New England’s woodlands stand naked now with all their fine summer attire strewn across the forest floor by an October fatigued by its own flamboyance hurrying off to bed. Darkness arrives early and lingers late to cloak the scene, the prudish emissary of a cold, dispassionate winter on its way. At the margins of the day, dawn and dusk throw up a cool blue scrim that blurs perceptions and blends shadows with substance. So when we venture out to the barn to deliver the day’s recycling or to retrieve wood for the evening’s fire, we set our awareness to high-gain, and we carry a big stick. We worry about bears.
Kate and I added this particular worry several weeks ago to our householders’ list of dreads, which also includes window sill rot, throaty complaints from the oil burner, and an insomniac munching mouse in the walls of the bedroom. It was placed at the top of the list after an evening trip to the barn was interrupted by the arrival of a young bear in the curving driveway there.
In the shadows it looked to me like a large black dog – a massive Labrador or a Portuguese Water Dog, like Obama’s. My own hound-mutt, Boon, a far less exalted breed than either of those two, set out to enforce his proprietary entitlement nonetheless, barking and howling at the intruder. It was only when the Labrador retreated to the base of a large maple, stood on its hind legs, and then climbed 10 feet up the tree that I realized that it probably wasn’t a lab.
I am a prudent man who loves his dog. And as such, I was pulled simultaneously back to the safety of the house and forward to retrieve Boon from the danger he was courting at the base of a tree with a bear in it. Fortunately, at that moment, my normally stubborn dog realized for himself the benefits of prudence, perceiving, perhaps, that treeing a bear was glory enough. Better to settle for an inspiring tale than to pursue a cautionary one. So he finally turned his tail and heeded my increasingly desperate calls. We both ran back into the house, our eyes as big as dinner plates.
One evening a couple of weeks later, Boon was barking insistently again, this time at the back door demanding entry. The bear was back, or perhaps it was another bear. It wasn’t much more than a bear shape in the early evening shadows, mauling the expensive squirrel-proof bird feeder hanging in yet another maple tree outside the barn. (A bear-proof bird feeder is one you keep inside the barn.) From the kitchen window, we watched the bear shape, roughly my size and weight, nimbly ascend the tree to perch on a branch to contemplate, apparently, a couple of suet feeders dangling from high thin branches. Too high and too thin, it seems, because the visitor climbed back down and headed off toward the compost bin.
Compost is a banquet for bears, and to let our guest partake would invite real trouble if word got out on the ursine edition of Yelp. Kate and I did the only thing we could think of. I got the soup pot and a spoon, she got the kazoo-like crow call, and we stood outside the back door, yelling and carrying on like we had just emerged from a clown car. Boon watched this new wildlife spectacle from inside – his eyes as big as dinner plates. The bear shape evaporated into the gathering darkness.
We will keep the bird feeders inside the barn at night until the end of November, when the bears of New England tuck into their dens for the winter. While they are not welcome in our yard, I am happy they are out there in the woods surviving – thriving even. Hunting and agriculture completely eradicated native black bears from Connecticut by the 1880s. The reforestation of the state has renewed ecosystems that once were lost to human encroachments, and an important part of our natural heritage has returned.
As for me, I am now a man with bears in his periphery. While I may have been tamed over the decades since my youth, it is reassuring to know there remains a wildness in my immediate environment, just over there, barely perceptible in the shadows – something to heighten my awareness in the dark and to require that I carry a big stick. Something to raise the stakes of living.