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Denned Up As Grizzlies Emerge: Reawakening Awe and Wonder

Photo By Tom Mangelsen

by Louisa Willcox

Grizzlies are emerging from their winter isolation as most people den up in this strangest of times. More cautious than males, mother bears with new cubs are just now stirring after five months of seeming death.

We cannot help but be curious about what goes on deep inside a bear’s den. As we hole up, the bear’s ability to survive 150-180 days without eating, drinking or eliminating waste seems all the more miraculous. A groggy bear mother will have given birth during late January to cubs the size of teacups. But because cubs are so vulnerable, they need to stay in a secure den for several months until they grow big and strong enough to survive in the above-ground wilderness.

Humans have long felt kinship for bears. In ancient cultures, bears were seen as relatives and teachers. Indeed, we and bears share similar traits, including an omnivorous diet, prolonged care for our offspring, and an ability to stand on hind legs.

Not surprisingly, in many of the old stories bears turn into people and people into bears. The same happens in tales of wolf, buffalo, and many other animals—a natural extension of the fact that we evolved as part of an extended family that included other species. In primordial times, writes author John Berger, “animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man… Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.”

We humans have a natural desire to connect with animals. Indeed, a love of nature, or biophilia, is encoded in our genes. E. O. Wilson, a scientist who popularized this notion in his book Biophilia, posits that many of us feel better when we go into nature and encounter animals, even ducks in a city park.

Wilson emphasizes that the wilder and the more biologically diverse the place, the greater our sense of connection. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the Northern Rockies know this well. With abundant wilderness, we are blessed with abundant wildlife, including species such as grizzlies, wolves, and wolverines that have been eliminated elsewhere.

It is no accident that an increasing number of physicians and psychologists have discovered that patients suffering from stress and depression can be helped by time in the outdoors. Time in nature can also benefit children with autism, attention deficit, and other disorders.

But some of the most successful therapeutic programs involve animals, especially wild ones. As children understand perhaps better than adults, wild animals still live in our imagination and are an integral part even of contemporary human stories.

Animal Tales: Up Close and Personal

Who among us does not have a favorite story of an intimate encounter with a wild animal that we never tire of telling—whether with a buffalo, wolf, or bluebird? A moment when time stood still, when we noticed every detail, including the falling snow, the fragrant pines, the rippling fur, or the look of intelligence? In that instant, we understood that we were not the center of the universe, but a member of a bigger community filled with mystery and wonder.

In giving talks over the years about bears and other wildlife, I have been struck by how eager audiences are to share their personal stories about encounters with wild animals. As lights go up after the talk ends, so do the hands. Then the stories begin -- whimsical, weird, or hilarious. And even though the events described may have happened years ago, they are told as if they occurred yesterday.

OK, so here is mine, one that changed my life. At 19, I was one of the leaders of an expedition in the Absaroka Mountains near Yellowstone. We had just dropped off an alpine ridge after a long day, and a storm was approaching. I was distracted as I led the tired students into the timber, looking for a place to camp.

Darkness was closing in and rain falling when we reached a small clearing in the trees. Then I looked up and saw the grizzly bear. I had never seen one in the flesh, only pictures, but her shoulder hump and dish face were unmistakable. She was close, too close. Our eyes met for an instant – that felt like an eternity. Her eyes were intelligent and intense, offering a window into a totally alien universe. Then she spun around and vanished in the woods. In the gloaming I heard the rain falling, the sound of my breath and my heart pounding – and then the tramping of the students coming up behind me.

The look in her eyes has stayed with me ever since. Although I did not know it then, I see now how that moment, that bear, changed everything. I have since been obsessed with grizzly bears and what makes them tick, outraged by what continues to happen to them, and devoted to doing my small bit to improve their fate.

So why do these up close and personal experiences with wild animals have such a hold on us?

