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The moon was shining on the night in January 1856 when Leopold von Schrenck, a Russian-German zoologist, geographer, and ethnologist, reached Tebach, a village in the barren Amur region in easternmost Siberia. He was traveling in the name of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science, following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, who had made it all the way to the Chinese border. Von Schrenck is among the handful of Westerners who had the opportunity to participate in a bear festival with the Nivkh people (formerly called Gilyak). As he approached the village, the inhabitants were out and about. The women stood in front of the houses carrying babies and watched as the men and the older children held hands and spun rapidly in a circle. Once the dance was over, von Schrenck accompanied the group into a yurt — a kind of oversized tent. Three bears were bound to the two central support poles. Care had been taken to allow the bears room to lie down, stand up, and move from side to side. The visitor also had to take care “not to be struck by a bear’s paw.” More… “Bearing Witness”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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