Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I felt pretty good about having marched for the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, and in favor of tighter gun restrictions. But Thacher Schmid’s interview with Randy Blazak [“Blind Hate,” March 2020] — in which Blazak is candid about his past experience with white supremacists, and describes his vocal activism against them now — makes me realize I remained mostly anonymous while marching. When the thought occurred to me to put a sign in my yard supporting those issues, I let the impulse pass. I see now that I feared becoming a target. The signs would’ve told my neighbors where I stood and opened me up to criticism or worse.
I am disappointed in myself that I did not take a bolder stand.
I am a fifty-one-year-old woman, born and raised in the South, and your magazine has allowed me to see the world through the eyes of many people different from me: black people, gay people, immigrants, prisoners, the poor. Each of us is a kaleidoscope of thoughts, fears, and prejudices that have built up over a lifetime. There is good and bad in all of us.
But Thacher Schmid’s interview with Randy Blazak made more sense to me than any other piece in The Sun. I’m learning we are all more alike than we are different, and that love and acceptance are the only things that will bring positive change.
After reading Louise A. Blum’s moving essay “How It Ends” [March 2020], I have dried my tears and am ready to toss caution to the wind and be arrested at an anti-fracking protest. I have no other way to express my sorrow for the loss of the author’s friend K.
The most interesting moment in Erin McReynolds’s relationship with restaurant owner Z. was when she broke up with him [“Train Songs,” February 2020]. The moment when infatuation gives way to reality in a relationship can often be difficult to notice. We don’t want to admit failure or think about being alone. But McReynolds knew in an instant that Z. was unable to give her what she needed, and she ended it then and there. Brava!
Louisa Willcox [“A Test of Our Compassion,” interview by Savannah Barnes, January 2020] mentions the Canadian naturalist and rancher Charlie Russell. I live in southern Alberta, near Waterton National Park, where Charlie’s father, Andy, lived in the 1990s. Andy was a big-game hunting guide who later switched to taking animal photos instead of trophies. He and Charlie were both supportive of local naturalist and environmental organizations.
Willcox describes Charlie’s time in the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, where he had some close, personal experiences with grizzlies. His later trips, however, showed that poachers had taken advantage of the grizzlies’ lack of fear of humans and had destroyed the bears. It’s sad that we can’t live in harmony with our fellow animals.
Near the end of an otherwise insightful interview, Savannah Barnes asks Louisa Willcox and David Mattson if it is possible to earn a bear’s trust. Unfortunately they seem to encourage people to approach grizzly bears and ignore the common advice to keep a healthy distance.
Though bears are intelligent and capable of learning to trust people, they stay alive, in great part, by keeping their distance from us. It’s one thing to “get to know” a bear when you’re out doing research for months at a time, but for the 99.9 percent of us who are just passing through, the only safe choice is to give grizzlies all the space they need.
I’m someone who has spent a lot of time in the wilderness, armed only with a respect for the wild and a knowledge of proper bear etiquette — often hundreds of miles and a good plane ride or two from the nearest hospital. And I know that ignorance can get everyone, including the bear, killed.
So, if I may: Never, ever intentionally approach a bear! With their experience and knowledge, Mattson and Willcox surely didn’t mean to suggest that people behave in a cavalier manner toward bears. But I found myself waiting (in vain, as it turned out) for one or the other to qualify their statement.
To Frances Schultz: The poaching of the grizzlies that Charlie Russell set free in Kamchatka underscores the enormous job ahead of us as we seek to coexist with large carnivores. Poaching of grizzlies is rampant even here in the U.S., where laws are much stronger. For example, in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem in Montana and Idaho, about 50 percent of grizzly bear deaths are caused by poachers. Only rigorous enforcement can stem this violence.
Jim Koppensteiner offers a helpful reminder about staying safe in bear country: be mentally prepared for an encounter, give bears ample room, and take precautions such as carrying pepper spray. A prudent and informed approach to risk is important, whether we are driving on a freeway, working around livestock, or living among grizzly bears. By the same token, unreasoned fear is highly problematic, especially when coupled with intolerance. Unfortunately interactions of hikers, hunters, ranchers, and tourists with North American grizzlies have often been governed by fear — with catastrophic consequences for the bears.
Our experiences have shown us that if we bring calmness, attentiveness, and knowledge into areas occupied by grizzly bears, we minimize the odds of close-range encounters. Moreover, if an encounter does happen, the outcome is more likely to be benign for all involved.
I teach playwriting at a state prison in California. When my colleague and I arrived for class last week, the men were very excited, showing us their most recent copies of The Sun, which they received through their free subscriptions. A few had the issues open to particular lines they wanted to share with us. It was a delight to see how much they enjoy your publication, which I have long cherished.
I have tried to interest my family in it over the years and could get them to read only a story or poem here and there. I guess I have found my literary community in this unlikely setting. I couldn’t be prouder.
I am discussing the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement with the students in my Peace Studies course, and the comments on racism in your February 2020 issue brought our conversation into the modern era quite nicely. As I read the Sunbeams, I realized I am more afraid of those in my own demographic than I am of anyone else.
I tell my students I am a member of the most privileged subspecies ever to exist: white males raised in suburban America in the 1950s. The world was at my feet. Had I not been sent to Vietnam in 1968, I probably would have stayed in my cocoon for the rest of my life. But in that war I had my racism torn out of me and thrust down my throat — no escaping to the mall or a comfy split-level house.
I came out of that experience shaken and with the understanding that the color of my skin puts others at a disadvantage. I can’t escape this skin, but I can be conscious of it while trying to have more empathy for those with less privilege. At the age of seventy-three, I’m still working at it.