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Giants in the Earth: Reflections on Chuck Jonkel

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Photo by Mary Strachen Scriver

Last week I attended a memorial for Chuck Jonkel at the Roxy Theater in Missoula, Montana. Charles Joseph Jonkel died over one year ago on April 12, 2016, aged 86, much diminished from his physical and intellectual prime. Of relevance here, Chuck was a mentor, pioneer, innovator, naturalist, scientist, educator, activist, and inspiration. Like all of us, he was also a complicated flawed human being. But I suspect that people are ultimately reckoned by their net effect in the world, necessarily filtered through how we construct others through displaced anxieties and related needs to fabricate virtual demons or veritable saints. There is rarely much in between worth an after-meal conversation.

Such is my disclaimer.

***

Accolades? Chuck was the only scientist who ever led research projects focused on all three North American bear species: black, polar, and grizzly. He started his labor-intensive doctoral investigations of black bears in northwestern Montana in 1959. He moved on to the first-ever systematic study of polar bears in 1966—in the Canadian arctic. He returned to Montana and refocused on grizzly bears in 1974. He was a key negotiator in the conclave that produced the first international protections for polar bears in 1973. He was a founder of the International Bear Association, which now hosts conferences thronged by thousands. In 1977, he created the International Wildlife Film Festival out of concern for pabulum passing at the time for natural history. In his spare time, he also founded and oversaw the Great Bear Foundation.

And he connected with people. Chuck mentored dozens of impressionable graduate students. He led numerous field trips to Churchill, Manitoba, to introduce children, college students, and elders to polar bears. He formed fast friendships with Native Americans. He fed multitudes with the fruits of his garden, dumpster diving, and hunting. He spurned pretentious bureaucrats and privileged elites. He chastised and encouraged.

All of which was communicated through a lisp imposed by an upper lip immobilized by frost bite, a droll sense of humor, and gift for telling good stories.

And he found a morning hour or two on summer Saturdays to camp at the Missoula Farmer’s Market dispensing good will and flower lei.

Several hundred of us geezers, blue-hairs, and middling-aged youths crowded into the small lobby of the Roxy Theater to participate in a memorial and view a film devoted to Chuck’s life. This press of flesh was testimony to the extent of Chuck’s influence, especially for those of us who suffer from enochlophobia. We all had stories of Chuck’s foibles. But far more were about his humanity, grace, generosity, courage, and bear-like quirkiness.

How many of us could hope for such a legacy?

***

Chuck had intensely personal relevance for me. I first met him in the late 1970s, back when I was beginning my training for induction into the priesthood of scientists. My indoctrination included schooling in objectivity, empiricism, and detachment from the emotional fray that otherwise blighted humanity. This sanctifying education presumably produced people—scientists—with a uniquely privileged view of the world, but preserved only by near-monastic retreat from messy affective and political human affairs.

Part of me knew that this pretension was Runny Cow Manure. I did, in fact, care about people and politics. I wanted to make the world a better place. There was also that subterranean inarticulate bit that yearned for harmonious expression of all those parts that were “me”—the intellectual, visceral, emotional, relational, creative, and more. And, even back then, I knew—albeit inchoately—that objectivity was an illusion. By derivation, any scientist who laid claim to objectivity was probably delusional—as well as heavily invested in defending a frail ego with the fig-leaf of intellectualization.

But I was in the maw of the Machine, wracked by dissonance between its cultural pretensions and my own reality—which is where Chuck comes in.

***

Like so many giants of his generation[i], Chuck lived an engaged life that merged the empirical, ethical, emotional, and relational…certainly not perfectly, but amply as an example and inspiration for someone like me. Put another way, Chuck’s lived-life gave me tacit permission to honor all my “parts” that conflicted with the catechism of post-World War II reductionist science and the despotic regimes it served—democratic or otherwise.

But more than that, Chuck not only tacitly encouraged a life of engagement and broadly-writ integrity; more explicitly he kicked my ass. Not literally, of course, but whenever we got together he asked me in some way what I had been doing to make a positive difference in the World—beyond just collecting data, publishing peer-reviewed journal papers, and sucking up to the establishment money and power machine. And he encouraged me to act on whatever courage I could find to contest the corrupt status quo that threatened so much of what we both valued. In fact, before I could begin to put words to it, he contested in lived form what I would come to see as a core problem: the psychopathology of greed, fear, cruelty, and tough-mindedness that impoverishes our commonwealth of dignity.

Chuck was of a generation of icons. He was not alone in living, even extolling, a life that integrated wide-ranging concern about the plight of life on Earth with the scientific endeavor, all founded on eclectic interests, natural talent, and generosity of spirit. In my regional geographic sphere alone, his spiritual peers and immediate predecessors included Frank and John Craighead, Adolf and Olaus Murie, David Love, and Luna Leopold. More broadly, think of E.O. Wilson and Jane Goodall. They all stood up to (and continue to stand up to) the status quo, each in their own way, and in the process, inspire those among succeeding generations who are open to being inspired. Something special was going on with the generation born and raised during the early 1900s, especially in contrast to my compadres.

