Yesterday Alex Sharif emailed me news of the death of Valerius Geist. I had heard he was not well; but one’s own illness often blinds you to the troubles of others. His is a great loss. Nobody ever dominated the science of the great mammals like Val, especially on this continent, where a teen -aged immigrant German boy in flight from both his nation’s Nazi past and its dreary gray East German Marxist present, escaped to Canada, the Wild American land he had dreamed about.
He ended up relating lo the new land in a most unusual almost neolithic way: in effect, by hunting and eating it. With the possible exception of his friend Dale Guthrie,who wrote a book about eating a frozen prehistoric oxx, has anyone ever done it so thoroughly? He would be remembered for his magisterial Deer of the World alone , but he published so much more, both scholarly and popular, including one on the evolutionary nature of humans I have yet to find and read.
He was not afraid to think boldly about things other than his direct subject of work. I think I first approached him on a hunting question, introduced by Tommy Mac, but soon moved to my own unique niche. I think I first wrote to him on wolves but soon switched over to the subject of the Pleistocene and human evolution, where we stayed more or less constant (Neither of us are known for our sticking to one subject or for writing only one digression!
I thank him particularly for his thoughts about the gorges and the great rivers of Asia all have their origins. He believed that 30,000 years ago all the surviving species of hominims – early Moderns, Denisovans, perhaps some Neanderthals, even some late lingering Erectus, all lived in the same habitat together. Did they consider their neighbors to be human or were they mere things, monstrous automatons out of Descartes’ nightmares who at walked at night? Such experiences could color our attitudes toward the “Other” to this day. Val also debunked the idea that the German expedition of 1939 to that area was about Nazis and flying saucers. Sorry, neither.
He did not give a damn for “boundaries”. As a young and rather solemn archaeologist we know came back from a trans-Atlantic complaining about the passenger behind her who spent most of his time describing how Neanderthals perhaps bulldogged large game animals the way cowboys bulldog calves. After all, they have extremely strong front limbs. “Not only is there no evidence — he was a ZOOLOGIST!” It did not seem a politic time to suggest she had encountered my friend Val and might have learned something if she had listened.
Whether he was taking on wolves, confounding his new found anti-wolf friends, who agreed with him about wolves in settled country, but were confounded by his cheerful suggestion to give about 85 % of Canada back to them, or human evolutionists who thought credentials more important than imagination, Val gave a living rebuke. To others he was an inspiration. He was in love with Canada, his adopted country, especially its wild north, and with his wife Renate. He, and his letters, will be missed.