“The Chilly, Enduring Odor of Bear”*

By Steve Lewis

Early in March each year I can smell it coming. Spring, that is. So I can also smell the bears turning in their caves. Soon thereafter I’ll be waking daily at sunrise and tiptoeing to the bedroom window to see if they have lumbered out after the long winter. I scan the embraceable yard for emptied, mangled bird feeders. Garbage strewn around. Fence posts ripped from the garden.

These bear “visits” are relatively recent phenomena around this unintentional cage we call home. As near back as the last century this big backyard still seemed rather harmless and bucolic. Beyond the occasional rattler and the much less occasional copperhead, it was a wholly benign landscape, a vision to laud over our friends in their big dangerous cities. Here in the shade of the Shawangunk Mountains, we heard and saw little more than crickets buzzing, birds chirping, wild turkeys gobbling, deer nibbling grass, the occasional garter snake slithering under the upside down wheelbarrow.

But then, perhaps as an omen of things to come in a world growing tamer and wilder each day, the formerly timid deer seemed to gain courage and began eating our roses; which led, a season later and several yards closer to home, to our azaleas; then the yew bushes that front the front porch, stripped to ugly brown sticks poking through the white snow, me bursting through the unlocked door in socks and screaming bloody murder.

About six or seven years ago, our pastoral summer dreams began to be pierced by howling coyotes, fisher cats shrieking like little girls, that terrible-beyond-thinking yelp of bunnies caught in some carnivore’s incisors. And then the first bear, a beautiful 400 pound male, lumbered into our backyard as if he owned the place.

And he was not alone.

In practical terms, I know that bears are less a threat to limb and life than the occasional rattler slithering down from the rocks. But for those among us whose connection to the wild world ends with the Discovery Channel, please know that a black bear standing seven feet tall reaching for bird seed or berries is a daunting, jaw-dropping sight. And unlike snakes, they don’t slither away or, like deer, scamper for the tree line when you open the door—or when you bang pots and pans—or even when you stand as tall as the Park Ranger tells you to stand making your own territorial stand. Like the most arrogant of overgrown muscularly arrogant inhabitants of your nightmares, black bears don’t even flinch. If you’re not food, you simply don’t exist. If you are, best stay inside.

Indeed, on a few occasions my wife Patti and I have found ourselves trapped in this house, noses pressed to the windows, pondering the seismic shift that has occurred in the way we regard our home in the woods.

I am a teacher and a writer. So half of each day I work inside this civilized oasis of cinder block and wooden joists, double paned glass and fiberglass insulation, sheetrock and art on the walls—this gash of an intrusion into forest. To some degree the work that I do is to use the tools of civilization to get myself back to the primitive wordless understanding of what it means to walk upon this earth—and then try to translate it into narratives told in a pitch that humans can hear. If I don’t get back there into the forest I know the work will be flat and uninteresting. Writers who write without an understanding of what lies beyond the intimate tree line might as well be writing Saturday to-do lists.

Which is precisely what I do the first Saturday after the bears return from their caves around Bonticou Crag: bear proof the garbage bin–check; erect a new fence around the garden–check; reinforce the posts that hold the bird feeders–check; bring in the bird feeders each night–check; remember to let the dogs out whenever the grandchildren are playing in the backyard–check; figure out how to protect the goldfish in the small pond from becoming hors d’oeuvres–check; hang the hot dogs and marshmallows from high branches when we camp out back near the stream–check; remember to lock the doors before we go to sleep each night–check and double check.

Living in this narrow ecological DMZ, where the sounds of natural selection punctuate our nightly dreams, I am reminded each spring that this house is nothing more than a fallen tree, that the lawn is merely a clearing full of food and danger for all who enter there, that we share the gurgling stream with creatures who, after all these millennia, still don’t accept the notion of our dominion … that the weekend work I do to keep out the animals must be abandoned Monday mornings when I must invite them back in.

Take This was written, word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, day after day beyond that intimate tree line.


*The title is from Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear”
 ** A version of this narrative was first published in Talking Writing magazine (www.talkingwriting.com)