with is a gentle, beautiful animal. She is also fast and powerful. Sitting (respectfully and safely) with bears, as I have for the last couple years, makes me feel a part of creation – frees me not to feel separate from it, frees me from the once-held belief that we occupy the top rung. I feel in my proper place here in this beauty. The nature of life seems clearer to me here.
This area is right now threatened by our need to move and sell oil and gas, and while I don’t question the need for some of these resources, I question the greed that drives us closer and closer to piloting massive tankers through some of the most treacherous navigable waters in the world, waters haunted by the ghostly wrecks of hundreds of ships. I wonder what will happen to this piece of the planet – currently the largest remaining uninterrupted stretch of temperate rain forest in the world – and to the entire ecosystem when the first hull is pierced and thousands of gallons of oil spills. What will happen to the bears, and the eagles, to the whales and to the families who’ve lived off this land for hundreds of years? These questions all simmer under the surface for me. It seems like the greatest beauty is the most fragile and vulnerable.
I’m not sure my photographs will change things. I wish they could and still try to protect the hope that I once had that they can. But these experiences and the photographs I’m making can change, and have changed, me. Paul Theroux once wrote that “where there is wilderness there is hope.” I’m clinging to that.
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