When you go backpacking in Glacier National Park, in Montana, it’s very hard to forget you’re in grizzly country. The humped silhouette of Ursus arctos is on signs everywhere. There are strict regulations for storing food. There’s a safety video that at least one person in your hiking group is required to watch, in which the narrator warns that brown bears are not the ‘fun-loving creatures’ they are sometimes mistaken for, lest you be imagining Yogi Bear in his rumpled porkpie hat, gleefully making off with your pic-a-nic basket.

Grizzlies are scarier than black bears, the smaller and more hesitant species I saw a couple times as a child in Maine. My friends and I knew this as we crowded into a secluded corner of the West Glacier Visitor Center to watch that video. We’d hiked in grizzly country before, in Yellowstone. But it was bracing to be reminded, in didactic voiceover, that the yelling and banging of pots that will reliably dissuade a black bear is less likely to put a grizzly off, and that playing dead during an encounter with a hungry grizzly can simply be a cue for him to start digging in before his meal gets cold. That a grizzly will on rare occasions stalk a human, and that if you climb up a tree, he might just follow. And, most startling of all, that you may find yourself in a situation where your best remaining option is to pick up the biggest piece of wood you can find and defend yourself with utmost ferocity – the only case I know of in which the U.S. Park Service recommends clubbing wildlife.

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Bear warning at Yellowstone National Park. Photograph © Daniel Kurtz-Phelan.

What kind of hell-blur would grappling with a grizzly be? I conjure a scene heavy with the bear’s low snuffling and the concussive impact of its paw-blows, the horror of being shredded up in its claws and teeth, and what must be an overpowering smell: an unholy blend of ursine musk and my spilling insides, laced with unfamiliar tangs wafting up from deep within. It seems a very appropriate smell for violent death. I wonder, with a shudder, which part of the attack would hurt the most.

Admittedly, this scene is much easier for me to imagine now than it was last summer. Not because I went through anything like it in Glacier, but because I’ve seen The Revenant. Early on in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s film, the frontiersman played by Leonardo DiCaprio has a run-in with an enraged sow grizzly. Their fateful battle is both excruciating and hugely exciting – DiCaprio has described the scene as a memorable one for audiences because it is ‘unlike anything that they’ve seen in cinema ever, really.’ I don’t think he’s overstating things.

The moral framing of the scene is interesting. Sure, we’re rooting for Hugh Glass (DiCaprio’s savvy scout) to make it out alive. But the bear is not the villain. What it represents first and foremost is what can happen if one stumbles upon a mama grizzly and her cubs. Iñárritu even invites us, I think, to conclude that the bear is right to defend its territory from a band of white trappers and (especially) the people who sent them. But it refrains from positioning the bear in stark symbolic terms. The animal is, simply, a fact of nature: one of enormous bulk and sharp claws, and a maw that whips gooey saliva across Glass’s face as he desperately attempts to play dead. Here, too, Iñárritu – who refuses to call The Revenant a Western – is breaking with established Hollywood precedent. Rarely have the outdoorsmen of America’s pioneer mythology taken a position of outright prostration in the face of mortal danger. (It’s certainly hard to imagine any John Wayne character doing so.) But the moment is of a piece with the film’s hard-bitten reverence for the natural world.

The bear lingers throughout the film, almost as a protective spiritual presence. After his near-fatal encounter, Glass’s comrades drape him in the dead grizzly’s skin; the shaggy coat becomes a mantle as Glass fights his way out of the frozen wilds of South Dakota and Montana, and proves indispensible to his survival. Glass also carries a talisman made from the bear’s claws, which he later gifts to a lone Pawnee who’s been kind enough to share some fresh buffalo meat. The survivalist economy that Glass practices is presented as markedly different from that of the fur traders around him, and has an appealing purity, especially for anyone who has ever felt a little lame buying camping gear online. These deceptively simple transactions, their necessity and feeling embedded within them, could hardly be farther from today’s normalized ‘one-click’ shopping.

