In an attempt to escape going to jail for assaulting a classmate named Peter, 15-year-old offender Cole Matthews agrees to undergo a yearlong banishment on a remote Alaskan island through the program Circle Justice. Cole undergoes two stints on the island. The first is a disaster: he angrily burns his provided shelter and tries to swim away, and a white American black bear known as a Spirit Bear mauls him when he attempts to kill it. Cole’s actions put him in the hospital for months. When he returns to the island six months later to try again, he’s a changed person. Rather than seeing the natural world either as something he can dominate or something that will dominate him, Cole begins to see the world around him as a teacher that he can learn from. Through Cole’s changing relationship to nature, the novel suggests that the natural world can be humanity’s greatest teacher, if only a person learns to approach it with respect and curiosity.
When Cole first arrives on the remote Alaskan island, he makes his worldview plain. To him, the natural world is little different from the city he left behind: it’s something to dominate. For instance, as he and Edwin discuss that Cole’s crude cabin is so far away from his water source because he shares the stream with an assortment of wildlife (including bears), Cole says plainly that he’d kill a bear if he saw one. Cole’s early actions on the island reflect this worldview. He burns the cabin and all his supplies, as he doesn’t plan to be on the island long and doesn’t think that the weather (which, at this point, is beautiful) is going to pose a problem for him. Then, he attempts to swim away from his island with the eventual plan of hitching a ride on a fishing boat and disappearing. When this fails, and the Spirit Bear appears and seems unafraid of him, Cole feels as though this is his last chance to prove his dominance over the natural world by trying to kill the Spirit Bear. It’s telling that all three of these attempts fail spectacularly; a cold, injured, and starving Cole is finally rescued days after the bear mauls him. Cole’s choice to disrespect nature puts him in a situation where he’s unable to learn anything from the natural world—except that it’s more powerful than he is.
However, during the two days that Cole spends on the island waiting for help after the mauling, he begins to notice the rhythms and cycles of plants and animals around him—and through this, he begins to experience new emotions and a sense of humbleness. As he takes note of a bird’s nest one day and then watches a lightning storm take down the tree, killing all the baby birds, Cole discovers that he feels compassion for those baby birds. This is a new emotion for Cole, who seldom thinks of anyone but himself. Cole realizes that while the natural world has the power to take lives without a care, it also has the ability to provide him with tools for survival, like food. He turns to grass, easily accessible worms, and even a live mouse that crawls over his hand to keep himself from starving. Even though Cole has no choice but to acknowledge the destructive power of the natural world, his own powerlessness and his dire need for help also force him to look for the ways that nature, the only thing he has, can help him.
Upon his return to the island, Cole continues this process. Especially as he engages in Edwin’s rituals that get him out in nature every morning, Cole finds that animals, including the Spirit Bear, begin to show themselves—and if Cole pays attention, they all have something to teach him. Through his almost nightly dances around the fire wherein he acts like an animal he saw that day, Cole has an opportunity to practice a lesson he learned from an animal. By embodying whales, he learns that it takes a group to get through hard times; by embodying other animals, he learns about tenacity, caution, and power. Cole’s time on the island ultimately teaches him exactly what it was supposed to do: that every being, no matter how big or small, is worthy of consideration—and every animal has something to share. One can only learn these lessons, however, if they humble themselves before nature and approach the natural world and the animals that inhabit it with respect and curiosity.
Man vs. Nature ThemeTracker
Man vs. Nature Quotes in Touching Spirit Bear
“Justice should heal, not punish. If you kill my cat, you need to become more sensitive to animals. You and I need to be friends, and I need to forgive you to get over my anger. That’s Circle Justice. Everybody is a part of the healing, including people from the community—anybody who cares. But healing is much harder than standard punishment. Healing requires taking responsibility for your actions.”
“Other animals come here for water, too,” Edwin said. “How would you feel if a bear made its den beside the stream?”
Cole shrugged. “I’d kill it.”
The potbellied elder nodded with a knowing smile. “Animals feel the same way. Don’t forget that.” [...] “You aren’t the only creature here. You’re part of a much bigger circle. Learn your place or you’ll have a rough time.”
Cole felt no regret for having burned the supplies and the shelter. Nor did he regret hurting Peter. This was all somebody else’s fault. If it weren’t for his parents, Peter, and the stupid Healing Circle, he wouldn’t even be here. Somebody would pay for what was happening. He would get revenge, especially against those who had wanted him in jail. People like Peter’s lady lawyer. He hated her.
Cole tried to gather his wits. The mauling didn’t make sense. In the past, everything had always been afraid of him. Why wasn’t the bear scared? A bear with half a brain would have turned tail and run. Instead, this dumb animal had attacked. Now it wandered out in the woods somewhere, the mauling little more than an inconvenience to its morning.
Cole’s gaze wandered in a big circle around him. All of the landscape, the air, the trees, the animals, the water, the rain, all seemed to be part of something bigger. They moved in harmony, bending and flowing, twisting and breathing, as if connected. But Cole felt alone and apart. His soaked clothes chilled his bones. The hard ground pushed at his wounded body like a big hand shoving him away.
Wincing, he wiped at his mouth with his left hand, then stared at the glistening red on his knuckles. It reminded him of the bear’s blood on the knife blade beside him. It also looked like the blood he had seen on the sidewalk after beating up Peter. The blood looked identical. This thought drifted about in his head but failed to gain meaning. Blood might look the same, but Peter was a loser and a jerk.
The storm raged on as Cole lay trembling, his eyes frantic. The explosion had shocked his mind awake. Never in his life had he felt so exposed, so vulnerable, so helpless. He had no control. To this storm, he was as insignificant as a leaf. Cole blinked in stunned realization. He had always been this weak. How could have ever thought he truly controlled anything?
As Cole stared at the tiny bodies, sadness flooded through him. The sparrows were so frail, helpless, and innocent. They hadn’t deserved to die. Then again, what right did they have to live? This haunted Cole. Did the birds’ insignificant little existences have any meaning at all? Or did his?
Frantic, Cole struggled to fly, but he couldn’t escape the nest. All he could do was open his beak wide and raise it upward toward the sky, the action a simple admission that he was powerless. There were no conditions, no vices, no lies, no deceit, no manipulation. Only submission and a simple desire to live. He wanted to live, but for that he needed help; otherwise his life would end in the nest.
So, unless I go somewhere and freeze every morning, I’ll keep getting mad, huh?”
Edwin smiled but shook his head. “You only look at the left end of the stick and at the cloudy sky now because your experiences in life have made that a habit. Happiness, like anger, is also a habit. You learn to be happy one day at a time. But habits change hard. This pond will help you.”
The next morning Cole hiked alone to the pond. He soaked as long as he could, his calmness shaken by how terrified Peter was of him. How could he have once wanted someone to feel that way? No matter how deeply he breathed, soaking failed to take away his troubled thoughts.