Yesterday I watched brown bears hanging out in an English wood, doing the sorts of things bears like to do. One was using a tree trunk as a pillow. Another got in a large pond and messed about for some time. There was tree climbing, leaf eating, and sauntering about. At times, they were a matter of yards from me.
We haven’t had wild bears in the UK for more than a thousand years, and when people talk about re-wilding, they don’t tend to mention bears. We know bears in the Americas do all kinds of exciting things for trees –particularly because they feed salmon remains to them. We don’t know what UK bears did for trees and what we are missing, but maybe this project will help us find out.
The project in question is Bear Wood at The Wild Place near Bristol. The website – https://www.wildplace.org.uk/ much like the place itself is set up as a family attraction and there’s not much information I could easily find about what’s going on beneath the surface. I gleaned some details from boards at the site.
I have very mixed feelings about all this. For me, encountering bears in this way, was a powerful and moving experience. For some of the other people there, it was clearly the same, and the excitement of spotting creatures – bears, wolverine, lynx and wolves – in a woodland environment clearly had a high impact on some of the visitors. Seeing wolves appear and disappear amongst the undergrowth is a wonderful thing. As a setup, these larger spaces with humans at the margins and animals not so immediately available may help to de-comodify the creatures and return a sense of wonder to the people looking for them.
But at the same time, the play areas and activities here and at other wildlife attractions will encourage some people to see nature as toys for their amusement and creatures as amusements for their benefit. For many of the visitors, it was a place to run round and shout, with no care or respect and no parental guidance. There were plenty of parents who were noisy and who I found deeply annoying in their attitude. I go through this every time I visit the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site in Slimbridge as well. People who have no experience of nature are unlikely to cherish it, but people whose experience is of amusement and commodity probably won’t do much cherishing either, and I don’t know how you turn careless visitors into people who are awake to the wonder of what they’re seeing.
Exposing children to ‘nature’ does not automatically make them nature lovers. Not if they see it as stuff to break and trample on, throw things at, litter, damage and exploit. Without guidance, outside is just often just one big resource to use and wild things are just toys.
I’ve come away from this with a deep longing for bears. I had no real sense, until now, of what the absence of bears in woodland really looks like. Having seen bears, I will see where the bears are not in a way that is probably going to haunt me. I’m fine with that.