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Back on the Missouri
In April, after wintering in the middle of North Dakota, right before the river turns and heads due west, the intrepid Lewis and Clark expedition headed further up the Missouri. As they reached present Montana, the plains filled with ever greater number of animals, yet they still had not encountered their first “white” (grizzly) bear. However, signs of the bears were growing more common. Lewis writes around the numerous buffalo carcasses, remains of animals that had fallen through the winter ice,
“We saw also many tracks of the white bear of enormous size along the river shore and about the carcasses of the buffalo, on which I presume they feed. We have not as yet seen one of these animals, though their tracks are so abundant and recent. The men as well as ourselves are anxious to meet with some of the bears.”
Soon after, across the plains of Montana, they would encounter grizzlies almost daily, most of the time violently. Lewis then writes, “These bears being so hard to die rather intimidate us all. I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen (grizzlies) and had rather fight two Indians than one bear. ….The white bears have become so troublesome to us that I do not think it prudent to send one man alone on an errand of any kind, particularly where he has to pass through the brush.”
One incredible story Lewis tells of six expedition members, all “good hunters”, encounter with one bear,
“In an instant this monster ran at them with open mouth; the two who had reserved their fire discharged their pieces at him as he came towards them, both of them struck him, one only slightly and the other fortunately broke his shoulder; this however only retarded his motion for a moment. The men, unable to reload their guns, took to flight, the bear pursued and had very nearly overtaken them before they reached the river. Two of the party betook themselves to a canoe and the others separated and concealed themselves among the willows, reloaded their pieces, each discharged his piece at him as they had an opportunity. They struck him several times again but the guns served only to direct the bear to them. In this manner he pursued two of them separately so close that they were obliged to throw aside their guns and pouches and throw themselves into the river, although the bank was nearly 20 feet perpendicular. So enraged was this animal that he plunged into the river only a few feet behind the second man he had compelled to take refuge in the water, when one of those who still remained on shore shot him through the head and finally killed him.”
Once again, it's hard for any contemporary American to conceive of the great wild, just the mass populations of grizzlies, that was America only two centuries ago. Yet, such knowledge is necessary to healthily engage the future. We need to remove ourselves from the circle of goalless, rapidly accelerating, exclusively technologically led development as Werner Heisenberg analogized — the false idol of progress.
Just as Heisenberg, we can look back to the Greeks for insight, specifically the great Temple of Delphi and its inscription “Know thyself.” Like all the ambiguous wisdom of Delphi, knowing thyself can only be accomplished by knowing others, and, just as essentially, the greater world from which we came. The “white” bear is part of that. We have foolishly destroyed so much from where we came, making Apollo's edict all that much more difficult. As Heisenberg noted, with our tech infused world, we see only ourselves, modern Narcissuses, failing to understand with technology we have become fatally besotted with ourselves.