A bear's death in big sky country

Paul Constant

June 11, 2019

Sure, there's something mystifying about monkeys, orangutans, and assorted great apes — a kind of funhouse-mirror vibe that at once summons a great familiarity and a distant foreignness. But for my money, bears are the animals I look to when I want to find humanity in the animal kingdom. There's just something so human about them.

No, I don't lumber around on all fours, and I haven't scavenged in garbage cans for at least a decade. But bears still seem deeply relatable to me: their weary gait, their all-seeing eyes, their bottomless appetites. And some aspects of beardom, particularly their strength and their eagerness to hibernate in winter months, is downright aspirational. Simians might be closer to us in our genetic code, but bears feel more human than any other animal in spirit.

Bryce Andrews's Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear tells the story of a single Montana bear named Millie. As you can tell from the title, it's not a story with a happy ending, and in fact those squeamish about the fate of animals in movies might have a hard time with the latter chapters of the book. But it is a worthy book, an account of bears that at once makes them eminently understandable while also respecting their power and ferocity as unknowable agents of the wild kingdom.

And it's also a story that stretches to a global scale Andrews, a conservationist and rancher, is clear that Millie's greatest tragedy is to live in a time of profound climate change. Like many Montana grizzlies, Millie and her cubs are forced from their mountain homes by unseasonably hot temperatures that cause traditional foods to wither and die. Instead, they head into the valleys, where farmers have raised tall stalks of corn.

In the first chapter of the book, Andrews takes his greatest liberties as narrator. He imagines Millie's first contact with a farmer's fields:

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 he 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.

To a bear, the order and plenty of a corn field must seem something like a garden of Eden: an endless bounty. But there's a price to that paradise. Like with humans, an all-corn diet is terrible for bears: it makes them fat and ready to hibernate but it doesn't provide much of any of the nutrition that they need. It locks the bears into a series of bad habits that put them in danger if the reliable food source should dry up.

And there's a human cost, too: The farmers lose tens of thousands of dollars of corn to the jaws of grizzlies. Their livelihoods are being consumed by climate refugees, and so they farmers have to take drastic action to protect their own cubs.

That's where Andrews comes in: one year, he agrees to build an electric fence to protect one farmer's corn from the onslaught of grizzlies. That fence indirectly leads to Millie's death. Down from the Mountain is in many ways a confessional, a pronouncement of guilt from someone who could've have known the consequences of his actions.

This is primal stuff, compellingly told. Andrews is a capable journalist and an empathetic storyteller who helps the reader climb into Millie's head and experience the world through her eyes. And he does so without sacrificing that otherness that makes a bear a bear: Andrews doesn't get sentimental with Millie's perspective, doesn't turn her into a victim or a harbinger of global collapse, or a voice for the animal kingdom. She's a bear, and that's enough.

But something to the voice of Down from the Mountain nagged at me even as I whipped through the book to learn Millie's fate: Andrews tends toward that 20th century masculine style of nature-writing prose. You know the type. Short, punchy sentences. Sparse adjectives, few adverbs. The sense that every sentence has been whittled down with a knife to its simplest possible construction.

Andrews feels like he's very consciously trying to evoke macho nature writers like Jim Harrison and Edward Abbey, who themselves are drawing from a tradition stretching back to great white hunters like Ernest Hemingway and Peter Hathaway Capstick. This staccato cadence and pared-down style does the job, but it also feels overly mannered, like an artist who only draws in the style of 1920s art deco advertisements.

I'm referring to sentences like this:

  • "For a time, it was enough."

  • "That is a bear's curse: Their waking season is short, and hunger rides them hard."

  • "Fawns are born knowing the game and are particularly good at keeping silent and still."

  • "The sprinkler crept ahead, its electric drive motors whining until tread met wire."

Taken singly, there's nothing wrong with any of those sentences. But piled together as they are, the book sometimes feels like a cover band of macho old dead white men, the kind who saw an undercurrent of violence everywhere and who never stopped treating every sentence as a fistfight to be won with quick and brutal efficiency.

I hope that Andrews keeps writing about bears, and I hope he allows his voice to stretch and expand and come into his own. Maybe add a few adjectives, and allow sentences to swoop and twist back on themselves. The taciturn wilderness man is an old trope, one rooted in the violence of trophy hunting and war.

It's clear as he unspools the story of Millie's death and the search for justice that follows that Andrews has a big heart. I hope he becomes comfortable enough to explore every inch of that heart on the page, to not be confined in a trap built by all the tough old men who came before.

Books in this review:
  • Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear
    by Bryce Andrews
    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
    April 16, 2019
    288 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

Other recent reviews

December 04, 2018

Talk about the weather

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Interpretative Guide to Western-Northwest Weather Forecasts
    by Marian Blue

    March 27, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
November 27, 2018

The man show

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Sexiest Man Alive
    by Amber Nelson

    October 01, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
November 13, 2018

Accidentally honest

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Shame of Losing
    by Sarah Cannon

    October 01, 2018
    264 pages
    Provided by author
    Buy on IndieBound