First of all, I have to apologize for the lack of promised pictures from our trip up to Truckee and Tahoe Saturday. It was just laziness on my part; though we had a great time, I just never thought to pull out the camera. You'll have to trust me when I tell you that it was a fantastic Fall day up in the Sierra. I'm also happy to report that Melissa's mother and I actually share very similar tastes when it comes to certain things. For example, we both seem inordinately fond of rustic furniture, wildlife art and other mountain-living decor, much to Melissa's horror. If only mother and daughter had more in common taste-wise.
Speaking of wildlife, Sunday afternoon Melissa and her Mother went shopping, and I decided to go see a movie I've been meaning to get around to for some time now: Grizzly Man
, the brilliant German director Werner Herzog's latest non-fiction effort. It's a documentary focusing on the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a self-appointed guardian of Alaska's grizzly bears, or at least those individual bears who live in a particular portion of Katmai National Park. The location strikes both me and apparently Herzog as odd since bears in a National Park should be pretty well protected already. Treadwell--not his given name but a name he gave to himself while concocting a new personality, which at one point came complete with fake Australian nationality and a laughably bad accent--spent thirteen summers in the portion of Katmai in and around the area he called the
"Grizzly Maze" on a section of a never-named river who's annual salmon runs attract large numbers of massive omnivorous ursines. In the fall of 2003, at the end of his thirteenth season in the bush, tragedy struck when a bear killed both Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, a woman who had spent the last two or three summers with him at his remote campsite.
Let me first say that I did not find this to be a great movie, at least in terms of entertainment, but this is mostly due to my own personal reaction to Treadwell. At the heart of this film there is definitely a fascinating and tragic story of a complex, perhaps mentally unbalanced individual who found meaning in an all-consuming crusade (one that was certainly controversial and perhaps wasn't really even necessary in Alaska, where brown bear populations are apparently quite healthy), but frankly the film gives far, far too much time over to it's quirky, narcissistic protagonist's rambling, disjointed, self-aggrandizing video monologues.
Treadwell must have made hundreds of hours of these recordings during his summers in the bush, and while he clearly felt he was doing monumentally important work and he strongly believed in his cause, it was also clear that he was greatly amusing himself much of the time, and at other times battling his own personal demons with stream-of-consciousness tirades. These babbling rants quickly grew tiresome to me. Some examples: Treadwell lectures the camera on the proper way to behave in the presence of grizzly bears, even though as far as I could tell he had no formal education or training in the subject; he weepily professes his eternal love for a dead fox cub in a scene that was so hyper-emotional that I found it unintentionally funny; He screams invectives and curses wildly into the camera to berate his perceived human enemies, which in his mind included everyone from poachers to the National Park Service; He muses at length as to why he has a hard time maintaining relationships with human females, and how much easier his life would be if he were gay; He stews in his tent, angrily demanding that God send rain to facilitate salmon runs because his bears, whom he calls by cute anthropomorphic names, are starving. At some point all the navel-gazing and the over-the-top professions of love for his animal-subjects just became too much for me. Of course the footage of the bears and other Alaskan wildlife was compelling and the wild scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, but at about an hour into the movie I sort of started to wonder whether this guy really merited a feature-length film about his final days. I really mean no disrespect to Treadwell, Huguenard, or their cause (one which I agree with in principal, if you care to know), but in watching the film I did not find Timothy Treadwell to be someone that I would be particularly interested to get to know.
That does not mean, however, that the film does not raise certain interesting questions. The more I learned about this guy, the more I started to wonder if perhaps I hadn't heard this story before. Then it hit me; there were some real distinct similarities between Trea
dwell's story and that of Christopher McCandless, AKA Alexander Supertramp, the young man who's story was the subject of Jon Krakauer's 1992 book Into The Wild
. Krakauer is better known for writing about a doomed expedition to climb Mount Everest in his later book Into Thin Air
, but it was the earlier book that so caught my attention in the summer of 1999, when I spent the season between my second and third years of Law School working for the state criminal division in the bush community of Bethel, Alaska. The trip that summer brought on in me a mild obsession with all things Alaskan, and I eagerly snapped up ever bit of information I could on the subject, including Krakauer's fascinating book.
Like Treadwell, McCandless was a young man with a fairly normal upbringing that did not hint at the strange fate that would befall him. Like Treadwell he could be arrogant and off-putting at times, and his reckless choices and lifestyle seemed to vex and even anger some people out of all proportion (I found Treadwell annoying, but the film makes it clear that more than a few people who didn't seem to know him personally nevertheless actively hated his guts). Despite this, both men seemed to have had a way of charming many of those in their immediate sphere.
