Grizzly Man
Werner Herzog, 2005

Timothy Treadwell spent thirteen summers in the Alaskan wilderness camping out among grizzly bears, without weapons — no rifles, not even pepper spray. For the last five of those years, he brought a video camera along and shot about 100 hours of video of himself among the bears, narrating as if he were the host of a show on the Discovery Channel. In the winters he went to elementary schools, where he gave talks and showed these movies to schoolchildren for free. Treadwell thought that in this way he was "protecting" the bears. He also thought that he had been accepted by and indeed had befriended the bears, that they respected him for standing his ground when they approached, and knew that he cared about them when he called "I love you! I love you! I love you! I love you!" at them.

In 2003 he and his girlfriend were eaten by a bear.

Every year some of the Internet's most reknowned movie geeks hold an invitation-only survey of the year's best films, called the Skandies. Of the Oscar finalists, only Munich (#14) and Brokeback Mountain (#3) even placed in the top twenty. #1 was Grizzly Man.

I can see why. These people, as noted, are movie geeks, and Grizzly Man is packed with the sorts of moments that I have heard called "pure cinema." Werner Herzog notes that this is what drew him to this project: it's not that he had any inherent interest in bears, but rather that Treadwell had amazing footage. We see the expected spectacular scenery and amazing shots of bears fighting and hunting, but also moments that no screenwriter would have invented, such as the scene in which Treadwell, filming inside his tent, starts poking at the pawprints that have appeared on the ceiling, and then goes outside to find that a little fox has jumped on top of the tent. At another point, a fox whom Treadwell has named "Ghost" steals Treadwell's hat and we are treated to a POV shot of Treadwell chasing the fox through the forest shrieking, "Oh, goddammit! Oh, I can't be-lieve this! Gho-o-ost! Ghost, where's that fucking hat? If it's in a den I'm gonna fuckin' explode! It's not okay for you to steal it! Ohh, man! Ohhh, man!"

We see many a scene of Treadwell freaking out on camera in various ways: in one scene he's addressing the camera talking about a bear he has dubbed "The Grinch" — Treadwell gives all the bears cutesy-pie names, like "Aunt Melissa" and "Mister Chocolate" — and meanwhile the bear is menacingly creeping up on him from behind, forcing him to eventually turn around and punch the bear in the snout to avoid being mauled. Then he mewls, "I love you! I love you! I love you! I love you! I'm sorry!" at the retreating bear. On the flip side, toward the end of the movie Herzog includes a scene of Treadwell flipping off the camera and screaming, "Fuck you, Park Service! Fuck you! Fuck you!" for several minutes straight. Aside from the pure spectacle of it all, this is another reason that so many film buffs love Grizzly Man: it's a thorough character study of a man who actually stands out among the legions of characters encountered by someone who sees 350 movies a year. A curious mixture of Crispin Glover, Mowgli from The Jungle Book, Ivan Cockrum, and Richard Simmons, Treadwell is too unconventional to be imaginary.

Timothy Treadwell was the sort of environmentalist often called a "tree-hugger." In his case he wasn't hugging trees, but in Grizzly Man he does actually pet the bears a couple of times, and while his claim to have befriended the bears is dubious, there is a fox in the movie who acts like his loyal pet dog, happily accepting extended head-skritching and trotting after Treadwell as he roams the wilderness.

People wrote hate mail rejoicing in Treadwell's death, and Herzog had a fellow read some of it for the camera. One letter argued that a gruesome death is what "whacko environmentalists" deserve for thinking spotted owls are important, and went on to fantasize about murdering everyone on the Berkeley campus. A lot of the comments about Grizzly Man that I've read online echo this sort of thinking. (It seems to be a popular rental at the frathouses.) These anti-environmentalists follow the Western ethos that says that the earth exists for Man's pleasure and that all its resources, including all animals, are to be mined, logged, skinned, eaten, and/or paved as appropriate. When nature offers any resistance, it is to be conquered. If you object, you are a traitor to your species. I remember that when I was in high school I once read a remarkable exchange of letters to the editor: one protesting water pollution and trawl fishing for endangering sea turtles and other marine life, followed by another letter accusing the first writer of caring about turtles more than people and going on to argue that the real endangered species was the American fetus. Grizzly Man offers another example of this sort of thinking: one of the letters read on camera in fulminates against Treadwell for "furthering the anti-human eco-religion." And the only thing more infuriating than this sort of talk is the way Treadwell validates it by gleefully taking exactly this caricatured position!

He's not the only one. I remember that in college I agreed to drive someone back to the Bay Area after break was over, and on the way north we got into an argument in which she maintained that if only all the humans were to die off, all the trees and animals would live in peace and harmony forever after. Treadwell agreed with her, if his yelps that "Animals rule! Animals rule!" are anything to go by, or his letters asserting that bears are "perfect animals." He is dumbfounded when he finds evidence that his worldview is wrong: a discarded bear paw (male bears kill cubs to get females to stop lactating and go back into estrus), say, or the front half of a fox pup (bears get hungry). As Herzog points out, nature is a place of chaos, hostility, and murder. To the extent that these are also hallmarks of the human world, this is because humans are just another outgrowth of the laws of nature working themselves out.

