Monday, September 16, 2013

Bear Blessing*

Matt Dyer was glad to be back home. Recovering at his home in Turner from life-threatening injuries, he recently told the Portland Press Herald: I’m glad the bear got away and didn’t get shot. I’d have felt terrible if that bear got killed because I was there. Dyer was mauled by a polar bear in July, at Nachvak Fjord in the Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador. I know the place. I was there in the summer of 2010 on the second of two summer trips to the park.[1]

Last September, in my sermon on the First Sunday in Creation Season, I spoke about being awakened in the middle of the night by my friend Steve, his form silhouetted against a night sky alive with stars. He was gazing upwards. The aurora he whispered. Pale yellowish green, blue, and violet lights hung like curtains and flowed like a river across the sky. We had been sleeping onboard the deck of a long-liner—a sixty-foot fishing boat—anchored in Nachvak, a fjord carved out by glaciers millions of years ago, with the dark mountains rising up around us on every side in that vast wilderness.

Matt Dyer had been on a two-week trip with the Sierra Club when the incident occurred. Delayed by inclement weather, they were at last transported to the fjord by float plane and the group set up camp ashore. As a safety precaution, they encircled the site with an electric fence. Whether inoperative or merely a trifling annoyance to the bear, it failed to deter him. Dyer was attacked in the middle of the night and dragged from his tent. Flares set off by his fellow hikers frightened the bear and saved his life. A physician in the group did what he could to stabilize Dyer until rescue came at dawn.

On my first trip to Torngat in 2009, my group camped south of Nachvak, at another fjord, Saglek. Having spent the night on the long-liner our first night, our gear was brought to shore in a launch the next morning. As we were setting up camp onshore, the captain of the long-liner shouted: Bear in the water!

Out on the fjord we could see the white head of a polar bear, leaving a long wake as it paddled toward shore. Warning shots were fired from the boat but to no avail. The bear emerged from the water just below our camp. A flare was thrown in its path. But on it came and climbed the steep bluff above which our campsite was situated on a grassy plateau.

Those of us ashore, just beyond the sight of the polar bear, ran into a stand of low-lying willow shrubs. John Merkuratsuk, our Inuit guide and bear monitor, stood his ground and fired further warning shots, all without effect. On it came. His gun jammed. Calmly kneeling down, he pried loose the cartridge with his hunting knife and, taking careful aim, fired again. Several shots later the bear fell.

After being mauled by a polar bear, Dyer said: I’d have felt terrible if that bear got killed because I was there.

Our group emerged from its encounter with the bear safe and unscathed. But a bear had been killed. That it was terrible only touches the thin surface—the veneer—of how it felt. Gathered around the bear moments later, we were dumbstruck and in shock. But there was much more
—grief, humility, reverence, deep silence. Each of us took turns in touching the head of the still warm bear, as if in blessing.

Our experience cannot compare to that of Matt Dyer. Although it may seem so from this narrative, these occurrences are rare. Since the park opened in 2005, Dyer is the only person who has been attacked and injured by a polar bear. The prior incident with my group was the first such occurrence of its kind.

The Inuit at base camp dissected the bear later that day. It was a female. Her stomach was empty save for some tapeworms. There was no meat on her bones and her fur fell out in hunks. She was starving. This may have been mere happenstance but ominous signs are beginning to suggest otherwise.

Although the polar bear population at Torngat is otherwise healthy, the bear population across the greater Arctic is stressed and endangered. Climate change is wreaking havoc. As it melts, bear have to hunt further and further from the ice pack. Several have drowned, swimming huge distances to reach the withdrawing ice. They depend on it to hunt ringed seal, their primary prey.

But along with the bears a whole people, an entire culture, is endangered—the Inuit. The Inuit depend on the cold and on the ice to sustain their traditional hunting culture. John Merkuratsuk’s Labrador village, Nain, has one of the highest suicide rates in Canada.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier an Inuit rights activist who was a visiting scholar at Bowdoin College a few years back, says that her people are a climate change barometer. The Inuit, she says, are like the mercury in that barometer; their hunters are sentinels for the rest of the planet. As the temperatures warm and sea levels rise and ever more destructive storms devastate, we are all affected.[2]

Watt-Cloutier says that in Inuktitut—the language of the Inuit—there’s a single word that encompasses the whole of Inuit cosmology—sila. Strikingly akin to our biblical word spirit, it means air or wind or breath. And like our spirit it means more: Sila is the breath that circulates into and out of every living thing; it is the raw life force that hovers over the entire land. It can be felt as air, sensed in the sky as wind, and lives within us as breath. It is the fundamental principle underlying creation. It connects every person with the rhythm of the universe.

Interdependent in the web of all life, knowing in some deep way that we are more than merely skin-encapsulated egos, we grieve the loss and degradation of our natural environment. Ancient wisdom across traditions suggests that grieving this loss is the beginning of healing, that without it real and sustainable ecological restoration is impossible.

The poet Mary Oliver, in a recent interview with National Public Radio and whose poetry I read last Sunday at the beach, acknowledges this.[3] Her poems are steeped in the wonder and beauty and mystery of the natural world, and yet she says:

The concern I have for the natural world is a sorrowful business...because we’re not doing what we should do to preserve the world. The woods that I loved as a child are entirely gone. The woods that I loved as a young adult are gone. The woods that I most recently walked are not gone but full of... trails. The world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state, it is itself  [a spiritual act]. The world did not have to be beautiful to work, but it is...

Or Henry Beston, who sensed the beginning of a disturbing change even living on his farm in rural Nobleboro, wrote this heartfelt plea: The ancient values of dignity, beauty, and poetry which sustain it are of nature’s inspiration; they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world. Do no dishonor to the earth lest you dishonor the spirit of [humankind]....To all who love her, who open to her the doors of their veins, she gives her strength.

Touch the earth, love the earth, honor the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all...[4]

I can’t tell you how laying hands on that bear changed my life but it did. The experience haunts me even now and has taken on its own life deep in my soul, forever beckoning.

But I do know this: God’s creation is itself a holy mystery, and to those who approach with reverence and awe and wonder, she gives strength and boundless blessing. AMEN

Photo: John Merkuratsuk in the Torngat Mountain National Park

* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; First Sunday of Creation Season; September 15, 2013   


[1] Portland Press Herald; September 3, 2013
[2] Sheila Watt-Cloutier on Climate Change and Human Rights;
[4] Beston, Henry; The Outermost House; Henry Holt and Co.; New York

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