By Kathy Saunders
Instructions when encountering a bear:
Be sure to make a lot of noise. Yell and scream. Stomp your feet. They’re more scared of us than we are of them. Show them who’s boss. They’ll turn and walk away.
This is the narrative we’re taught about how to conduct ourselves when camping, hiking or entering bear country. It is the one I’ve always been familiar with.
But it’s not the only narrative.
Our understanding of bears would be entirely different — our understanding of nature would be entirely different — if we conducted ourselves around them the way Russell did in his 70+ years learning to understand bears. He understood them to a point where bears starting leaving their cubs with him. Mother bears. Never get between a mother bear and her cubs. We’ve all heard that warning, but Charlie was selected to be a nanny to these cubs by their mother. Doesn’t that go against everything we’ve ever been told?
Charlie’s story is a remarkable one and G. A. Bradshaw pays tribute to Charlie with respect, admiration and a decent dose of trans-species psychology, a field of study that she founded. Talking With Bears: Conversations with Charlie Russell was published by Rocky Mountain Books in April this year.
In much the same way that Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees, Russell studied bears.Both were naturalists who named the animals they observed rather than assign them numbers.These animals weren’t mere subjects that they would put collars on and begin tracking their every move and behavior. Such a scientific approach wasn’t part of their methodology. As Russell put it, “If you fit in with nature, you are stronger because you aren’t using up all your energy fighting nature.”This philosophy is best summarized by Bradshaw as ‘being part of (their) umwelt’. Bradshaw describes this not as “regarding oneself as a bear”, but rather “being willing and able to eliminate any sense of human privilege and tendencies that are not congruent with those of bears."
Bradshaw begins each chapter ofTalking with Bearswith a glimpse of the human world through the eyes of Charlie’s bears. In choosing to do this, she upholds not only the belief in the sentience of these animals, but also Charlie’s firm stance that “positive, healthy relationships with humans were natural and normal for bears."
Charlie was constantly gathering information about bears by living a peaceful coexistence with them in Kamchatka, a remote peninsula in the far east of Russia. As Bradshaw explains, “North America wouldn’t work.Bears had been subjected to human violence for far too long, and wildlife authorities frowned on any effort to fraternize with bears.All he needed was a time machine. But there was one place that might provide a glimpse of the past and the present: Kamchatka.”
Setting up a cabin by Lake Kambalnoye in brown bear country, Charlie Russell began critical observations of bears that he would present to ‘wildlife management’ communities (a term he mocked as being oxymoronic) only to have them dismissed more often than not. Charlie observed how bears responded to peace, not noisemakers and stone throwing. He pointed out that while we may be on vacation in the wilderness, bears are always on the job finding food, minding and protecting cubs and we need to respect this. Charlie always investigated fatal encounters humans had with bears and he could pinpoint the reasons, which always boiled down to bears’ past negative encounters with humans. His success at rearing orphaned cubs and reintegrating them into the wild by learning to be a mother bear is unparalleled. When Brandy, a female brown bear, left her cubs in the care of Charlie, he had done exactly what he set out to do. “He put his love for bears into action by making it his mission to correct the misrepresentations and mistreatment of bears."
In much the same way as Russell acknowledged and valued his bears, Bradshaw took the time with Charlie in bringing to life his experiences with bears. Delving into Charlie’s childhood hardships and lessons, we see how Charlie had evolved from the son of a bear hunter to a fierce protector and advocate for this misunderstood species. Talking with Bears: Conversations with Charlie Russell will carve out a soft spot in your heart for these magnificent creatures in a way only Charlie Russell could manifest and G. A Bradshaw could reveal. A moving tribute to a remarkable man.