The polar bear, a worn icon in need of restoration | Polarjournal
The author of this book particularly likes the town of Churchill, in the Canadian province of Manitoba, to get up close and personal with polar bears. Image : Acte Sud

The polar bear outlines and fills the Arctic with its wanderings, to the point of touching the imagination of human beings, who live close to them. To the point of embodying the changes and disappearance of the ice for a foreign audience. Its image is used for more or less noble purposes. In his essay in French, Rémy Marion attempts to give the “ice wanderer” back his natural gait.

Hollow-haired, delicate, with a musculature coated in fat. When polar bears and humans meet, the outcomes are manifold, from the most wonderful to the most fatal. Last August, in Svalbard, a bear visiting four people who had taken refuge in the Haugenhytta hut on the Krossfjorden fjord was shot several times as it tried to break down the door. The charge of potential guilt against the group was dropped by the Governor of Svalbard on January 25. This event followed the death of the famous Frost bear and, like all human-related bear deaths, was investigated. Such cases are highly anecdotal in the Arctic, and the animal in question is not “a ferocious beast”, as Rémy Marion reminds us in a thoughtful essay that revisits the Arctic from the vantage point of human civilization and polar bear territory. It will be published in French on February 21 in the “Monde sauvage” collection by Actes Sud under the title L’ours polaire, vagabond des glaces.

The essay is didactic, underpinned by scientific, historical and literary references, hand-sewn by stories of encounters between this animal and the author. The first chapter is an initiation into the circle of polar naturalists. This is quickly followed by a critical study packed with information on the life of the most carnivorous of bears, whose representations are said to be steeped in prejudice. Rémy Marion endeavors to unravel the clichés conveyed by this “worn icon”, by observing its way of life.

The polar bear has a tenfold sense of smell, and walks perpendicular to the wind to scan the olfactory landscape. Image: Maud Lénée-Corrèze

In the dock are a whole host of bear-related communications, from the “ferocious beast of explorers” to NGO climate warning strategies, state propaganda, advertising slogans and distorted media spheres. So many narratives printed on the bearskin that the author wishes to dissolve. Joining them are the zoos that have turned the bear into a loss leader under the guise of raising public awareness. “Global warming is going to change our environment and that of the polar bears even faster, so what’s the point of keeping them captive indefinitely if the pack ice has disappeared?” he writes.

He’s so well adapted to the cold, at the forefront of bear species, he exists free and wild, thanks in part to a host of biological innovations, the result of evolution. The book is a real learning tool, exploring through all disciplines what could be a major cross-cutting theme in national education programs. A living portal to biology, physics, ecology… and Inuit culture, whose representations could date back over 4,000 years. Rémy Marion leads us in the footsteps of a bear that walks, swims and even dives, right into the dens where cubs and bears spend the winter.

The encounter with a bear is an experience that, like any other, enriches the emotional heritage of individuals, peoples and cultures. Image: Dr. Steven Amstrup Steven Amstrup / Polar Bear International

In contrast to the animal reportage style, where the keys to survival are hidden behind every birch tree in the boreal forest, after every willow tree on the flat tundra plains and on the edge of the blizzard on the François Joseph Islands, the author argues in favor of idleness, describing him as a “flâneur” who “picks up scents”: a Diogenes. Rémy Marion refutes the idea of giving them first names, which spoils the expression of their characters, which are best appreciated by observation. “Polar bears have personalities, that’s for sure: adventurous, fearful, curious or indifferent, shy or extroverted.”

This book is an opportunity to use the animal’s worn-out image to paint a complete new portrait, without making it the focus of the Arctic. Rémy Marion’s bias is his love for this animal and his desire to give it back its freedom. “It wanders as if it were strolling along the main boulevards of an unstable ice floe, carefree, and it’s beautiful!”

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to the book: Rémy Marion, L’ours polaire, vagabond des glaces, Acte Sud, Essais, Collection Mondes sauvages, February 21, 2024, 22.50 euros.

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