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The Great White Bear

By Kieran Mulvaney
Houghton Mifflin, 2011

The first time I ever saw a polar bear was at the zoo in Louisville when I was eight. I stood with the crowd along the railing and looked at the big white animal – so familiar to me from my picture-books back home – paced back and forth in his cage with an almost mechanical intensity.

The second time I saw a polar bear was twenty years later, when I’d taken a dog-sled two days north of Ellesmere Island in winter and was resting the dogs in the morning. I was standing in my sled trying to steady my map against the strong wind, and my team were all curled up in their traces, catching a quick nap. A gust of wind caused my map to flap up at one edge, and when I raised my head, he was there, not fifty yards away, sitting very upright in the snow, looking right at me. My dogs hadn’t yet realized he was there – he’d approached in complete silence, and from downwind – and I realized at that moment that my rifle was strapped to my gear, at the rear of the sled. I studied him, struck not only by his size – adult male polar bears are the biggest bears in the world, and they carry themselves that way, which makes them seem even bigger – but by the inescapable fact that he was also studying me. Bears are champion sprinters; he must have known he could reach me before I could rouse the dogs or reach my gun. As we looked at each other, he was deciding whether or not he wanted to do that. What I wanted didn’t enter into the equation at all – the entire encounter was under his control, as he’d probably intended for the whole time he’d been watching me. After a few minutes, he decided not to bother killing me and ambled away.

For years, I considered the second encounter to be more frightening than the first.

If I had any lingering doubts on that score, Kieran Mulvaney’s fantastic, fascinating, and ultimately fatalistic book The Great White Bear has dispelled them once and for all. That bear in the zoo – that magnificent creature hard-wired by millions of years of evolution to wander over a vast Arctic territory, now confined all day every day to an enclosure the size of a living room – so clearly broken by his captivity, so clearly psychotic in his endless, clockwork pacing, is far, far more frightening than a majestic predator in his natural environment. And the most frightening thing about that poor zoo-bear is that in very little time – in our present lifetime, very likely – he’ll be the only kind of polar bear there is on Earth.

Mulvaney’s book starts with an equally stark contrast: one day, he and his shipmates are anchored off the coast of northern Alaska when their boat is approached by a swimming polar bear, a skinny, shivering, miserable creature whose pack-ice world is literally fading away; another day, passing that ice, they encounter the far more stereotypical ‘lord of the North’ – a plump, well-fed bear shuffling along unhurriedly. Mulvaney tries very hard to infuse his whole book with that same kind of dichotomy, that same variation between the doom of reality and the lure of evolutionary perfection; he clearly doesn’t want to be only the bearer of bad tidings.

But there’s no real help for it. The world is getting warmer, quickly; pack ice in the High Arctic – where polar bears live and hunt for most of the year – is forming later and melting earlier. And the process is self-feeding, as Mulvaney points out in the most depressing footnote in a book filled with depressing footnotes:

Although the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has shown signs of warming and melting – particularly the Antarctic Peninsula, where the Larsen A, Larsen B, and Wilkins ice shelves have essentially disintegrated – parts of the larger East Antarctic Ice Sheet have been cooling. Part of the reason for this seems to be the existence of the “hole” in the stratospheric ozone layer above Antarctica, which causes an intensification in cooling wind patterns. Ironically, as the ozone hole repairs itself following international regulations to eliminate the chemicals that created it, that effect will be eliminated and Antarctica is likely to warm much more rapidly – the solution to one environmental problem contributing to another.

There’s no real help for it: any book about polar bears written in the 21st century must be an elegy.

Photo by Ansgar Walk

It’s thin consolation to remind ourselves that at least the species survived long enough for us to know about them at all, but it’ll have to do. All living things are marvels, but polar bears are a singular miracle even among marvels. Its skin is black, and its fur is not actually white – the hairs are translucent and highly reflective, so a bear on the ice will look white but a bear bathed in sunset will seem to glow bright orange. With males averaging nine feet from nose to stubby tail and over half a ton in weight, they are the world’s largest land predator, and of the eight extant species of bear, they are the only true and complete carnivores: polar bears live exclusively on meat – seals, seal pups, walruses, and, in a bleak tribute to the harshness of the Arctic world, their own young. In all cases, the meat itself is not their primary target:

A bear’s principal nutritional target is not the seals’ meat. The proteins in red meat are difficult to break down, particularly in an environment where liquid fresh water – essential for protein absorption – can, at least at some times of the year, be difficult to find. Instead, the bears zero in on the seals’ thick layer of fat, which are rich in easily digestible calories. So focused are polar bears on seals’ fat that researcher Andrew Derocher has referred to them not as carnivores, but lipovores.

Mulvaney’s book alternates between interviews with hundreds of people whose lives intersect with those of these bears – native Inuit hunters, scientists, trappers, tourists – and a close narration of the life of a typical polar bear mother and cubs (in this technique its model may be The Grizzly Bear, Thomas McNamee’s 1982 classic), with particular stress laid on the fact that when polar bear mothers aren’t eating their own young, they’re devoted and caring parents:

She keeps them as close to her as she can: nudging them with her muzzle as they stand by her paws like uncertain children holding their mother’s hands, or eager puppies keeping obediently to heel. It is a wonder the mother does not trip over her offspring on a frequent basis, so tightly do they stick by her, winding around her paws, rubbing their heads against her legs. In time, they will grow up to be among the largest and most fearsome predators on Earth; now, they are vulnerable, largely defenseless, and insecure. Like any youngster taking its first steps in a frightening world, they want and need to stay close to their mother.