As the US was about to attack Iraq a few years ago, many people opposed the invasion, only to be accused by right-wingers of supporting Saddam Hussein. This is a ridiculous non-sequitur, of course — you would have been hard-pressed to find a war protester who would argue on Saddam's behalf. But Timothy Treadwell is the ecological equivalent of someone screaming, "Yes! Saddam rules! I love you, Saddam! I love you! I love you!" Earth-pavers and tree-huggers agree that humankind should grapple with nature; Treadwell was just on the animals' side. In the movie, he flips out when he spots a group of tourists throwing rocks at a bear that has wandered over to where they have come ashore, but Treadwell himself has invaded the bears' habitat to a much greater extent than the tourists have.

Many in the film and even more outside commentators have pointed out that one of the reasons the bear approached the tourists is that Treadwell had taught the bear that humans were safe to approach. I'm with the Alutiiq museum director who says that Treadwell "tried to act like a bear, and for us on the island, you don't do that. You don't invade on their territory. [...] Where I grew up, the bears avoid us, and we avoid them. [...] Timothy Treadwell crossed a boundary that we have lived with for seven thousand years." Yes. Don't hunt bears; don't hug bears. Leave the bears the fuck alone.

Timothy Treadwell should not have been in Alaska. No human should live in Alaska. The reason why not is evident in Treadwell's footage and even more so in Herzog's. As the pilot who ferried Treadwell to and from his campsite leads Herzog to the spot where Treadwell died, he and the film crew are swarmed — absolutely engulfed — by thick clouds of mosquitoes or blackflies or some such thing. Horrifying, enormous insects in staggering numbers. The implication is clear: Alaska is mosquito habitat, and blackfly habitat, and bear habitat, and fox habitat. But it is not human habitat.

When I lived east of the Rockies from 1995-1997 and 2001-2005, I could often be heard to mutter while trudging through blizzards or suffering through humid days with gnats flying into my ears that the eastern two-thirds of North America was not fit for human habitation — and while this was mostly just bitching, there was a serious component to it as well. I actually don't think that eastern North America qualifies as a good habitat for our species.
I mean, sure, you can live there if you're willing to bundle up like an astronaut for half the year and swelter through the other half... but why? Why intrude on animals who can live comfortably there, when there are other parts of the world — California, the Mediterranean, a handful of other spots — that are ideally suited for us? The obvious answer is overpopulation — the best places fill up, and the excess population has to find some suboptimal place to go. The damage this wreaks both on other animals' habitat and on our own quality of life is reason #11,725 why overpopulation is bad.

The tagline on the Grizzly Man poster is "In nature, there are boundaries." I think we should stay within those boundaries, even as both the cult of Yahweh and the cult of Gaia urge us to cross them. The former declares that Man has dominion over the earth and that we must go forth and multiply and impose our will upon the planet; if we think of the earth as a neighborhood, this philosophy would have you drive your neighbors out of their homes, burn half their houses down and move your family into the rest. The latter, by contrast, would have you make like Timothy Treadwell, abandon your home, and go live in your neighbor's backyard in order not to be disharmonic with nature. But my favorite deity is Athena, goddess of the civilization Treadwell rejected — "the presiding divinity of states and cities, of the arts and industries," the Encyclopedia Brittanica called her. To put it more ecologically, she's the goddess of human habitat. And it seems to me that the path of Athena would be to stay home and make your home a paradise, with magnificent architecture and art and music and literature and fine cuisine (she is no nature goddess, after all, but she is associated with the cultivated olive). And, yes, interact with the neighbors occasionally. Wave over the fence, drop by for lunch. But don't move in.

Last month I went with Bridget to the Muir Woods, 554 acres of coast redwoods in Marin County that are the last surviving patch of old-growth forest in the Bay Area. Had it not been for the legal legerdemain of a couple of far-sighted environmentalists ninety-nine years ago, the Muir Woods would long ago have been logged like the rest of the coast redwoods, or drowned by a damming project. I'm grateful that these redwoods still exist and that I can visit them, just as I'm grateful that there are still grizzly bears in Alaska and that I can see video of them — and of foxes! the foxes are adorable! Before we went, we visited my college roommate Bret, and he warned us that the Muir Woods National Monument was really old-fashioned: you can't camp out, for instance, and the trails, which are wide and unchallenging and in some cases even paved, are full of informational plaques and things. Perfect! I love trees, but I love informational plaques even more. And I don't want to camp out. The Muir Woods are not human habitat and so staying overnight would seem to me like an invasion. I am perfectly content to experience nature during visiting hours.

Return to the Calendar page!