***

Most of my peers who work for government bureaus as wildlife managers or researchers are good people trying to live good lives…at least according to some reckonings of rectitude. Yet, almost all of them live a highly circumscribed professional and public life that, in the end, serves corrupt regimes slaved to the purposes of regressive elites. Such is the unfortunate nature of our institutions that govern natural resources management.

Widespread conformity among wildlife professionals exists for understandable reasons, none of which are laudable. The very few biologists, technicians, and researchers of my generation who I saw stand up to the Machine were crushed by complicit bureaucrats higher up the food-chain. Almost all the nascent rebels left public service depressed, demoralized—some with ulcers. Unfortunately, their experiences served as an object lesson for their peers, reinforced by narratives that encouraged conformity and disengagement from the larger sphere of political, social, and cultural life.

And the narratives are legion. Among the most insidious for researchers are delusions of objectivity. No small number of my compadres protest that they are merely “objective scientists” who “let the data speak for themselves.” Put bluntly, this mythic condition does not now nor ever has existed. The story is, like so many of its kind, an excuse for researchers to keep their heads down, their lines of funding intact, and their interests aligned with those of the bureaucracy. It also atrophies any self-reflective capacities these scientists might have once had.

Some scientists, while recognizing the problematics of their operating environment, rationalize that someone needs to be doing the work and insuring continuity of data collection. Two friends come to mind. As they say, “it might as well be me,” or, even, “I’m irreplaceable,” or, better yet, “I care about the animals, so better me than others I can think of.” Maybe, but probably not.

Among wildlife managers, there are stories about “being a good soldier,” “obeying orders,” and “following directions,’ which is, yep, a slippery slide to perdition. But perhaps most insidious is an increasingly common narrative about “serving the public trust,” which, on the face of it, is a great idea. Unfortunately, such rhetoric is almost always deployed as cover for unthinking perpetuation of regimes that do not, in fact, serve the public trust—a particularly toxic form of double-speak.

And, the echo-chambers of professional communities amplify the effects of these narratives. Rationalization is given a predictable boost when others whom you may respect repeat the same stories…as if repetition increases the legitimacy and ethical justification of narratives that are inherently morally bankrupt.

In the end, rationalizing narratives primarily foster complicity with a corrupt and despotic status quo. Of course, the alternative would probably be loss of a job, destruction of a professional career, and a family left out in the cold. A sad story with an ancient and hoary legacy. But, then, what do any of us do when we witness something that is wrong? There is always a personal price to be paid for contesting power-wealth elites and their ideological allies.

***

The world has changed since World War II, in some ways for better, in some ways for worse. We are certainly caught up in ever-more labyrinthian rules and regulations. Bureaucrats have become better at rooting out dissent. Technocrats and academics have obsessively fragmented and compartmentalized knowledge and education. Corporations increasingly rule our lives. All of which has spawned legions scrambling to climb bureaucratic or corporate ladders, or simply willing to suborn themselves to what seems like an overwhelming status quo.

But not all have gone quietly down that path. Artists, authors, free-thinkers, and those who live a heartfelt life have cried out against the instrumentalizing and dehumanizing bureaucratization of the world. Think Orwell and his novel 1984, or Gilliam and his movie Brazil, or the gray Auditors that populate Pratchett’s Discworld books.

I also think of the first time I met an inveterate rebel named Doug Peacock. I was helping to teach a class on grizzly bear ecology for Forest Service functionaries at Buffalo Ranch in the heart of Yellowstone Park’s Lamar Valley. Doug had dropped by. Upon learning who the milling crowd of manicured gray men were, Doug bellowed, “Forest Service bureaucrats? I hate the f…ckers!”

There is some truth in that. Which leads to a perennial issue. To what extent are any of us accountable for our choices and behaviors? Everything we do can be explained by—attributed to—the powerful configuring effects of our childhoods, life experiences, and ongoing circumstance. Yet we are also free agents. We do have choices, and not all the choices we make are virtuous or justified. Perhaps a bit self-righteously, I contend that we are all, in fact, accountable, and if we don’t take ourselves to task, someone else should. Or, at the very least, we should take inspiration where we can find it to be better people.

***

Which takes me back to where I started, with Chuck Jonkel and other giants of his generation. Few of this cohort got rich. Most were poor money managers, as was certainly the case with Chuck. But, then, this hardly seems a fault, much less a moral failing, in contrast to the greed and bigotry that seem to typify so many of my fellow citizens these days.

Perhaps Chuck and his compadres benefited from an era that encouraged a more holistic integrated manifestation of the creative, humanistic, scientific, ethical, and emotive self. Perhaps they were uniquely gifted—more so than most who followed. Perhaps. But there is no doubt they inspired multitudes, asked tough questions, and courageously engaged critical issues. Chuck inspired me to ask myself, each day, what I had done to make the world a better place. And you?

Genesis 6:4—“There were giants in the earth in those days…mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”

More articles by:

David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for 2 decades. He retired from the US Geological Survey two years ago. 

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