Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More Bear Sightings!

Two more recent bear sightings! Saturday night, Walter and I were driving home from Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. We’d been to see the boaters go over the falls, an annual event, and then we went on a twelve-mile bike ride on the trail along the river. We ate at The Lucky Dog CafĂ©. There were signs around the deck to not feed the dogs, and I was picturing little dogs begging at my feet. Wrong! Along came a Great Dane and two lab mixes, begging from table to table! The Dane could actually look down on the table!

Anyway, it got dark. There was no moon that night, and no stars because of heavy cloud cover. We were heading south on Rt. 219 at Keyser’s Ridge with our low beams on, and a car was approaching behind us. At the same moment, Walter and I noticed that parts of the white and yellow lines on the road were being blacked out by the shape of a running bear—a BIG, galloping bear! And the car behind us passed, just missing it, probably never seeing it. And we actually never saw it directly, only the absence of white and yellow. We were so relieved that it made it across.

Then Monday morning on my way to work on North Glade Road, between a corn field and a farmhouse, a bear cub walked into the road, stopped, watched my approaching car for a while with great curiosity, and then ran into the corn when I got close. I never saw the mother, but hopefully she was ahead of it in the corn.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Black Bears

Black bears are so BLACK! They really stand out. You think tree trunks are black and the space between leaves are black, macadam roads are black and shadows are black, but when you see a black bear beside them, you realize that none of those things are truly black. It must have to do with the thickness of the fur, that light doesn’t bounce off of their surface, but is absorbed.

I’ve seen two bears in the last two days, one twice in the woods behind my house. The first one I saw in a power line right-of-way in a conservation area near Davis, WV. He or she was moseying along the Blackwater River. The one in our woods (in Western Maryland) I almost bumped into. The cats and I were starting out on a walk, I heard what I expected to be a deer, looked up, and a bear was doing a little two-step shuffle, being as noisy as possible, running off a little ways and looking back at me. They are so funny when they do that shuffle! It’s like they’re trying to get their great bulk into gear to run. When he saw I was no threat, he ambled away into the woods. So Domino and I went on a path in the other direction.

Later on, Domino and I were sitting on a moss-covered stump on the other side of the stream. We were enjoying the serenity of the woods, when we heard what sounded like a deer again, and there was that same bear walking back the other way toward the blueberry field. I decided to keep walking in the opposite direction (I like to give all wildlife a wide birth), but Domino stayed. I think she thought it was pretty cool to lie on a soft throne of moss watching a bear moving around a safe distance away.

And I did feel safe. Black bears are so gentle and shy. They are mainly vegetarians. Plus they have very poor eyesight and hearing. Their sense of smell is their main way of sensing other animals, so if you figure out wind direction, they may not know people are in their vicinity. That’s why you’re supposed to make noise, so they won’t be startled and perhaps act aggressively. One time I was walking up our road, and two bears were drinking from a stream about fifteen feet from the road. I clapped my hands loudly as I walked by. The two bears looked up, snouts dripping with water, and watched me go by, probably wondering why the heck I was clapping!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Death, extinction: No Worries!

Three things are aligning:
- Old age and death (Our friend Joan’s mother died yesterday; my mother is turning 90 next month, my dad will be 93 in November, and my aunt just turned 99.)
-Mass extinction of species (I recently read an article in the New Yorker (May 25, 2009, by Elizabeth Kolbert) about how we’re in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction of Species.)
- Four Souls, a novel by Louise Erdrich that I just read (The ending addresses the other two.)

I’ve always thought that what keeps us going, despite the pain and hardship of life, is wanting to know, like in a story, what happens next. Fiction parallels life in this way, which is, I suppose, what makes fiction and movies and life itself so addicting. I was startled to read this very issue addressed in Erdrich’s book.

Truthfully, I dread old age more than death after seeing what my parents and the other residents at their old age home are dealing with. The physical problems are sometimes torturous, but in addition the loss of hearing and eyesight isolates people from the rest of the world. Maybe this is good for spiritual reasons, forcing people to look inward, to separate from loved ones and worldly attachments, a kind of door into death.

But what’s even more disturbing is how some people become delusional, get unstuck in time, as Vonnegut would say. My aunt refers to people who have been dead for decades like they are still alive, including her own son.

About the mass extinctions, this one started around the time of the last ice age and is going on all around us at an alarming rate. The article opens with the example of most species of frogs, which have survived all the previous mass die-offs, dying suddenly en masse world-wide.
The bottom line is that it’s caused by human activity, especially human migration and travel. Not only is it due to the obvious habitat loss and pollution and the effects of human overpopulation, but to the bacteria we inadvertently transport. It works much like the way smallpox wiped out entire tribes of Native Americans, and currently the extinction of wooly mammoths and saber tooth tigers at the end of the last ice age is being blamed on germs transported by the newcomers, people, migrating from Asia. They say there just weren’t enough people here to have hunted them into extinction.

The article doesn’t extrapolate this far, but of course, we are susceptible to the same phenomenon, which is why the CDC is monitoring swine flu so closely. The only upbeat note is that all this has happened before. Something like 99 % of all species ever created are now extinct. So life, in some forms, will go on. Among the frogs that seem to have an immunity to the current plague are spring peepers.

So now I give you the last chapter of Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls. (It’s not long.) This is an old man, Nanapush, speaking:

The birds are gone, and with them, on their wings, the thunder and lightning. The skin of ice grows farther out onto the lake and the wind turns the raindrops to dust…..I am at peace. My tracks drag. This is old age, at last. My eyes are weary. My heart is full. My favorite parts of me limp and undemanding. Finally, I can see the shape of all that’s happened and all that is to come. Within me there has always burned an urge to see how things turn out. To know the story.

Now that I know the story, I can rest.

The woman once called Fleur Pillager, and now named Four Souls as well as another name nobody speaks, is now understood by the spirits. Like the spirits, she lives quiet in the woods. No road leads to her place. Hardly even a path. She doesn’t drown men anymore or steal their tongues, she doesn’t gamble. She doesn’t rub her hands with powders of human bones. She doesn’t sing, at least we can’t hear her above the rustle of dollar bills flying from our hands to the government and papers and more legal forms flapping down to cover us in return. Change is chaos and pain. There was no order in our making. This reservation came about in a time of desperation and upon it we will see things occur more desperate yet. When I look at the scope and the drift of our history, I see that we have come out of it with something, at least. This scrap of earth. This ishkonigan. This leftover. We’ve got this and as long as we can hold on to it we will be some sort of people.

Once we were a people who left no tracks. Now we are different. We print ourselves deeply on the earth. We build roads. The ruts and skids of our wheels bite deep and the bush recedes. We make foundations for our buildings and sink wells beside our houses. Our shoes are hard and where we go it is easy to follow. I have left my own tracks, too. I have left behind these words. But even as I write them down I know they are merely footsteps in snow. They will be gone by spring. New growth will cover them, and me. That green in turn will blacken, snow will obscure us all, but, my sons and daughters, sorrow is a useless thing. Much as the grass dies, the wind exhausts its strength, the tree topples in a light breeze, the dead buffalo melt away into the prairie ground or are plowed into newly scratched-out fields, all things familiar dissolve into strangeness. Even our bones nourish change, and even a people who lived so close to the bone and were saved for thousands of generations by a practical philosophy, even such people as we, the Anishinaabeg, can sometimes die, or change, or change and become.