The Truth About Bears, and Other Matters: Wayward Things #16

Is it that time already? Where has the last month gone? Anyway, as it is now September 1st, it's time for another Wayward Things newsletter. Welcome on board to anybody who has signed up recently. And hello again to all the long-term subscribers.

What's happening this month? For no good reason (apart from the fact that it is incredibly interesting), this month is mainly about bears.

I have a story about the very bad things bears do to walruses. There's a piece from the Persian Sufi poet Rumi about why you should never employ a bear as a servant. There's an intriguing piece of research into the curious mapping of bear territories and human languages in Canada. And finally, I'm sharing a story from here in Bulgaria about bears and blackberrying.

Book of the Week

But before getting into the bear content, I thought I'd share a link to the serialisation of my book, Hello, Stranger: How We Find Connection in a Disconnected World, which was featured a couple of weeks back on BBC Radio4's Book of the Week. You can listen to the whole series over on  BBC Sounds.

BBC Sounds - Hello, Stranger by Will Buckingham - Available Episodes
Listen to the latest episodes of Hello, Stranger by Will Buckingham on BBC Sounds

I've also been writing a few pieces elsewhere about how encounters with strangers can transform our lives and our worlds. So a couple of weeks back, I was in the Radio Times for their Viewpoint column. And I've also published a piece about Myanmar, grief and the art of connecting with strangers over on Mr Porter's Health in Mind site.

In the UK, the best place to get hold of the book is And if you've read and enjoyed the book, let me know by replying to this email, review it, tweet about it, and generally get the word out. And if you run a blog, bookstore, podcast or anything else and want to talk about the book, I'm always delighted to talk about this stuff!

New: Philosophy Salons

Amandines de Provence. Biscuits advertisement, c.1900. Library of Congress. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

While talking about my various projects, over on Looking for Wisdom, I'm starting something new: monthly informal philosophy salons via Zoom for community members. The idea is that on Sunday afternoons at 5 pm (UK afternoon tea time) every first Sunday of the month, we get together to talk through the ideas discussed on the site.

You can find out more at the link below, where you can also sign up for free weekly philosopher files. Recently, I've featured pieces on Aristotle, the Chinese philosopher Hui Shi, and an interview about Plato and the moral imagination with trans philosopher Sophie Grace Chappell.

The world’s philosophy in your inbox. Subscribe for free updates, or become a member and join our friendly philosophy community. Looking for Wisdom is run by Wind&Bones CIC, a social enterprise based in the UK.

Four Tales About Bears

Cinnamon Bears by J. T. Bowen. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But you're mainly here for the bears. So let's crack on. What's up with those furry creatures? Here are four short tales that go some way to answering this question.

Walrus Woes

Walrus, by Albrecht Dürer (1521). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Imagine you are a walrus. There you are, hanging around on the ice, feeling the breeze in your whiskers, and having walrussy thoughts. Suddenly, your meditations are interrupted when something hard lands on your head.

You look up (fortunately it was only a glancing blow) and see a polar bear standing on a cliff above you, picking up another rock to have a second go.

Who'd have thought it? Polar bears use rocks to brain walruses! Indigenous Inuit accounts have long talked about such antics, as have 19th-century travellers' tales. But until recently, scientists were sceptical. Click the link to read all about it in the Smithsonian magazine.

Polar Bears Take Down Walruses by Hurling Rocks and Ice
New research corroborates Inuit knowledge of the animals cleverly using new tools

A Cautionary Tale of Ursine Zeal

While on the subject of bears, and their tendency to hurl rocks, I also came across the following story told by the Islamic poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī in his Masnavi-ye-Ma'navi. It's a cautionary tale about exotic pets (taken from the 1898 translation).

A kind man, seeing a serpent overcoming a bear, went to the bear's assistance, and delivered him from the serpent. The bear was so sensible of the kindness the man had done him that he followed him about wherever he went, and became his faithful slave, guarding him from everything that might annoy him.

One day the man was lying asleep, and the bear, according to his custom, was sitting by him and driving off the flies. The flies became so persistent in their annoyances that the bear lost patience, and seizing the largest stone he could find, dashed it at them in order to crush them utterly; but unfortunately the flies escaped, and the stone lighted upon the sleeper's face and crushed it.

If you want to see the tragedy unfolding, here's an image from 17th century India, courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

Man and Bear, manuscript painting 1663 CE. Walters Art Museum Ms. W.626, fol. 79b. Public Domain via Flickr.

Bears and Languages

The thing about bears is they are quite literal-minded. So you have to explain things to them very carefully. But if you are uncertain about whether bears can make sense of human language at all, the following piece of research may intrigue you. Because researchers have recently found that over in Canada, grizzly bear territories map very neatly onto the distribution of indigenous language families. There's something really delightful about this. Here's the link:

‘Mind blowing’: Grizzly bear DNA maps onto Indigenous language families
Both bears and humans may have been attracted to the same resource-rich regions

I'd like to think that the bears are hanging around because they prefer to be somewhere that they can eavesdrop. But it's probably more a matter of resource distribution, meaning that the boundaries between human and bear populations are determined in part by the lie of the land.

All these bear-related concerns may seem very abstract, and have very little bearing (see what I did there?) on our everyday lives. But here in Bulgaria (although not, admittedly, in central Sofia where I live), sharing resources with bears is in some places still a fact of life, as the following story demonstrates.

The Blackberry Pickers

Blackberries / by Mrs E.T. Fisher. 1887. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One day, my Bulgarian friend Vasko's father was out in the hills, blackberrying. He found an excellent bush and started to pick. Before long, he became aware that on the other side of the bush, someone else was picking their way through the crop. He called out a friendly, “Zdraveite,” or “Hello.” But the person on the other side of the hedge didn't respond.

“How rude,” Vasko's dad thought. Then he shrugged and went on picking. The other blackberry picker did the same.

Eventually, Vasko's dad got to the end of the hedge and peered over. On the other side was a large bear, staring back at him. Human and bear looked at each other for a few moments, in shock and indignation.

Then the bear lumbered off into the woods, and my friend's father returned to his car, his heart beating fast.

That's all for this month. Stay tuned for the next Wayward Things.  Who knows what will happen? Barring accidents with overzealous bears, you can expect more links to intriguing things.

And in the meantime, if you want to say hello, just hit “reply” to this email,

All the best, Will Buckingham

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