“How many generations of bears have walked the same route up from the old orchard…”

evening visitors

These weren’t the bears I saw at 6:30 this morning as I sat at my desk, working on my novel. I didn’t have a camera at hand so I couldn’t take the photograph of the sow with her tiny cub, not much bigger than our cat, Winter. The cub was prancing a bit and the mum stopped to poop just by the cascara tree. I went upstairs to watch them from the upper deck and when the mum heard the door opening, she ran into the woods, sending the cub up one of the big Douglas fir trees immediately beyond our house, just at the edge of the woods. This photograph is about 4 years old.

Wait, though. The mother might have been one of the two yearling twins accompanying this sow across the same patch of grass, heading into the same woods. How many generations of bears have walked the same route up from the old orchard, rounding the house by my study, and ambling into the woods? The average life-span of a black bear is 10 years, though they can live to be 30. They are intelligent animals, having a a high brain to body mass ratio. They have excellent long-term memories, particularly of food sources. Every fall they come for the crabapples in the old tree below the vegetable garden. We’ve seen bears regularly every year since we’ve lived here (1981) and the crabapple tree has been a destination for at least 35 years. One year a bear with a very distinctive chest mark came every day for a week. There’s an ephemeral pool under the tree, dry in summer, but once the rains come, it fills. I remember watching the bear plunging in for the floating fallen crabapples and then reclining on the area of our driveway we use for turning around. It was fearless.


I had been thinking that we haven’t seen bears yet this year, though we did see scats on the trail the last time we walked up on the mountain, thinking it was about time, and there they were, walking in the low-shouldered way they have, or at least the mum was walking that way. The little one was scampering, eager, glad to be alive on a spring morning. This time of year they love the sweet grasses, the buds of trees, and on walks up the mountain, we’ve been boulders turned over by bears eager for grubs and insects.

The more the world changes, the more the ugly men stand on stages and insult women or insist on their right to invade sovereign countries , the more fires burn across huge expanses of forest and plains, the more rivers flood and destroy whole towns, sections of highways, ways of living, the more I never want to leave my home. I want to sit in the early morning and watch a black bear sow stop to poop under the cascara and give her cub a secret command to climb a tree because of danger. She is right to be afraid of me. I’ve never seen a bear set a fire or log off an entire hillside, compromising the soil’s ability to retain moisture. Never seen one spray glysphosate along the highway shoulders to eradicate the orange hawkweed that grows in the gravel. Never seen one with a gun. I want to sit in the morning to watch them, alive in the old rhythm of the seasons. Grass, grubs, the buds of trees.

As a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic; the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals; the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.
                      –Gary Snyder

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