Unbearable weight: Exhibit documents California grizzly’s journey from icon to extinction Lecture, reception by author Susan Snyder


by Roberta Werdinger


Before the advent of European settlers, over 10,000 small-eared, humpbacked, highly intelligent half-ton creatures roamed California, their grey-tipped fur lending them the name “grisly” (as much for their temperament as their color, which actually can vary). Grazing on berries, nibbling on seaweed, wrangling a fish out of rivers with their mighty paws, these creatures basked in the mild weather and abundant food sources of mellow pre-Columbian California. In the late 18th century, Spanish settlers started colonizing the future state, followed by successive waves of immigration. A little over a hundred years later, the mighty California grizzly was gone, hunted to extinction. Only its image remained, gracing the flag of the new republic. What happened?


The dizzying and contradictory parade of awe, aggression, fear and cold-blooded practicality that comprises modern and ancient peoples’ relation to the grizzly bear is well-documented in “Bear in Mind: The Story of the California Grizzly,” opening at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah on October 15, 2011.  A lecture, booksigning and reception by author Susan Snyder, of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, whose book inspired the exhibit, will take place on Saturday, Oct. 22, from 2 to 4:30 pm. Hudson Museum curator Marvin Schenck will also lead a free docent and member tour at noon on Tuesday, Oct. 18. The exhibition is divided into three themes: “The Loss of Grizzlies,” “The Truth about Grizzlies,” and “Bears in our Imagination.” Text panels are color-coded and include text for children. There is also a children’s tent with interactive puppets and other games, a display of the grizzly’s impressive pelt, some amusing and revealing bear kitsch, and a painting by Gualala artist Heidi Endemann of the bear’s hold on our postmodern imagination.


Seldom has an animal inspired such a range of contradictory emotions as the grizzly bear. Rearing on its hind legs to fight a foe or pick fruit from a tree, it was startlingly humanlike; indeed, some drawings delight in showing the bear face to face with a human being, arms locked around each other in an intimate death embrace. In captivity, bears were made to perform and behave like people; stuffed bears, rearing up with teeth bared and claws raking, were placed in front of settlement stores. The bears’ qualities were thus both displayed for maximum effect and kept at a safe distance, a fitting icon for a young civilization struggling to define itself.


California Indians’ approaches to bears differed. Some actively hunted them, while for others it was a taboo. But all seem to have shared a similar reverence for and yet wariness for the grizzlies, who were considered potent carriers of magic and were often invoked in rituals.


In the late 1700s, Spanish settlers arrived, establishing ranches which soon displaced the bears. Vaqueros (cowboys) proved their skill and bravery by flushing out bears with the help of their horses and then lassoing them, where they could be slaughtered for meat, displayed as trophies, or saved for the sport of bear-fighting. Grizzly bears were pitted against bulls and other wild animals, a practice continued with Anglo-Americans until later outlawed. Witnesses and enthusiasts of the time describe the fight with pungent relish, as the two ferocious animals fought each other to the death, one by goring upward with its horns, the other pulling the opponent down with blows from its massive paws. The different ways the animals would defeat each other gave rise to the terms “bear” and “bull” market, thanks to the imagination of journalist Horace Greeley.


The early 1800s saw the advent of the first Anglo-Americans. As they settled in farms and ranches, they were fond of building tall tales featuring rather improbable encounters with “Old Ephraim.” Some explorers humorously and realistically described being “treed” by a bear. One Mendocino County trout fisherman surprised a grizzly assiduously washing its face in the midst of the stream. He retreated, explaining that he was fishing for trout, not a bear.


Then there’s Grizzly Adams, one of a series of quintessential “mountain men” meditating between culture and still-wild nature. Starting out as a hunter and trapper of grizzlies and other wild animals, Adams transformed his skills into a circus trainer and performer, forming a close alliance with one particularly feisty grizzly, Ben Franklin. Heartbroken after his companion’s death, he died soon after himself.


The Gold Rush spelled the beginning of the end for the California grizzly. A new and massive wave of settlers took up land the bears used to sustain themselves. Regarded as pests and a danger to a rancher’s livestock, they were hunted with relish. Bounties were placed on their heads; tales abounded of how many bears a hunter could kill in one day.


Bears made their way into popular iconography, appearing as adorable and cuddly creatures in products for children, cavorting in an idealized wild. Artistic depictions are by turns humorous, mythic, down-to-earth, droll, and tragic. Violent and painful encounters are depicted, as well as quiet and humorous scenes.


It is no wonder, then, that this powerful yet threatening icon should make its way onto the California flag when a “Bear Republic” was first declared in 1846. Decades later, the last remaining California grizzly in captivity, Monarch, stood as a symbol for resilience when it survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Captured by journalist Allen Kelly at his boss’s William Randolph Hearst’s insistence, Monarch lived 20 years in captivity and served as a model for the present state flag.


“Bear in Mind: The Story of the California Grizzly” will be on display until February 12, 2012. The exhibit was produced by Exhibit Envoy in concert with The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and Heyday Books and was made possible by generous grants from The William Randolph Hearst Foundation, Bank of the West, and the James Irvine Foundation. Local sponsorship of the exhibition is by the Sun House Guild. The Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House is at 431 S. Main St. in Ukiah and is a part of the City of Ukiah’s Community Services Department. General admission to the Museum is $4, $10 per family, $3 for students and seniors, and free to members or on the first Friday of the month. For more information please go to www.gracehudsonmuseum.org or call 467-2836.