After seeing Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary Grizzly Man, about zealous environmentalist Timothy Treadwell and his eventual death in the jaws of the bears he became obsessed with, I could write a lot about it. I’m immersed in studying the history of our conceptions of wilderness, and how civilization has positioned itself with regard to nature, and this film is a vital meditation on the whole subject. I’ll try and just throw out some ideas that have come to me in its wake.

The film’s tagline, “nature has boundaries”, is a strong theme in a book I’m reading called Nature & Psyche by David W. Kidner. Kidner sees nature and culture as inextricably intertwined, and would probably add to this tagline the observation that “culture is alive”. There are distinctions to be made between the two, but it’s a destructive mistake to create a dualism out of them.

Treadwell’s fixation with trying to immerse himself in the bears’ world is plainly, as Herzog observes, a fear of civilization (not to mention a deathwish). It’s deluded and fated because he has absorbed the dualism of nature/culture so deeply that he can only run from one to the other, missing their interactions as well as their uniquenesses along the way. Treadwell romanticizes nature in ways that make rednecks and science-worshippers froth at the mouth, and intelligent environmentalists cringe; it’s all love, tear-filled rushes of sentiment and breathless wonder (until you get eaten). But then, Herzog stakes his claim at the opposite end. For him, nature is “chaos, hostility, and murder”. He’s plainly as bad an ecological thinker as Treadwell, with an equally one-dimensional view.

But then, the film is wonderfully pitched, with compassion, curiosity and admiration mixed seamlessly with hard criticism. Treadwell is painfully easy to ridicule, as a trawl through YouTube reveals. I’m fascinated by how Herzog, armed with such a blinkered view of nature on the one hand, can craft such a sophisticated portrait of such a flawed human on the other. Given his strong opposition to Treadwell’s take on the wild, his tolerance and compassionate vision are something to learn from.

The interview with Alutiiq Museum director Sven Haakanson revealed how the lack of connection to nature in our culture was the root of Treadwell’s fatal obsession with “becoming a bear”. This native Alaskan observes that, “Where I grew up, bears avoid us and we avoid them.” I don’t know the cultural specifics of Alutiiq culture; but it’s hard not to also think in this context of the widespread permeation of animal images and figures in the lore and rituals of traditional cultures—not to mention the frequent transitions between animal and human forms in shamanic visions and world mythology. In Animal Spirits, Piers Vitebsky notes:

In North American mythology the grizzly bear was believed to have once walked on two legs like a human and to have killed its prey with a club. Brown bears are uncannily like humans in their ability to stand and walk upright. Even on all fours, the bear walks like a human on the soles of its feet, instead of on its toes like a dog. To this day, the startling appearance of a standing grizzly evokes ancient beliefs of the close identity between man and bear. (p. 76)

No doubt such myths fed Treadwell’s obsession. But, unlike the native cultures, whose close engagement with both the exterior world of nature and the interior nature of the spirit feeds a sophisticated cultural understanding of connections and boundaries, Treadwell’s background in a literalist monotheistic-scientistic culture—and his unhinged stupidity—doomed him to a disrespectful, ultimately fatal transgression into the wild.

Is there a difference delineated here between animism and anthropomorphism? The former is the belief that nature is sentient and alive, and the latter is the attribution of human characteristics to non-humans. As our natural animistic tendencies have been gradually repressed, the first part of the concept to go was the idea that there is any kind of intelligence and awareness other than human intelligence and awareness. Thus denied a free play among nature, our animism came to be distorted and squeezed into simplistic anthropomorphism, popping out here and there in confused projections of humanness onto creatures that have their own intrinsic nature.

Treadwell couldn’t see that yes, bears are intelligent and aware, but they are not human-hearted. His culture failed to integrate animism, leaving this evolved response to the world to fester in the sentimentality of Disney. I don’t agree with Herzog’s cold view of the natural world, but Grizzly Man is a potent and necessary antidote to the excesses of anthropomorphism in our crass, polarized culture.