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We Called Them Polar Bears- Part 1

In 2006 at the age of twenty-six, I became worried about the polar bears. Really worried. This was the year that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth had come out and several new studies were released regarding these most fearsome and self-reliant of mammals. Studies documenting bears caught in open ocean swimming for days over astonishing distances in search of ice. Studies showing population declines, increased encroachment into human settlements, and most disturbingly, pictures of polar bear carcasses, mauled and eviscerated, clearly eaten by other bears, a kind of cannibalistic behavior never before observed. Without sea ice, polar bears cannot hunt for seals. Without another food source, they had turned on one another.

At that time, I was on sabbatical from my job as an environmental geologist, burnt out from long hours digging out contaminated soils from industrial sites and surveying soon-to-be logged forests for wetlands. Instead, I had taken a ten-week stint at Outdoor School, a week-long, state-sponsored environmental education program for fifth and sixth graders. From our coastal location we taught marine biology, geology, ecology, and climate change. Sometimes orcas or seals would play in the surf, sometimes the water would be low enough to see into the deepest tide pools, crowded with sea stars and anemones. Once, the body of a sea lion washed up on shore. We integrated it into the curriculum, marching the kids down the beach to the slowly decomposing carcass to let them stand at his nose and peer down his long, bloated body, easily three times their size. There was learning in that sea lion, even when it became a stinking, rotted, sack of bones and flies, especially then. But there was also something humbling in witnessing the demise of a beast so much larger and better suited for survival than ourselves.

On Fridays, we sang the kids out of camp and I drove back to Portland just in time to hit rush hour traffic. The transition was abrupt and painful. Camp was far from the sound of engines, attuned to the rolling hum of the waves. The city was staccato in comparison. Each week I felt the loss of the wilderness, the disconnect from nature. The following mornings, I taught a three-hour Geology of the Pacific Northwest class at the local community college to a motley, half-awake group of students clearly far more removed from the environment than myself. Apparently, I spent a lot of time talking about the polar bears. At some point, they mentioned it. So did my then-boyfriend, who accused me of projecting my own insecurities and neediness onto an entire dominant species. And my parents who, while sighing with sympathy for the bears, wondered if perhaps I had too much time to think. One of my friends bought me a polar bear mug.



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