Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon

Michael Engelhard University of Washington Press (2016) 304 pages, 160 illustrations ($29.95)

ice-bear-coverReview by Casey Bush, Senior Editor, The Bear Deluxe Magazine

During the mid-70s I lived for a year in Northern Michigan, and that’s where I faced my first polar bear. Of course it was taxidermied and on display with many other animals in the Fred Bear Museum. Grayling was the home of Bear Archery which popularized compound bows.  Fred spent his life traveling the world, killing large animals with a bow and arrow, and bringing them back for display in his hometown. Since then, I’ve seen live specimens in zoos and just a few weeks ago Portland’s famed resident Tasul died of cancer, at 32 years old. Tasul was reportedly the third oldest polar bear in North America, as most rarely make it to 18 years in the wild.  One of her keepers is quoted on the Zoo’s website as saying “She’s contributed so much to her species.” Tasul had lived at the Oregon Zoo since 1986 along with her twin brother Conrad who died last summer. Taking care of large wild animals is challenging and the twin bears are credited with several husbandry breakthroughs as their keepers were able to teach them to cooperate in drawing blood, brushing teeth and accepting eye drops without anesthesia, greatly simplifying routine medical care. The Zoo’s website went on to say, “Tasul touched a lot of people’s hearts…Wild polar bears are in trouble, and their future depends on all of us working together to combat climate change.” Good luck to the ice bear.

It is in the setting of concern about global warming that Michael Engelhard has provided us with a wonderful book that uses a charismatic carnivore to help us explore the place of humans on this planet. Engelhard has no illusions about the natural world and makes it clear that polar bears are not cuddly and will eat anything, although they prefer seals which they kill by first crushing their skulls. While not very social, the ice bear will occasionally share a kill with others of their kind and have been seen to feed in large numbers on dead whales. They are also known to eat each other and their young.  Although uncommon,  polar bears have eaten a few humans, while on the other hand, Engelhard includes a chapter entitled “Taste of the Wild” which provides culinary reviews, both good and bad, of different cuts of the bear, and warns that the liver is toxic.

Beyond these brutal facts, Engelhard’s book concentrates on how humans perceive polar bears and how they have affected human cultures.  Like humans it is a plantigrade walker, placing its entire sole on the ground, so that its footprints resemble barefoot human tracks. Native peoples have feared and revered polar bears, mythologizing the bear and casting human qualities onto the animal, including the widespread belief that they are left-handed. Like wolves, polar bears are seen by native peoples as shapeshifters, at times turning into humans and at times mating with humans. Native people’s respect of the polar bear extends to the afterlife and includes feeding reindeer meat to the dead head of a bear and smearing blubber inside its mouth to please the bear’s spirit. Gifts are offered to dead bears so that when other bears hear of the good treatment they  might return to the hunter. In Greenland, polar bears populate the night sky, the Pleiades are a pack of dogs which have cornered a polar bear, while the belt of Orion is seen as three hunters pursuing a polar bear.

Engelhard chronicles modern culture’s fascination with polar bears including a chapter on the cult of Knut, born in 2006, who lived in the Berlin Zoo for only five years but experienced widespread fame. Polar bears have historically been featured in circus acts trained to perform tricks and presented in culturally insensitive exhibits with “Laplanders”, “Eskimos” and other denizens of the far north. Hollywood famously displayed platinum blonds on polar bear rugs while Coca Cola has used the white bear as a marketing tool since the 1920s. Engelhard draws his narrative from a wide range of sources including well known naturalists, obscure Nordic historians, newspapers and magazines, as well as a slew of writers from Herman Melville to Shel Silverstein.

Like Fred Bear, generations of hunters sought out polar bears as prized trophies until the 1970s when international law largely prohibited that practice. In 1961 Arthur Dubs, from Medford, Oregon, is credited with killing one of the largest polar bears, which stood to a height of eleven feet. It was all about bragging rights as Engelhard reports: “True or not, the narrative accompanying any trophy is appropriately heroic.  A Life magazine article described how Dubs spotted the bear while flying out of the Chukchi Sea village Kotzebue and “bagged it” just inside the Russian line between Big and Little Diomede Islands, “under the nose of Russian jet fighter patrols.”  Today, bagging bears has been replaced by a tourist industry intent upon getting close enough to photograph the animals but as Engelhard quotes Barry Lopez about his experience approaching a bear in Arctic Dreams, “Our presence was interference.”  Today, humans overwhelm the Earth and are driving many other species towards extinction, especially those meat eating mammals with which we most closely identify. Engelhard’s book is a fun read but makes us acutely aware that there are only 20,000 polar bears remaining on this Earth and unlike coyotes and crows the ice bear cannot adapt to urban areas and is dependent on a unique environment that is quickly melting.


