In the Eyes of a Bear

For an audio version of ‘In the Eyes of a Bear’ please press the play button:

In the Eyes of a BearAs the sun rose over the mountains, I walked a treeless ridge that buckled into the hazy distance. A vast summer sky cradled a few threads of cloud and a warm breeze rolled over my shoulders. Skylark song sparkled like sunlit rain above the meadows. The alpine world was bursting into song, the brief, ecstatic season when the mountain’s granite bones are clothed in wildflowers and butterflies. It was a morning of bird monitoring for me, and as I neared the place where I’d spend the coming hours watching the skies around the wind farm for raptors, pelicans and ravens, a creature unexpectedly stepped into sunlight ahead of me.

I’d always imagined that my first real encounter with a European brown bear would unfold in a forest. It’s where our legends and myths tell us they live, deep in the dark and leafy heart of the remnant wild. And over the years, it’s where I’ve most often found their prints, large and looming in the yielding earth, big enough to make my hand suddenly resemble a child’s in comparison. Forest raspberry canes are stripped clean of their fruit within days of ripening and high claw marks decorate those trees chosen as scratching posts. Mounds of bear dung mark the woodland floor like native cairns, their varying constituents an inventory of the seasons: plum stones, beetle wings and rosehips; apple pips, wasp heads and fur. Seeing these signs is a reminder: that for all that is solitary about my walks, this world is shared and sentient beyond measure.

Skylark nest

So sudden and unexpected was the appearance of the animal in the meadow that for the slenderest of moments I had no idea what I was looking at, whether some giant feral dog or a strange hybrid of creatures more common to me. It had lumbered into view from behind a rocky outcrop, stepping up onto a stone in front of me to settle in sunlight. That momentary flicker of uncertainty was eclipsed by a blazing clarity, as if the scene had suddenly been floodlit and telescoped into focus: only fifteen metres of mountain meadow separated me from a brown bear. My mind suddenly emptied, a clear and continuous space in which all I could hear was my heart, like the quivering thrum of an arrow in the moments after hitting its target. From its low saddle of stone the bear eyed me in the meadow, and the wild rushed in like a river.

Wild slope

Although the sun was still low in the sky, it was rising with summer fire. The sunlight reached my back and flared past, illuminating the bear in fine detail, its eyes magnified to dark pools. In his book Becoming Animal, David Abram says that “reciprocity is the very structure of perception.” To look into the eyes of a wild creature is to enter into a relationship, a shared exchange carried out over common ground. For all that we praise and rightfully honour the other senses, sight remains for humans the most elevated of perceptual tools. It’s how we tend to map and render the world. Peering into the reflective gleam of a frog at ease on both land and water, or to look between the ancient, knowing lids of a tortoise sheltered within its shell, is to be offered the possibility of empathy, of imagining a remarkable life and lineage vastly different to our own. But there in the bright meadow, looking back at the bear as it stared at me intently, I felt no tingle of curiosity or inquisitiveness. Awe and fear had filled me, in equal measure, leaving no space for anything else.

Mountain road

The light poured over the mountains until the bear was enthroned in summer glow. Its fur was more grizzled than brown, sleek and shimmering, as if each length of hair was tipped by a silver shard. Dark rings encircled its eyes and waves of muscle rolled through its shoulders when it moved. It nodded the air with its black muzzle, picking up whatever traces of adrenaline and fear were seeping through me. Although on all fours it would have stood waist-height against me, it appeared to be a young bear on the very cusp of adulthood, and I was sure its mother was near. I turned slowly in search of her, the space between the bear and I seeming even smaller than before when I considered the consequences of coming between the two – all that a threat to a mother’s long labour of blood and nourishing would entail – to see only an empty meadow rippling with wildflowers and wind. Feeling the bear’s stare deepen inside me, I began backing up slowly into sunlight.

Wildflower meadow

For as long as we’ve depicted animals on cave walls and shared language around fires, stories of our relationship to the wild kingdom have helped render this world sensible and meaningful to our human consciousness. They’ve also been practical guides, of vital importance for survival. But on that ridge of rising summer light, only a short and startling distance from an animal more than equal to myself, I finally understood something of what the philosopher Krishnamurti meant when he wrote that “the description is not the described, the word is not the thing.” No amount of stories about our wild inheritance could prepare me for its actuality, the arising of our animal essence. From the moment the bear appeared my skin was electric, every last hair bristling and alive. My entire body felt charged with a taut pulse, as if no longer flesh but a conductor of pure, necessary energy. I acted with little thought, my mind operating on some ancient, preserving level, the same kind of instinctiveness that our ancestors must have experienced. That immediate, visceral response to the near presence of the bear was the evolutionary reaction of prey to a predator. I was no longer the dominant species, all the assumptions and riches of human culture fallen away, like the stripped-back bones of these mountains before summer brings its flourish of colour. All that was ever wild remains within us.

