Books

Anthropologist encounters bear — but this is not your usual bear story

In the Eye of the Wild

By Nastassja Martin. New York Review Books, 2021. Translated from the French by Sophie R. Lewis. 112 pages. $14.95

When someone is hurt by a bear in Alaska, we usually understand it as an accident — the result of the person being in the wrong place at the wrong time, surprising an animal that wasn’t expecting a close encounter or that might have been protecting cubs or a food cache. Nastassja Martin offers another interpretation: “On that day, August 25, 2015, the event is not: a bear attacks a French anthropologist somewhere in the mountains of Kamchatka. The event is: a bear and a woman meet and the frontiers between two worlds implode.”

The author, 29 years old at the time, had been living with Indigenous Even people in a remote area of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and studying their belief system, including animism — that is, the belief that all things, living and non-living, have spirits and agency. When, descending a mountain, she came face to face with a bear that nearly killed her and her life changed in an unanticipated way. Influenced by the Even people and the Gwich’in she’d previously worked with in Alaska, and by dreams, she accepted that she’d become “medka” — marked by the bear, half human and half bear.

Martin’s narrative is both poetic and philosophical, although it’s often also impressionistic and oblique as she streams her thoughts through time and space. Clarity (perhaps partly a result of translation from the French) seems to suffer even as Martin’s experience and interpretations pose questions certainly worth our consideration.

The book begins with a disturbing picture of the mauling’s aftermath, as the traumatized woman waits for the mist to lift and a Russian helicopter to reach her. “As in the time of myths, obscurity reigns; I am this blurred figure, features subsumed beneath the open gulfs on my face, slicked over with internal tissue, fluid, and blood; it is a birth for it is manifestly not a death.”

We soon learn that the bear has bitten her head, face and leg. Her jaw and cheekbone are fractured, and part of her jaw and a couple of teeth are missing. She’s first airlifted to a clinic, then to a hospital in Petropavlovsk for multiple surgeries. Back in France, surgeries have to be redone because the doctors don’t like the size or placement of an inserted metal plate. (“My jaw is made the scene of a Franco-Russian medical cold war.”) Later, a hospital-acquired infection requires more surgery.

From the autumn of the “encounter” (her word) between woman and bear, the story proceeds through winter, spring, and into summer, as Martin recovers from her injuries and tries to come to terms with how her life has changed. She seems less concerned with being disfigured or with lingering pain than with dreams, some level of depression, and what had already been her life’s seeking. Before she’s even healed, she rejects her family’s concerns and heads back to Kamchatka, to resume her life in a forest cabin with a family of hunters. She’s particularly attached to an older woman who speaks to her about dreams and counsels her about life. (“Your dreams are the bear’s dreams as well as your own. You must not leave us again. You must stay here, because we need you.”)

We learn then that Martin’s anthropological interest extends back to a childhood of wanting escape from the world she was born into, an escape that took her first to Alaska and then Russia. “We have to get out of the insanity our civilization is creating ... we must find something else.” That something else, she thought, lay in Indigenous wisdom and lives. However, on her return to Kamchatka, she feels as though she’s “coming to an end,” “going under.” Something inside her is “ringing” in alarm as “even the mountains are coming apart.” What exactly is happening remains mysterious, but it seems clear that she feels that the separation between her physical being and the larger world — the one of mountains, forests and animals — has narrowed or even disappeared, and she’s frightened.

When she reflects back on her time with the Gwich’in, in Fort Yukon, she recounts an elder telling her that everything was “recorded” and the forest was “informed.” She understood, in her academic way, that “every thought-form that we send out goes to join and mingle with the old stories that shape the world around us, as well as the conditions of those who inhabit it.” After becoming “medka,” this is no longer academic but a lived experience, something she knows in her body. We act on the world, and the world acts on us.

In the final section of the book, the author is back in France with her various notebooks. Earlier, she had kept two sets — one for her anthropology notes and the other personal, recording things like dreams. Now, they will not be separate. “There will be one single story, speaking with many voices, the one we are weaving together, they and I, about all that moves through us and that makes us what we are.” She begins to write — presumably the book that becomes the tantalizing “In the Eye of the Wild.”

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."

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