Thousands around the world watched as Lily labored to give birth to Hope on January 22, 2010 and to Faith and Jason on January 21, 2011. Lily’s family touched those who watched the tender, often playful, interactions that are part of family care in black bears. —North American Bear Center
Forgive me, bears — I can only manage to be invisible for a few minutes at a time. I have seen your tooth-marks on plastic trash in the woods, & how you shred hunters’ blinds, rip down surveyers’ ribbons, & make enormous smelly deposits in the middle of driveways. But I know too that, not being grizzlies, you are no real threat to anyone’s safety. You were never the fierce antagonists of that grinning braggart politician, Davy Crockett. It’s true that one of you followed my mother around a spruce tree one July morning, but when she turned & said get out of here, you did. Forgive us, bears, for standing downwind, still as stumps, for as long as we can while you romp with your littermates or sit enjoying the sunshine. Such encounters are a tonic for us, though I suspect by the way you huff & run when you finally notice us, it isn’t mutual. Some of us would be invisible forever if we could. Forgive us for watching you via den cam over the internet as you sleep, thousands of insomniacs all over the world gazing at our screens, waiting for the first sign of a new birth. Forgive us for freighting your cubs with so much of our yearning for the presence of the wild: dear Faith, dear stubborn Hope.
Mid-January, & the bear
who hasn’t had
a meal in two
months, & won’t for
another three, half-
wakes to chew
sticks into soft
for the cubs who
will soon be born
She may leave the den
to eat snow or merely
dream of it.
Her heart beats
eight times a minute.
But from the fastness
of her dark
milk will flow.
I’m indebted to a blog post from the North American Bear Center, “Lily Makes Bedding,” for the detail about chewing sticks — which sounds as if it was new discovery for the researchers. (The bear in the poem is on more of a Pennsylvania hibernating schedule, however.)
“Don’t get between the mother and her cubs.” That’s always what people say when they’re trying to scare you about black bears. Well, this morning in the woods above my house, I may not have gotten between them, but I got within 20 feet of them as they played beside one of our moss-covered trails, and I never felt as if I were in the slightest danger. You can see the reaction when the mother finally caught my scent — they were gone. Only afterwards did it occur to me that if she’d decided to charge, I wouldn’t have had any time to react.
Windy days are great for sneaking up on critters that rely more on their noses than their eyes. I wasn’t making any special attempt to walk quietly; the bears were simply making more noise than I was with their rustling around in the leaf duff, and didn’t hear my approach. I had the still camera around my neck and the video camera in my pocket, and I had to make two decisions pretty quickly once I realized a bear family was running towards me: first, do I lose myself in the moment and experience the encounter as deeply as I can, so as to better remember and write about it, or do I try and capture it photographically so I can share the experience with Via Negativa readers? And if the latter, should I take still photos or video?
I am still not sure I made the right decision on either account. I quickly went into a crouch to make myself less visible and prolong the encounter, which I think worked well, but it’s a less than perfect video because I couldn’t keep my eyes on the LCD display — I kept glancing past the camera at the bears. It was fun to see the bear cubs horsing around at such close range, and I regret not keeping the focus on them the whole time. There might have been more cubs up in the woods; we hardly ever see a mother bear with fewer than three cubs. But I suppose this could’ve been a first-year mother. She didn’t seem very big.
The bears ran up over the ridge and I didn’t attempt to follow them, though I did walk as quietly as I could after that. If I’d gone straight back to the house after the encounter, the whole walk wouldn’t have taken more than ten minutes out of my morning: a great reminder of why one should get up from the computer every once in a while. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door…”
The soft crunch of gravel: a bear-shaped shadow detatches itself from the woods, ambles up the road, turns onto my walk, and stops right in front of the door. Stands there under my portico, still as a statue. The light of the half-moon is disappearing into the dawn like spilled milk into a cat.
I’m up early to help my mother with our annual Important Bird Area point-count, which involves counting every bird seen or heard in three minutes from each of 16 points, located 250 meters apart, before 9:00 a.m. — but first I have to take my coffee, as usual, out on the porch. The large red cedar in my side garden is blocking my view of the bear, who doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. The other week, a bear tore up a couple of greenhouses in a nursery less than a mile from here, but the game wardens trapped and relocated it, they said, several counties away.
I ease the porch door open, creep inside, and tiptoe through the house to the other door. Fortunately, the cold front had blown in the night before and I had pulled the sliding storm window down over the screen. There on the other side of the glass, a massive head shakes slowly from side to side, as if trying to free itself of some hallucination. I consider trying to get a flash photo, but why let the trophy-hunting instinct hijack this encounter?
I crouch down so my eyes are level with the bear’s, six inches away. Does he see me? It’s hard to say. He finally turns around, pads back down the walk to the driveway, and heads up the hill toward the barn. I go out after him, and this time, he does acknowledge my presence, looking back, then breaking briefly into a slow trot.