Beyond Adrenalin: A Detour into Awe and Wonder

The power of intimate encounters with wild animals is rooted in our sense of awe, when time seems to slow down as our sense of space opens up. We feel smaller, less self-absorbed, and connected to a larger world. Often our jaw drops, our eyes widen, and our skin tingles. But there is more.

Neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall defined awe as an "overwhelming and bewildering sense of connection with a startling universe that is usually far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness," and “a life-altering blend of fright and fascination that leaves us in a state of puzzled apprehension and appreciative perplexed wonder.” Pearsall saw awe as “the 11th emotion,” beyond those that have so far been scientifically accepted, such as love, fear, and anger.

Although the word awe stems from the Old English word ege, meaning “terror” or “dread,” our understanding of the word has evolved considerably. Today awe is seen as an uplifting, not fearful experience.

Although philosophers, poets, and religious scholars have long waxed eloquent about experiences of awe and wonder, the American Transcendentalists elevated the notion of awe to a spiritual experience rooted in nature.

In his 1836 essay Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

“In the presence of Nature a wild delight runs through the man in spite of real sorrow. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.

Underneath the Awe Experience

Research on the experience of awe is remarkably recent, built largely on pioneering work during the 1960s on “peak experiences” by psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow defined peak experiences as "rare moments of highest happiness and fulfillment" that “generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect.” For Maslow peak experiences were essential to helping individuals realize their highest potential through self-transcendence, “the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”

Experiences of awe can be a steppingstone to that end. Since Maslow, researchers have attempted to nail down the characteristics and implications of the “awe experience,” which can occur in nature, meditation, spiritual practice, or even in the contemplation of a complex scientific theory. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt define awe as a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion “found at the upper reaches of pleasure and the boundary of fear.” The experience of awe is accompanied by the perception of vastness and the struggle to mentally process an experience. Because the norms of our understanding are violated, we struggle to find a new way to accommodate it – which entails revising our notions of how the world works and our role within it.

Psychologist David Elkins offers this: “Awe is a lightning bolt that marks in memory those moments when the doors of perception are cleansed and we see with startling clarity what is truly important in life. Moments of awe may be the most important, transformative experiences of life.”

The outcomes of such experiences are well documented, and include increased feelings of satisfaction, well-being, and generosity, and a reduced sense of self-importance. One of the most profound effects is a changed perception of ourselves relative to the larger world. Even as we feel more connected to something larger, we feel smaller and less significant, even more humble. These findings have led some researchers to suggest that awe can be classified, not just as an emotion, but also as a type of altered state of consciousness or “self-transcendent experience.”

Such experiences can lead us to try to be more generous, curious, and accommodating, as well as less materialistic. In a 2018 paper, Huanhuan Zhao and his co-authors wrote: “Awe encourages people to focus more on their spiritual life and reduces the significance they attach to material pursuits.”

Researchers posit that awe likely played an important role in human evolution by helping people adapt to changing conditions and by improving our willingness to share and cooperate—which helped communities to survive.

As the Transcendentalists emphasized, awe and wonder are egalitarian and timeless emotions. Each of us can tap into the power of nature and be awestruck if given the opportunity. And we don’t have to peer into the Grand Canyon or see a wolf in Yellowstone. Nor do we need to spend money or use a priest as an intermediary. We can have an awesome experience in the small things, like hearing a child laugh, or seeing a goldfinch on a feeder.

Awe on Steroids: Earth from Outer Space

Astronauts seem to experience awe on steroids, far more profound than what you or I feel when we see a pretty sunset. In an analysis of astronauts’ memoirs, interviews, and oral histories, research scientist David Yaden and colleagues concluded that seeing earth from space erased artificial boundaries to reveal an interconnected biome of people, plants, animals, oceans, continents, and clouds.

A few quotes:

Something happens to you out there,” said Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who described his emotion as “interconnected euphoria.” “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”

"Before I flew I was already aware how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humankind's most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations," said German cosmonaut Sigmund Jahn.

