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Wish for Eden

This is an older piece I wrote, but it needs a home.

Wish For Eden
A review of Grizzly Man


After the flood in Genesis 9:2 God tells Noah and his family that “the fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea.” Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man would beg to differ. Treadwell spent 13 summers in a remote area of Alaska (I’ve never been there but isn’t most of Alaska remote?) living among grizzly bears under the auspices of loving and protecting them. That is until 2003 when in September or October he and his girlfriend Amy Hoogenard were attacked and devoured by a bear known only as “141.”
Treadwell filmed himself alone for 11 of those 13 summers and then returned to civilization to spread his love of the terrible beauty of those bears, usually to schoolchildren.
What he didn’t show the children (I’m assuming) were his frequent childish rants screaming obscenities about people and the National Park Service in particular. In fact, in the footage that Herzog melded into his film, Timothy Treadwell’s mission is unclear. He loves the bears he claims. Which, I suppose, was obvious in one sense. He also claimed to protect the bears, which was not so obvious. Viewers are left wondering how exactly did he protect them. When some people show up in the wilderness, he only curses them from the brush. Perhaps Treadwell’s trips to schools educated the public about the nature of bears? He formed the foundation Grizzly People “whose mission is to protect and preserve habitat worldwide.” But director Herzog doesn’t focus on Treadwell’s efforts or organization—he focuses on the entertaining lunacy of Treadwell himself.
Most people in the film who criticized Treadwell accused him of crossing a delicate line between human and animal. In fact, Marnie Gaede, an ecologist friend of Treadwell, mentioned in her filmed interview that Timothy wanted to become like a bear. Indeed I found that he didn’t just want to be bear-like, but to be a bear fully.
Some think Timothy Treadwell’s naïveté and disregard for natural boundaries is what killed him. I’m not so sure. He did develop a bond with the bears he filmed; he even named them: Mr. Chocolate, Demon-Hatchet, Sergeant Brown, Melissa, Mickey, and Saturn among others. He and Amy Hoogenard were killed by a bear they didn’t know.
His love for the bears approaches idolatry, however, in a scene where he rushes over to where a bear has just shat. He touches the feces reverently, almost as if it were the host, exclaiming that it’s “Wendy’s poop,” it was inside her, it’s her life, and so on.
It would be easy (though lazy) to write Treadwell off as a misanthrope, yet he did have friends—he had girlfriends as well. And it is not that he hated people and loved bears, it is, I think, that he wished for an Eden so deeply that he forgot (or perhaps ignored) the world’s fallen nature. Most bears have an instinctive fear of us which serves to protect both man and bear.
I remember well my own encounter with a bear—a black bear in Michigan’s Porcupine Mountain Wilderness. Nowhere near the life-endangering encounter with a grizzly, this bear wanted to be left alone. I stumbled upon its walk through the woods, we made eye contact, but then it hurriedly ambled away down the wooded slope.
I can sympathize with Treadwell’s desire to commune with the mega-fauna of the Alaskan wilderness. I think back to a prayer I made as a 13-year-old, pleading with Jesus that I didn’t want to go to Heaven unless animals were present in that realm. Dr. Orin Gelderloos of the University of Michigan-Dearborn informed the congregation at Trinity Church, March of 2006, that we shouldn’t expect Heaven to differ all that much from Earth, while we can argue with him about the details (see especially C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce) I would generally agree with that thought. The trouble with my adolescent prayer and with Timothy Treadwell was we didn’t want to acknowledge the Fall and the post-diluvian relations between man and nature. It would seem impossible to find a St. Seraphim hand-feeding a bear, nor was Treadwell like St. Francis gently counseling a wolf to terrorize the town of Gubbio no more. Perhaps in the New World we will interact with non-human creatures in much the same way that we do with other humans. For now though, man and bear are not meant to be buddies. In fact, it is probably the best for both that we aren’t.

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