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Home » Culture and Criticism

Hello Muddah

Submitted by on June 12, 2006 – 11:25 AM5 Comments

I’d had a long day — not a bad day, just a long one, which had begun in a rental car with cursing and self-flagellation because I’d managed to miss the turn-off for 678 North not once but twice, and I’d missed it elaborately each time, the first time taking an unplanned sightseeing tour of the far reaches of LaGuardia Airport’s retired hangars, the second time rocketing along the Jackie Robinson Parkway with only the vaguest idea of what borough I was even in, only knowing that I was going the wrong direction. It took me close to two hours to get out of the amalgamated city, which even by New York City weekend-clusterfuck standards is ridiculous, and then I had maybe 15 minutes’ worth of good cruise-control progress before I-95 turned into the Exits 5-8 Parking Lot. The only thing more inexplicable than the fact that it literally does this every time I take I-95 is my invariably frustrated and put-upon reaction to it. I’ve known about that weird, anger-making traffic pattern since I was eight years old; it’s way past time I got zen about it, or started arranging to take surface streets, but no, there I sit, every time, clenching the steering wheel and fulminating about “the entire population of Stamford” this and “wave theory” that.

So, that happened, but I got to my hotel room in plenty of time to change for the wedding, and then two other things happened — 1) I found waiting for me a gift bag, which contained, among other niceties, the most wonderful granola bar I have ever eaten, because Saturday In The Car With Sarah meant I had skipped lunch, and 2) my hair had started to lie down. Not entirely, mind you, and I wouldn’t have time to experiment with it before leaving for the wedding venue, but it showed all the signs of getting ready to cleave to my head like actual hair, so I spiked it up for the nonce and told it, “We’ll finish this discussion later,” and wriggled into my dress and clopped out the door.

Then I drove to the wedding feeling very glamorous in my black-and-white dress and gigantic sunglasses with one heel off for better “pedal feel,” like I lived in one of Roger Angell’s “Personal History” columns in The New Yorker for the afternoon, one of those anecdotes involving his easily chic mother and an old woody station wagon and a metal Thermos of vodka marts, and then the wedding happened, but it’s someone else’s story. Then I came back to the hotel, and I thought about getting a glass of wine at the bar, but first I passed a 13-year-old boy in a white button-down, khakis, and a big fluffy pink pimp hat, and then I passed a woman carrying a huge snifter of red wine and hungrily licking a stray drop off the stem, despite the fact that she had an all-black outfit on, so she didn’t have to worry about stains; she had at least a pint of wine in that glass, so she didn’t have to worry about running low; and she was weaving, so she didn’t have to worry about…well, anything, really, except taking a few Advil before going to sleep. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a cluster of people wearing those glow-in-the-dark neon necklace thingies, and then someone yelled in a genuinely aggrieved tone, and I am not kidding, “DUDE, PARTY FOUL!” and this is how I wound up lolling on the bed eating gorp and watching Grizzly Man at a cost of $12.99 plus tax. It just seemed like the better investment.

It did not disappoint. I read an article about Timothy Treadwell somewhere a few years back, before he got killed, and I remember thinking, “Fool is going to get himself eaten.” Sure enough, he did, and when the movie came out, I remember thinking, “Ohhhh yeah, that guy. So, fool got himself eaten, then.” And then I may have chuckled a little. And this is the issue, with the movie and with Timothy Treadwell and with his demise.

The man died, and his girlfriend died, and for their families and their friends, of course it’s a genuine loss and I’m not trying to make light of that fact. But as awful as a bear attack is in practice, in theory, “getting eaten by a bear”…sounds funny. It makes you think of a Far Side cartoon. It’s like when a character in a movie is getting chased by bees, and the character runs by, screaming…and then one bee goes by, “zzzzz”…and then another bee, “zzzzz”…and then a humorous pause…and then a huge swarm of bees, “ZZZZZZZZZZ!!” and it’s funny. Nobody likes getting stung by bees, and I swell up like a fugu when I get tagged and I have to go get a cortisone shot, but on the other hand, it has a slapsticky element to it. It’s absurd, really, and it seems that way primarily because, for most of us, it is completely unlikely ever to happen: most of us 1) live indoors, 2) not in or near bear habitats, and 3) understand that a bear is a carnivorous wild animal the size of a sedan that can and will kill you if it gets hungry.

