Environmental Almanac

Appreciation for BEAR

An account of the author's participation in a piece of environmental performance art

So much of conservation is about the concrete. Stop a pipeline here, plant milkweed for monarchs there, try to move the levers of political power with an email or a protest. Even when we turn our attention to climate change, with its remote effects, we’re on to wind turbines and solar power before very long. 

But I think it’s healthy for individual people and for cultures more broadly to have access to spaces where thought and communication are liberated from these usual channels, spaces that enable us to inhabit other realities for a time. This is why I found participating in the fall chapter of U of I artist Deke Weaver’s performance “Bear” at Meadowbrook Park recently so powerful. 

The other reality in which “Bear” is set resembles ones we’ve seen in other stories. It’s a future where, according to “Field Guide to the Bears,” which participants received along with their tickets: “Greenland slides into the Atlantic. The power grid collapses. The Totten Glacier crumbles, West Antarctica tumbles into the sea. Sea levels rise twelve feet, and now, 2020, we’ve got forty percent of the world’s human population leaving the coasts and heading inland.”

In the common fictions of our culture, such circumstances require action by a hero or team of heroes with mad quantitative skills and technical ingenuity, ones who apply the same human traits that produce the problems to fix them. In the world of “Bear,” however, heroes are replaced with participants, and technical fixes are out, as well. “To put the genie back in the bottle,” the guide explains, “we need to bring back the bears. We’re going to do this through outreach, education, and walking meditation. . . we will bring back the bears by telling and retelling a story, by walking a path for hours and hours. Our hope is that the bears will be able to sense our sincere intent.”

What kind of thinking is that? 

The setup for “Bear” required participants to hold off on such questions. “Rangers” who never broke character greeted us on our arrival and led us on the hour-plus meditative walk. In addition, before setting out we were asked to power off phones and not to speak among ourselves. The fact that our walk took place in the dark on a muddy trail hemmed in by head-high prairie plants, and that a light rain was falling most of the time we were out also helped create an atmosphere that encouraged people to let go a little.

I won’t recount all of our stops, but say they included stories and folklore, as well as nuggets of information about bears, which were especially pleasing to the literal-minded among us. 

The fall installment of “Bear” concluded in the Urbana Park District’s barn at Meadowbrook, which had become a den for the purpose. There, unspeaking, costumed bear dancers performed and then invited participants to join them. Following that, we became bears by crawling farther into the den and putting on plastic masks. As bears, we listened to Deke Weaver tell a story in which the bodily boundaries between human, bear, and even tree at points dissolved.  

I admit I’m still not entirely sure what to make of that, but I’ll never knowingly pass up a chance to hear Weaver tell a story again. I also encourage you to check out the Winter and Spring chapters of “Bear,” and the rest of the larger project of which it’s a component, Weaver’s “Unreliable Bestiary.”