Yes, that is MY polar bear. I like to think of him as living out his life wild and free in the Arctic, but I know his fate has already been decided, and it will not be a pleasant ending.
My bear and I first met on an amazing summer Arctic expedition with Students on Ice. It was a fourteen day journey by sea on the S.S. Discovery, now resting forever in the icy waters of the Antarctic, with a team of seventy-five students and twenty-five scientists and educators to study the impact of climate change in the Arctic. We traveled from Iceland to Greenland to Nunavut following the route of the early Viking explorers. It was a life changing experience for me.
One day, our incredible expedition leader, Geoff Green, motioned for me and Trevor Lush, one of our expedition photographers, to join him in a zodiac. The three of us snuck off to a remote bay where a polar bear had been sighted by one of the other zodiacs as they were returning to the ship. We kept our fingers crossed that the bear would still be there as we headed out to the bay. It was a crystal clear day, a photographer's dream of primordial elementals fused together under a crystal arctic light.
The bear was asleep on the rocks when we approached, engine off, and drifted in. We stopped only a few metres away, cameras up and and ready. Not a sound, not a breath – this was probably as close as I would ever be to a polar bear in the wild, unless I was about to be ingested. The bear slowly pushed up onto his haunches and regarded us calmly, almost detached. Then he got up on all fours and moved to the water. He looked straight at each of us, looked around at the surrounding rock slopes, then put his head right under the water to check out the zodiac. My heart was pounding.
He pulled his head up and sat down, glanced at us again, and then turned and looked away, out to the open water. It was the most moving look I had ever seen in the eyes of an animal, almost meditative. It was a look that seemed to say, "Listen to me. I am waiting for ice, I am waiting for seal, and I do not understand. I do not understand why home is changing so quickly, so I need you to understand for me. I will not die here without my story being told. You are the storytellers – use your voices." It was a request whispered through the roots and the rhythms of life, a reminder of the connections that unite us all.
We backed away in silence and I was haunted. We left him alone on the shore still gazing off across the bay. Geoff explained on the way back to the boat that he was a young male, probably on a starvation fast. With the ice out so early and returning so late, there were no seals for him to hunt. He was too young to take on a walrus, and if he wandered into human habitation searching for garbage he would be shot. Either way he was doomed, forced to wait until the late summer ice returned, and hope he had enough fat reserves to last him through the fast. If the bay stayed ice free much longer, he would be another fur draped skeleton on the rocks by wintertime.
"I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues." Who speaks for bear, Dr. Seuss?
That is why my bear sits at the top of my webpage. To remind me to use my voice. To remind us that climate change is not a theory, that it is impacting our Arctic faster than anywhere else on Earth, and that the consequences of ignoring its rapid acceleration are the extinction of species. That is why I am so angry at our current governments for their absolute abdication of environmental responsibility in developing policies to deal adequately with accelerated climate change. My bear is our canary in the coal mine, and he is asking us for help. To paraphrase my favourite story, "Unless people like us care a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not."
Come on Canada and the U.S.A., bear is waiting. What will it take to wake us up? Perhaps it's as simple as rediscovering our place in the universe. As the wonderful eco-theolgian Thomas Berry says in The Dream of the Earth:
"In relation to the earth, we have been autistic for centuries. Only now have we begun to listen with some attention and with a willingness to respond to the earth's demands that we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage against the conditions of our earthly existence, that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe."
Skid Crease, Caledon
Photography by Skid Crease, Nunavut, 2005