And then you’ve got Timothy Treadwell, giving the bears cutesy nicknames like “Mr. Chocolate” and “Wizard,” and touching them in the face, and capering around in the foreground with his back turned on the bears as big as New York one-bedrooms in the background, and repeating baby-voiced incantations of “I love you, I love you” at bears as they amble away from him before he turns back to the camera to characterize various bears as “grumpy” or “cranky,” and it’s just utter insanity to watch. I don’t camp, I don’t bird, I don’t raft, I don’t know anything about the outdoors except what I had to learn about a narrow stratum of New Jersey botany twenty-five years ago to get a Girl Scout merit badge — by design, because nature is dangerous. Nature is lovely, but you might have noticed that man as a species moved inside eventually, because nature is also scratchy, bitey, sting-y, scrapey, cold (and also hot), sandy, damp, and hungry. Nature can eat you. Nature wants to eat you.

And bears…don’t care if you give them little names like you think you live in the ursine version of Watership Down, or that you “love” them or are “in love with” them. Bears do not make allowances for the fact that you have some kind of disorder in relating to other human beings, to the point where, instead, you excessively anthropomorphize the bears, and also the foxes that live near your camp, and to the point where, when one of the foxes makes off with your baseball cap, you chase it for like ten minutes and yell at it, angrily, like it’s personal, like the fox is a sassy eight-year-old who is deliberately disobeying you, and you explain to it that you need that hat back and you’ll get really mad if it takes the hat to its den and hides it, which of course it is going to do, because it is a fox.

This is where Treadwell pretty much lost me in terms of viewing his death as a “tragedy.” Again, not an eco-ette over here, but I’ve spent time with animals my whole life. I’ve lived with cats my whole life. I had a pet-sitting business as a kid. I worked as a stable-hand in high school. And as much as I write about the cats as if they have human personalities and sit around plotting to annoy me and whatever all else, and as much as I love them and consider them family members, I do understand that they are not in fact short, furry people. They are habituated to people; they are domesticated; they are fond of me, as far as that goes — fond of getting fed, fond of warming up in my lap — but it only goes so far. I once saw a girl get kicked in the face by a horse she adored, had spent hours grooming and caring for, had worked over with thrush treatments to get him ride-able again, had braided and brushed and brought baby carrots to, and everyone else is standing around after the ambulance left all, “Wow, it’s ironic, isn’t it.” Well, no, it isn’t really. That horse hates the clippers, and if someone tries to go under his belly with them, he doesn’t care who it is and he’s not going to make an exception to his “fuck this” rule because she gave him an apple earlier, because he doesn’t remember that, because he’s a horse and God bless them but they’re dumb, and even if he does remember, he doesn’t think he owes her anything. He hears buzzing, he’s going to flip out. She should have cross-tied him, she didn’t. It’s not “ironic.” It’s his nature, and he’s not a toy. Not that I didn’t feel bad for the girl, because of course I did — she was a sweetheart, and she got kicked in the face by an iron-shod animal ten times her size. But it was eminently avoidable.

Look, I read Rascal and Gentle Ben, same as everyone else, and I wanted a pet raccoon and a pet bear too. But then I turned fourteen. I don’t think Treadwell “deserved to” get eaten; based on the film’s reconstruction of what must have happened, it’s a truly horrible way to go, and it didn’t end quickly, and if Herzog considers the audio of the final attack too upsetting to include…the guy didn’t “deserve” that. But to call it a tragedy is, I think, not correct either. I feel like the word “tragedy” implies a certain randomness, or a certain…blamelessness? It’s upsetting, it’s sad, of course it’s those things, but “tragic,” I don’t know. It’s probably considered in poor taste even to hint that Treadwell “asked for” that grisly end (no pun intended), but I think we have to acknowledge that, in a way, he did — he behaved recklessly, he refused to get that the bears didn’t love him back, he didn’t take precautions, and if you go out into the Alaskan wilderness with no gun, no tranq darts, no electric bear-proof fencing, nothing, and you continually flout park regulations that exist for your safety, and you don’t store your food properly all the time, and you follow the bears around and fuck with them, sooner or later your number is going to come up.

If there’s a real tragedy here, it’s that Treadwell didn’t get help, because I think he was not well, mentally. This is a man who was stroking a pile of bear scat and crooning about how it came from a bear, it was in a bear oh my God, just this weird almost-sexual near-praying over bear shit, and then he’s intoning about the heartbreaking death of a bumblebee — despite spending so much time in nature, observing its workings on a daily basis, he just seemed to have no mechanism for incorporating how it actually works into his worldview. He seemed to have no ability to synthesize certain realities, that life has an end, that boundaries exist for a reason, that giving up an addiction to alcohol does not mean you should then replace it with an obsession with dangerous animals, and I don’t know that anyone in his life could have convinced him to get treatment, or could have made him see that his “relationship” with the bears bordered on the delusional. But if friends or colleagues did see some of the footage before his death, did see him ranting incoherently at the Park Service for persecuting him (I can’t imagine the Park Service viewed him as anything more than a hippie pest) and posturing as the bears’ great protector while standing on…protected land…in a wildlife preserve…unarmed, and therefore seemingly unable to police prospective poachers regardless…?