It is no accident that a number of astronauts—pretty much all of them hardcore secular science types—became environmentalists, activists, do-gooders, humanitarians – global citizens working to solve global problems, who credited their time in space for their new sense of purpose.

Called by Wild Animals

But perhaps it is time to return to earth and animals. Since time immemorial, our fate and that of wild animals have been intertwined. Wildlife has fed us and their skins and feathers clothed us. Wild canines developed over the years to become dogs, our hunting partners and bodyguards. Bats, birds, and bees pollinate our forests and fields, which in turn shelter and feed us. Wild animals help keep ecosystems functioning, with benefits in turn for humans.

Among indigenous peoples, the notion of reciprocity defined the relationship between humans and animals. After killing animals for food, native peoples offered prayer, ceremony, and acts of respect in return.

Even dangerous animals such as the grizzly were respected more than they were feared. In fact, the grizzly was the center of perhaps the oldest known religious practices in the world. Archaeologists have discovered ancient bear bones in European caves that were carved and arranged in special patterns perhaps 60,000 years ago, indicating special ceremonies.

But over time, ancient reverence gave way to fear as people began settling down to farm during the Neolithic. We built walls around our fields and divided animals into the “good” and the “bad.” Pigs and goats were desirable, lions and wolves were not.

These attitudes affected our views of the land. The word Wilderness came from the Old English word “wildeorness,” which means “the place of wild beasts.” Our European forebearers avoided wild places because they were filled with dreaded wolves and bears.

But since the industrial revolution the tide has been slowly turning. As humans destroyed wilderness and the animals that depended on it, we began to value them more. Out of increased scarcity and a sense of loss and guilt grew the movement to protect wildlife and wild places. The wave of environmental laws created during the 1960s and 70s, including the Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act, reflects the swinging of the pendulum of values. As a society we now embrace the moral duty to protect and restore species we have pushed to the brink. Awe and wonder are slowly replacing fear and aversion.

More recently, the ravages of climate change and the collapse of biodiversity are prompting a redoubling of conservation efforts along with a rekindling of interest in ancient stories and relations with wild animals. This comes at a time when more and more families flock to places such as Yellowstone and Glacier Parks hoping to glimpse a grizzly or a wolf in the flesh—and reconnect with a natural heritage that has largely disappeared.

More and more, wild animals are being appreciated not just for the benefit they provide humans, but for also for their intrinsic worth—for just being themselves, the product of a fantastic evolutionary journey.

Naturalist and author Henry Beston perhaps articulated this perspective best: "In a world older and more complete than ours, animals moved finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are no brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

Coyotes in Cities, Bears on the Street

Denned up, we might be feeling stuck in the center of our own movie. But outside, wild animals are going about their lives, with the power to open our hearts and transport us out of ourselves.

I have a friend in New York City who describes her life now as perched in solitude, in the company of pigeons, above “a moat of death.” Her avian friends commune with her each morning, restoring hope and wonder.

Across America and Europe, wild animals are returning in the wake of the coronavirus lockdowns: coyotes have been spotted roaming the streets of San Francisco; alligators in a shopping center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; a puma in the Chilean capital of Santiago; and a wolf in an empty French ski resort.

Even in the midst of our solitudes, we have the opportunity to challenge a malaise so eloquently described by Leonard Cohen: “Seven to eleven is a huge chunk of life, full of dulling and forgetting. It is fabled that we slowly lose the gift of speech with animals, that birds no longer visit our windowsills to converse. As our eyes grow accustomed to sight they armor themselves against wonder.”

Plus, spring is bursting forth. Many of us have the opportunity -- even need -- to get outdoors (practicing proper social distancing, of course) and celebrate the arrival of warblers, sandhill cranes, and ground squirrels. Mother grizzlies, now emerging with new cubs, remind us of the promise of transformation and renewal.

Despite our current isolation, let’s not forget our connections to other living beings, or our duty to care for the land and its inhabitants as if our health and well-being depended on it.

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