'No Word For Wilderness' With Roger Thomspon

Aug 2, 2018

In Italian, there is no word for wilderness. Yet in the mountains of Italy, brown bears not only exist, they are fighting to survive amid encroaching development, local and international politics, and the mafia. This meticulously researched and eye-opening book tells the incredible stories of two special populations of bears in Italy--one the last vestige of a former time that persists against all odds, the other a great experiment in rewilding that, if successful, promises to change how we see not only Italy but all of Europe.

No Word For Wilderness

The following highlights are from a conversation with Roger Thompson about his book "No Word for Wilderness: Italy's Grizzlies and the Race to Save the Rarest Bears on Earth." To hear the full conversation click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.

Sarah Aronson: What does the Italian mob have to do with the world’s most rare bear population?

Roger Thompson: The mafia, likely the Camorra, has found a way to subsidize, or to sluice EU funds from European Union subsidies to run cattle on the National Park lands of Italy. In doing so, they are threatening the bear population in Abruzzo National Park.

This book is about the Abruzzo bears and I’m going to be a bit nit-picky off the start, Roger, because I just met with Doug Chadwick last year who claims that the Gobi Grizzlies are the rarest bears on earth and I want you to make a claim for the Abruzzo bears and why it matters. . .

Yeah. Doug’s probably right, maybe, somewhere in between. It depends on how we want to take the counts. The official count on the Abruzzo bears is basically between 45-50. You talk to a lot of the people in the area and the number is probably under 40 . . . The Gobi bears are really different also, though, and they are under similar pressures. Certainly Doug has made the point that is very similar that something needs to be done, soon, with those bears as with Abruzzo bears.

One of the more shocking bits of information is that these bears are located 50 miles outside of Rome and they’re brown bears.

Yes.

How did you get involved with this project?

Well, what you just said is exactly why I got involved in it. The first time I heard about this I was actually on a hike with a friend on the border of Banff National Park and Assiniboine Provincial Park and we ran into a woman who told me about these bears. Part of me just refused to believe it. I had to put my eyes on the animals of the region. I mean, so close to Rome. Saying bears are in Italy alone is interesting. You immediately think of the Alps, and there are bears in the Alps, but for me the really striking thing: within a short drive you can go from Rome, where you see the heart of a lot of Western Civilization and Human Achievement,  you can actually be in a kind of wild place with these amazing bears that are evolutionary oddities.

And the title of this book is ‘No Word for Wilderness,’ and you reiterate, as other writers have, that Italy has no word for wilderness. So what’s the significance of that specifically as it relates to your work?

Italy is not the only culture not to have a word for wilderness, but in terms of Italy I think it’s really an important distinction to make because we associate Italy with human achievement, the rise of the great arts, the rise of civilization, the establishment of some of the first metropolises. The idea that nature was at some point in ancient time already being obliterated, at least, in the way we as Americans would think. In our culture we have space in the American imagination for wild places, for wilderness. This idea resonates with lots of us even if we don’t want to take trips to parks or investigate animals. We know that there’s a history here, even if you think of our old arch traditions, like the Hudson Valley School or the writings of Thoreau and Muir. There’s a strong tradition here, but in Italy that is largely absent.

The problem then, of course, is how do you make the case for wild animals in a culture that may not have a word that represents the world they live in? Part of the case I’m trying to make with the book, and part of what I’m trying to at least prompt people to think about, is that maybe at this point we need to start rethinking what it means to be in the wild, to be in nature, and maybe the Italian Parks give us some clue as to how to go about doing that. This is not to valorize the parks, but to say, look, these bears have persisted, 50 miles from Rome against all odds, and there aren’t many left, but they have. The local population there has, years ago, millennia ago, made peace with these bears. If we could figure that out here then some of the debates we have here with such rancor probably could be mitigated.

About the Book:

In Italian, there is no word for wilderness. Yet in the mountains of Italy, brown bears not only exist, they are fighting to survive amid encroaching development, local and international politics, and the mafia. This meticulously researched and eye-opening book tells the incredible stories of two special populations of bears in Italy--one the last vestige of a former time that persists against all odds, the other a great experiment in rewilding that, if successful, promises to change how we see not only Italy but all of Europe.

The Abruzzo bears of central Italy have survived amid one of the oldest civilizations on earth--but now, with numbers estimated at as low as fifty individuals, they face a critical future as multiple forces, from farmers to the mob, collide within their territory. The Slovenian bears of northern Italy, brought to the Alps at the turn of the century, have sparked controversy among local and international interests alike. The stories of these bears take readers on a spectacular journey across Italy, where we come face-to-face not only with these fascinating species but with embattled park directors, heroic environmentalists, innovative scientists, and a public that is coming to terms with the importance of Italy's rich natural history.

Award-winning author Roger Thompson has traveled throughout Italy documenting the history and current crises of these bears, and the result is an engaging and in-depth examination that resonates across all endangered species and offers invaluable insights into the ever-evolving relationships between human and non-human animals in a rapidly changing world.

Roger Thompson

  

About the Author:

Roger Thompson currently serves as Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. Previously, he was a professor at VMI for nearly 15 years. He lives in NY with his wife and son.