Sunday, December 8, 2019

Warrior, A Spirit Bear in the Great Bear Rainforest

Her name was Warrior, for the scar gauged across her nose, just below her left eye. The close-up of this female Spirit bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) was captured by photographer Michelle Valberg in the Great Bear Rainforest. Warrior was one of four intimate close-up face shots used in a 2019 Canada Post stamp series, featuring also a black bear, polar bear and a grizzly bear. “Warrior walks around like she owns the forest,” said Valberg to an interviewer when the stamps were first issued. “There’s a regal elegance about her stride that’s incredible to watch.” The Spirit bear has white or cream-coloured fur and has long been featured in the oral traditions of coastal First Nations people.

Intrigued, I needed to know more about this female bear, captured so intimately. So vulnerable. So beautiful and somehow iconic of Canada. I later learned that it is, in fact, the official animal of British Columbia.

So, I did more research. I’d already watched several excellent documentaries on the Spirit Bear in its natural habitat in BC’s northern west coast. An excellent documentary appeared in David Suzuki’s “Nature of Things” entitled “Spirit Bear Family.” 

Narrated and filmed by Canadian wildlife filmmakers Jeff Turner, the documentary chronicles the lives of a mother bear and her young two cubs within the Great Bear Rainforest, part of the largest expanse of temperate rainforest left on Earth. Turner and wife Sue were the first people to film these elusive creatures twenty-five years ago. In this episode of Nature of Things, they return with their children to see the bears again. “Although any bear can be frightened by a human presence,” Turner says, “experience has taught me that if you are relaxed, the chances are the bear will be too.”

First of all, the Spirit bear is not an albino; it is, in fact, a subspecies of American black bear, which have white fur when they carry a double-recessive gene unique to their subspecies. Most commonly they are known as the Spirit bear, a romantic alternate to the Kermode Bear, named after Frank Kermode, a former director of the Royal BC Museum. To the Gitga’at First Nation they are known as Moksgm’ol, the Ghost bear. It is estimated that fewer than 400 Spirit/Kermode/Ghost bears are currently in existence. Turner also tells us that, while a white black bear can very rarely occur in other places, the higher numbers—one in ten—of white bears on these west coast islands is due to their isolation in the Great Bear Rainforest and the territory of the Gitga’ata people.

Warrior fishing (photo by Richard Sidey)
I ran across this wonderful personal experience of photographer Richard Sidey with Warrior and an older female bear—likely her mother, named Ma’a: 

“Early in the afternoon a Spirit Bear appears on the far bank of the river, no more than ten-metres away from my position. The bear looks around slowly and sniffs the air, appearing slightly hesitant as it surveys the river scene ahead. Marven [the Indigenous guide] is speaking quietly explaining that this is an old bear known to him as Ma’a (Grandmother), due to her having raised at least three sets of cubs. She is not quite white, but more vanilla in appearance with darkish rings around her eyes. Ma’a appears to recognise Marven’s voice, immediately dropping her guard and ever so slowly makes her way to the river’s edge. 
Ma'a fishing (photo by Richard Sidey)
All bears fish in different ways with varying amounts of energy exertion and success. It is immediately evident that Ma’a one of the passive, patient hunters. Completely still, except for her constantly swivelling head, she watches and waits for the perfect opportunity to collect her fish. After nearly twenty minutes of focus she does just that, and quietly eats her fish just metres from where I sit experiencing a wave of emotions.” Then Sidey sees another bear approach. “…a second Spirit bear appeared from the forest behind Ma’a and joined her in the riverbed. This was Warrior, a younger bear and likely an offspring of Ma’a due to their apparent comfort being in close proximity of each other. She is beyond striking in appearance, with completely white fur and a large diagonal scar on her nose [from] which her name was derived.” “Over the next three days I spent several hours with these two rare and beautiful animals, observing, learning, filming and photographing. Late in the final day of my journey, I was watching Warrior at a distance downstream in a dark area of the forest, when she walked into a narrow beam of afternoon sunshine streaming in from a low angle. Against the darkness Warrior was illuminated in an intense warm light that spread throughout her magnificent white coat. With the harsh contrast she appeared suspended in complete darkness and I became overwhelmed in emotion. Through a viewfinder filled with flowing tears I took several photographs before she exited the ray of light and disappeared into the forest.”