Unlike us in the audience, Glass is intimately connected to his possessions – especially those made from animals, creatures he has known both in full roar and in death.

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DiCaprio’s character in The Revenant wears the hide of the bear that mauled him. Photograph © Twentieth Century Fox

All the more reason, I think, to see in the film a very of-the-moment hankering to reframe our relationship with the natural world – a relationship still very much bound up with ideas of domination and progress that achieved full realization in the nineteenth century, possibly the last one in which big wildlife inspired a relevant amount of fear in economically ‘advanced’ societies.

If we have truly graduated from the Halocene to the Anthropocene, as many natural scientists are now saying, it makes sense in this new era of storytelling that the primary antagonist in any wilderness tale should be human rather than animal. And so in The Revenant we have Fitzgerald, a Texan opportunist played with ox-like physicality by Tom Hardy. Fitzgerald is a capable frontiersman but a grumbling one, and is only out in the woods so that he can one day buy himself a nice little piece of property. Not so long ago, moviegoers would not have blamed him; they might even have considered that basic desire a hero’s trait. But our sense of human culpability has evolved. In the post-Darwinian moral ecosystem of The Revenant, Fitzgerald’s gain-oriented worldview clears the way for a cascade of trespasses. The film’s updated folk tale positions Glass as a Pawnee-speaking avenger of those sins, and the ending has the air of a minor (and hardly triumphant) step towards cosmic righting.

 

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Large animals, or megafauna, are a rarity in nature, and are becoming ever rarer because of humans. Crowding, pollution, and so on – the major disturbances are ones that the most stringent hunting limitations will never rectify. And while the symbolic value of ‘charismatic megafauna’ has certainly helped environmentalists achieve some goals, it often seems the only truly viable conservation measure would be hitting the pause button on the entire human enterprise. Barring this, an important reference point for how we view the world will keep fading out, with the likely outcome that our own species eventually takes near-exclusive ownership of the predator and monster mantles. Not so long ago, there was Moby Dick. The only leviathan now is humanity.

And yet I think we regret the enormous corpses more than we admit. Writer Robert Pogue Harrison has referred to the phenomenon of ‘species guilt.’ His analysis has focused more on those reduced creatures used as fodder for industrialized food production, but Harrison includes the entire animal kingdom in his purview, ‘from the dancing bears of Anatolia to the bald eagles of Alaska, with their collar monitors.’

Speaking for myself, I know that I have never felt it more keenly than I did, about a decade ago, while visiting an utterly decrepit zoo in Jodhpur, India. With its flea-bitten felines and monkeys, the place seemed like some perverted coda to The Jungle Book. What I remember most is the utter lassitude of those exotic animals behind bars. Their lack of vibrancy, of aliveness, was not a defensive retreat from a pushy crowd of onlookers – for there was no crowd. Looking back, it’s less moral outrage than a head-shaking sense that the people behind this neglected amusement, and others like it, have made a great mistake. It’s not simply about mistreating animals. It’s about losing the very definition of what they are.

‘From a quantitative point of view our species guilt is more aggravated today than it ever was in the past,’ Harrison observes. Qualitatively, it would be hard to say. But it does seem as though some consciousness of our sins against megafauna – and, beyond that, a real inclination to reverse their effects – is starting to write itself onto the physical landscape.

Last July, I spent four days in the depopulated countryside near the Portuguese-Spanish border, where ‘rewilding’ efforts have encouraged the return of several species, including the Iberian wolf. That alpha predator’s comeback is a hotly contested topic, to be sure. Given that some rural Spaniards still take the presence of wolves on their sheep-grazed hills as an invitation to kill them, perhaps it bodes well for the animals’ survival that I didn’t manage to see one. Still, the conversation seems to have changed, in parts of the West at least, and especially when bound up with the issue of rural land abandonment. Conservationists now counter fears of wolves and bears by citing their centrality to a balanced ecosystem. Reintroduction of dangerous animals, as has happened with wolves in Yellowstone and is being proposed in countries across Europe, is a more proactive measure than old-fashioned preservation. On the one hand, here we are again, playing gods. On the other, rewilding might represent the difference between actual atonement and mere regret.

