My best friend Werner: Part 2

Last week, I could not stop evangelizing Werner Herzog’s 2007 film, “Encounters at the End of the World,” a documentary about Antarctica that revealed more about the 1000 eccentric scientists that make up the continent’s sole population than it did about the glorious landscape of the glacial desert. The film ended with the passing along of a quote by forklifter/philosopher Stefan Pashov that I feel sums up what Herzog intended to expose.

He says “There is a beautiful saying by an American, a philosopher, Alan Watts, and he used to say that through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself, and through our ears, the universe is listening to its cosmic harmonies, and we are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”

This is a central theme in many of Herzog’s films, the interaction between humanity and the universe that we were lucky enough to be born into. In “Encounters,” Herzog focused mainly on the people who tirelessly studied the completely unknown world of Antarctica with hopes of becoming familiar with it and learning from it. “Grizzly Man,” while centralizing on one man’s relationship with the natural world, has shifted the relationship from teacher and student to a seemingly romantic relationship between Timothy Treadwell and his Alaskan home.

I could speak for days about Timothy Treadwell. Born in 1957 in Long Island, New York, Treadwell was spared a noteworthy childhood. He achieved average grades in school, and his parents called him an “ordinary young man.” When he went away to college, he had some struggles with his identity, developing the persona of a British orphan from Australia, complete with an Aussie accent and all. After allegedly losing the role of Woody Boyd from the TV show “Cheers” to Woody Harrelson, Treadwell developed a drinking problem, which quickly escalated into a drug problem. Treadwell nearly died from a heroin overdose in the late 1980s, eliciting an evaluation in the direction of his life.

Treadwell made a decision. He would travel to the last frontier, the Alaskan wilderness at the suggestion of a close friend, to protect the grizzly bears. Having always been an animal lover, he would feel at home in the wild. Treadwell spent 13 consecutive summers camping on the Alaskan peninsula beginning in 1990. His final expedition was in 2003, and it ended tragically with his murder by one of his beloved bears.

I choose not to focus on how crazy Treadwell was for surrounding himself with extremely dangerous and unpredictable wild animals. I instead take note of his passion for protecting these creatures and his undying allegiance to them.

During his last five expeditions, Treadwell took a video camera and recorded hours upon hours of wildlife footage. There are tapes full of bears fighting and foxes frolicking, all accompanied by Treadwell providing a “Crocodile Hunter-esque” narration from either in front or behind the camera. What I find most interesting, however, are the tapes when Treadwell loses the initial focus of his shot and his passion overcomes his as he launches into a monologue about the National Park Service, poachers, or humanity as a whole.

In one such agitated monologue, Treadwell says “I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends. In love with my animal friends. I’m very, very troubled. It’s very emotional. It’s probably not cool even looking like this. I’m so in love with them, and they’re so f—ed over, which so sucks.”

It’s no secret that Treadwell suffers from some sort of mental illness. There is a scene in the film in which Treadwell finds a rock with the innocent message “Hi Timothy Treadwell – See you next summer” painted on it, and the man nearly goes into hysterics. Treadwell believes that this message, probably from a fan – for Treadwell had gained notoriety by his eighth summer or so – indicates some sort of gruesome fate. Civilization reaches out to Treadwell and not only does he shy away, but he feels violated and threatened.

If it’s not obvious in the fact that he spends three months at a time living in complete isolation from anything but some of the most dangerous creatures in the world, it is evident in his mannerisms and speech pattern when he is on camera. Treadwell has a very childish element about him. When I think of Timothy Treadwell, the word that comes to mind is “innocence.” He speaks directly to the bears, giving them human names and telling them repeatedly that he loves them. He interacts with them just as you or I would with another person, only his conversations are one-sided.

I find this quality absolutely admirable, especially when considering Treadwell’s past. He suffered through drug and alcohol abuse to emerge a lively and dedicated man. While his dreams may not have been rational, he never let anyone, not even the law, stand in his way. He lived alongside his bears for 13 summers, and while his death is a tragedy, I don’t think he would have preferred to go any other way.


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