A Summer Bestiary

What did you do this summer?

We met a polar bear. We were as up-close and personal to one of these magnificent creatures as we will ever be.

We were at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. It is a very intimate space. You see the animals, and it’s pretty clear that they see you. More than once, I have wondered who is really on display here – us or them. On this warm summer day, one of the polar bears was swimming in the pool of his “natural exhibit,” which includes a glass wall for underwater viewing. The bear was doing laps.

He would dive underwater from the far end, swim straight toward the viewing glass, and come up by placing his huge paws on the glass as he turned to complete the lap. The pattern put him eye-to-eye, paw-to-hand with the viewer. It looked as though this enormous creature was coming straight at you, and then, at the last minute, he would turn. You could high five his paw on the glass as he turned for the next pass.

This description doesn’t capture the experience. The video is a little closer:

The energy, excitement, joy, and touch of terror is all there. It has all the makings of an encounter with the sacred. It’s a contagious magic. Kids and grown-ups alike were caught up in it. Right there. In Madison, Wisconsin.

Like others, I am deeply, deeply ambivalent about zoos. From the animals’ perspective, they seem cruel. As an empath, I can almost feel the sadness of the creatures. As a nature experience, I fear it furthers the sense that nature is somewhere else. It’s removed from our everyday city living. And yet, we’ve taken our kids to their fair share because it gives them a sense of the scale of animals. Creatures on this planet can be bigger than dogs and people. It is very hard to get that into one’s imagination without an experience of an immense creature like a rhinoceros or a whale – or a polar bear.

As far as zoos go, Henry Vilas Zoo is doing a lot right. Not only is it an enchanted visitor experience, but also it is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They’ve “met rigorous, professional standards for animal management, veterinary care, wildlife conservation and research, education, safety, staffing, and more.” Fewer than 10% of USDA-licensed wildlife exhibitors in the United States hold this accreditation, and the organization is a leader in conservation efforts.

The admission price? Free. Yep, admission-free.

Yet, is it worth it? Honestly, I’m not sure. And now, to further complicate things, there’s our friend, the swimming polar bear. He is a main character in our family bestiary.

“What’s a bestiary?,” you ask. It a “book of beasts.” The medieval versions were compendiums of short descriptions of the natural world, usually animals, with a moralizing tale. Not quite scientific text, not quite religious manual, but a mix of natural history and spiritual formation. Aberdeen’s Bestiary is a classical example. In Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s updated Urban Bestiary, she recommends checking out the entries for the ant and the beaver.

My family’s summer bestiary includes the polar bear and the green sunfish of my oldest son’s first fishing excursion. Black-eyed susans. Mosquitoes and deer ticks. Milk thistle. Paper wasps. Mud daubers. Sweet corn and watermelon. Blue jays. Box turtles and fox snakes. Deer and bison. Red tailed hawk. Dragonflies, monarchs, and fireflies. Ants – so many ants. Wrigley Field ivy. Grasshoppers. The call of a whippoorwill. Squirrels and chipmunks. Lake gulls. Minnows. Wood ducks. And, the list goes on and on.

As I penned this list, I was drawn back to the place that we met each of these creatures. We don’t have a medieval bestiary “moral of the story” for each entry in our family bestiary, but the power of a bestiary is in the collection as a whole. For us, it’s the way each encounter connects to a place and the way that the whole orients our family to value seeking out these connections. And, it’s the stories we now share about that time we high fived a polar bear or sat to watch the house sparrows try to build nests in the ivy on our neighbor’s building

This fall, I’m teaching a course on urban nature, and we will be building a seminar bestiary. It’s an experiment in teaching, but in theory, it’s a way to practice building the connections to urban nature that the course is exploring. Who knows what we’ll see!

So, what did you do this summer? Who did you add to your bestiary?

North Pond Nature Sanctuary with Turtles (Lea Schweitz)


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