“Every day I will think about polar bears. There’s just no doubt about it.”
In July 2013, Matt Dyer, a Pagan poverty lawyer, was attacked and nearly killed by a polar bear in Torngat Mountain National Park in Labrador. Increasingly, polar bears are roaming further and further south in search of food, as climate change has severely disrupted the arctic ecosystem. Matt tells his story, along with percussion, violin, and forest sounds, in Episode 1 of this podcast.
“We had an electric fence we set up, that was supposed to keep the bears from getting in. High voltage. We were all asleep, 7 of us, and sometime in the middle of the night I woke up, and above my tent I saw the silhouette of bear legs. Two of them. I knew right then it was trouble. I started hollering, and down the bear came, got his teeth around my head, and just ripped me out of that tent, right through the fabric, and off we went.”
Even before the throat injuries from the attack changed his voice, I always told Matt I might get him to do a voiceover recording someday when the narrative called for an authentic Maine accent. Now with the raspiness his voice has, I may still do this at some point. He’s a great example of a softspoken person, who uses the power of his voice with great precision as a self-described “poverty lawyer,” helping very-low-income folks fight for their legal rights in civil cases.
The most difficult part of Matt’s recovery was psychological, coming to terms with the aftermath of this most extraordinary event while under the influence of the strong drugs he had been given while recovering.
“I was in a coma for maybe a week, two weeks, I don’t know. I would occasionally come out of it, but I was not out of it. I was in strange places. I had a terrifying hallucination that I was in a bar in Miami, imprisoned and made to dress up like a mermaid and serve drinks to people. It was not funny at the time. I was completely convinced that this was reality. That was so much worse than the encounter with the bear.”
For Matt, this experience changed the way he relates to people, drawing the line between alternate realities and experiences of realities, whether a near-death experience like his, shamanic experiences, or psychedelic experiences.
“It gave me great insight how hurt people are when they are in my office telling me the government has put implants in their heads. I don’t relate to those people the same way now, because I know that for them it is very real and very terrifying. it may be that what they see is an alternate reality but as a society we are not equipped to have any kind of meaningful communication with people that are walking that road.”
A year after the attack, Matt returned to the park, with a film crew accompanying him to document his experience. His interaction with the Innuit locals was informed by his experiences as a pagan.
“The old Innuit religion prior to Christianity… they did have a shaman-based religion but it seems like they’ve forgotten how it worked. I asked them, because I’m interested in this stuff. I was involved in Heathenry for a while, reconstructionism is very important, so I was wondering if these folks ever thought of that. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of interest but they knew that there were old ways that were shamanistic. They held the polar bear in high regard, they thought he was a man who put on the skins of the bear and could take it off again.”
We talked about edgewalkers, those members of the tribe who can go to the extreme edges of reality and come back with messages for the tribe. I asked him if he ever thinks about his experience in this way.
“I don’t have any training in any tradition or anything like that, but I did get nearly killed by a large animal. I guess the message I would bring back, and it may have been the same message had I not been hurt or if I hadn’t gone, is we are all animals. There is not a whole lot of space between you and I, the bear, the dog, the hawk, and I think it’s important to have this brotherhood and sisterhood, and also realize that life and death are so much a part of each other…. We eat things, bears eat things. We convert life to life in this absolutely amazing cycle, this dance that’s been going on and on and on from the time that the stars were born. It’s very humbling, and also comforting, to know that maybe there is no greater role for one; just living and being able to experience a life that we have in knowing that it’s transitory but don’t freak out about that. It’s continuing to go on forever.”
Thanks to Matt Dyer for the story; Alfred Lund for the percussion; Carson Lynch for the violin; various Maine woodland creatures, particularly the barred owls, for the forest sounds. Campfire by James Lindenschmidt, using a ferro rod, birch bark, and dry pine.
Want to tell your story?
I am actively looking for folks to tell their stories, sing their songs, or contribute other chants & rants for future episodes. If you are interested in contributing, please contact me.