Book review: Bear Witness by Mandy Haggith

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AT LAST month’s StAnza poetry fes­tival in St Andrews, in an event on eco-poetry, a questioner asked the panel why poetry rather than the novel seemed to be the preferred art form for writing about the natural world.

Bear Witness

Mandy Haggith

Saraband, £8.99

Why, in other words, is there eco-poetry, but no eco-novels?

Assynt-based poet and environmentalist Mandy Haggith was quick to respond. “Er, there are,” she said. “I’ve just written one.”

And here it is. Bear Witness, is set in the very near future. The independence referendum has been won by the Yes ­campaign and Scotland is looking for ways to mark its revived identity, free at last from the United Kingdom’s fond embrace.

Callis, an environmental research scientist, is away from home, on a project mapping forests in Norway. She is excited by the possibilities for Scotland’s restored nationhood, but it’s a close encounter with a mother bear and her cub while on a walk in the Norwegian woods that truly captivates her.

When a farmer makes headlines by shooting “possibly the last denning female in Norway”, and then – in a sick publicity stunt aimed at reminding Norwegians of their roots as wilderness tamers – takes its cub into the centre of Trondheim and kills it there, Callis is as distressed as everyone else who hears the news. She vows to do whatever it takes to protect the few Ursus articus still living free.

The government in Oslo needs to be seen to be taking action in the wake of the killings, and Callis is hired to identify habitats for a bear protection scheme. As the ­novel unfolds, her thoughts turn increasingly towards home, and a plan takes shape: to release two bears into the Highlands of Scotland, illegally if necessary. Reintroducing a species to the land it once roamed, and giving it its freedom – what better symbolic gesture for a country re-emerging after 300 years?

Bear Witness is not just about bears, however. As the novel opens, Callis’s mother has died suddenly, and she is called back for the funeral. The novel tracks the course of her grief. It also follows her love life, as she defies the rules of a sisterhood of college friends – the Phi-Fi-Pho club, whose ideals are sexual freedom and the single life. Callis’s encounters with an old (male) friend from primary school lead to her excommunication from the club, but he’s not the only man on the scene. There’s Petr, the Romanian bear expert who acts as her guide on an early research trip, and Yuri, the heavy-duty boss who would like to lure her back to his bed (she went there once) and sets about destroying her career when she says no.

Along the way there’s plenty of detail about government committees and political manoeuvring, on a national scale and in the microcosm of the office. Sometimes this gives the reader a sense of being lost in the trees of the plot. But the tension builds and, in the scenes where Callis is in her own natural habitat – the great outdoors – the writing is both lyrical and tight.

The novel opens and closes with glimpses of a mother bear and her cub. Haggith creates an image, here, of great beauty and power – of a mysterious, majestic creature roaming ancient woodlands, a symbol of regeneration and hope. «