I was telling the students we had money for some kind of field trip or excursion. Well there’s really only one in the North and that is to go out on the land. Of course all of the young adults in the class have been out tracking caribou, hunting tundra mammals, fishing for char, trout, pike, whitefish, shellfish since they were small children. Their grandfathers and fathers took them out. Young women in my class have shot caribou, quartered them and brought them home to feed the family. The students told me on the trip to the land, if we were in luck, we would see caribou, maybe fox, maybe arctic hare. I asked about polar bears. There was a pause, as if something else was going on in the room. One of the students, a young woman who has marks on her arm from self-harm, a most beautiful soul she is, in a soft whisper, as if telling me what I should know, spoke these words: ‘”the Inuit don’t ask to see the Polar Bear …(long pause) … because then we will. And the bear will surprise you.” She hesitates. “It will come when you don’t expect it.” To ask to see the polar bear is to ask to die, she was telling me.
She adds, “They are very powerful, you know, very big and powerful.” In fact, the hunters tell me, a standing male polar bear can be 12’ tall. And they are very fast. And unlike any other bear, the polar bear never feints an attack; never holds back. If a polar bear starts to charge, it will not stop, will show no hesitation until it has mauled its prey to death.
No, the Inuit people tell me, you don’t even whisper its name. The polar bear knows your soul, is in your dreams, is the great force of reckoning. Do not call out its name as if you are its equal. Do not think you can stand in its presence, walk about with the gods of the Tundra. You do not play with the gods, do not toy with the gods, do not especially, humiliate the gods, make them laughing stocks as you flaunt them; this their land. The Great Polar Bear, the Great Walrus, The Caribou, The Raven, The Arctic Char, The Wolf, The Wolverine – they live in the wild blizzards, in howling arctic winds that blow up to 100km/hr, live in the bitter cold that can reach 60 below zero. It is their home, their natural order. The bear roams its vast tundra, is its life force. The Inuit, despite having lived in the North for thousands of years, will say on any day, yes, it’s a cold day. They have not conquered the cold, are not indifferent to it, for this place is a greater force than they; they live in its will, in its shadow, in its awe. They do not assume ownership of the land, as if it is theirs, as if they could be its life force.
The Europeans, my lot, came and ravaged the whale population in less than one generation. We come now in loud trucks to picture the polar bear from inside a protective cab, trivialize the bear with our selfies, use the bear to sell our Coca Cola, make it a plush toy to give to our children. We have no idea. We ravage the 5 billion year old earth to extinction in a couple of generations, cravenly assume it is ours to do with as we please. We taunt, ridicule and flaunt the force of nature, and think we can get away with it.
The children here, the children of this land, the Inuit children, the Elders, the Elders of this land, do not call its name, do not ask to see the polar bear. Quietly, my students tell me this; perhaps if I listen, they think, perhaps this naive white man, might hear, if he is wise enough, might heed what the Inuit have known, know now. If only I might hear and see, be wise, know my place, know the ground I walk on is the ground of the Great Bear, the Great Walrus, the Great Whales, that I am one with them, am them, their animal spirit is my spirit, know this place to be shared with them, know my place as they know theirs, to respect the majesty of the place, to see its beauty, be in awe, to lie prostate on the ground, feel the ground against my body, listen long to the silence of the tundra, to be so silent that I can begin to hear, barely, but yes, hear, in the faintest of ways, yes, to hear in the silence from across the Tundra, hear through the silence the faint heart beat of the polar bear, hear it as if my ear is to its chest, hear its life beating deep in its chest, press my ear against that force of its beating chest, for which, in that moment, the beat of the Bear’s heart is now in me, its heart is my heart. I cry, for I find myself there. I find my animal spirit that animates me, the one I was born into, will die from; the life that tells me who I am, the animal spirit tells me. And I feel the pounding in the great bear’s chest, feel it in me. Here I am in the vastness of the tundra, ear pressed to its chest, listening for the heart beat of the great beast. And in the gentle whisper of the Inuit, as if spoken inside my head, they tell me when the great Bear comes, you will die. Being in the embrace of the Bear is my death. I realize I know nothing.
I do not even know about the world I live in, the world about me. I do not know the Raven. I see it play on the wind. And I wish to join the Raven, to dance in my spirit, to dance with it, let its dance be me as it plays, comes and goes as it will, and I follow it, to be in its spirit, let its spirit be in me, that I might see, that I might live the dance of this life, to know what they know, of how they live with the earth, in harmony with it, with life. It is to find the joy of life and be joyful in life, the gift, to be in love with life. Grateful to those great and powerful Whales, the massive Walrus, the great Polar Bear, the endless Caribou herds that shake the earth as they pass by, The Seal and Raven, grateful for what they tell me of things, that I might live as they in the world for I know nothing.
If we could but see the soul of the world belonging in all things, see that the tree is alive with soul, as alive as ourselves. And the Raven says yes. You are to dance with me and live. Live, says the Raven, as I live. Live.
We look out into nature at the animals, fish and fowl. Do we see the animal spirits looking back on us, observing us, speaking to us? If we see ourselves in their spirit, then can we know what they know, and only then can we stop our rampage of the earth, turn instead to embrace and love this place as they do, dance in this place as they do.
And in the very softness of my student’s voice, telling me the Inuit do not ask to see the Polar Bear, I knew I was being passed a deep, deep wisdom, of a people, gleaned over thousands of years of living with the animals, side by side, in this great unforgiving wilderness.
In the silence from across the Tundra, head bowed, listening for the faint beat of the beast’s heart in my breast – from the deep silence, I am told… live life. Just that.