Protecting the Spirit Bear and its Habitat

Although the Spirit Bear is not currently listed as an endangered species, considerable conservation efforts to maintain the rare subspecies' population have been made, thanks in part to the bear's cultural significance. Main threats to the bear include habitat destruction from oil pipelines and trophy hunting of black bears.

The Spirit Bear gets most of its protein from salmon during the fall season. salmon are a keystone species and are important to the nutrient intake of both aqueous and terrestrial environments. The salmon contribute nutrients to water during spawning and contribute to the land with decomposition of their carcasses when predators, such as bears, scatter them throughout the forest. 

Pipeline spills could cause damage to salmon populations by polluting ecosystems. This would not only affect the bears but also the entire ecosystem. The bear's habitat was recently under threat from the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, whose planned route would have passed near the Great Bear Rainforest. Indigenous groups including the GitgaĘžat opposed the pipeline, which was ultimately rejected by the federal government in 2016.





References:

Guly, Christopher (2016-11-29). "Canadian government rejects pipeline through rainforests of British Columbia"Los Angeles TimesISSN 0458-3035.

Hilderbrand, Grant V.; Farley, Sean D.; Schwartz, Charles C.; Robbins, Charles T. (2004). "Importance of salmon to wildlife: Implications for integrated management" (PDF)Ursus15(1): 1–9. doi:10.2192/1537-6176(2004)015<0001:iostwi>2.0.CO;2  

Langlois, Krista (2017-10-26). "First Nations Fight to Protect the Rare Spirit Bear from Hunters"news.nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved 2017-12-11.

Reimchen, Thomas E.; Klinka, Dan R. (2017-10-01). "Niche differentiation between coat colour morphs in the Kermode bear (Ursidae) of coastal British Columbia". Biological Journal of the Linnean Society122 (2): 274–285. doi:10.1093/biolinnean/blx079ISSN 0024-4066.

Shoumatoff, Alex. "This Rare, White Bear May Be the Key to Saving a Canadian Rainforest"Smithsonian Magazine, August 31, 2015.

Temple, Nicola, ed. (2005). Salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest (PDF). Victoria, British Columbia: Raincoast Conservation Society. pp. 3–21.




Nina is a Canadian scientist and novelist. She worked for 25 years as an environmental consultant in the field of aquatic ecology and limnology, publishing papers and technical reports on water quality and impacts to aquatic systems. Nina has written over a dozen eco-fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels. An award-winning short story writer, and essayist, Nina currently lives in Toronto where she teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. Her non-fiction book “Water Is...”—a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher and environ- mentalist—was picked by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times as 2016 ‘The Year in Reading’. Nina’s most recent novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”— about four generations of women and their relationship to water in a rapidly changing world—will be released in 2020 by Inanna Publications. www.NinaMunteanu.ca; www.NinaMunteanu.me

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

How Walking in Nature Helps Me Write


I don’t often get writer’s block. I just walk out of it into Nature.

My favourite place to walk is the forest, along a river. Walking in a forest unclutters my mind and soul. The forest is simple in its natural complexity. Its beauty combs out the tangles of human complexity like a dam dissolving and grounds me back to the simplicity of natural life. The forest helps me re-align and focus—without trying. That’s the magic of it. It’s in the not trying.

I carry a notebook with me to jot down ideas that come to me. They always do. I find writing by hand additionally helps in the creative process.

My favourite park is the little woodland of the Little Rouge River, located off a small road hidden from the sprawling desert of suburbia.

It was spring when I first entered this forest. I inhaled its complex smell, awakening with spring flowers. At my entrance, chipmunks scattered and scolded me for interrupting their calm. I chuckled and thought that I’d seen more within the space of one minute here than I had in a year in the suburb I currently live in. A duff-strewn path led me beneath the pungent smell of pine and cedar. I made my way toward the riverbank where beech and maple leaned over the water and found a place to write.

Little Rouge River in the fall
When I returned in the fall, the forest was a mix of colour.  Most of the deciduous trees had dropped their leaves in a revealing show of textured grays, gray-browns and blacks. The bare trunks and fractal branches contrasted with the deep greens of the conifers. Rogue trees—like the oak and beech—still claimed their leaves, adding deep russet tones to the varied grays and deep greens of the canopy. The forest was now more open, emerging with ancient magnificence from a soft brown carpet on the ground. The air was fresh with the scent of loam, decaying leaves and saprophyte activity.

