Talking With Bears: Conversations with Charlie Russell

By Pamela Banting

by G.A. Bradshaw
Rocky Mountain Books
2020/$32.00/256 pp.

The late, great Alberta naturalist and bear expert Charlie Russell wrote several compellingly transformative books—Spirit Bear, Grizzly Heart and Grizzly Seasonseach of them enriched with astonishing photographs of the bears of his pantheon. What Talking with Bears contributes to this body of work is additional insight into Russell’s observations about bears and his philosophy of the wild.

Author G.A. Bradshaw begins each of the 10 chapters with a paragraph-length meditation written as if from the point of view of an individual bear (e.g., the bear who rolled stones, the bear who liked to dive, etc.) before moving into her narration of important milestones in the lives of both Russell and that bear, interspersed generously with quotations from her interviews with him. For readers unfamiliar with Russell’s life’s work, this is a useful structure. For those of us who have read Grizzly Heart in particular, however, this creates a disconcerting feeling of déja vu, of having already read large parts of this narrative.

Structuring the chapters according to Russell’s relationships with particular bears is an intriguing choice, as it reinforces his argument that bears, like humans, are individuals with specific experiences and histories that shape their character. But this strategy does scramble the chronology of Charlie Russell’s own life as the narrative shuttles back and forth between his work in eastern Russia, his years as a rancher, his childhood and back to Russia. I wondered whether it might have been better simply to publish the interview transcripts with minimal one-page biographical headnotes to match those for each of the bears.

This should not deter a reader from buying this book, however. As Robert Kroetsch said, every book seems to find its appropriate writer, and Bradshaw’s expertise in ecology and psychology (she has doctorate degrees in both subjects) seems to have elicited more of Russell’s philosophical reflections about how humans could, if we surrendered our arrogant humanism, “fit in” much better with the wild by “paying attention” to and learning from the lifeways of beings wilder and more civil than us. Speaking about the joyful play of cubs, Russell comments on how they not only learn new skills but “become a deeper and deeper part of the world they were born in.” In other words, the process of becoming a bear (or, ideally, a human) is one of becoming deeply embedded in the land that supports our lives. Paying attention, being willing to change one’s outlook, and active immersion in the world are the foundations of Russell’s philosophy, and the interview passages are redolent with his insights, ethics and joy in becoming.

Unfortunately, Russell’s partner prior to and during their first seven field seasons in Kamchatka, Alberta artist Maureen Enns, is written out of the book aside from attributions to a few photo captions. In a book that seeks to dismantle Western humans’ prejudices about bears by showing that all creatures have an equivalent claim to their lives and by extension their stories, removing Enns from the story contradicts that message. The names of the family who saved Russell’s life when his ultra-light plane crashed on the Piikani Nation might also have been acknowledged rather than anonymized.

It is even more questionable that nowhere in the book is there a mention that Charlie Russell passed away in 2018! The conclusion is about Bradshaw’s personal interest in physics. This does a disservice to Russell’s generous spirit, and to the bears, though unlike Enns they do get credit, as they should, in the book’s dedication. Despite these lapses, I recommend the book as either an introduction to or an extension further into the thought of Charlie Russell, an Albertan whose life’s work is every bit as remarkable as that of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, researchers who also apprenticed themselves to other animals.

—Pamela Banting is an associate professor of English at the University of Calgary.

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