Such dynamics play out with more enticing legibility on screen than they do on the ground. Today’s eco-documentaries (a handful of them co-produced by DiCaprio, incidentally) attach themselves unabashedly to environmental causes. But when it comes down to it, I think we crave punishment more than information. Luckily, this is something the movie industry offers up in gory abundance. Among plentiful examples, the neatest single encapsulation I can think of is a scene in Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant 2006 monster flick The Host, in which a vengeful reptile emerges from Seoul’s Han River after a group of camera-toting, hamburger-eating dolts start throwing garbage at it.

The Revenant partakes in this expiation process, too, albeit without recourse to comic self-awareness. That it also contains a whopper of a man-versus-beast scene should come as no surprise: films that redefine how big, ferocious animals come to life on screen often serve (or aspire to serve) as fables that reveal the cultural anxieties of their moment. I have in mind blockbusters like Jaws and Jurassic Park – and, before that, Godzilla and the ‘Dynamation’ action movies (Clash of the Titans, One Million Years B.C.) of Ray Harryhausen. The Harryhausen extravaganzas, set in the ancient or mythic past, strike me as an exception to a general rule: that the most culturally significant creature-features tend to be set in ages of mass culture in which the beast threatens not some lonely tribe or individual but whole panicked crowds of us in New York or Tokyo. Destruction in these movies happens on a scale appropriate to the volume of justice that must be served. And, again, much of the pleasure we take in watching a juiced-up apex predator exterminate humans by the dozen is a creeping modern sense that we deserve it.

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Godzilla faces off against the ‘Smog Monster’ in 1971. Photograph © Toho Studios

The desire for this type of reckoning first arose, it would seem, in response to fears surrounding atomic weaponry. The year 1953, less than a decade after the cataclysmic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saw the release of the first of the dinosaur-retaliation genre: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, in which nuclear testing thaws the giant antagonist out of deep Arctic slumber. Godzilla struck one year later. American audiences gravitated towards these narrative spectacles with surprising enthusiasm (Their popularity, meanwhile, does not seem to have hampered hydrogen-bomb testing at Bikini Atoll). Both films share an interesting plot point: the monster is awoken, not created, by man’s destructive tinkering.

That formulation seems a bit passé now, but a version of it lives on in the trope of cloning. The Jurassic Park series shows how hubristic overreach, combined with the insipid demands of an entertainment culture, leads to man-eating velociraptors on the loose. It also contains a critique of our own attraction to Hollywood monsters, an ambivalence that goes back at least as far as the original King Kong, in which an adventuring film crew sets the whole disaster in motion. It goes without saying that these doubts – like species guilt as a whole, perhaps – register like peeps of protest amid the general roar. Universal Studios isn’t exactly dismantling its thrill rides, and in this I find a disheartening possibility: that our anxieties in this area, are ultimately less influential than the various systems of behavior that give rise to them, a reality on which the entertainment business (and other ‘advanced’ industries, such as food and tourism) is only too happy to capitalize.

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A reminder of the risks of genetic engineering on Jurrasic Park: The Ride at Universal Studios. Photograph © Mickey Views

Our imagined monsters, especially those inspired by reliably freaky reptiles, are not going anywhere. But it does seem as though the plight of actual megafauna has changed the way we think of them. Which non-fictional animals does the average moviegoer truly have to fear anymore? The symbolic softening of once-feared vertebrates has occurred almost across the board – killer whales embody the injustice of captivity, for Hollywood and independent filmmakers alike. Cecil the Lion is a real-life Aslan, the benign king whose martyrdom so upset me when I first encountered The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe some twenty-five years ago. Even sharks are – necessarily, I think – candidates for conservation.

