At lunch-hour on Pender Street in Vancouver last summer, I went AWOL during the first incredibly tedious day of Robert McKee's three-day story seminar. I walked into Macleod's,* a used bookstore of the old school, one replete with signed first editions no one buys.
Macleod's has plenty of nooks and obscure sections. Military History. Northwest Coast Indians, and -- oooh -- real travel books, the one's that make you reflect and understand the place you're visiting unlike superficial guides that only tell you where to shop, or party.
There are books stacked up in corners like teetering lego towers across a squeaking oak floor that is worn to bare wood by years of determined 'bibliophiliac' traffic. There are old fashioned single-pane store windows -wide and high- that let in no light whatsoever. There's a smell of dust and yellowing paper. The place is a total time-warp, and the prices are fair.
What did I find?
Rare treasure! A signed 1910 edition of Franz Boaz' Kwakiutl Tales going for a song. -- Well OK, an expensive song. Not the kind of song you tell your wife about, but the kind of song you buy yourself because when you were 10 your parents sent you into the world all on your own every Saturday morning with a brown bag lunch and 25 cents telling you that after raising three much older kids they were sick of you, and don't come home until 5pm.
So, after swimming and reading comics at the Boys Club all morning, what else was there to do but walk to the public library and read adventure books until it closed. Military History. Northwest Coast Indians. Travel Books. No one called me a nerd in those days, because, although I was shy, I was tall and strong and canoed, played baseball, swam like a fish, climbed like a chimp and sometimes -- very reluctantly -- got into fights I tried to win. Somehow though, I could also read a book faster than most kids my age...
I read Franz Boaz' Indian stories because, I swear, they whispered to me from a shelf calling me over with something like 'Pssst. Kid!' That was how, I found the world of books with which I imagined a life like Grey Owl's where I swam, fished and canoed among the Indians of the North West Coast. They showed me how to split logs, how to build a lodge, how to eat seaweed and how to make salmon jerky out of two tired bologna sandwiches.
They never told me not to come back before 5pm.
Kwakiutl Tales are important stories because Boaz had an actor's empathetic gifts. It contains stories about Meskwa', the Greedy-One, a half-human child rejected by the gods and by humanity. A boy who eats everything in his adopted father's house before then eating everything in his tribe until his people abandon him. Then after destroying a few more unlucky folks, Greedy One, tricks, kills and eats the Salmon and the Grizzly Bear.
The story is pretty powerful and has stuck with me for 45 years, so imagine my surprise when I read Mark Hume's "Ecosystem In Peril Puts Predators At Risk', an article detailing the declining numbers of Chum Salmon and Grizzly Bears on the northwest coast of B.C. (You can find Mr. Hume's piece here.)
I am amazed by this story now, because Franz Boaz did not know what we now know about the coastal rainforest, that it depends on the abundance of the salmon which the Grizzly Bears catch and eat and then poop out under the great trees. Isotopes from the salmon find their way into the fabric of the Douglas firs and other trees that make up the coastal forest. The fish fertilize and nourish the trees via the Grizzlies who hyper-phaginate (pig out) during the fall in order to pack on sufficient fat to then hibernate through the long winter.
But now, in 2009, after four years of terrible salmon runs, the Grizzlies' numbers appear to be declining. People are beginning to wonder if the bears are joining the salmon in an ongoing species extinction. The same thing is also happening to a lot of northern creatures: Polar Bears, Pacific Walruses, and Arctic Caribou. The vast populations of only a few years ago are collapsing. Often we don't even know why.
Just a very few years ago, there were about 16,000 Grizzly Bears in British Columbia. If significant numbers have died recently you'd think someone would find the bodies But some researchers think the bears cannot put on enough fat to make it through the winter so they die asleep in their underground lairs. This accounts for the fact that there are many fewer bears but no visible emaciated bear corpses.. It also accounts for the absence of Grizzly Bear cubs in the woods during recent years since young bears cannot live without food as long as adults can, and since fertile female Grizzlies have a mechanism that delays and can prevent fertilizing their eggs -- much as Wolverines do -- in order to avoid pregnancies during times of little food.
Okay, but if the bears are dying where is Meskwa', The Greedy One, who is responsible for this disaster?
Well, he is everywhere we are. He is in the fishing boat that over-fishes the coastal seaway. He is in the carbon dioxide exhaust that warms the planet and makes the waters inhospitable for fish. He is in the stupid and offensive 'sport' Grizzly Hunt that continues this year despite the absence of Grizzly Bears to kill. Meskwa is us and we are Meskwa, a solitary creature with a world-consuming appetite that will soon cause an environmental reckoning everywhere including right here in North America.
I write about the human migrations that will result from future environmental collapse of our continent in my forthcoming book, North American Ark, but most people, I believe, already share a vague sense of some overwhelming danger that hovers slightly beyond the horizon. With the end of the Grizzlies, this 'vague' sense of foreboding should end and we should at last put ourselves to the task of saving whatever we can from the 'Greedy One'. Ourselves.
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