It is overcast and a few drops of rain are falling. I have been out talking to Tree Bear (TB), a yearling who has brightened my life in these dark soul days. Tree Bear comes up the mossy pine strewn path to the clearing and peeks at me from behind his white pine intermittently as he snacks.
There are so many old felled trees full of tasty grubs and ants now that the spring grasses have matured and gone by; soon the berries will ripen and Tree Bear will begin to put on weight. Acorns will be the choice of food for fall. Few people know that Black Bears are 93 percent vegetarian.
The other night I watched TB in the cherry tree, sitting in the branches like a monkey calmly combing out his thick under fur as he munched on cherry leaves and hard green cherries. He is a healthy looking and very beautiful yearling with brown eyebrows and a bump in his nose that is only visible from some angles. He probably weighs 50 – 60 pounds and has some brownish fur in places.
He was recently separated from his mother who left him because she needed to mate and his little sister has also disappeared. His face is so full of compassion that it takes my breath away. I say compassion because my personal experience has taught me that some (if not all) of these animals understand human suffering and respond to it by taking concrete actions. One slept outside my window while my dog was dying, another came to sit by me one night while I was wildly weeping outside in the dark. Stark and hopeless depression brings them in. Empathy flows like a deep underground river between us – why – because bears like other animals have deep feelings that are not mediated by abstract intellectual rational thinking.
This is not to say that all bears respond to people this way. But some do, and Tree Bear is one of these animals. Bears are demonized by humans, shot and wounded on sight (legally and illegally) often in the gut so they will die slowly and painfully. In Maine we hunt them for four months; with hounding ‘practice’ four months becomes five. What is truly amazing is that these animals do not retaliate in kind, except on rare occasions. A human has a million to one chance of being killed by a bear. Bears use remarkable restraint, utilizing peacekeeping practices for themselves and humans alike. If Ursus americanus ruled the Earth there would be no wars. All bears utilize a matriarchal family system with mothers and daughters sharing territories; males roam the peripheries.
This morning I quietly spoke to TB while slowly approaching his tree. I know his language; he huffs to remind me how much he disapproves of close encounters. Yesterday, he eluded me each time I tried to film him. He’s wary, full of curiosity, and uncertainty. Fear when it comes to other bears. He stands on two feet in alarm when he glimpses his own mother. He does not trust me, but allows me to approach him if I do so respectfully. He moans when I get too close even though I keep reassuring him that I am his friend.
Sometimes TB is a clown. Late yesterday afternoon he lay on his back with a can positioned between his paws poking his nose into its cavity. Next he chased it down the hill. I have to find other toys to amuse him.
His trickster aspect is most evident when he sees me with the camera. He turns his head away, ducks behind a branch, runs down to the brook or disappears down the path in a flash. TB is also developing a habit of peering around tree corners to see who I might be talking to.
TB and I both love trees. Black bears are native to this continent and co evolved with trees. They cannot live in treeless places because they are a prey animal who must have trees to protect themselves and their young.
Obviously Black Bear territory is shrinking, not good news for the bears.
TB and I have such a brief moment in time to be together. Even now each gun shot, or semi automatic blast slams a hole in my heart. The future for this bear is grim. Most of the bears that are slaughtered are yearlings (18 – 22 months old) when they are first on their own.
All this to become a trophy or rug, a badge of “manhood” on some idiot’s wall.
Perhaps because of the rapidly approaching hunting season each moment spent observing TB’s behavior is that much more precious. Befriending this bear brings me to the edge of possibility.
We could find a way to live together, if only we would.
I close with a quote from Leslie Marmon Silko that mirrors my own experience:
“It is very peaceful with the bears; the people say that’s the reason human beings seldom return.”
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Northern New Mexico.