It happened quite unexpectedly for Leon Chartrand. He was on a solo backpacking trip in Montana’s Glacier National Park. It was August 1997, and the weather was perfect—dry, warm, sunny days and chilly nights. Plodding along at 8,000 feet elevation, he was pondering his decision to quit engineering and become a high school teacher when he stepped around a boulder—and his life changed forever.
There in a meadow, about 60 yards below him, his eyes fell on a big ball of chocolate brown fur foraging for berries in the mid-morning sun. A light breeze played with its shiny coat, brushing it first one way then another. Chartrand froze in his boots, realizing he was nearly face-to-face with a grizzly bear.
“I just stood there and I didn’t know what to do,” Chartrand says, recalling stories of women mauled by grizzlies in the late 1960s in these same mountains.
But the bear didn’t notice him, and his fear soon turned to awe. The transformation had begun.
“Just the sense I felt from it was that the world was such a wild and big place,” he says. “I felt a deep sense of connectedness and faith that there was something more besides what I had always thought.”
Chartrand was so moved that he gave up the idea of teaching high school. He completed master’s degrees in education in 1998 and theology in 2000 and joined the University of Toronto’s Elliott Allen Institute of Theology & Ecology, where he is now a professor and doctoral student. His dissertation subject: the sacredness of grizzly bear recovery. Chartrand says his purpose is to restore a spiritual reverence for all endangered species so that the theory of eco-theology earns a place in wildlife conservation.
“When the human imagination is activated by the wonders of the bear, that deeper experience will invoke new insights in the way we see ourselves in relation to them and also in the way we address their recovery. I believe it will be a more successful recovery.”
But is tying the ecological preservation of grizzlies to the spiritual beliefs of man a bit too extreme? Bear ecologists like Kate Kendall, who developed a method for estimating bear populations by studying the DNA of bear hair, have little time to ponder the spirituality of wildlife.
“I think the thing that’s going to make the difference is focusing on the value of bio-diversity in general. Part of that is spiritual, but that’s not realistic. You can’t force people to think.”
Xavier theology professor Brennan Hill says you can teach people to think, but it takes time. His book, Christian Faith and the Environment, links Christian values with environmental issues.
“It’s a solid field and it’s been going on a long time,” he says.
To put his beliefs into practice, Chartrand is moving in February to Idaho to begin two years of research for his dissertation. He’ll study bear conservation and habitat, preservationists and ranchers. And he’ll spend quiet time in bear country, discovering the spirituality of another time.