Your senses tend to sharpen in the wilderness. Your vision gets clearer. You smell the pines, the mud, the decaying leaves. You hear sounds that otherwise wouldn’t register. Your senses tend to sharpen even more when there’s a grizzly bear nearby. Your heart also tends to beat just a little bit faster.
“The Forest Service says you should wear a bell or talk or make noise so a bear will hear you and run away,” says Leon Chartrand, our group’s leader. “That’s exactly what we’re not going to do.”
We continue up the hill, slowly, stopping frequently to search for other signs—broken twigs, snagged fur, scat. As we emerge from the woods into a clearing, Chartrand puts an end to the search. We have, he determines, reached our classroom. Priorities prevail.
Chartrand is a visiting professor of theology and is leading 12 of us—10 undergraduate and two graduate students—in a theology course through the wilds of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. The course’s focus is on experiencing nature as primary sacred and sacramental reality, something that isn’t going to happen sitting in Alter Hall.
He pulls the group together and explains the day’s lesson, then sends us out to private spots in the area to craft a daily reflection paper. In more Jesuit terms, we are trying to find God in all things, and for the moment, at least for me, that thing remains the grizzly bear.
After a few minutes of trying to focus on the day’s lesson, my eyes and mind begin to wander up the still-uncharted hillside to the top of a ridge, where the bear is. I have to know what’s beyond it, so that’s where I go. I put down my notebook, pick up my backpack and begin walking up the hill.
The ridge, I discover, opens up to a large, open field dotted with patches of trees. Fresh bear scat litters the ground. Nothing stands between me and the woods that continue about 100 yards to the north. I stand there at the edge of the field, alone. I feel open, exposed, vulnerable. I look around but can’t see anything. But I can sense it. The bear is here. Somewhere. Watching. Watching me.
In the early 1900s, nearly 100,000 grizzly bears roamed the lower 48 states. Today, the number is reduced to less than 1,000. The 2.6-million acre Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park corridor in Wyoming’s northwest corner is as far south as the bear now roams. The numbers are higher and healthier in Alaska and the mountainous areas of Western Canada, but even those numbers—estimated at 30,000—are only a fraction of what they once were.
Seeking solitude or pursuing profit, we started building homes in the woods or at the edges of mountains, which brought with it an open invitation for unwelcome encounters. And encounters have happened. Chartrand can bear witness to that. While researching his doctoral dissertation, he served as bear biologist for five years for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, trapping, relocating or—in the case of those bears who became conditioned to believe that food could be found near humans—euthanizing them.
At one point, as we drove through Grand Teton National Park, he pointed out a home that a bear broke into and caused extensive damage as it rummaged for food. Among its take, he says, was a bowl of Jolly Rancher candy. After trapping the bear, the homeowners started feeling remorse, knowing the animal was facing death. They started questioning if it was the right bear, hoping Chartrand would relocate it instead of kill it. Knowing bears don’t change their habits and can be dangerous if they no longer fear humans, Chartrand had to wait another 12 hours until the bear emptied its bowels, at which point he positively identified it by the undigested plastic candy wrappers in its scat. The proof was in the pooping.
For those like Chartrand, though, the bear isn’t something to be feared, but to be respected and, in some ways, awed. That’s how he felt after his first encounter with a bear while backpacking in Glacier National Park. There was no confrontation, just a revelation. “Things made sense to me,” he says. “My place in the world. My sense of connectedness to the land. The sense that the world is much bigger than my ability to understand. It was a transformative moment.”
Now, his goal is to share that same feeling with others, to show the correlation between ecology and theology. So he teaches.
“To put it into a theological perspective, consider that we’ve long identified the notion of The Holy,” he says. “Two characteristics associated with The Holy are fear and fascination. Interestingly, there’s a correlation between the fact that people are drawn toward bears because of fear and fascination.”
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins back in 1918. To most, the phrase is a piece of poetry. To the Jesuits, it is a mantra. To those of us trekking through the Tetons and wilds of Yellowstone, it is a self-evident truth.