Two and a half hours later, we’re ascending the southeast-facing side of the hollow along the Dogwood Knoll trail, en route to point number ten, when I spot a large black animal in the middle of the trail: no doubt the self-same bear. We watch from 75 feet away as he sits down — still in no hurry — and appears to engage in some birdwatching of his own. This is the first non-humid morning in two weeks, and with the temperature in the low 50s, it’s reasonable to assume that the bear, too, is enjoying the change.
Video link (subscribers must click through to watch)
We must’ve watched for at least five minutes. The shakey, often out-of-focus video I managed to shoot has been edited down drastically, and fails to convey the slow, contemplative mood the bear seems to have been in. If I hadn’t moved to try and get a clearer shot and disturbed its reverie, we might be there still.
It was hot today; I came close to cutting my hair. I saw four garter snakes — which usually can be found sunning themselves on warm rocks this time of year — down in or right above the water in the old stone well. It was too bad my three-year-old niece Elanor couldn’t have been here today; she’s developed quite an interest in these snakes, and even held one for the first time last week with her father’s encouragement.
Around 10:30, I wandered down to the pussy willow next to the stream to admire the way it shone and buzzed: bees, wasps, and flies of all descriptions swarmed its furry blossoms. Further down the hollow, the round-lobed hepatica was in full bloom on the bank above the road, and for the third spring in a row since I got the camera I have now, I knelt or lay on the leaves taking dozens of photos while the green-bottle flies climbed all over my arms and face. Every hepatica blossom is a slightly different color, ranging from almost white to lavender.
Later on in the afternoon, I saw the first cabbage white butterfly of the year. I kept thinking though that I ought to see a bear, since I had posted one here in the header of the blog yesterday, and as luck would have it, at around 4:45, I got my wish. I was getting a drink of water at the sink when I looked out the window and saw a bear doing the same thing in the stream right behind the pussy willow tree. And she wasn’t alone.
There were four cubs in all, one of them a relatively uncommon cinnamon bear. This is almost certainly the same family I first saw last summer, when the cubs were barely bigger than basketballs. I was happy to see that they’d all made it through the winter. I went out on the front porch and stood watching as they climbed the road bank and rambled off through the laurel. They disappeared surprisingly quickly in the sun-drenched woods.
UPDATE: Here’s a short video I managed to get from my porch.
What’s there to say about a Thanksgiving that was disrupted by a six-and-a-half-hour power outage? Only that, like the Pilgrims at Plymouth, we made the best of it, and filled our bellies in the end.
Fortunately, we hadn’t planned a large gathering, and so were just able to fit around my sister-in-law’s table in town.
It was a day that began with a fat porcupine squeezing under my front porch — which is something that never looks quite possible even while it’s happening — and ended with a very full toilet bowl that just barely managed to flush. And in between I got to see a black bear cub climbing a tree from only 100 feet away through a tangle of wild grapes. Both of us were too busy stuffing ourselves with grapes to notice the other at first. Then it started to rain, the cub went down the tree, and I closed the distance between us just in time to see the mother’s rear end disappearing into a thicket.
This was the fourth time we’ve had a power outage on Thanksgiving or Christmas, and also the fourth time we’ve seen a bear on a major holiday (the others were on Christmas and Easter). I guess I’m thankful to be living in a place where power outages are still rare enough to be remembered, but even if someday they become a routine occurence, the chances are good that we will still be sharing the mountain with bears and porcupines — and for that I am truly thankful.
It was truly a Discovery Channel moment. Well, except for the fact that I was in the middle of taking a leak. After some twenty minutes of fruitless stalking, I had given up on getting a good picture of the sharp-shinned hawks screaming at me from various hidden vantage-points around the spruce grove at the top of the field. This is the third year in a row that they’ve raised a family there, and while extremely secretive as long as the young are in the nest, as soon as they fledge, the parents become quite vocal, even aggressive. Just about every morning for the past week, my mother had reported getting close views of them, but by the time I got up there in mid-afternoon, there was no sign of them. “They probably come back each night to the spruce grove, and hang out there in the morning before going off somewhere else to hunt,” she suggested.
Thus it was that around 9:30 on a beautiful, cool, Sunday morning I found myself in the narrow strip of field between the back of the spruce grove and the edge of the oak-cherry woods, engaged in contemplation of the wonders of nature. My bladder was only about half-empty I realized two things: a sharpie had landed in the black locust sapling right above me, and a large stick had just snapped at the edge of the woods about 50 feet away. It had to be either a human or a bear. I zipped up hastily, and a moment later caught a glimpse of a large, black form moving between the trees.
