“Learning entails more than the gathering of information.
Learning changes the learner.
Like dwarf pines whose form develop with winter’s design, the learner is shaped by what he learns.”
“Talking with Bears: Conversations with Charlie Russell” G.A. Bradshaw
Learning from Nature: A Personal Reflection on Charlie Russell
Naturalist Charlie Russell never went to college. Instead he spent his youth backpacking through the Canadian wilderness with his family. Nature was his mentor and home.
Charlie was a life-long student of Nature*. Although I never met him personally I read his astonishing books, Spirit Bear and Grizzly Heart. By the time I watched the Canadian Film about his work with grizzlies “The Edge of Eden” I recognized a kindred soul.
Charlie dedicated most of his life to befriending, studying, and educating others about Black and Grizzly bears. He spent 11 years in the Russian wilderness raising orphaned grizzly bear cubs and interacting with adult grizzlies, demonstrating to the public that these animals are not dangerous to humans unless they are hunted down by them.
Charlie never carried a gun and never had an altercation with a grizzly; he did carry pepper spray that was only used to protect the cubs he was raising from adult bears who sometimes prey on the youngsters. Most pictures show him walking in the wilderness with a wooden staff.
I was profoundly impressed by Charlie’s respect, deep humility and endearing compassion for the bears he encountered. He allowed bears to educate him through keen observation, keeping an open mind, asking challenging questions, reflecting, drawing his own conclusions and sticking to them, (a way of being that mirrors my own process).
Charlie Russell life’s work may someday change the way humans perceive bears. Charlie understood what it meant to love a bear and how this ability shifted the relationship between humans and bears to one where mutual respect developed into deep abiding friendship.
Charlie spent his life as a truth seeker. He wanted to understand how bears think and was capable of looking at behavior from the bear’s perspective. In addition to having a keen, discerning, open mind, he acted on his intuition and used all of his senses to educate himself about the bears he studied.
In Conversations with Bears Charlie states that learning changes the learner; the learner is shaped by what s/he learns.
Learning about bears certainly shaped Charlie into a remarkable human being.
Charlie understood that bears needed respect just as humans need it; that bears responded positively to apologies, just as humans do, that bears needed to be loved just as humans do – and if these criteria are met people have nothing to fear from bears.
Conversely, if the need to slaughter is on the mind of humans, a bear will pick up on the threat. Most bears choose retreat as a strategy when threatened but occasionally one will attack, and it is those bears that feed man’s fear and hatred of nature, while terrifying images of giant blood soaked teeth and jaws keep the NRA in business.
As Charlie stated, bears don’t become dangerous without a reason. If a bear is frightened or hunted down by people or by dogs s/he might retaliate. The same might be true for a bear that is separated from his food by humans, or a female grizzly with cubs that is cornered. Dwindling habitat and a sustained policy of ‘shoot on sight’ has created a situation in which traumatized bears – bears who have witnessed their mother’s being shot or being targeted for the kill generation after generation – is taking a terrible toll on these animals (many suffer from PTSD), who left to their own devices would befriend humans only too willingly.
Charlie’s dedication to bears, his extensive life experience living in peace with bears (even as a rancher), his love, respect, and deep compassion for Ursus provides us with a model the rest of us could follow. Bears and humans could co –exist peaceably if humans would only allow them to.
To this naturalist who has not had any encounters with grizzlies or polar bears but has developed extensive knowledge of Black bears, thanks to the bears themselves, who taught me most of what I learned, Charlie was a beacon of hope and sanity. Personally, he was the one person who helped me the most to trust my intuition, my senses, the truths of my body, when working with bears. When Charlie asked questions I heard my own silent queries verbalized.
To be loved, educated, and shaped by nature like Charlie was allows us to re-enter the Circle of Life, a way of being in the world that would end the existential loneliness that so afflicts our modern population.
*The difference between a naturalist and a biologist:
- A naturalist might be defined as a “student of nature” – a lifetime learner
- A biologist might be defined as a person who is in possession of a scientific body of knowledge – one who knows.
In my opinion becoming a knower often closes minds.
Postscript: I encourage anyone who is remotely interested in relationships between humans and our non–human relatives – the bears – to read “Talking with Bears,” a sensitive, beautifully executed and accurate portrait of an extraordinary man.
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.