My son Matthew and I were wading up a stream of Alaska’s Kodiak Island. For a second year, Joe, our guide, was teaching us how to sense the presence of Kodiak brown bears, the largest grizzlies — the ones that can run 35 miles per hour, the ones you cannot outrun.
“Never surprise them, that’s the main thing,” Joe said.
And, unlike Timothy Treadwell, documentary filmmaker and meal, never try to be their new best friend. In the shallow green pools, bracketed between two walls of forest, the salmon — chum, sockeye and pink — come here to spawn and die; this is bear kitchen. So we talked, sang and shook the bear bells on our vests, watched for tracks, and sniffed the air for the distinctive, unforgettable odor of mixed musk and rotted salmon.
During the week, that fragrance would suddenly fill the air and the hair on the backs of our necks would stand up. That meant a bear was watching us from the thickets, or just around the bend, or had just left. One afternoon, a bear did approach. It was upwind from us, out of hearing distance.
He finally sensed our presence, turned and loped across the creek, and into the woods.
Singing for bears puts the everyday risks of life in perspective. Smelling for bears may not be your idea of a good time. But it does remind us of our vulnerability and our hidden powers.
Ever wonder why you have two nostrils? Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley suggest that “buried in each person’s olfactory lobe lurks enough tracking skill to make a bloodhound bay with resentment,” the Chicago Tribune reported in 2005. “If the results are surprising, that may be because no one ever tried putting a bunch of college undergraduates in a field wearing blindfolds and sound-muffling headphones, then had them crawl in the grass after a scent.”
When researchers did just that, they found that most of the students could follow a 30-foot trail of chocolate perfume and even changed direction precisely where the invisible path took a turn. The subjects also were able to smell in stereo; when researchers blocked their ability to smell independently with each nostril, the students’ scent-tracking accuracy dropped dramatically. What else can we do that we have forgotten; what do we miss seeing, hearing, knowing because we allow that tangle of wire and Wi-Fi to tighten a little more each day?For eons, human beings spent most of their formative years exploring the natural world — learning their own limits and nature’s power. Today, thousands of grassroots leaders around the country, and many more around the world, devote their lives to helping children know the world directly, to use more of their senses, including their sense of humility. They may yet turn the tide. And yet, for too many people, nature remains a tee-shirt otter, a YouTube video, an abstraction — until a hurricane, a tornado, a flood comes along and levels our assumptions.
Watching the televised images of the poor souls wading once again in the sewage of the Gulf states, I thought about the bears of Kodiak, a reminder of powers greater than our own.
In 1964, a tsunami wave, 30 feet high, destroyed shoreline villages of the island of Kodiak. An even greater cataclysm occurred in 1912, when Mount Katmai erupted on the mainland.
“About three o’clock in the afternoon, as we emerged from the forest, we saw, for the first time, a huge, fan-shaped cloud directly west of the village,” wrote Hildred Erskine, a Kodiak survivor. “It was the blackest and densest cloud that I have ever seen. Lightning frequently flashed through….electrical storms just do not happen in Alaska. Static was so bad that radio operators did not dare go near their instruments.” It grew dark, strange for June in Kodiak, when daylight is almost continuous.
“The gases were nauseating,” she wrote. “The terrible bombardment grew louder and louder; the ash sifted through cracks around the windows and doors causing such a haze in the room that, had we not known who the other occupants were, we should not have been able to recognize them. We began thinking of the fate of the people of Pompeii.”
Lakes filled with the ash; ptarmigan were killed in their nesting season; trout were destroyed; and most of the island biota was, indeed, buried alive. But soon, in that ash, life began again. With the help of winds from the mainland, which brought the seeds of trees and plants that had never grown there, the island was reborn. In geologic terms, the surface and life of Kodiak are brand new, a reminder that creation is the other face of death.
Nearly a century later, my son and I leave our footprints in this dark volcanic soil of renewal.
After Katrina, some scientists said that the event was less an act of nature than a product of our hubris. They argued that New Orleans should be allowed to revert to its natural wetland state; the population resettled in surrounding cities on higher ground; perhaps a Bourbon Street amusement park, easily evacuated, built in that drowning pool. And they made a stronger case for action of climate change.
But of course, the advice was not taken. If human beings did learn from such events, the town of Kodiak would have been relocated on higher bluffs. Instead, we edge back from the brink, then push forward again. It is our way. Bears do what bears do; humans do what humans do — it is in our nature.
So Matthew and I press on, up the stream, more carefully than we would ever be in our daily lives, listening, watching, lifting our heads to sense what the wind carries. Something is coming. So we ring the bells. And we sing.
This post is adapted from “The Nature Principle” by Richard Louv.
Richard Louv is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. Among his other books are VITAMIN N and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is currently working on a book about our relationship with other animals. Follow Rich on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.
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Photos by R.L.