The similarities run even deeper. Both Treadwell and McCandless seem to have held the modern world in contempt, and each turned his life into personal, one-man battle against what they saw as the corrupting, destructive forces of civilization. Each changed his name and made a show of renouncing material possessions and rewards, taking on completely self-created new identities, actions I can only interpret as some sort of attempted purification. Both ultimately found the pull of the Alaskan wilderness irresistible, and both found that wilderness to be an edenic refuge from the modern world which they were so uncomfortable with. And both were ultimately killed by that beautiful but utterly indifferent wilderness; Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by one of his beloved bears, and McCandless apparently died after eating a poisonous seed pod.
There were, of course, important differences between the two. Treadwell made his battle much more public than McCandless: around 1990 he apparently anointed himself the protector of the bears and began spending every summer observing, recording, and living among them full time and completely (well, almost completely) without human contact. But in his off-season he established a still-active organization called Grizzly People
, spoke to schoolchildren about bears free of charge, and even appeared on the David Letterman show--a clip from his appearance is in the movie, and in it Dave, in a creepily prophetic moment, asks Treadwell if we will one day hear that he has been killed by one of his bears.
McCandless, on the other hand, sought no publicity and had no over-arching cause other than his personal quest to renounce the advantages of his upbringing and find a blank spot on the map to disappear into. In the summer of 1992, while hitchhiking his way from Fairbanks south toward Denali, he simply asked a driver who was giving him a ride to stop the vehicle, and he walked off into the woods by the side of the road carrying only a rifle and the most meager of supplies. He lived in the bush for four months, hunting for his food and living in an abandoned school bus that he simply happened to stumble upon. From what I can recall (it's been six years since I read the book) he did not suffer from Treadwell's overly romantic view of nature as a place of tranquility and order--I definitely recall that he killed and ate a number of animals, something I doubt Treadwell would ever have done. But despite their differences, the similarities in their stories remain intriguing to me.
Is there simply a type of individual who finds himself or herself so unable to accept the artificial world of modern society that he or she is inevitably pulled toward the wild corners of the world? I think that while most of us would never take things to the extreme and perhaps absurd ends that Treadwell and McCandless did, I would be willing to bet that most of us have at least some understanding of where the urges that drove them come from. Deep within most of us there exists an understanding that we have built, for our convenience and comfort, a thin surface-world of brick and mortar and asphalt that exists on top of the natural world that actually sustains us. The reasons we have done this make perfect sense; the natural world, while nurturing, is also cold and brutal and completely indifferent to us. We have used our over-sized brains to built a civilization that has, for the most part, allowed us to stop worrying so much about finding food and sheltering ourselves from the elements and avoiding predators. These are all, most people would agree, good things.
But inescapably, I think we also know in some dark, subconscious place that the natural world was our first and, in a sense, our truest home. While we have gained immeasurably from the establishment of human civilization in that we no longer need concern ourselves with survival on a day-to-day basis, we have also lost something a little less tangible but no less real. While the modern world of lengthy communtes and desk jobs does feed our bodies, it often fails miserably to fill our spirits. There is a certain emptiness to our modern lives, lives in which all of our physical needs are met but in which our most basic human needs (community, a sense of purpose, an understanding of our role in the universe) usually go tragically unmet. All manner of people attempt to fill that emptiness with all manner of things, from religious fanaticism to unapologetic hedonism. In my mind, many of the destructive behaviors that people engage in come from a simple yearing for meaning. And for some, the answer to the search for meaning spurred by the spiritual emptiness of the modern world is a complete and total renunciation of that modern world. I wonder, did Treadwell and McCandless simply feel the ache from this void more acutely than the rest of us?
Most people find a way to make peace with that spiritual void one way or another. We look for meaning wherever we can within the safe confines of the world that presents itself to us, and otherwise simply learn to distract ourselves. But I think there are a few individuals, like McCandless and Treadwell, for whom such a compromise will never be satisfactory. For better or worse (usually worse), they just cannot live in a world that doesn't give them the meaningful life they require. So they recreate themselves, and attempt to recreate their relationship to the world.
Perhaps I'm reading far too much into these stories. Even I myself am not entirely sure that I buy the idea that Treadwell was some kind of modern-day shaman. Just watch the scene in the film where he becomes practically orgasmic over discovering poop from one of his bears; no man who can get that excited about bear shit can be said to be playing with an entirely full deck. Maybe the guy was just plain nuts. But the way I see it, guys like McCandless and Treadwell are, at heart, simply people who won't compromise, won't live in a world that they find unacceptable. Maybe they are crazy. Or maybe those of us living in our condos and trudging to work every day have just allowed a certain part of ourselves to die quietly of in exchange for the security of modern society.