Prose by Susan Cerulean + Photographs by David Moynahan
The flesh and skin of the bear are not part of the ordinary needs of people. So the bear has been almost wholly symbolic in human ceremony and imagination…. When ritual evaporates or is forgotten, what remains appears to be brutish or savage. — Paul Shepard, The Sacred Paw
Despite a court appeal, dozens of demonstrations, and 40,000 letters of protest; despite impassioned editorials in every major newspaper; and without regard for the opposition of three-quarters of the state’s human population, nearly 300 bears (including three dozen lactating mothers) were gunned down in late October. Hunters baited and tempted the wild animals with corn, birdseed, and glazed doughnuts. The bears didn’t stand a chance.
How could we respond to the brutal slaying of animals only just recovering from threatened status? What gesture could we devise to transform our grief and our outrage, knowing that 60 traumatized and orphaned cubs still wandered the woods? How would we help reset a moral compass in a state that presently appears to have none?
In Tallahassee, on November 21, 2015, a group of musicians, artists, and spiritual leaders created a memorial service not much different than we might have, had this mass murder targeted human victims.
The ritual began with procession of artists wearing handmade masks—deer, bear, wolf, bird—creeping and stalking down a central aisle to the beat of a single somber drum. The artists carried a larger-than-life bear with a bejeweled head, and a body sewn of tawny fabric. The bear was laid on an altar overarched with tall bamboo and grapevine, and strewn with baskets of flowers, acorns, shells and blueberries. Rev. Candace McKibben spoke of the many forms senseless human violence takes, and the numbness it can create in our hearts. Many audience members openly wept. Buddhist practitioner Crystal Wakoa urged the audience to consider a perspective that seeks an opening of hearts, including those of hunters and politicians, so all of us might see ourselves anew, and change. The Ursine Chorale, a small a capella group of women, sang a promise to never forget or forsake the earth’s creatures, reworking a Becky Reardon song, for the bears:
The bear cubs remember A dream in September, alone with Mom At one with all of the woods We honor your spirit. Forgive us, forgive us.
Festivals and rituals surrounding the bear have occurred for centuries in nearly all countries of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. We hoped our Bear Requiem would help our community move through grief and outrage, and recommit ourselves, as advocates.
Near the close of the ritual, we invited the audience to take part in a special communion. From baskets, we chose flowers to adorn the symbolic bear. We ate blueberries, sharing the sweet taste of a favorite bear food. And each of us selected a bear paw shell collected from a local beach, a reminder of our pledge to speak out for Florida’s wild bears.
Bear Requiem | Photographs by David Moynahan
All photographs are copyright David Moynahan; images may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:
Susan Cerulean was one of the producers of Tallahassee’s Bear Requiem. Her most recent book, Coming to Pass: Florida’s Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change, was published by University of Georgia Press in April 2015. You can visit her website or subscribe to her blog at www.susancerulean.com.
As a conservation photographer, David Moynahan’s goal is to help raise awareness of the natural and beautiful world that still surrounds us. By adding his work to the efforts of environmental groups, scientists, and policy makers — honoring the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” — he believes that we can re-inspire awe, respect, and stewardship of our remaining wild places. A Florida native, David grew up in Miami, with Biscayne Bay, the Everglades, and Keys his extended backyard. Photography became the basis of his journal-keeping as he explored biology, medicine, art, travel, and parenting into adulthood. Over the past decade, his love and respect for the natural world, eye for composition, and his long photographic experience have converged into the striking images that make up his work today.