Although our final class for outdoor school was not outdoors, we were still able to tie together all our experiences from the past semester into one last event: the viewing of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man.
Herzog uses the lens of a camera to take an insightful look at the life and work of Timothy Treadwell, an advocate for Grizzly Bears. Treadwell spent thirteen summers in a remote part of Alaska filming bears and other wildlife. In the off-season, Treadwell spent his time showing his footage to audiences in order to increase awareness of the bears and their needs. Tragically, however, Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were attacked and killed by a bear in 2003.
Since his death, Treadwell’s story has sparked controversy in the world of nature conservation. Although Treadwell loved the bears he filmed, some have suggested that he acted disrespectfully by treating animals like human beings. Others have called Treadwell downright crazy for living in the midst of wild animals without any form of protection. Grizzly Man isn’t just a biography. It’s also a commentary on the role of humans in the world of nature.
This is the same concept that was discussed by Alexander Wilson in his book The Culture of Nature. Wilson identifies the anthropomorphic perspectives that the media often attaches to the wilderness and comments on the ways that nature is often constructed by our society. Werner Herzog’s film was similar in that it contained commentary on the role of humans in nature. Treadwell loved nature so much that he wanted to become like the bears that he filmed. Others that Herzog interviewed firmly believed that there are aspects of nature that humans should not interfere with.
Herzog carefully considers how Treadwell saw nature. Additionally, his film also looks at how others regard Treadwell. This documentary is a complicated piece of art containing so many layers of perspective, and as the film progresses it slowly becomes apparent that it’s not just a story about a man who loved bears. This film is about what nature means to us. It’s about how we see nature, how we treat nature, and how we respond to nature.
In many ways, all of our coursework has had something to say on this subject in one way or another. On our very first day when we visited the Organic Farm, we heard Martha’s perspective on what the role of humans in nature should be. As the semester continued on, we learned many more perspectives of nature. Holly Schmidt taught us to respect nature by noticing and appreciating the overlooked parts of nature. When we collected insects with Rachel, we learned to show respect by expanding our knowledge on nature. All of our other adventures over the semester could be connected in a similar way. Ultimately, one of our class’s overarching lessons has looked at how we, as learners and as humans, should properly appreciate and study nature.
In the reading from Planting Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote about the importance of giving back to nature instead of taking without further consideration. Jan Sherman repeated this lesson when she described to us the values of her traditions. The importance of giving back was emphasized when we were instructed to give a little bit of the water and the food back to the earth before taking any for ourselves. In many ways, Treadwell’s story is also a story about giving back to nature. The controversy over his treatment of nature begins when we consider what that act of giving looks like. To Treadwell, it was a direct relationship with the animals that was intimate enough for him to give them names and look closely at their lives.
I think that there is probably a delicate balance. The greatest lesson I learned from our adventures is that humans are not spectators outside of the natural world. Watching Grizzly Man and learning the story of Timothy Treadwell only affirmed this fact. Nature and the wild is something that is around us and that we are a part of. But there can also be value in keeping our humanistic values away from the wild animals. Perhaps we should not always touch them or give them names.
Even if we don’t agree with the way Treadwell treats wild animals, however, it is still possible to appreciate his zeal and utter love for them. That is one perspective that we could all learn to appreciate more thoroughly.
“While we watch the animals in their joys of being, in their grace and ferociousness, a thought becomes more and more clear. That it is not so much a look at wild nature, as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature. And that, for me, beyond his mission, gives meaning to [Timothy’s] life and to his death.”
Perhaps the most important takeaway from Timothy Treadwell’s story is that nature is able to reflect what we see in ourselves. What Treadwell saw was different from what Herzog saw. What we see is probably different from both of their perceptions. That doesn’t make any of us wrong. But we are always able to learn more. As we all continue in our studies, we will continue to learn more ways to respect and appreciate nature.
Treadwell’s death in 2003 sparked a great deal of controversy concerning the role of humans in nature. Grizzly Man is an excellent perspective on the topic, but other researchers have considered the forces that were at play in this story. If anyone is interested in this topic further, here are some good texts to consider:
- The Grizzly Maze by Nick Jans – like the documentary, it takes a careful look at Timothy Treadwell’s life. What it also does, however, is a more thorough inspection of his childhood and earlier life.
- Among the Grizzlies: Living with Wild Bears in Alaska by Jewel Palovak and Timothy Treadwell (yes, he wrote his own book about his experiences, what??)
- Grizzly People, the organization that Treadwell originally founded: https://grizzlypeople.com/