I strayed off the path toward the riverbank again. I was looking for the old sugar maple I’d spent time with the previous spring. After several bends in the river, I saw it, leaning precipitously over the river like an old man sharing an intimate story. It had already lost its leaves; they covered the ground in a soft carpet. The old tree literally hugged the bank in a braided network of snaking roots; like a carved figurehead hugs the prow of a great tall ship. Eager to see my old friend up close, I scrambled down the overhanging bank using the old maple’s root “stairway,” then ungracefully dropped onto the cobbles below. Every part of my gnarly old maple tree was splendid. Its shaggy trunk stretched up with typical silhouette of branching-out arms that every Canadian kid drew when they were six. The horizontal roots stretched out in a tangle and stitched the bank together, keeping it intact.
The Little Rouge River calls me to sit and listen to its flowing song—a joyful playful symphony of breaths, chortles and open-throated froth. I sit. And still my breath. I find my whole body relax from the tension of the suburban drive. I am home, sighing with a rhythm I’d forgotten. Re-aligning. Bones with rock. Rock with twig. Twig with root. The animals no longer scold me. They have resumed their natural rhythm, as I merge into scenery. And write…

****

What I do is not new to creative thinkers all over the world and throughout time. I share great company with people who used walking (usually in Nature) as a venue toward creative thinking (and writing). All great walkers.
Aristotle conducted his lectures while walking the grounds of his school in Athens. His followers, who chased him as he walked, were known as the peripatelics (e.g., Greek for meandering). Darwin refined his ideas on natural selection and other topics during his frequent walks along his “thinking path”, a gravel road called Sandwalk Wood near his home in southeast England. Dickens walked for miles each day: “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.” Beethoven often took solitary walks. He strolled the Viennese woods for hours, finding inspiration for his works and jotting them down on a notepad that he carried with him. Nietzsche loved his walks in the mountains: “it is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” For Wordsworth, the act of walking was one in the same with the act of writing poetry. Both involved rhythm and meter. Henry David Thoreau was known for his great walkabouts. Walking through nature for Thoreau was a pilgrimage without a destination—more discovery and rapture.
Nina Munteanu (photo M. Cox)
Stanford researchers demonstrated that walking boosts creative inspiration. They showed that the act of walking significantly increased creativity for 81% of the participants and that the creative ideas generated while walking were not irrelevant or far-fetched, but innovative and practical.

“The answer begins with changes to our chemistry,” writes journalist Ferris Jabr in The New Yorker (2014). “When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxgen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial to memory) and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.”

While walking is good for our creativity and general well-being, walking in a park or wilderness is even better. Researchers in Europe and Japan found that anxiety and depression was significantly reduced in the presence of green space and that it boosted attentiveness, focus and academic performance. Vegetation creates “a halo of improved health.” Dr. Frances Kuo at the University of Illinois demonstrated that just seeing a tree helps cognition and promotes a sense of well-being. While a human-made environment of objects—cars and buildings—requires high-frequency processing in the brain; a landscaped environment allows the observer to relax his or her attention, resulting in reduced muscle tension, lower heart rate, and a generally less stressful physiology.

Finding a favourite tree might be the best thing you do to boost your creativity.


References:

Cameron, Julia. 1992. “The Artist’s Way”. Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, NY. 222pp.
Deasey, Louise. 2015. “Negative Ions Are Great for Your Health”. Body and Soul.
Munteanu, Nina. 2013. The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice. Pixl Press, Vancouver, BC. 170pp.
Oppezzo, Marily and Daniel L. Schwartz. 2014. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 40, No. 4: 1142-1152.

Wells, Nancy M. 2000. “At Home with Nature: Effects of ‘Greenness’ on Children’s Cognitive Functioning”. Environment and Behavior 32 (6): 775–795.





Nina is a Canadian scientist and novelist. She worked for 25 years as an environmental consultant in the field of aquatic ecology and limnology, publishing papers and technical reports on water quality and impacts to aquatic systems. Nina has written over a dozen eco-fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels. An award-winning short story writer, and essayist, Nina currently lives in Toronto where she teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. Her non-fiction book “Water Is...”—a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher and environ- mentalist—was picked by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times as 2016 ‘The Year in Reading’. Nina’s most recent novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”— about four generations of women and their relationship to water in a rapidly changing world—will be released in 2020 by Inanna Publications. www.NinaMunteanu.ca; www.NinaMunteanu.me