Mandy Haggith’s novel revolves around the notion of re-introducing species that have been lost to Scotland. This, as you can imagine, is a cause of some controversy even with species like the beaver because of the changes that they can bring about in the environment. So it is not difficult to imagine the controversy that would be caused by the re-introduction of bears to the highlands of Scotland. That is the underlying theme to this novel.
The story begins with the narrator seeing footprints in the snow and scratch marks on the trees, so that she knows that the animals that she is looking for are in the area. She stops by a river, tired, trying to recognise the various prints that she can see in the snow. And then she sees it ahead of her, a big creature, a bear. The wind is blowing in her face and she can see them, a mother and her cub. It is in that moment that Mandy Haggith traps the attention of her readers. It is magical. You are convinced that you are there, and that you are watching bears in the wild, in the north of Scandinavia. You can see the beauty of the natural world, the world in which you live, and the world of which you are usually quite oblivious. Mandy Haggith, as a true poet, chooses her words very carefully to achieve this effect. We are told, for instance, that the cub “bounds, splashing, into the water after her, calling out, I imagine, in complaint.” And you know that you are in the hands of someone who is a skilled practitioner in the use of language. All you have to do is sit back and revel in the beauty of the story, and of the language in which it is told.
“Bear Witness” is, of course, much more than that. It is an examination of how we inter-act with the world in which we live. It is a story of the damage that we can do, and of the ways in which we try to rectify that damage. It is a story of our fears and of our hopes, and of the violence that we can use to defend what we see as ours.
All this is explored through examining the ways in which countries that still have bear populations seek to find ways to accommodate them, and how people in those countries try to deal with having bears in close proximity. We meet farmers who shoot bears on sight, because they fear for their flocks. We meet the conservationists who attempt to preserve the habitat so that the bears can flourish. We are introduced to the full range of debate about how we should deal with bears.
Mandy Haggith is quite clearly on the side of the conservationists. She does not want to see these beautiful creatures destroyed. She is excited by the prospect of bears being returned to Scotland, where there have been no bears for something more than one thousand years. She is persuasive in her arguments, expressed through this story. And she takes her readers with her, because she is so convincing in the use of her language, the construction of the story and the sheer beauty and excitement of the idea.
I have to admit that I have my doubts about the idea. I do not live in a part of Scotland that would be affected by the introduction of a large predator. The European Brown Bear, of course, is nowhere near as dangerous as the Grizzly or the Polar Bear but I am sure that I would not like to disturb one if I was walking along the banks of the Kelvin. And I am not a farmer whose stock would be at risk.
It is however a beautiful story. It is an exciting idea, and it appeals to something deep in my soul about our custody of the earth and the need to pass it on, vibrant and growing, to future generations. This is a book that makes you think about how we do that.