It's not every writer who seeks out an encounter with a wild polar bear. Blake Matheson did—and returned to tell the tale in "Sea Bear," an essay and photograph to be published in Thoreau's Legacy. We talked with Blake this month about what set him down this path and where he's going next.
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Tell us about yourself.
I'm twenty-six years old and in my final year of studies at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, pursuing a certificate in environmental law. I'm also getting married this August. I love the Northwest. But I was born and raised on the central California coast, near Big Sur, and that will always be home. I'm a westerner to the core.
How did you become interested in environmental issues?
The place I grew up in is deeply beautiful and ecologically rich. Spending my formative years there gave me a strong emotional dependence on being close to natural beauty. I could walk a few hundred yards from my childhood home and watch the gray whales migrating as I sat in the shade of gnarled, hundred-year-old Monterey cypress trees. Even as a child, I felt that I couldn't bear to live in a world without wild things and wild places.
In high school I was a mediocre science student. I took a senior elective in bird watching, mainly to avoid taking advanced chemistry. Ornithology opened my eyes to the startling variety of life on Earth in a very concrete, systematic way. It also introduced me to the concept of biodiversity—with incendiary results. Soon I was traipsing off to all manner of strange places in search of wild birds and animals. I was, and am, continually awed and humbled by the amazing beauty and variety of life on Earth. I don't think people can understand their real place in the world until they truly see nature and what it means. Look into the eyes of a wild polar bear, his face stained with whale blood, at 70 degrees north, and it's hard to feel self-important.
Of course, discovering our planet's richness has also taught me how much is being lost daily. That loss is something I have to live with. I decided to pursue environmental law so that I could have a shot at doing something substantive to protect Earth's beauty.
Your essay describes your personal encounter with a polar bear.
It does. The polar bear has always struck me as one of the most magisterial creatures alive, a symbol of the great mammals of the ice ages, which gave rise to modern man. Losing this species would mark the end of an era and herald the start of a new, darker time. The bears' clock is ticking. In 2008 the Center for Biological Diversity (for whom I had done some volunteer legal work), after considerable litigation and advocacy, finally succeeded in getting the polar bear listed under the Endangered Species Act.
In the wake of the spike in fuel prices, there was a lot of pressure to open Alaska's North Slope to even more oil exploration. At the same time, the scientific community made it clear that warming trends in the Arctic were far more dramatic than initially thought. Scientists realized that by 2012 the Arctic could be entirely ice free in summer.
In the summer of 2008 I felt a pressing compulsion to go to the Arctic and see these bears. So I got in touch with an old Inupiat hunter, a wilderness guide and activist named Robert Thompson. I arranged to fly up over a long weekend and stay with him on Barter Island, which is more than 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, just off the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope. It is a starkly beautiful place.
During my stay on Barter we had three days of forty-mile-an-hour winds and blowing snow. But I was lucky, and late one morning golden light broke the storm and the winds softened to a breeze. I saw the old bear on that good day.
Did this experience have an impact on how you view global warming?
Very much so. I always knew climate change could be the last straw for many species. Under ideal conditions, many species might have been able to adapt to climate change. But most ecosystems are broken, and species have been weakened by centuries of persecution, pollution, and habitat fragmentation. For some the added strain of climate change will be too much.
Seeing the polar bear at Barter Island impressed me with the importance of protecting and managing species in the face of climate change. Yes, we can, and must, radically change human impacts to the carbon cycle and reduce production of greenhouse gases. But the emissions currently dissolving the Arctic ice are already banked in the atmosphere. Even if we cut emissions dramatically, it will be decades or centuries before improved conditions can restore the bear's icy habitat.
What animals need is the chance to adjust. If we don't give them that chance, they will perish. For the bears, we must prohibit oil and gas extraction methods that further jeopardize Arctic ecosystems and species. We must find ways to remove toxic PCBs from the food chain that are poisoning the bears and their prey. We also need to reduce conflicts between people and polar bears everywhere in their range.
E. O. Wilson recently said, "If you save the living environment, the biodiversity that we have left, you will also automatically save the physical environment, too... If you only save the physical environment, you will ultimately lose both." Protecting the resilience of living ecosystems is indispensable to surviving the climate crisis. If I learned anything practical about climate change in the Arctic, it's the truth of Wilson's advice.
What would you like to do after you graduate from law school?
In a perfect world I would join an environmental nonprofit organization and work on the legal protection of endangered species and landscapes. But the recession has hit the nonprofits pretty hard, and the job market is tight. No matter what I end up doing, I'll find a way to work on biodiversity and conservation issues. I have to.
No interest in pursuing the writing life?
Quite the contrary. Writing is a tremendous catharsis, and I'd like to do more of it. For some reason society doesn't like it when you wander around the streets yelling about the beauty of wilderness or man's needless waste. But if you write and publish, people are more tolerant.
In the past my writing has focused on a species or ecosystem. Using a creature or place as an entrée to deeper explorations can be a powerful literary tool. Peter Matthiessen's writings are probably the best examples of that style. But I've really enjoyed many other recent literary monographs with a narrow focus on individual species or subspecies; Bernd Heinrich's Mind of the Raven, Tony Juniper's Spix's Macaw, and John Frederick Walker's A Certain Curve of Horn, on the giant sable antelope of Angola, are all superlative examples.
The sea bear deserves an exhaustive treatment in this vein. Maybe I'll write one—the subject could hardly be more timely.
Thanks, Blake. We look forward to introducing your essay to readers soon.