Land and Bears (always more bears)
Walking composition and ANNOUNCEMENT
“Imagine being a traveller, a conqueror. To simply turn up on soil and stamp it as property.”
—Skyward Inn, Aliya Whiteley
A largish black bear, around 300 pounds (136 kilograms), has been hanging around the neighborhood for a couple weeks, spending hot days sleeping down in the nearby coulee. We saw him last week, driving home from a friend’s house in the evening. He was headed toward our backyard and I thought it was a good thing I hadn’t walked home as planned because I would have strolled right into him in the dark.
My neighbor called last night to tell me that the same bear had gotten into an outdoor chest freezer* down the road and ate all the frozen game meat. That neighbor tried to scare it off and then shot it in the behind, at which point it ran one house further down and basically cornered a kid sitting in his go-kart. Kid’s dad, who keeps bear spray pretty much everywhere, sprayed it and scared it off. The kid’s okay, Fish, Wildlife & Parks is trying to trap the bear, and once again we’re stuck in the fraught question of how to live with wildlife that most of us actually appreciate having around.
The big question for me was whether or not to walk my kid to school this morning, which was why my neighbor had called, because she knows we walk every day. We called the bear-spraying neighbor, who had a much less dire assessment of the situation and said the bear wasn’t particularly aggressive. It was his kid who was cornered, after all. Was he being too chill about it, or was the neighbor who shot at it too reactive?
It’s not hard to drive my kid to school. It takes me about fifteen minutes to do the whole drop-off routine and come back home. It’s horribly smoky outside, the sun scoured orange, so I can justify not walking. And then there’s the bear. It all makes it easy to choose the car. But the choice is not a light question for me. The whole thing of commodification and the commons and America being a pyramid scheme weighs into this. Everyone driving their kids to school is enormously destructive on several levels—air quality, climate change, fractured community, deadly risks to pedestrians and cyclists—and a habit I’ve been trying to counter in my community for years.
So at what point does my safety, and the safety of my family, overrule what I think are lifestyle changes necessary for a livable future? What about my pleasure or happiness—what I feel like doing? What about my comfort or my fear? What choices do I make in my own interest that burden others I might never see?
What is required for each of us to informatively weigh the benefits to ourselves of our everyday actions, against the consequences for others?
*I am trying not to be too judgmental about this because keeping a chest freezer outside, if you could afford one, wasn’t actually that uncommon when I was growing up. But still, we’ve had increasing bear presence for a few years now. As I said when a grizzly at all my sister’s chickens last year, that responsibility of bear-proofing our gardens and chicken coops—and chest freezers, I guess—is really on us.
Last week I mentioned an upcoming project I’ve been looking forward to telling you all about. A bit of backstory first: last winter Mike Sowden, who writes Everything Is Amazing, led a group of readers on a new app called Threadable, a “social reading platform” where people can read and comment on and discuss books together. His choice was Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, and I was impressed with how easy it was to read and use, and how fun it was to discuss the book (and criticize Burke) with people across the globe.
I will be leading a Threadable circle on the subject of land ownership starting in October and running about three months. Instead of one book, I was asked to choose 9-12 readings, 10-25 pages each, from a variety of sources. My choices aren’t finalized yet because some of them are excerpts from books still in copyright so we need to see about permissions (ownership!), but I am very excited at the prospect of reading and discussing those plus older source material with lots of people: the 15th-century papal bulls that make up the Doctrine of Discovery, the original Charter of the Forest of 1217, John Locke on how labor begets ownership of property, etc. I want to be able to get to the heart of at least some of the arguments made to justify land ownership, and how those justifications are still used to perpetuate injustice and hoard resources. And I’d really love to do it together.
I’ll share more details when they’re finalized. If you want to participate, you’ll have an opportunity to download the app for free and request access to the land ownership and other reading circles. Mike Sowden will also be running circles again, one on geology and one on color (or “colour,” since Mike is British), and Mike and I are going to try to do one or two crossover selections for land ownership and geology, which should be fun.
This Walking Composition has been unlocked for all subscribers—the Threadable reading circle will likewise be open to all subscribers, paid and free.
I really think it will all be fun—as most of you know, I read a ton, and am keenly interested in the idea of being able to share my thoughts as I’m reading instead of just distilling them in narrative form here. Like a digital version of the hundreds of Post-It notes and comments I leave in every book except you also get to leave your own Post-Its and comments and we can talk about all of them together.
