The Hunt for the Great Bear: “Celebrating Life”


One of the chief driving forces behind writing, behind any creative act, is, I believe, a deep seated need in human beings to celebrate life. Why that need is there is rooted far back in our ancient, Paleolithic past, that period of time when our first true direct ancestors were struggling to survive in an extremely hostile environment – harsh weather conditions and powerful predators, combined with their own relatively small numbers, meant that the odds of survival were stacked against them, and every day of remaining alive, of finding enough to eat and of not being killed and eaten yourself, was a cause for celebration. And they celebrated through art, those vibrant, powerful images painted onto the walls of caves deep within the rock, and the great difficulty it must have taken to reach those caves is evidence of how seriously they took the making of these works of art, how central it was to their lives. We know that they also made music, from the flutes of ivory and bone that have been found, and we can assume that they sang and danced and told stories. Every major art form that we have practiced and refined over the millennia were established then. And not as pastimes. They were tools of survival, like the ability to make fire, to sew clothes, to plan a successful hunt and to fashion a bone needle. Through painting, music, singing, performance and storytelling, our ancestors established bonds between each other and with the world around them, with the creatures that they hunted and which hunted them, whose images they found in the rock and fixed there, with a mixture of fear and reverence and awe. Through art they rooted themselves in the world and celebrated the miracle of staying alive against all the odds. Because each celebration, each song, or story or dance or painting, was infused with an astute awareness and acknowledgement of the precariousness of existence.

Nowadays, in the affluent west, we may feel that existence is not so precarious, that the natural world has been successfully overcome and tamed, and that in our brightly-lit towns and cities our lives are assured, comfortable and secure. We can enjoy watching nature “red in tooth and claw” as entertainment on our televisions or i-pads.  But this is a false sense of security, I believe. Those natural forces, that can be both beautiful and terrible, are still at work, both in the world outside, and within us, and we ignore them at our peril. And one of the functions of art in the modern world is, I think, to remind us of this, because it’s only when we see ourselves as creatures that are part of the natural processes of the world, our senses attuned to the forces that govern all life, rather than as superior creatures that are separate from them, can we begin to understand what it is to be human, and to appreciate the value of being alive. In this way, the art that we make, like the art our ancient ancestors made, can be truly celebratory. And, seen in this light, “The Hunt for the Great Bear” is intended too as a celebration of life.

Below is one such celebratory episode from the novel:

“The deer stood watching them and they saw it as they rose and they froze then lowered themselves slowly until they lay flat again on the ground. It was standing just beyond the line of trees, sniffing at the air, twitching its tail and in the evening light the curve and arch of its back and the smooth sides of its flanks shone a deep and glossy red. It was a large buck and its antlers too caught on their tips the glow of the setting sun so that they seemed branched with flame. It stood with head erect and gazed across the landscape for sign of movement but there was none. Then it bent its head and nibbled at some tufts of coarse grass beneath the surface of the snow then looked up again and turned and walked slowly back into the forest. The brothers rose to their feet. They looked at each other then made their way to where the deer had stood.  They could see where its hooves had pressed into the hard snow and one knelt and touched his fingers to a crumbled print while the other gazed the way they had come, as if to see the land as the deer had seen it, to crouch in its skull and look out through its eyes, each in his own way laying claim to the creature”