Monday, August 1, 2016

Garden of the Wild: The Bear Facts

[photo from]
          Here's another oft-quoted citation from the seeming infinitude of such phrases in the works of Wm Shaxspeare. Perhaps the most singular stage direction in the history of legitimate theater: "Exit pursued by a bear."
            Things do not end well for the by no means villainous character who exits (though not fast enough), so pursued. He was a court official, a bureaucrat, in the play "The Winter's Tale," who did the business that a tyrannous monarch (his royal mind self-poisoned with jealousy) bid him do. The bear was probably not aware of any of this background when he took after poor Antigonus, seeing in him merely dinner on the courtly hoof.
            I was not thinking of this, or any literary allusion, when I caught sight of the hefty, thick-limbed, black-furred dog-like creature a hundred feet or so down the lakeside path that Anne and I were walking, a path we have walked many times before. We were intending to keep walking it a few minutes more until we came to one of our favorite "family" spots.
            One sees what one expects to see, a domestic creature. Then comes the 'check-that, actually' moment that rapidly succeeds the 'big dog' false identification. The brain does a quick double-take. Uh, no, not dog -- bear.
            So one says, on this occasion, addressing one's spouse, "There's a bear on the path."
            She replies, always a quick one, "There's a bear on the path?"
            Question: What is the first thing that happens when you spot a bear on the path? Answer: The first thing that happens is you stop worrying about the mosquitoes.
            I take a step backwards. Then another one.
            It is totally clear to me, though I am determined not to look,certainly not to stare, that the bear has seen us too. And at essentially the same moment I spotted him. He has just this moment heard our steps, or caught our scent. Or, picked up the vibe that some creature is looking at him, and so lifted his head in the sway of the same self-protective urge that set me to moonwalking back down the trail.
            Anne has turned by now, not wasting any further time on conversation, and is walking with some briskness back down the path in the direction we came from. I follow her lead, realizing I am now turning my back to the bear even though I have read in authoritative accounts that you're not supposed to run away from a bear. It just provokes them. But we're not 'running away,' I tell myself, we are simply walking away in a calm, steady manner, as if having decided independently, with no reference to any woodland creature whatsoever, that it is high time to return to the manor house and dress for dinner. Do I hear my superego calling?
            Then, spontaneously, to keep up the pretense of casual retreat, we both begin singing nonsense songs about a bear.
            "Oh, the bear went over the mountain, oh the bear went down to the lake
            The bear went back to the parking lot, it was a big mistake."
            Or words to that effect. Words that clearly, and repeatedly, include mention of a bear. As if, for some reason, we are unable to think of anything else but 'bear.' I wonder why that could be? Is there some supersititous logic in singing the word 'bear' in our nonsense lays. An unconscious belief that if we domesticate the creature in our silly song, he will remain a figure of folklore, who lives in harmless propinquity to our careless rhymes. Perhaps much like the bear who appears by chance in the midst of "Blueberries for Sal," that doughtly children's book, and departs harmlessly once some confusion over which child/cub belongs to which mother is straightened out.
            We tame our fears with silliness.
            "What's the bear doing?" Anne asks after we have walked some way and sung a silly piece back down the path. "Is he following us?"
            I have put this possibility out of my mind. I am not hearing any sound to indicate some creature, domestic or wild, is coming down the path behind us.
            My reply, therefore, is accurate if not enlightening. "I don't know. I haven't turned to look once."
            I'm aware of the old blues singer's advice, "Don't look back, something may be gaining on you." Not comforting, somehow.
            Anne turns to look back. "I don't see him. It doesn't look like the bear's following us."
            I have some other thoughts over the next twenty minutes or so. Are there sticks or branches at our feet on the woodlands floor thick enough and strong enough to serve as a weapon? As a rule, I know, fallen branches are rotten-soft. How about rocks? How likely is it that I'll find one the right size for throwing? How likely that a bear would be dissuaded by a thrown stone?
            The closer we get to the parking area where we've left our car, the more confident, if not completely relaxed, I grown that the bear is in no way interested in us. It seems unlikely that we will bump into him again by chance.
            We do stop once on our retreat -- I mean 'return '-- to the car -- to take a look at the large owl who has dropped onto a branch a mere half a dozen feet from our path.
            But that's another story.