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Bear Attention

A teacher of mine once defined attention as the most genuine form of love.  He taught me this using a rock, which I was to observe for 15 minutes without composing metaphors, rehearsing geological history, or discerning the face of Jesus in the markings on its side.  I was simply to see it, stripped of my usual mental gyrations: to look at it with bare attention.

If attention is the most genuine form of love, I loved a bear last year.  I know I did, because I paid attention to that shy, sleek two-year old black bear all summer long.  Day after day, I scanned the woods for glimpses of him slipping down the game trails, splashing in the creek, leaning serenely against a big cedar in the deep, steep forest.

I attended to that bear when we accidentally met face to face, when my border collie Rose had caught his scent and treed him, when that bear leaned out of the tree and hissed a fearsome hiss.

And I paid attention in late September.  The Conservation Officer had set a trap at the turn in our road, intended for a pesky ursine felon—cinnamon in color—who’d been thieving from village fruit trees in broad daylight.  But instead of the nuisance bear, the trap held my shy friend, leaning quietly against the side.  I averted my eyes and continued up the road: in part to honor his privacy, in part cut off a flood of grief and shame: about his imminent death, about my powerlessness to prevent it.  But my heart’s attention was still riveted on that bear, waiting and uncertain.

I can’t tell you why I was fascinated by that two year-old.  In part it was because we shared territory.  The place which I now called “my” land was also “his” land; we both found our shelter on this particular mountain, obtained much of our food from this soil.  In part it was our physical similarity: two arms, two legs, a head, the ability to walk upright.  It might also have been our mutual inquisitiveness—me about him, him about the compost heap, the soopolallie berries, the rock labyrinth.  There was also our shared capacity for play, a love of splashing water on a hot summer day.

But for all our similarities, the differences were overwhelming.  That bear could move with utter silence or sit perfectly still for hours: he could roll a dumpster, smell food from miles away, charge at 30 miles an hour.  He was untamed and unfettered.  A high priest of wildness, he tore back the curtain of everyday life to remind me that there were things that I didn’t understand and would never control.  He was power and mystery and humility, all wrapped in a large fur coat.

You could say I’m not alone in loving bears.  Stroll through any Canadian mall and you’ll find teddy bears dressed as Mounties, gummy bears for chewing, kids’ clothing covered with diminutive dancing ursines.  You can build your own teddy, buy grizzly-shaped soap, keep your head warm with a snarling bear hat.  Today I even received a Christmas card featuring a Santa-hatted bear in a cherry tree.  Our consumer culture tends to domesticate bear-ness, viewing these predators as animated cuddly toys or an entertainment opportunity.

In this, we differ greatly from our ancestors.  Across the lake from my house, an as-yet undated rock painting portrays a bear hunt, with the bear’s spirit rising to the heavens.  Like the Celts and Gauls, the Vikings, Greeks and Romans, the indigenous people of my area considered bears sacred—and ferocious—emissaries of the natural world.  The evidence is worldwide, found in caves and carvings, constellations and ceremonies, totem poles, costumes and baskets.  It’s even found in our Judaeo-Christian heritage: the she-bears who fulfilled Elisha’s curse, the bear that killed St. Euphemia.  There is nothing cuddly in the ursine-human relationship portrayed by our predecessors.  Even today, aboriginal groups in parts of North America, Finland, Japan and Russia who revere bears celebrate them as both dangerous and holy.

When my teacher gave me that rock, he cautioned me against making up stories about it.  He told me not to engage in interesting thoughts.  He urged me to see the rock for what it was: to simply observe it.  To truly love a bear, I think, means to see that bear in its full complexity, not as a blank onto which we project our assumptions.

So I can say that my friend Nell loves bears.  When Nell moved to a mountain community with a lot of fruit trees, she noticed that untended fruit trees were attracting bears into town.  She watched what happened to bears habituated to finding food in populated areas; then she took action.  For the past five years, Nell has helped organize volunteers in her community to pick those trees.  She’s worked with the local government to purchase bear-proof garbage containers for public spaces.  She’s helped provide education to year-round and seasonal residents.

And I can say that my friend Mac loves bears.  Mac spends most of his time studying the habits and habitats of grizzlies, spirit bears and black bears.  He has helped route hiking trails to avoid their prime feeding areas; he has helped preserve wilderness so that they have sufficient unbroken territory in which to live; he has advised communities on how to reduce bear/human interactions.  Mac has spent most of his adult life trying to understand bear behavior so that he can help protect the bears from humans and humans from bears.

And I can say that my friend Denny loves bears.  He’s a Conservation Officer who deals with hundreds of complaints about bears.  His work is hampered by cutbacks in funding which leave him little time for follow-up or working with communities on prevention.  Even with diminished resources and his limited teaching tools—information, persuasion, monetary penalties—he still attempts to teach people how to co-exist with bears by making their garbage, their livestock, their birdfeeder, and their garden less appealing.

And I can say that my friend Janice loves bears, because after surviving an attack years ago, she decided to understand bears rather than retreat into fear.  Her study has given her love, respect and admiration for these creatures.  She’s also developed a preternatural sense of their presence that wakes her in the middle of the night and sends her to the window to watch cubs cavorting in the back yard.

None of these people love bears in a tame or uncomplicated way.  For each, their love has been accompanied by heartbreak.  My friend Nell watched as a mother bear, and then her two screaming cubs, were shot out of a tree that the owner had refused to let someone pick because it was “ornamental.”  Mac, during his time in the bush, had to shoot a grizzly that charged him, an act that haunted him for years.  Denny and the Conservation Officers who work for him kill about 100 bears every year, deaths that are almost always caused by human negligence.  And Janice: well, she still carries the marks, both literally and in her psyche, of the sick bear who mauled her.

Each of my friends has struggled to understand bears as bears.  They pay attention to what bears need, how they learn, what makes them fearful, what makes them safe.  When I asked them for bear stories, they didn’t tell me stories that made me laugh; they told stories of mystery, grief, and complexity.  They told me holy stories.

It’s normal human behavior to domesticate that which is wild, to see the other in our own image.  Our brains are hardwired to observe behavior and imagine how the other feels.  So when I look out the back door to see what’s making all that noise and I find a black bear hauling away the smelly old shop vac, well, it cracks me up.  It’s fun to imagine that she wants to clean up her den.  It’s entertaining to hear the coffee shop ladies tell about the bear that broke in, sat down, cleaned out the cereal cabinet, and left his bum-print in dirt on the floor.  It’s amusing to tease the guy who left his garage freezer unlocked, only to lose a ham, two bags of frozen perogis, and a couple of gallons of ice cream to a newly awakened bear.

But these stories are only funny when married to the fuller reality of our relationship to bears.  The teacher who taught me about love and attention also taught me that the opposite of love isn’t hate.  It’s indifference.  Our indifference and inattention might not matter if we didn’t share territory with bears; but we do.  Every single province and territory of this country is home to at least one species of bear, and these ursine companions are central to maintaining the health of our ecosystems.  They are also our gift from the Creator: persistent reminders of the unsolvable tension between wild and tame, mystical ambassadors who speak of inexplicable sacredness, living symbols of the natural world which attracts and frightens us.  They are as untamed, and untamable, as grace; as ubiquitous as the Spirit.


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