And if Mulvaney occasionally indulges in a touch more anthropomorphism than one might expect, the reader quickly comes to consider this natural: polar bears are, for good or ill, so human-like. Underneath their fur and four-inch layer of blubber, their body temperature is the same as a human’s, and they’ve been known to fashion tools – blocks of ice carefully shaped for maximum head-bashing efficiency. They’re fastidious, often backing up to the edge of an ice-flow in order to defecate in the water, and even in the harsh and energy-hungry environment of the High Arctic, they are easily distracted by play (in fact, they need such exertion – their cold-weather insulation is so effective that, alone of all the Arctic’s residents, they often run the risk of overheating). Mulvaney has watched polar bears in the wild, and he’s talked to many, many people who’ve spent their lives watching polar bears in the wild, including the native hunters all around the perimeter of the Arctic, who venerate the bears and consider them if anything a better kind of human. All this can perhaps lead an author to think he can divine a bear’s very thoughts, and for all we know that author will be right:

It had been a long summer. Several months of heat and nothing to eat do not a contented polar bear make. He [a typical polar bear male] found, as in previous years, an earthen den, sunk deep into the permafrost by generations of polar bears before him; its shade lowered the temperature enough that it was not sweltering, and its shelter protected him from the insects that buzzed outside the entrance. But now there was a familiar feeling in the air, a crispness that heralded the return of the ice and of the seals that would replenish his depleted fat reserves. The snow was now thick on the ground, deep enough that he could roll in it, rub his snout in it, toss it over himself. Its coolness was refreshing and comforting. Its familiarity reminded him of the good days that its arrival had always heralded.

But the underlying note of the first two-thirds of The Great White Bear is that those good days are numbered, and this note becomes hammeringly dominant in the book’s final third, where habitat destruction and climate change necessarily take center stage. The polar bear sits atop a very narrow and highly specified food-chain in one of the most bizarre and extreme environments on Earth – it would be useless, indeed criminal, to write a book like this and not deal with the dark new changes in that environment. The High Arctic ice is melting – researchers demonstrate that it’s sea-cover is half what it was in the 1950s. Melting ice floes release fresh water into the surrounding sea water, creating a much deeper surface layer of low salinity. Some of the larger kinds of algae that underpin the entire Arctic ecosystem can’t survive in such conditions. As any eighth-grade science student can attest, if you take away the algae, you soon take away the animals that live on the algae, and then the animals that live on those animals, and so on until you get to the top. At the top is the polar bear, a creature so marvellously attuned to the surreal, moving world of the ice floes that they are strangers to disorientation, as Mulvaney writes:

Arguably more impressive are those bears that den on the pack ice; for several months, as the cubs suckle from their mother in the dark warmth of their den, currents transport them hundreds of miles from their original point. No other vertebrate is transported passively and blindly as far and as wide as are denning polar bears. And yet, somehow, even though when they emerge it is in a place where they have never been and where they did not choose to travel, they are able to find their way back to the area from which they came …

Several recent studies have predicted that problematic human-bear interactions will increase in the next decade, as the last Arctic polar bears are driven by habitat loss to re-enter the southern reaches they abandoned millennia ago. These bears may have fierce reputations in the North, but so far they haven’t earned them: polar bears have killed 8 people in Canada in the last 125 years and injured 2; in all of recorded history, they’ve killed only 19 people in Russia; in the 50 human-bear encounters on Svalbard, only 1 of the humans died, whereas 46 of the bears did. One of Mulvaney’s interview subjects attributes this to age and wisdom:

“One thing adult polar bears won’t do, and subadults haven’t always learned this yet, is they will not attack unless they’re pretty sure they’re going to get that person, or that seal. They will not waste that energy unless they’re absolutely comfortable they’re going to make that score. So when they put their ears down, you’re in deep doo-doo.”

But in the coming decades, desperation will play an increased role. I think about that poor shivering adult bear Mulvaney’s group spot at the beginning of his book, and of course I think about my own encounter all those years ago: that bear had all the vast hidden food-wealth of the pack ice to choose from, so he opted against the risk of an isolated human and a pack of dogs (almost all predators on Earth will avoid the risk of facing a pack of dogs, and wisely so). If he’d been desperate, if there was empty open water where for thousands of years he and his ancestors had found solid ice dotted with seal-holes, he might have taken the chance. Given the massive changes to their world in the last fifty years, given that those changes are only going to keep getting worse, it seems inevitable that more bears will take such chances. Mulvaney paints a vivid picture of a warrior race coming face-to-face with its own doom. The Cherokee believed that bears were once humans who chose to abandon humanity because being ursine was simply better. The Cherokee of 2011 could tell many tales to the polar bears of the 21st century, but they would all be sad tales.

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Tuc MacFarland currently lives north of Seattle and writes regularly for Open Letters.