Edwin turned to Cole. "Nobody's going to babysit you here. If you eat you'll live. If not, you'll die. This land can provide for you or kill you." He pointed into the forest. "Winters are long. Cut plenty of wood or you'll freeze. Keep things dry, because wet kills." (2.15)
When Cole first arrives at the island, he doesn't take Edwin's warning seriously. He thinks that he can totally handle the savagery of the natural world…but he's soon proven wrong.
Cole tried to pull away, but Edwin gripped him like a clamp. "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." (2.21)
The whole reason Cole almost dies in his first stint on the island is because he doesn't realize that he has to respect the other creatures who are sharing the world with him. He's terrible to them—which is why Spirit Bear attacks him.
In that instant, Cole realized his mistake. His anger had so clouded his thinking, he hadn't considered the incoming tide. With every stroke forward, a giant invisible hand had pushed him two strokes backward into the bay, returning him toward the shore. (5.3)
Cole is super cocky and thinks he's going to escape the island with no issues…but he soon finds that Mother Nature always gets the last word. It doesn't matter if he's a great swimmer—the tide is going to win out every time.
This Spirit Bear didn't have any right to stare at him. It didn't have pride, dignity, and honor like Edwin had said. It was just a mangy animal. Cole flung the rock, even though the bear was nearly a quarter mile away. "Keep staring, I'll kill you," he shouted. (5.17)
Instead of being in awe of Spirit Bear or respecting the creature's sanctity, Cole just sees it as another obstacle in his life to destroy. He tries to kill Spirit Bear, which is why it lashes out at him, almost killing him.
A blur of white motion deflected the shaft down into the grass as the bear lunged. Cole never even had time to raise the knife before the bear was on him, clubbing him down with a powerful blow. Cole's body folded and collapsed to the ground. Before he could roll away, another crushing paw shoved his face into the dirt. (8.2)
Well, we could've told Cole that messing with Spirit Bear wouldn't end well. When the bear actually attacks him, Cole realizes that he's overestimated his own strength…and underestimated Spirit Bear. Nobody puts Spirit Bear in a corner.
Suddenly Cole reached out and tried to grab it. The beaver exploded in the water, slapping its tail with a loud whack before disappearing.
That was the only time the beaver ever came near. Cole regretted betraying the beaver's trust. (22.5-6)
In order to be a part of the natural world, Cole has to respect its other members. He doesn't quite get this at first, which is why the other animals stay away from him. But over time, he comes to realize that he has to be kind and respectful toward other creatures.
If animals existed in a world of instincts and senses beyond the conscious thoughts of the mind, what happened to people in their frantic worlds of noise and hectic rushing? How much of the world did people miss because they were not calm enough, empty enough, to experience it? (23.2)
When Cole actually takes Edwin's advice to heart and tries learning from the animals around him, he finds that he learns so much more about the world and observes so much more in his very own life. Go figure.
During late summer and early fall, Cole had spotted the Spirit Bear every few weeks as it wandered along the shore outside the bay or drank from the stream near the pond. But gradually, as winter gained a grip on the island, the sightings ended and the fresh tracks disappeared. Cole knew that the Spirit Bear had found a cave somewhere or dug out a hollow under a fallen tree to hibernate. (24.16)
It's a little strange that Cole becomes more compassionate and understanding of Spirit Bear after the creature tries to kill him, but it takes the attack in order for Cole to recognize that Spirit Bear is just another animal like himself. It's not trying to be mean—it's just trying to defend itself and stay alive.
With his activities strictly limited by winter's harsh winds and bitter cold, Cole noticed his body falling into new natural rhythms. He found himself moving about at a deliberate pace, without rushing. He slept when he was tired and ate only when he was hungry. (24.24)
Without the constraints of a set schedule, Cole starts listening to his body and to how it reacts to its natural environment. He actually lets it rest, refuel, and work when it wants to, instead of overthinking things.
For a full minute, the bear stood frozen in place, gazing at them. The chattering of a squirrel nearby echoed like thunder in the silence. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the Spirit Bear swung its massive head around and ambled away, vanishing ghostlike into the trees. (28.55)
Once Cole and Peter finally start understanding each other, Spirit Bear appears to them and watches as they make amends. He's actually pretty good at showing up for the most important moments in Cole's life—it's like he's received an invitation.