But few if any large, dangerous animals have undergone the sweeping transformation we have applied to polar bears. They are, among other things, the poster children for climate change. As fanciful as this elevation (or, if you like, lowering) of the polar bear might seem, there’s plenty of science behind it. In 1970, the biologist David Ehrenfeld looked at a series of species traits – including gestation period, reproduction rate, and tolerance of human interlopers – with the aim of defining which hypothetical creature would be least likely to survive into the near future. His conclusion? ‘Although there probably is no such animal, this model, with one or two exceptions, comes very close to being a description of a polar bear.’

And so the biggest bear species on earth is now identified, more than ever, as an object of human concern. Without some sense of species guilt, this would not be the case – possibly because there would be no more polar bears. By the same token, to be sympathetic is not necessarily to be saved. A 2014 New Yorker article suggested that Coca-Cola, which has featured anthropomorphized polar bears in animated ads since 1993, is effectively profiting from the lovability of a waning species. Whether a beverage company can be pressured into altering its messaging, or spending additional millions on saving endangered wildlife, is not the point. It is that in the melting natural worlds of our imagination, polar bears have shrunk. This cultural downsizing, rather than the dwindling population figures, may be the most irreversible process of all.

 

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I saw The Revenant on a Saturday in January. I was spending the weekend in the Catskills, about three hours north of New York City. The pond ice hadn’t frozen thick enough for skating and so I went into the nearest town that had a multiplex.

The grizzly bear stayed with me long after I’d made it back home, one reason being that I’d just finished a book in which a polar bear plays an indispensible symbolic role. It’s a forthcoming novel called The North Water, by Ian McGuire. Like The Revenant, it is set in the nineteenth century – specifically, in 1859, during the waning days of the British whaling trade. From McGuire’s purposefully anachronistic point of view, large animals of land and water are not things to be feared. Apart from the smell of their decaying carcasses, the whales barely register. McGuire does, however, imbue a polar bear with totemic value, especially as the book shifts from a blood-soaked tale of greed and empire into something more expansive and mystical. The protagonist finds a form of redemption, in fact, that’s very much like the one proposed in The Revenant.

Starving in the Arctic, our hero shoots and wounds a polar bear, then trails it for hours upon ‘a landscape so smashed up and uneven, it might have been constructed by a simpleton from the shattered pieces of some previous intactness.’ What he does next is like the revival of some pact from long ago, before the world went to bits. He kills the bear – it essentially offers itself up to him – and empties its body cavity with his knife. He then crawls inside, whereupon ‘the bear’s heat passes directly into him like an elixir.’ When he emerges again the next morning, it is in an unambiguous state of rebirth: ‘He resembles a skinned seal or a stillborn child newly pushed from his mother’s womb.’

Funnily enough, there’s a scene very much like this one in The Revenant. A little more than midway through the film, Glass survives a frigid winter night by curling up inside of a dead horse. The animal has already saved his life once, with a heroic leap off a cliff. In a meaningful but understated moment, Glass gives its corpse a solemn pat on the haunch before setting out again the next morning. In both scenes, the radical idea is not simply to kill the animal and use it, but to inhabit it – with a deep sense of gratitude.

 

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Outside the realm of dramatic imagination, the odd encounter with wild megafauna persists. For leisure travelers like me, such encounters are more or less elective. The only bear sighting we had on that Glacier trip last summer came on our second day. We were sitting lakeside, in the shadow of a great citadel of rock, as a waterfall roared in the distance and storm clouds started coming in. A good quarter-mile from us, on the far shore, what appeared to be a young male grizzly ambled down to the bank, entered the water, and started swimming towards us. Another hiker – a rather self-impressed type, as I recall – was unpacking a Ziploc bag of steak, from an antelope he claimed to have shot himself. Presumably, the bear was coming over for a closer look. My friends and I had been delighted with the sighting, my first of a grizzly in the wild, but now we shifted uneasily. Surely this wasn’t about to get real. Luckily, the bear soon thought better of his little excursion and swam back. We did not have to smell him, hear him, or try to fight him off with downed tree branches. Naturally, I was very glad of it.

 

Feature image © Valerie