Throughout the week we paused for times of meaning and reflection alongside rushing rivers, at the shores of glacier-fed lakes and atop mountains. We encountered bald eagles, bison and blue heron. We watched carefully as a coyote strode past just a few feet away. We examined the skeletal remains of two young elk that offered a reminder that peril and beauty live side by side in nature. We saw towering waterfalls and boiling mud pits and snow-covered woods.
On our first day we paused in a clearing littered by the still-charred trunks of lodgepole pines felled by a forest fire in 1988. Lodgepole pines are an interesting species. Their seeds can only be opened by extreme heat, meaning the only way the trees regenerate is if the previous generation is destroyed by fire. Its life, in other words, can only be revealed through death. Grandeur, indeed.
Consider the tree, we were told as we sat among the pines. What do you see when you look at a tree? Its leaves, its branches, its bark. What don’t you see? Its roots, the nutrients flowing through its trunk, the fact that it takes in carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen. Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there or not vital to its existence.
Cannot the same argument be made for the existence of God?
To be conscious about something is to be aware of it, no matter if it’s the inner workings of a tree, the fragility of the wildflowers or, really, the existence of God. Must we always see to believe? Might being in the presence of something be sacred enough?
Thomas Berry, a Passionate priest and one of the most brilliant minds in the field of eco-theology, once wrote about a similar revelation he had about nature and religion—not with the mountains or woods of Yellowstone but of a simple Midwestern meadow. “Religion, it seems to me, takes its origin here in the deep mystery of this setting,” he says. “The more a person thinks of the infinite number of interrelated activities that take place here, the more mysterious it all becomes. The more meaning a person finds in the Maytime blooming of the lilies, the more awestruck a person might be in simply looking out over this little patch of meadowland.”
The problem, he says, is that we are cast into our urban jungles where towering buildings create concrete canyons. We are overwhelmed by eye pollution generated by neon signs, by ear pollution caused by screaming cars and by nose pollution caused by the belching smokestacks of industry. We live in many different worlds and, unfortunately, none of them teach us how to read the book of nature. It’s become a lost skill.
“We live in a political world, a nation, a business world, an economic order, a cultural tradition, a Disney dreamland,” Berry says. “We live in cities, in a world of concrete and steel, of wheels and wires, a world of unending work. We seldom see the stars at night or the planets or the moon. Even in the day we do not experience the sun in any immediate or meaningful manner.
“We have silenced too many of those wonderful voices of the universe that spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence. We no longer hear the voices of the rivers, the mountains or the sea. The trees and meadows are no longer intimate modes of spirit presence. The world about us has become an ‘it’ rather than a ‘thou.’”
As the others start back down the hill and onto the next lesson, I turn back one last time, giving the area a final scan, hoping—praying—that I might see the bear. Still, nothing. Disappointed and perhaps a little disheartened, I slowly rejoin the group and head back down the hill as well.
One of the funny things about life that I’ve learned, though, is that the obvious isn’t always obvious at the moment. Often time is needed to reveal what isn’t seen in the moment. Sometimes reflection. Perhaps prayer.
As the night comes upon us and the next day dawns, the openness of the field and the presence of the bear keeps replaying in my mind. Where was the bear? Why didn’t it reveal itself?
Then the revelation hits: The time spent tracking the bear up the hillside and searching for it in the open field wasn’t at all a disappointment. In fact, it was just the opposite. It was perhaps the most meaningful and educationally enlightening part of the entire journey. It pulled together all the elements of the class—man and nature, fear and fascination, God and grizzly. Nothing, in fact, could have been more theological.
Like the bear, God leaves his footprints everywhere for us to follow. It’s up to us to awaken our senses, to look for the signs, to see them. And they always lead us to a place where He is. But, like with the bear, that doesn’t always mean we will recognize the encounter or receive our visual desire. We can stand there, open, exposed, looking—praying—that we will see God. But, all too often, nothing. So, disappointed and perhaps a little disheartened, we move on, missing the mystery and meaning of the moment. That God is there. Somewhere. Watching. Watching us.