I’ve had a sick kid at home the past couple days, and this morning while preparing to go back to school, she asked for a mask so she could prevent herself spreading the cold she’s recovering from to others. It gave me this weird torn feeling of sad and optimistic at the same time—how much many people (most, I still think) do in fact want to care for others, want to make that extra effort, but are stymied by lack of societal structures that encourage it; and at the same time how simple it is, how easy. Just to do the small thing that’s a slight restraint on yourself but spreads benefit in all directions, including ones you might not be thinking of.
So I gave her a mask, though I don’t think it will stay on long in school, and in the end I picked up the bear spray—which I usually carry anyway—and a palm-sized fog horn that a friend gave me because the noise is supposedly even more effective at scaring a bear off than pepper spray. And we walked to school and she asked me why the sun was orange and I looked at the air quality and smoke map and said maybe we should wear KN95 masks walking to school after this until the smoke clears. And I wonder with the bear spray in my purse and a mask against the smoke, where the balance is between preparing ourselves to walk in the world, and arming ourselves against the world.
Bonus photo: Some like-minded soul has been upgrading the fence signs around the rail yard in town. The top photo is from when I was paddle boarding on the river in June, when it was near flood stage. That “No Trespassing” sign has always irritated me because I think it encroaches on the legal public access bank, and I wasn’t sorry to see it nearly under water.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
Leah Sottile—of the Bundyville podcast, and Two Minutes Past Nine about the Oklahoma City bombing—has launched a new podcast, Burn Wild, about the Earth Liberation Front and what it means to be labeled an eco-terrorist. I haven’t listened yet but remain convinced that Sottile’s journalism is some of the most important we have (I previously wrote about the importance of her domestic extremism reporting to understanding the January 6 insurrection) and subscribed to it immediately. She has an overview on her own Substack, The Truth Does Not Change According to Our Ability to Stomach It, and it’s very compelling.
The Oglala Sioux nation was recently able to purchase 40 acres of land that puts all of the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark site under their ownership: “Oglala Sioux officials said Friday that the 40-acre parcel land includes area where most of the carnage of the massacre took place, including the hill where the soldiers used cannons to shoot people, the ravine where victims fled and the area where the old trading post was located.”
An interview with particle physicist Sabine Hossenfelder about her new book Existential Physics and the limits of science on the Smarty Pants podcast. (I really enjoy Hossenfelder every time I run across her. I often reread her short Aeon essay on becoming a consultant for “crank” scientists.)
Philosophy and religion professor Alan Levinovitz on the Conspirituality podcast talking about how fear and trauma can lead to seemingly irrational protection measures—like devotion to a fitness cult, or building a weapon arsenal: “Who knows what kinds of circumstances would make me seek out the equivalent of these talismanic forms of protection that you have control over, whether a gun or a supplement.”
For something lighter, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ September issue is all about the high-tech surveillance state. From the introduction to the issue: “When asked what motivates her to fight against the not-so-subtle tactics of Putin’s surveillance state, Rustamova said: ‘There are 102 million people in Russia; we absolutely cannot leave them alone with Putin’s propaganda and his nuclear weapons. That would be a very foolish thing to do.’”
And if you ever played Sim City, you might have fun attempting to play Sim Nimby, where every time you try to build something, it just says, “No.” From the Motherboard article on the new game: “Weeks and Nass came up with 54 different anti-development slogans. Some are exaggerated NIMBY talking points for effect and humor—‘The only thing urban I want to see in my neighborhood is Keith Urban’; ‘Apartment buildings cause crime. Where do you think the people who killed Batman’s parents lived?’—while others—‘This is a NICE neighborhood’, ‘Public transport would transport the public here’— could well be said at a community meeting anywhere in the U.S. any day of the week.”
I would love to do the Threadable - that sounds awesome! But I don't have an Apple phone and the one I have is so small and unwieldy that it's probably a dealbreaker for something like this. If there's ever a version for PC computer I'll definitely consider.
Speaking of No Trespassing, I just came across a new book called Squatting and The State (O'Mahoney and Roarke, Cambridge Press) that looks kind of cool - maybe more law-centric than you're looking for but it discusses squatting as a form of soft resistance and some of the narratives that have come up around that. Haven't read it though.
I suppose the world has always been complicated, but still... Glad you're all safe.