Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear
By Bryce Andrews
The gradual 21st-century shifts in US grizzly bear population, the increase in overall numbers and the movement of those bears into human-dominated spaces and farmland, was the subject of Cat Urbigkit’s very good recent book Return of the Grizzly. Urbigkit dealt mostly with the complications arising from the return of grizzlies to Yellowstone National Park, and conservationist Bryce Andrews takes a similar approach in his new book Down from the Mountain, by using a very small focus, one bear named Millie and her cubs in Montana’s Mission Valley.
The categories of problems are the same, of course: bears are increasingly wandering down from the mountains where they retreated when they were hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th century. They’re encountering farmers, ranchers, tourists, and livestock, with all the predictable results. By dramatizing, and to a limited and entirely acceptable extent anthropomorphizing one individual bear, Andrews infuses the whole subject with the genuine pathos that is the first cousin to truth. Readers come to know Millie, at least as much as 500-pound Pleistocene killing machine can be known by naked bipeds it doesn’t hesitate to maul into unrecognizable heaps of tripe.
The chief merit of the book is its gorgeous prose. Andrews has spent years working on ranches in the American West; he has a large amount of personal experience with the wildlife, and he brings readers into their world in passage after passage of memorable prose, as when he imagines the fateful process by which a grizzly bear realizes that fields of corn are not just obstacles to be navigated but rather ready-made banquets:
Corn closed around on all sides, stillness descended, and broad leaves hissed across her shoulders. Ripe ears tapped her muzzle. With the fantastic acuity of a bear’s nose, she smelled a faint sweetness all around. Instead of shambling ahead toward the half-wild, overgrown orchards along Post Creek, she stopped. Stretching out a forepaw, the sow snapped off a cornstalk at the base. Sitting back on her haunches, laboring delicately with paws strong enough to break the spine of an elk, she brought an ear to her mouth and chewed.
She tasted pulped kernels, husk, and silk. White-gold liquid dripped from her lips. With three inch-long claws working as precisely as forceps, she husked another ear. The corn was as endless as her hunger, and under the pale moon, she gorged to the cusp of bursting. When she could hold no more, she rested. The field seemed a good, safe place at night. Though she retreated to the mountains before daylight, she returned again at dusk.
Other bears follow, naturally, and this brings them into serious and sustained conflict with farmers, some of whom can lose thousands of dollars of crops in just a handful of ursine gorging sessions. Those farmers and all the other humans in Millie’s world are portrayed with equally sharp sympathy, and Millie’s own fate is vividly heartbreaking; the book firmly resists cheap sympathy-mongering for either ‘side’ of this issue.
The issue itself has no easy resolutions, mainly because it has inevitable outcomes. Farmers and ranchers aren’t going to tolerate a resurgent grizzly population. So there will be more books like Down from the Mountain, as more bears like Millie hit the immovable object of the American farming industry. Bryce Andrews has written a book that somehow, even against those odds, manages to shine with a slender but tough light of optimism. Readers will appreciate that even if they end up not quite believing it.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Washington Post, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.