When I was writing Dreaming the Bear, I had a big note taped to the side of my writing shed. ‘Do NOT consume the bear!’ Having been in an academic department for years with two of the world’s leading eco-critics, I was aware of the ethical danger in writing about wild animals.
I imagined the experience of the bear, and then, writing that felt too invasive. So then, in the narrative voice, I pulled back and wrote instead about the act of trying to imagine the experience of the bear. I constantly thought about the autonomy of the bear, its own way of thinking, feeling, and the boundaries of the human imagination.
And what happened? In the end, the bear dies and my human heroine actually inhales its last breath.
So much for not consuming the bear…
I have come to believe, through this and all my experiences in the natural world, both personal and textual, that there is no other relationship a human being can have with a wild animal. No matter how we try, once we notice the animal, we start consuming it; either literally as a food source, by emotionally or spiritually attempting a connection, by using it in art or conversation, or even by simply adding the experience to our memory bank… The very act of noticing it is already an act of consumption; the animal is part of the life-experience the universe has provided.
As my long-suffering Zen Master used to say, ‘Starting. Already a mistake.’
This is the conundrum for those of us who attempt to write ethically about the natural world. To write about it is to consume it, to write about how healing it is, how useful it is, how wonderful its creatures are, how valuable it is, is to reduce the natural world to something for human consumption. At the same time, writing about the value of the natural world is urgent work. Just as there is no place to step out of the cycle of human material consumption, there is nowhere we can step outside of narrative consumption – attempts may be praiseworthy and fascinating but are also completely futile. There is no other art form as completely tied to human consumption as literature.
In Dreaming the Bear, my heroine feeds a wounded grizzly bear, thereby ensuring its death.
It is a tragedy, complete with hidden destiny: the bear would never have recovered and so even the girl’s guilt is a mistake. For me, this was a way of articulating the problem with nature my young readers - and all of us - have. We have inherited a wounded planet – it is not our personal fault, and yet we feel crushing guilt because we know we have made it worse. But the only thing that most of us could have done to make it significantly better is not to have been born at all.
If there is no story in not-imagining, there is nothing at all in not-being. The act of telling a story must be supported on both the reader and the writer’s side by a deep sense that being alive on earth is worth it, that the pain of existence is worth it, that our destiny is not only to consume and die, but to learn something while we are here. This feels more and more urgent to me, as if the increased rate of human consumption must be compensated for by an increased rate in human understanding, as if the production of new knowledge from the imagination is the only way we can ameliorate the effects of our terrible greed.