Book Review: Down from the Mountain by Bryce Andrews
Reading format: Library hardback
Content warnings: animal death
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Down from the Mountain is Bryce Andrews’s ode to the North American grizzly bear. When Andrews realizes his heart is no longer in ranching he finds a new job with a conservation group that focuses on mitigating conflicts between land users and large predators. One such conflict is the allure of cornfields that draw grizzlies from their normal food sources. And there’s one field that is particularly attractive to the nearby grizzlies in the Mission Valley in Montana. Andrews eagerly takes on the challenge to find a solution that will benefit both bears and humans.
In the beginning of the book Andrews describes his profession as a rancher. As he recounts what it was like to be a rancher, he effectively narrates the pivotal moment that made him decide he couldn’t do that job for the rest of his life. In a way it humanizes and brings to focus aspects that we, as consumers, might not consciously think about when we purchase meat at the grocery store.
However, that’s not the focus of this nonfiction. It’s simply the impetus for Andrews to find a new job and segue into his work with the conservation group People and Carnivores. Andrews also takes time to acknowledge the tribes tied to the Mission and Bitterroot valley areas, particularly Flathead Reservation. Although it’s a quick summary of the past injustices endured by these tribes, it’s again another piece of U.S. history that I either was never taught or don’t remember from my schooling. For example, as a result of the 1887 Dawes Act (National Park Service; Wikipedia), tribes eventually lost more than a million acres of land from that had been guaranteed to them in perpetuity. Because of the privatization of tribal land, today most of Flathead Reservation’s residents are white (p. 32-34).
In poetic detail, Andrews also describes nature in Montana in such a way that the reader almost feels as if they’re also witness to the same beauty. He helps us visualize both what Montana looks like now and what it likely looked like thousands of years ago.
“Glaciers rasped the valley into shape, scouring out Flathead Lake […] and sharpening peaks into tricornered spearheads. […] the ice left a moonscape of eskers and moraines on the valley floor.”
I expected this book to have a similar writing style/organization as The Reign of Wolf 21 where there’s essentially a semi-dry, play-by-play account of Millie, the grizzly of interest. Instead this book is a smooth, lyrical, descriptive read, which made me feel like I wasn’t reading nonfiction. However, this is also where my biggest critique of the book lies.
Based on the title, I thought I would read more about the life of a grizzly bear. I thought this would be a biography of sorts about Millie that would describe her adult life, what she did during the day, how she trained her cubs. Basically, again, in the vein of The Reign of Wolf 21. Instead, most of this book was about how Andrews devised an electric fence to keep the grizzlies out of the corn field; nature descriptions; some anthropomorphism of Millie; and deductive imaginings of how Millie might have hunted, hibernated, and cared for her young.
I feel like the second part of this book title is somewhat misleading. So if you’re looking for a book that really follows grizzly bears and how they live, this book isn’t it. This book is more for those who prefer to read a little bit about everything. That is, discussions of human-predator interactions, tribal participation in managing the grizzlies, problem-solving, land management, and being in tune with nature.
Publisher: HMH Books
Publish Date: April 16, 2019