Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bear as Totem

Hanging from the rearview mirror of my Tacoma is a Zuni fetish necklace that was given to me by a somewhat demented poet nineteen years ago. It is made up of birds and other small animals carved from stone, but the primary fetish, the one that hangs down front and center, is a bear. When G.K. sent me the necklace from Arizona, he told me that its purpose was to keep me safe, and he acknowledged, back then, my connection to the bear as totem. Before the Tacoma, the necklace hung in my Dodge. Before that, the Bronco, and before that, the Bronco II. It has been in every truck I’ve owned and, apart from other drivers tapping me, I’ve not been in an accident.

Several Sundays ago, a yearling bear cub found its way onto my back deck from the forest. This is not the first bear to visit my cabin. Three summers ago, on my birthday, I looked out the French doors at 5:00a.m. to see a huge dark chocolate bear snuffing around on the deck. I watched him for an hour as he licked up some birdseed I’d just scattered for the jays and juncos and woodpeckers. Then he ambled off. That was a hot, dry summer that followed a dry winter; the bears had little to eat, so the big guy (whom I called Roosevelt) and a smaller, cinnamon colored bear cruised by often, usually at breakfast when they smelled toast, though Roosevelt did come by one evening after I’d heated some pasta with pesto sauce. They were good bears, and they would leave when encouraged to do so. We never saw them in broad daylight.

When this little guy showed up, it was 11:00a.m. I had some guests, my neighbor Eric and my friend Liz, over for brunch, and I’d baked a peach cobbler. Apparently this young bear had picked up the scent, and as he trudged up the stone steps and onto the deck, his nostrils were flaring as he sniffed the air. We looked out the window to look for a mama, but there was no sign of any adult. I stepped out onto my back porch step, one hand left casually on the doorknob as an escape plan. The cub shuffled up to me. He was bearskin on bones, sharp hips protruding under his scruffy hide. He nuzzled my hand, then licked it. I spoke to him quietly, all the while searching the forest beyond my deck for a mother bear. He was too skinny, too lethargic. Mama was long gone. Eric and Liz watched from the window. When the little cub began to nibble my finger to taste for food, I tried to withdraw my hand slowly, so as not to spook him, and ended up having the side of my finger pinched between his teeth. The skin cracked, and it bled a bit, so Liz made me come inside. While I doused my finger in peroxide, smeared it with Neosporin and covered it with a small band-aid, the young bear climbed up on the roof and wandered around up top, looking down through the skylights. Finally, he disappeared back into the forest.

That was a magical encounter, something you think of as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, like the day the huge buck walked out of the forest and onto my back deck, or the night I walked through the cabin in the dark at bedtime and saw, in the moonlight, a small fox looking in at my French doors. We never expected to see the little bear again, and we wondered if he would survive on his own.

Sadly, we have seen him again—and again and again and again. A day or so after he was here, he discovered the lodge down the road. A young woman there has begun to feed him. The folks in the Forest Service (which, by the way, is an imprecise nomenclature, but don’t get me started) have a saying: “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Thus it is only a matter of time for our little friend. He comes by nearly every day. I’ve seen my neighbors throw rocks at him, set their dogs after him, and have overheard plans to shoot him with a paintball gun. Bears that become “trash bears,” dependent on humans to leave out or hand out food, quickly come to expect it, then demand it. On Sunday, I chased the cub out of a neighbor’s car. He was after the pizza left in the front seat. By Wednesday, he had already attempted to break into a car, though the owner insists she’d left no food inside.

In these cases, the Forest Service will wait until the bear becomes a nuisance or has a dangerous encounter with humans, then they’ll shoot it. It’s only a matter of time now. The little bear is seen every day across the highway at the campground. Small and skinny, he makes a great photo op for the campers (whom I’ve heard have been feeding him all manner of things). When he is a couple of hundred pounds heavier and rifling through the food they’ve left out on the picnic table, it will be a different story.

Yesterday the bear showed up on my back deck again. I walked out to gently shoo him away, telling him to go back to the forest. He stood his ground as I walked toward him. I raised my arms gently to shoo him off, and he growled, then snapped his jaws in my direction. He wasn’t being aggressive, it was just a warning, and I understood. He’s had his loss of innocence, and he knows now not to trust Two-Legs. I retreated quietly into the house.

This is what I find difficult, and perhaps ethically irresponsible, about living in the forest (and believe me, I include myself in the accusation). The bears were here first. They’ve lived on this mountain for hundreds of years, and they live here so they can keep their distance from humans. What are they to do when we encroach on their territory? Their patch of forest grows smaller every day. As rugged as this mountain is, there are very few places now untrammeled by hikers and mountaineers. Our arrogance is foolish and na├»ve when we assume the right to go everywhere, explore every place. Again, don’t get me started.

1 comment:

  1. Girl, if ya keep on one of those bears will eat ya.....haha But then I've never had a cousin
    eaten by a bear. Love ya cousin