Book Pays Homage to California’s Grizzly

Tuesday October 14, 2003

Probably no creature native to North America has inspired more fear and awe than the Grizzly bear. 

Consider the Latin name assigned by taxonomists: Ursus arctos horribilus, the horrible northern bear. 

And of all the regions of what became the United States, none proved more hospitable to the massive omnivores than California, the state which adopted the fearsome beast as its totem and emblazoned it on its flag. 

Of course, bears have a special connection with UC Berkeley, home both of the Cal Bears and of the Bancroft Library, that magnificent historical repository that is the Bancroft Library. How appropriate then, that a lavish tribute to the creature derived from the Bancroft’s unique resources should come from Heyday Books, a Berkeley publisher. 

Susan Snyder, a Point Richmond resident who heads the Bancroft’s Access Services department, has drawn on the remarkable collection at her disposal to create Bear in Mind: The California Grizzly, a tribute in words and images that does unique justice to a creature now long vanished from the California landscape. 

A beautifully designed 244-page coffee table book, Snyder’s creation follows the Grizzly from the legends and myths of indigenous cultures, through the eras of Spanish and Mexican dominion and into the modern era (which itself began with the declaration of the Bear Flag Republic), in which the now-vanished creature has been reincarnated as a symbol and as an advertising icon. 

While Bear in Mind can be consumed as a linear read, as with all good exemplars of the coffee table genre, the book can be picked up and opened at will, offering visual and verbal delights. 

As the reader proceeds through the 11 sections, the Grizzly begins as a mythic being and first emerges as a fleshly being in the descriptions and anecdotes of the Spanish, Mexican and Anglo settlers. With Ursus horribilus now vanished from the land over which it once held dominion, it has reentered the world of myth, albeit in a commodified, commercialized form. 

The artwork ranges from crude sketches to photos, intricate paintings to airbrush advertisements, reproductions of manuscript pages to lurid “Wild West” magazine covers. Particularly haunting are the hand-tinted lithographs of Francis Florabond (Fannie) Palmer, whose style manages to meld the geometric formalism of Japanese block prints with the thematic context of the American frontier. 

The literary vignettes range from a brief autobiography from an anonymous “Mission Indian” to the tale of how “Oski” came to be the mascot of UC Berkeley. In one, William Heath Davis recounts for Hubert Howe Bancroft the night he spent huddled in terror on the flats between modern-day Berkeley and Oakland, listening as the creatures prowled outside his tent. 

Snyder reserves a full section for the story of John “Grizzly” Adams, the much celebrated frontiersman-turned-showman who amazed audiences around the world with his remarkable troupe of performing bears. 

Particularly poignant is the section that looks at the Grizzly’s sad plight as a creature sacrificed to the blood lust of spectators in Gold Rush-era arenas, a reminder of the perilous nature of that thin veneer we call civilization. 

Bear in Mind is both a delightful experience in reading and looking, and a superb holiday gift for anyone fascinated by history, wildlife, and the power of the media to shape our images of the world around us. It’s one of those books a reader will flip through again and again, drawn both by the well-selected words and artwork that is carefully chosen, often surprising, and sometimes hauntingly moving. 

Bear in Mind, edited by Susan Snyder, 244 pages, Heyday Books, Berkeley. $49.50 through Dec. 31; $60 thereafter. 

Richard Brenneman is managing editor of the Daily Planet and author of Deadly Blessings [1991] and Fuller’s Earth [1983].