We were told that 30 yards is far too close to get to a grizzly. In Yellowstone, you need to be at least six school buses away from them. Our first day there, we got within one.
On the second of July, we hiked about five miles from the Lamar Valley to our first campsite. It was hot out, and our packs were heavy, but we’d seen bison with their red-dog calves and pronghorn grazing among wildflowers. After setting up my tent alongside the Lamar River, I was filling up my water bottle from the struggling gravity filter as I saw people drop their books and quietly scramble up over the ridge above our makeshift kitchen. There was a grizzly in the field. It had just rained, and the light caught in the water droplets among the glowing, backlit grass. The clouds were overcast, with sun poking through, casting a dramatic brightness onto the field. I didn’t see him at first, but a large grizzly was about thirty yards away from us, a hulking mass of fur behind the wildflowers. He moved slowly, occasionally sitting and smacking his lips as he snacked on the plants and bugs, shaking his head to ward away the biting flies that we were already too familiar with. His round ears shook back and forth. Passing around the binoculars, we watched him in awe-struck silence for ten minutes. Then he got up and walked the other way on the trail we had just arrived on a few hours before, disappearing into the thick lodgepole pines. That night, I dreamt of bears.
I don’t know what the name of that field of wildflowers would be on a map, or what it was to those who lived here long before Yellowstone became a park, but to us it was Bear Meadow. Places and beings named in a Western culture are typically named after the people who ‘find’ them, or what resources seem to be available for extraction. I recently read an article, “Righting Names,” by Rebekah Sinclair, which discussed the process by which Indigenous communities have historically named the other-than-human relatives with which they live – plants, water, rocks… bears.
The scientific name of the grizzly bear is Ursus arctos horribilus – their common name is due to the grizzled color of their thick fur. I wonder what they call each other. I wonder what they were called before Europeans colonized North America. Indigenous names often evoke the individuality of a life or place and its relationships, not a representation of a person who stumbled across it. To better acknowledge our relationships and integration within the ecosystems we are intrinsically connected to, we must move past naming as a sense of ownership, into a way of identifying fellow beings, placing them within the structures they are a part of. Bear Meadow came about organically, and it made sense to me. A meadow that hosts so much life needs a name that shows how it exists within a complex structure of relationships. Driving through the Clark Reservoir, I was reminded of this. Western society places humans outside of nature, with names that signify colonialism and exploitation. In order to move past this, we must rethink what we call those beings and places that we are so inextricably tied to.
We’ve been in bear country for weeks now. Passing signs saying DANGER, warnings to hang food, to carry bear spray, to develop our own bear calls. Seeing fellow hikers in Yellowstone wearing bells to ward off bears—“dinner bells,” our instructor Steve jokes. This land is characterized by grizzlies. Griz country. Shirts in West Yellowstone splattered in grizzly designs, figurines being sold. Grizzly bears are a cultural keystone species—a flagship. Their character has an outsized impact on the land they inhabit. Humans are drawn to grizzlies. They remind us of ourselves, in some ways—omnivores, intelligent. In one of our readings a man is quoted saying that traditionally, his people don’t hunt and eat grizzlies: their bones look too much like ours. But they’re still so wild that they remain unfamiliar. We’ve been hiking past bear tracks, almost scarily human. Their paws are plantigrade. They don’t walk on paw pads, like cats or dogs—they put their feet down on the ground, like people. Huge, human footsteps with five long claws. Their scat has littered our trails, sometimes so fresh we need to walk closer together, making sure our bear spray is within reach. Making sure our tents don’t have anything that smells edible. Making sure we don’t smell edible. They are the subjects of stories; warnings are given for them. And for good reason: a campsite we stayed at had a history of a bear attack, earlier this year. They can be unpredictable, just like us.
But the large bear sitting in the meadow, holding cow parsnip flowers in his paws almost like a bouquet, didn’t seem horrible, or monstrous, or something to have nightmares about. Sure, I didn’t want him to get any closer, but it didn’t seem like his existence revolved around being formidable. He was just a being, sitting in a meadow, having lunch, surely recognizing that we were there, but doing nothing to alarm us. Staying quiet, not getting close. Existing in his home, just as we were existing in ours, re-integrating ourselves into the environment we are so tied to.
Julia Schles is a third year student at the University of California-Santa Barbara, majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Poverty, Inequity and Social Justice.