As I write, the signs of a new season are all around me. I don’t mean the crocuses, snowdrops, or cherry blossoms — the usual brags Vancouverites make. No, here in the wired West, the arrival of spring is livestreamed.
I’m referring to the enormously popular “eagle cams,” which swing into action every year as part of the regional rites of spring. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can watch the birds build nests, lay eggs, and feed their hatchlings. This is reality TV at its best.
Bear 71 combines remote camera footage and hightech map graphics. View it at Bear71.nfb.ca.
If the popularity of critter cams is any indication, we humans have evolved into inveterate voyeurs, and it’s all because of our history. Over the last millennia, we in the Western world have come to see ourselves as separate from nature. No longer an enigmatic, powerful, and sentient force to be feared, appeased, and accepted on its own terms, we see nature instead as subject to human control. We’ve got to where we are thanks in no small part to Christianity, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution. These developments — “progress” — led us to believe the world was fully knowable, to assume there were no limits to what the human mind could comprehend. But something got lost along the way: When limits disappeared, so too did magic and mystery.
Indeed, part of what defines the modern condition is our effort to come to terms with what the eminent sociologist Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world.” Looking at animals is a way to get over our alienation from nature. No longer able to talk to them, we content ourselves with watching, hoping to discover their secrets, to re-establish a kinship connection, and to end our isolation as a species.
If looking at animals helps us overcome our history, telling stories about them helps us understand who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. They help us to make sense of the world. Tales about wild animals have probably been around since we’ve been around as a species. But the realistic wild animal story is newer. Dating from the late-nineteenth century, it’s a genre that some believe to be “the one native Canadian art form.”
Whereas The Call of the Wild (1903) is a celebration of Americanization and The Wind in the Willows (1908) is about the British class system, the stories of Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles G.D. Roberts speak to how Canadians see themselves. In books like Wild Animals I Have Known (1898) and Kindred of the Wild (1902) the animals all die; they’re victims, not heroes. For Margaret Atwood, the focus on victimization reflects our “national psyche,” providing evidence for her argument that the central motif running through Canadian literature is survival.
All of which brings me to Bear 71, a female grizzly radio-collared in 2001 and tracked through Alberta’s Bow Valley until her death by CPR in 2009. Her life is the subject of a new realistic animal story in the form of a remarkable twenty-minute interactive film by Leanne Allison, Jeremy Mendes, and the National Film Board of Canada.
Told from the grizzly’s perspective, Bear 71 is in keeping with the best traditions of the Canadian realistic animal story: Not only does it anthropomorphize its principal character — she has a voice and a sense of irony worthy of Atwood — but she’s also a victim.
Had Bear 71’s story been told a century earlier, it would have reflected the concerns of a world rocked by Charles Darwin and the idea of the survival of the fittest. In their work, Seton and Roberts tried to reconcile a nature “red in tooth and claw” with one that was not bereft of goodness.
Their belief in the morality of nature was shaped by their own early experiences. Growing up in Toronto, young Seton retreated to the woods and drew animals to escape an abusive father. Roberts grew up in rural New Brunswick, the son of an Anglican minister who raised him to see God in nature’s design.
While Darwin isn’t their concern, the producers of Bear 71 are troubled by another aspect of modernity. The grizzly’s history speaks to how much technology has changed the planet, creating a hybrid world where we don’t know how to be. Charging an oncoming train to protect your cubs isn’t a good idea. Survival depends on being who you’re not, on denying your very nature. But at other times instinct is what keeps you alive, preventing you from challenging the male grizzly for dibs on the roadkill. The modern world is a confusing one, calling on its inhabitants to remake themselves, even as they have to remember who they are.
The film’s arguments echo those being made by the New Nature Movement about the negative impacts of technology. Thanks to our addiction to electronics, among other things, we all suffer from what Richard Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder.” Kids hardly ever play outside in an unstructured way, and neither do we. As a result, we’re afflicted by behavioural problems and obesity. The long-term effects of nature-deficit disorder on the Earth are also distrubing: How, Louv asks, can we care for something fewer and fewer of us experience directly?
Compelling as they are, these arguments are a bit old hat. As modern people, we’re given to stories of decline and fall, especially ones about the environment and technology. What makes Bear 71 unusual is that it’s more than just another sad story.
The film invites us to rethink our relationship to technology, to come to a more complex understanding of its relationship to the natural world. Bear 71 was caught on film repeatedly using human-engineered wildlife crossings that allow animals to traverse the Trans-Canada Highway safely.
Modern technology is invasive and harmful, but in the hands of conservation biologists it has given us the ability to repair our relationship with nature.
In the hands of skilled storytellers, modern technology also offers the possibility of forging a better relationship with nature by allowing us to see the lives of the animals whose space we share in an unfamiliar way. As Bear 71 moves as a pixelated dot across the Bow Valley, along with a jogger from Canmore, a raven, and an elk, we realize how our paths cross even if they don’t always intersect; that we share a world of which we are only dimly aware.
When Bear 71 and the other animals roaming through the park trigger a camera, the footage provides a privileged glimpse into another society, a nature that is more astonishing for our seeming absence from the frame. It’s that recognition, and the enchantment that comes with it, that’s the foundation for a better relationship with the planet and the creatures that call it home.