Eccentricity, enthusiasm, that sort of holy-fool approach Treadwell took — there’s a place for those things, in a larger sense. Or, more precisely, we as a culture should make more of a place for them. But in the narrower sense, when Treadwell is saying many times on many different occasions that the bears would never hurt him, would never attack him, perhaps someone should have tried a little harder to save him from himself, because: yes, they will, and yes, they will.

In the film, you don’t hear the infamous audio of the attack. You see Herzog listening to it; he asks Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend and the co-founder of Grizzly People, Jewel, to turn it off, and he tells her never to listen to it, to destroy it so she’s never tempted to hear it. I read a long New Yorker profile of Herzog recently which mentioned this choice, and while it’s probably smart to avoid sensationalizing the deaths with something like that, I seem to recall that Herzog also didn’t think it added much — that it would have just been upsetting material that didn’t lend any depth or dimension to Treadwell’s story. I don’t know if I agree with that. I’m not particularly eager to listen to two people getting mauled to death, but on the other hand, we’ve heard variations on this story before — in Jon Krakauer’s books, for instance. People climbing punishing mountains because they think they can, people going into the wilderness to try to subsist by foraging and winding up poisoned by berries. This idea that nature is a challenge, an aerobic activity, rather than a force that doesn’t assess merit or good intentions. I spent a lot of Grizzly Man rolling my eyes at Treadwell, who was absolutely well-meaning and really wasn’t hurting anyone except, in the end, himself and his girlfriend, and I spent most of Into The Wild doing the same thing — Christopher McCandless was a good person, I think, and naïveté isn’t a crime or anything, but there is a common thread here, an almost condescending living-in-mutual-respect-with-Gaia belief that befriending the natural world is all you have to do for it to let you live. But the fact is that the Alaskan wilderness doesn’t care about you, doesn’t care if you love it, won’t love you back either way, and if you don’t get that, really get it, it’s quite likely to get you killed. And if the audio of the bear attack drives that point home to even one under-prepared, over-empathetic, happy-wanderer child of the earth who thinks all he needs is a bag of banana chips, a sleeping bag, and a dream, who instead of getting sent home to his parents in pieces maybe goes on to do something worthwhile, like survive, maybe it’s worth making the tape available.

Herzog says in voice-over at one point that the many thousands of hours of Treadwell’s footage “give meaning to his life, and to his death” — but do they? What meaning, exactly? The scenery is lovely, and I like bears well enough, and cute little foxes running around on tents, but Treadwell still came across in the film as unsatisfied, searching, frustrated. Should we imbue his life with that meaning? Because I don’t think we can take much from his death beyond what we already know — that people sometimes take dumb chances, or ignore what is in favor of what they believe should be. And that bears aren’t pets, and that this is their nature. And if this was Treadwell’s nature, well, all right. He became the bear droppings he had such reverence for. What’s the meaning there? “It all turns to shit”?

It’s a good film — maddening, fascinating, does all the things a documentary should do. But if it set out to convince me that Treadwell is a sympathetic figure, it doesn’t entirely succeed. If it set out to convince me never to camp out in Alaska, on the other hand…done and done.

June 12, 2006




  • Rosie says:

    I watched the movie…it was very disturbing…he needed meds

  • La BellaDonna says:

    What I found most awful was that the girlfriend who went with him … was afraid. She was afraid to be there, she was afraid of the bears – and rightly so. She was afraid, and they had no weapons. It’s been a while since I saw this, but my recollection is that she tried to save him, and she had – what? A cast iron skillet, to try to stop an angry, starving bear? Even Treadwell, in all his lunacy, knew there was something wrong with this bear. I just keep thinking, she was afraid, and she knew. She knew.

  • Cerebelle says:

    This is one of my favorite posts of yours, Sars–I feel like you just nailed it. So many people hold this attitude about nature without realizing just how objective and dangerous it is. Nature is seen as a game, a challenge, that when people go out camping they feel like they’re “surviving,” and they have no idea how unforgiving it can actually be.

  • Elyse says:

    I’m really glad this was linked, I hadn’t read it the first time. I felt the same way about the movie, and have actually watched it again because I just find it so fascinating. Great review.

  • Hannah says:

    Back when it first went up, this post sent me on a two-day obsession with Treadwell, and then McCandless after. Still haven’t seen this doc (saw Into the Wild, though, and got really frustrated at the times when they seemed to argue for McCandless’s sainthood). I guess I forget sometimes to factor in Treadwell’s social troubles, because I’ve thought in the past, dude, call a HUMAN BEING “Mr. Chocolate” and you probably won’t get a positive reaction, either. I think he might as well have been living with stuffed animals; he invented the relationships with the bears, and he was doing both sides of the dialogue.

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