To tell the truth, I’ve never been quite sure that the kind of nature shows featured on the Discovery Channel or in National Geographic specials are entirely a good thing. I mean, if the goal is simply to entertain and to inspire, they’re great. But I worry that such shows raise false expectations about the sort of experiences people are likely to have when they go outside, where, let’s face it, your chances of seeing charismatic megafauna doing exciting things are pretty remote on a day-to-day basis — not least because most larger animals spend the majority of their time doing essentially nothing. Worse yet, the average person’s failure to see nature-show-worthy spectacles in his or her own neck of the woods might lead him or her to conclude, subconsciously at least, that preserving local wildlife habitat isn’t as important as, for example, Saving the Rainforest. How else to explain public silence in the face of runaway exurban envelopment, despite polls that consistently show widespread public support for Protecting the Environment?*
Those of us who have come to crave regular contact with wild nature have done so despite, or perhaps even because of, nature’s consistent failure to provide highly entertaining spectacles. There are lots of cheap thrills, if discovering a new wildflower or a fresh pile of coyote scat is your idea of a thrill. But really, wouldn’t you rather go geo-caching, or roar around on a mountain bike or an ATV? As one of my more urban visitors said one time when I tried to get him to go for a walk after several days of sitting around talking and listening to music, “I’ve seen trees before!”
Nevertheless, sometimes nature does — heeding the call of Oscar Wilde — imitate art, and this was one of those times. I snapped two quick photos of the sharpie before it flew over my head and landed on a taller locust tree a stone’s throw behind me. Then the bear reappeared at the edge of a milkweed patch an equal distance in the other direction. Jesus! Where to look?
Another thing about those nature shows: they’re culled from thousands of hours of film, taken by very talented photographers using very expensive equipment. My thrilling encounter with the black bear was fairly long by real-world standards — maybe a minute — and yielded one pretty good view, but the only picture I got was, as you can see, pretty darn lousy.
It was a medium-sided bear, possibly the same one my mom saw looking in her kitchen window last week. Mother black bears chase off their year-and-a-half-old cubs around midsummer, and these “teenaged” bears, like the one I was watching, haven’t yet developed the wariness of the adults. They’re still learning the ropes. As a result, this is always the busiest time of year for so-called nuisance bear incidents. You’ve just finished moving into your dream house in Ferne Hollow or Oak Pointe, and the next thing you know there’s a goddamn black bear going through your recycling bin like it owns the place. There goes the neighborhood!
This bear, however, seemed more interested in smelling the milkweed blossoms, which have a very sweet, almost cloying odor. It turned its head this way and that, as if breathing deep from a cornucopia of scent. Either that, or it had caught a whiff of Human, and was struggling to separate it from the powerful background soup.
I turned around to look at the sharpie, and realized it was sitting in full view for the first time all morning. I turned back toward the bear. It must’ve caught sight of the motion, because a moment later it was gone, crashing through the bottom corner of the spruce grove. In an agony of indecision, I snapped ten quick photos of the sharpie, then headed off after the bear, which I could still hear crashing around in the woods. I walked back along Laurel Ridge Trail hoping to cross paths with it again, but no luck.
An hour later, I had uploaded my photos to the computer and had just begun to go through them and realize how truly bad they were when my mom came back from her own walk down the hollow. She carried a large, orange and yellow moth on the end of twig, figuring I might want to photograph it. This turned out to be a royal walnut moth, the adult form of the famed hickory horned devil.
O.K., I take it all back: nature really is like the Discovery Channel — at least at the micro-level. Get a camera with a macro lens and you, too, can take eye-popping photos of wildlife in your own backyard: just ask Bev, or Cindy, or Rebecca. My mom was envious of my sightings up at the spruce grove, but her own find was the more interesting one, I thought. The royal walnut moth, like the hummingbird clearwing sphinx moth that came in to the bergamot in my front garden the previous afternoon, is not only easier to observe but also a great deal stranger than anything the furred or feathered tribes have to offer. And best of all, it’s not likely to flee if you stop to take a leak.
*Logically, an environment can never be destroyed. That’s the beauty of abstractions: they make horrors seem manageable by removing all traces of the real world: no land, no air, no water, no endangered species or ecosystems; no messy places or individual creatures. This is why I call myself a conservationist and not an environmentalist.
On the third & last day
of bear season, the hunter returns
to his perch on the boulder
more from habit than any realistic hope.
But every rustle in the leaves
still summons up the childhood
excitement of static on
a shortwave radio: some signal
that might come in, given patience
& a delicate touch.
So when the bear appears,
his breathing scarcely changes,
the rifle rises to his shoulder,
the scope to his eye
& the world
by a power of ten,
centered on a plus sign
that moves along the great neck
to the suddenly immobile head,
snout riveted on something
just under the moss.
Then the claw’s shattering descent,
a fountain of dirt.
He watches as
the yellow jackets form
a furious halo.
The rain lets up.
A pileated woodpecker
hammers on my house.
Autumn for the trees
is a second springtime
for the rocks.
Four parallel lines
on the maple log
where the bear thought better of it.
This fall, once again,
I’m shocked to see how much the leaves
had managed to hide.
Yesterday, when the rain eased up in the early afternoon, I took my camera for a walk down the hollow. For folks with high-speed internet access, here’s a ten-photo slideshow of the results. Dial-up users can browse the photos here.