Tuesday, July 07, 2009

When Nature Calls

It was a normal summer Saturday morning.

HH and Mama were sitting on bar stools at the kitchen counter eating their cantaloupe and I was making cheese eggs and bacon, shuttling back and forth from the stove to their plates. That’s my job; I’m the cook in the family, although HH is my number one helper. At five years old, he has acquired a pretty steady mixing hand and knows just when to lay off the pancake batter, allowing a few soggy flour balls to remain uncrumbled so that the resulting cakes are light and airy. We have a small cabin set in a shady corner of a summer community built in the Catskills in the late 1920’s surrounded by maple and pine and beech trees that have overgrown the area for decades. It’s a bit like living in a forest with neighbors.

On one of my transits across the room, I glanced out the window above the kitchen sink and saw the bear. It was a big bear, not huge, but probably in the 400-pound weight class. It was walking slowly and deliberately across the lawn below the window on its way into the front yard. I picked HH up off his stool and carried him to the “nature window” which is what we call the day bed on the front porch that is ringed by double-hung windows and where we sit on summer afternoons to watch the thunderstorms roll in, or catch a sight of the odd ground hog or bird or chipmunk that might happen into the yard. The bear sighting, however, was in a class all its own.

He crossed the road and sunk back into the thick woods and out of sight. We went out onto the front step to see if we could catch a sight of him or maybe snap a picture but he was gone, or so we thought. A moment later he came back out of the woods, crossed the street in our direction, then headed into our next-door neighbor’s yard finally disappearing into the deep woods behind our house - gone from sight but not from our thoughts.

In the days that have followed, we’ve talked a good deal about the bear, among ourselves and with the neighbors. It seems our bear has been making his way through this area for the last year or so, although this was the first time we had seen him. We live in the county with the highest density of bears in New York State, but for the most part the bear population is concentrated in the less populated portions of the county. Perhaps some new building or road project had disrupted the bear’s usual stomping grounds – I don’t know. I’d seen only one other bear in the five years we’ve been coming up here. It was a small cub we encountered about two miles away. He was crossing the road late one afternoon as HH and I were making our way home from nursery school during the year before we moved to Germany. We had remained in the cabin until late November that year and had had the chance to see summer roll into fall – something rare for summer inhabitants. I’d told HH the story many times during our nightly story hour, but he finally admitted to me recently that he really didn’t remember the event. I hope he is old enough now that the memory of this bear sighting will stay with him.

Yesterday the sun was out, this following weeks of constant rain, and the evening was dry and cool. We had our dinner on the back porch for the first time this summer and it was a real treat. However, there was something different about eating outside last night. I found myself looking over my shoulder now and then, back into the deep woods behind me, and I was listening more intently than usual, but not to the conversation at the table. I was anticipating the cracking of twigs, the swishing of dense ferns as they were displaced by the giant mammal that had visited us just days before. HH is nothing if not perceptive to his father’s moods and he asked me why I was scared of the bear. I wasn’t even aware that I had been signaling my concern but clearly I had. I told him I wasn’t scared of the bear, that the bear was part of nature and that he belonged here, just like the other animals, but now that our bear had shown himself, I had become aware of him. I tried to explain that the bears in our neck of the woods weren’t particularly dangerous bears. Black bears aren’t like grizzlies after all, but that if a bear was hungry or if a mama bear was traveling with her baby, it was better for us humans to keep out of its way. I was lying. I was afraid of the bear, not so much for my own safety as for his. His favorite outdoor activity is to run around the house and surprise me from behind. I guess he figures I’ll forget that I just saw him leave a few moments earlier and that I fully expect him to show up behind me. I still faint surprise and he laughs and sets off again. I just don’t want him to round one of those corners one evening and come face-to-face with a startled mother bear – I haven’t said that to him but I don’t think I have to. He knows what I’m thinking even if I don’t say it aloud.

Last night as I was cleaning up outside I heard the cracking sound I dread most. It wasn’t the sound of an approaching bear. I called into the house for Mama and HH to get out through the front door – to leave the house right away. They hesitated for a moment, Mama coming to the back door to make sure she had heard me right. I waved them away telling them to get out just as a huge dying tree slammed to the ground beside the cabin The sound was so loud and thundering that the neighbors down the road came running out of their house to see what had happened. The tree missed us this time, others have come much closer and one nearly took off the side of the house a few years back.

Living in the woods is a study in paying attention. It’s not that different really from life in the city, you’re just listening for different sounds - a bear padding through the brush, a car rounding a blind corner, a tree falling through the cool, clear air, or a child crying in the night. The difference is that in the city, the sound-scape is dense with the chatter and hum of machines – air conditioners and vehicles, trains and sirens. Here every sound represents a life – an owl, a crow, a lonely coyote howling at the setting sun, a dying tree, and yes, the bear, moving through the woods minding his own business and giving little thought to the humans in the cabin on the corner whose path he has now crossed.

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Blogger Rositta said...

I agree that bears are part of nature but please be careful. Black bears have been known to hurt humans. We have them around our cabin as well and I rarely cook bacon any more. Last year one broke into a cottage down the road and scared the homeowner big time. Have a great summer...ciao

3:23 AM  
Blogger Princess Haiku said...

Amazing story but yes, do be careful. I had friends who had a youthful encounter with a bear in the Grand Canyon (while smoking weed) many years ago. They had a close call. Oh and thanks for stopping to visit.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Ralph said...

Well, Richard, it looks like your stay is becoming more and more adventurous.

This particular adventure of yours reminds of a time I sat on the porch of a house deep in the Cockaponsett forest near the Connecticut River, and saw what I first thought was a straying German Shepherd approach down the road. Another look at its low, hanging tail and yellow eyes, and I realized it was a coyote. It lumbered past with nary a glance at me, sovereign and free, and vanished in the dark green spaces under the trees like a wandering spirit.

Some time before that, I was woken in the night by the screaming of a woman not far from my bedroom window, and was just deciding whether to call the police or grab a weapon when the scream broke into a series of low-pitched ululations. That, too, was a coyote. No wonder it is nicknamed the "song dog."

Bears--and coyotes, too--can be dangerous, but they are also emblems of the wilderness that has largely vanished from our urbanized lives, so we can count ourselves fortunate to have had these unexpected encounters.

11:49 AM  
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6:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A bit late to comment somehow, but nonetheless an amazingly exciting story.

All best from bear-free Germany...

5:41 AM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Thanks Sandy

You can actually see the Bear in a short video on youtube called "Smallwood Bear"


6:47 AM  

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