how many generations of bears

blue eddy

I don’t think I’ve ever been a linear thinker. Instead my thoughts tend to spiral, not in an anxious way (though sometimes this happens of course) but in a way that can be exhilarating, creative, intuitive. Something enters my thinking and it turns and spirals, sometimes outwardly and sometimes towards an inner centre. I’m used to it and I depend on certain patterns as a way to find my own way through puzzles or new territory. And old territory too. Last night I was reading in my bed when I heard clattering outside. At first I thought maybe John had gone out to do something but no, it wasn’t him, because he was watching television. Maybe it was the cat? Or wait. Maybe it was a bear on the upper deck. I’d fertilized the potted roses with Salish soil, a kind of fishy compost. When I looked out the windows in the sunroom, I saw two bears, a sow and this year’s cub.

At the foot of the stairs, John was saying, I think there’s something outside, and yes, I said, it’s bears. He came upstairs to take a look and I went downstairs to shoo them away. Opening the door to the little deck where our hot-tub is, I saw the mum looking into the greenhouse and the cub right by her heels, both of them so beautiful, their coats dark and glossy. She paused for a moment and we made eye contact. Go, I said to her. I had a camera but the light wasn’t good and she wasn’t hanging around. She must have made some indication to the cub who skooted up the pretty fir just beyond the greenhouse while she headed down the lane leading to the vegetable garden and the woods beyond.

the bear's tree

I could hear the cub squealing a little as it held onto the trunk for dear life and the mum growling to it to get down and come with her. I guess she realized I wasn’t going to follow her.

So that was the evening’s drama. They’d been in the woodshed and had upset a bucket, investigated the barbecue on which steelhead fillets had been grilled last week. John always burns off the bits of skin afterwards but maybe there was still a little scent of fish. The cat was terrified and hid behind the washing machine.

When I returned to bed, I began to think about bears. If their average life span is 18-20 years (though they can live longer than that), and we’ve been here for 40 years, then how many generations have we known? The earliest bears who were just passing through, the ones that came later for the orchard fruit, the one that broke into the garden to eat cabbages, the ones who broke the garden gate not once but twice, the ones that drag out the empty cans we used to keep garbage in (and last night’s bear did that so she’s obviously a return visitor), the mother with twins who lingered just beyond my study window and sent both cubs up a tree where they climbed very high and squealed like babies,the one that topples the compost boxes just because it can, the one who climbed the pergola over the sundeck in search of grapes that had already been picked (so it had been here before), the ones that come for crabapples in autumn and eat themselves silly, the whole spiral of their visits and departures, the heart of the spiral curled in like the conclusion of a story.

They have very sophisticated memory maps of food sources, can remember food sourced at least 10 years in the past, and given the number of years we’ve lived here, that the crabapple tree with its sour scabby fruits has been productive, that there was once the possibility of garbage though not for decades, I suspect we are part of the map shared among them, information passed down like family stories. Our histories turn and spiral like the routes to ancient shrines where the bear mother was worshipped, kept alive in the night sky for guidance in her incarnation as Ursa Major, light for the cosmic hunt. A couple of years ago, in December, I focused my binoculars on Ursa Minor, hoping to see the Great Conjunction. Did I? Maybe. But I remember how beautiful the tail of the young bear was in that dark sky, pulled longer by the force of the swing of the god who threw it to the sky.

Yesterday at a garden centre in Sechelt, I found a plant I’d never seen before, Allium senescens “Blue Eddy”, a spiral ornamental onion. In its pot, the foliage swirls like the rapids in the Thompson River, the Jaws of Death, the Cauldron, where I remember our inflated raft turning in the eddies, the blue eddies, water swirling, dry air, fish under us on their way to Adams River, to the Deadman River, bears along the route, the sky at night dense with stars, and when I plant the allium, this will also be part of its leafy spirals, a mother bear pausing to sniff it, a cub at her heels.

ursa major and minor

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