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Hissy Fit

This summer, we’ve been beset by bears.  Everyone has a theory about what occasioned this ursine invasion—the extra deep snow, the colder and longer spring, the failure of the huckleberry crop, the movement of grizzlies down into black bear territory.  More importantly, everyone has a bear story.  There’s the bear that broke into the freezer, the cubs that bathe in the neighbour’s pond, the old geezer that opened the front door, the yearling that jumped in the lake next to the kids, the cinnamon bear that waited in the bushes while we ate salmon on the patio, the three-year-old that wrecked the cherry tree, the bear-shaped potato, even.

The bear shaped potato, aka Winnie the Food.

In the interest of staying au courant, here’s my very own bear story.

We’d just started up the old road above the creek when Rose went roaring over the side of the bank, barking.  I heard swooshing in the bushes and caught sight of a large tree branch bouncing: sure sign that she’d treed a bear.  Those of you who know Rose understand that her loud bark can get her into situations that her elderly body can’t handle.  Sure, she’s chased bears before; but when one turns on her, she comes straight back to me.  Since I was interested in having both of us live through this encounter, I thought it important to call her off.

I began to walk slowly up the road, calling and keeping my eyes on the bobbing branch.  She was barking, I was yelling; the noise was shrill and constant.  Then suddenly I caught sight of the bear, hanging from the side of the tree.  When I say caught sight, I mean our eyes met.  So I’d just done about everything you shouldn’t (I know this for a fact since I checked later with the Parks Canada information site on bears): create lots of confusing noise, make eye contact, back the bear into a corner.  When our eyes met, this medium-sized bear—as in 200-250 pounds!—immediately leaned forward and issued the scariest, most sibilant growl that I’ve ever heard.  Everything stopped in the wake of that nasty hiss.  And everything I knew about how to act around bears went out of my head.  Before I could even think, I was turning to run.

This is how the bear looked, at least to me.

This is how the bear looked, at least to me.

By good luck, I was walking with someone who makes her home in the Utah desert.  This paragon of outdoor information—who should have been more panicked than me, since she was carrying an 8 month-old infant—began to walk slowly and quietly down the hill, backwards.  I collected my wits, turned to face in the direction of the bear, and made a low-voiced call for Rose, who (of course) returned immediately to my side with nary a peep.

As we were backing down the road, my friend said how great it was that the bear had growled.  Since I was still shaking, and we were not yet out of lunging range, I questioned that judgment.  But she went on to recount that the rattle of a rattlesnake lets you know you’ve scared the snake; it gives you the chance to change direction before anything bad happens to either of you.  She interpreted the growl of this treed bear as an appeal to please change the situation before anyone got hurt.

When we finally reached the bend in the road—where we turned and ran for the car—I realized how wise this assessment was.  I also realized that it could explain some of the real nastiness of the world: menacing behaviour as an expression of fear rather than malice.  From this point of view, backing off becomes a reasonable response to a threatening situation.

I don’t want to go overboard here about the rightness of withdrawing from difficult situations, because difficult situations are usually where I learn the most.  After all, Parks Canada makes the point that if a black bear is REALLY going to attack you, you need to fight back; and I know that in daily life, there are times to hold my ground as well as times for making a careful exit.  (I also know I don’t always read those situations correctly!  But that’s another day’s discernment.)  For this day and from this hissy bear, I am taking away the lesson that wisdom is the better part of valour; I am learning the prudent and sagacious caution that that which terrifies me may be the result of another’s terror.  At the very least, this makes for more compassion, which is always a good thing.

So I’m still walking the creek road—well, there are bears on every corner these days, so I can’t exactly avoid them by changing where I walk.  But I’m trying to keep it down a bit, and to keep Rose on the leash, and to recognize that I’m not the only one who might be afraid in this situation.  Which makes for more peace all the way around.