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Toward One Oregon: Rural-Urban Interdependence and the Evolution of a State

Edited by: Michael Hibbard, Ethan Seltzer, Bruce Weber and Beth Emshoff; Oregon State University (2011) $22.95

Review by Casey Bush

The state of Oregon is bound by water and desert. The Cascade Mountains not only holds back the Pacific moisture but also provide the major political dividing line that is the subject of Toward One Oregon. This scholarly book was born out of a 2008 academic symposium of the same name, held in the Salem Convention Center and attended by participants from all the major Oregon universities.

Not unlike other western states, the story of Oregon is told through the evolving relationship between rural resource dependent communities and urban industrial and transportation centers.   In his chapter, PSU professor Carl Abbott sets the table by dividing Oregon’s history into three periods, which underlies the thesis of the book. He defines the first epoch beginning in 1870 as being dominated by Portland, which he describes as a “primate city” controlling the rest of the state through river and rail travel.   The second era extends from 1920 through the 1970s and is characterized by the decline of the primate’s power and replaced by the economic stability of a resource dependent commercial backbone that extended throughout the state. Abbott leads the reader up to the present following the decline of the timber industry and the rise of the information based technologies. Like many parts of the country, it is not just urban Democrats and rural Republicans, but more “us” and “them”,  a chasm whose growth is based on allegedly irreconcilable differences. The modern era is dominated by land management issues that were defined by Tom McCall’s landmark legislative accomplishment that created urban growth boundaries for all of the major cities. The struggle between livable urban landscapes with the cowboy ethos of land developers has been the defining issue of many Oregon ballot measures over the past 40 years.   Recognizing how we got here is the first step to planning a desirable future.   In an age of rapid globalization, the current economic opportunities for Oregon are not just based on information technologies, but continued thoughtful exploitation of natural resources based as well as properly marketing and preserving the recreational opportunities provided by a scenery burdened state.

Building on Abbott’s historical perspective, the other authors provide argument and evidence that the future of Oregon holds great promise as the “new economic geography” draws the urban and rural areas together based on common needs. The optimism expressed by Toward One Oregon is infectious although it doesn‘t provide a detailed roadmap as how to negotiate the ongoing clash of cultures and economies.  The final essay ends: “It is very exciting and promising to know that we can make our interdependence in Oregon the basis for stronger and more strategic relationships among our communities.  It is equally daunting to consider the thoughtfulness, commitment, and perseverance this will require.”  Good night dear reader and good luck.

Truth Like the Sun

By Jim Lynch; Knopf (2012) $25.95

Review by Dan Raphael

Jim Lynch book coverWhat makes a city a thriving environment is one of the central questions in Jim Lynch’s new novel, Truth Like the Sun.  Another is “What makes a person whole?”  In Lynch’s  previous novels the characters are reacting to the natural forces around them; in Truth, the characters act upon the environment for their own success in the name of urban pride.

Roger Morgan is the 30 year old PR wunderkind who runs the daily operations and serves as the public face of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. 1962 Seattle is a small city–with Boeing but without Microsoft—with traces of its frontier past and few tall buildings. The fair is Seattle’s coming out party, with great opportunities for developers, politicians & purveyors of illegal pleasures like poker and prostitutes.

Alternate chapters take place 40 years later, in a Seattle coming off the dot.com crash. Roger decides to rescue his city by running for mayor, wanting to, again, propel the city into a shining future. Read more »

Rain Dragon

By Jon Raymond; Bloomsbury (2012) $16

Review by Casey Bush

Rain dragon book coverAmy wants to get back to the land while Damon is willing to follow Amy to the ends of the Earth.  So they pack the car, abandon Los Angeles, move to Oregon and find employment on a yogurt farm. Amy becomes a bee keeper while Damon gets involved in marketing both falling under the spell of Rain Dragon owner, Peter Hawk, part Ken Kesey, part Zig Zigler, who aids the couple in their personal  and professional transformations.

Jon Raymond’s second novel is told from Damon’s detached point of view as though his world is passing by the lens of a camera. The story is divided into four unequal seasons and portrays a common modern quest, abandoning the city for the country. Rain Dragon depicts the dilemma of individuals trying to maintain their sense of identity while becoming a cog in the wheels of business and slowly morphs into a morality tale as agricultural products march to an inevitable market. The story turns upon Hawk’s interest in selling his management methods rather than yogurt. Raymond’s naturalist prose takes on an ironic sensibility as the Rain Dragon staff try their hand at increasing the productivity of a paper mill. Read more »