Fritillary

For whatever reason, the bear suddenly startled. There’d been no sound or sign of a mother in the end, so that only the two of us shared that alpine world. It may have finally seen my dark silhouette emerge from the blinding glare as the sun rose higher, or picked up an additional scent on the wind, some pungent, primitive smell of mine that resonated with its genetic inheritance, the stories its species carries in blood and bone. The bear padded off the rock to hit the meadow in full flight, charged with electric intensity as I retreated with slow steps. It thumped across the unfolding summer flowers, scattering butterflies that drifted up into the air. Silence welled up to fill the long, hollow seconds until the bear sheered away, hurtling down the slope of bilberries and meadow grasses. The echo of its run beat like a drum across the miles, and all I could do was stand still in the sunlight, breathing, breathing, breathing, as skylark song fell about me like rain.

Varnoundas wind farm

It’s been a quieter year at Notes from Near and Far, so I’d like to take this opportunity with the last post of 2013 to thank you all for sticking with the blog. The Small Heart of Things, and an upcoming book tour on the west coast of North America on its behalf, has taken up much of my time this year, so my apologies for the less frequent posts. I’m extremely delighted and honoured by the positive reception the book’s been receiving so far. For anyone who is interested, or who would like to know a little more about the book, recent reviews for it can be read via the following links at The Rumpus, The Iowa Review and The Baptist Times, or via the Press page here on the blog.

Many thanks to all of you for your continued interest in Notes from Near and Far. I’m extremely grateful for the conversations and connections that have been made here, and for the sense of shared community. With the last days of the year upon us, my very best wishes to all for a creative, inspiring and joyful 2014, wherever you may be.

41 thoughts on “In the Eyes of a Bear

  1. Your beautiful story and photographs stopped me in my tracks this morning, congratulations on such beautiful writing. I shall look up your book next, wonderful stuff (love the photo of what I’m assuming is a fritillary by the way) :)

    1. Thanks ever so much for the kind words and interest in the book, Mike. Much appreciated. I’m looking forward to checking out your blog and music a little later on as well! It is indeed a fritillary – I’m pretty sure a Balkan fritillary, Boloria graeca. Thanks for connecting, and best wishes from here!

    1. Thank you, Dawn. Wonderful to think of the candles and fire while you’re reading this. Like a gift in return. Much appreciated, my friend. And my best wishes to you as we near the turn of the year.

  2. I had not considered the possibility of meeting up with a bear across the meadow. I usually think of them deep in the woods. Your vulnerability in such an open expanse was captured beautifully in your writing.

  3. An encounter like that certainly humbles. I’m glad it ended safely for you. Thank you for sharing your beautiful stories. You have the rare gift of taking your readers right there with you and of evoking the same feelings and sensations in them. This is my favorite blog. I tend to come back again and again and read these intriguing posts all over.

    Wishing you an amazing, adventurous and successful New Year!

    1. Verena, thank you ever so much for these kind words of yours. I really touched and humbled by them. And I’m so delighted to hear you enjoy dropping in to read the posts again. I’m also really pleased that the encounter ended safely as well!

      As a new year dawns, I’d like to wish you a joyful, creative and wondrous 2014!

      Best wishes from here,

      Julian

  4. What a beautiful moment, Julian. I’ve been lucky to have had similar encounters with black bears and wolves. You captured the connection that those moments create with your usual eloquence. I was right there with you :)

    1. Thank you, Heather. I always wondered how often you had similar encounters considering where you live. Despite the fear, I considered mine to be a blessing. Hope all is well with you, and best wishes for further enriching wild experiences in 2014!

  5. A very fine piece Julian, and I always like the generosity of a longer post – it’s often frustrating when blogs are used for casual commentary. You’ve also helped me make my mind up about doing audio versions for all my posts, especially on my own blog. I’ve done audio for some of the MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall posts in the past, but only when they were also given as papers / talks etc. I have eye strain today, so the audio was a God send, & made me thing about accessibility issues regarding my own work. Apropos nothing, there is a wonderful photograph of Susan Sontag working at her desk, in a bear suit… Emma (Bolland) X

    1. Thanks ever so much, Emma. I’m really pleased you enjoyed the piece, but also that it helped clarify some thoughts regarding using audio with posts on your blog. For some time I didn’t use any at all, and then at some stage I decided to give it a go, only as a one-off to be honest. But the feedback was very positive and, like you experienced yourself, it works well when readers are tired or suffering eye strain. But what I’ve come to realise about the audio as well, is that it can bring a different layer to the piece. Some readers have told me that in general they respond more to the aural than the written in their lives, so this enables visitors to approach more on their own terms. Although I don’t always have the time to include audio with each post, I’m certainly keep using it whenever I can, and I look forward very much to hearing/reading how it works out for you.

      I’m also going to have to track down the Susan Sontag image as it sounds fabulous!

      Very best wishes to you for a wondrous and creative 2014!

      Julian

  6. As always Julian, another great piece. I have been enjoying your book and was thrilled to hear that your book tour is bringing you to the West Coast of North America. Any chance that you’ll be in Vancouver, and if so, when and where?

    Paul

    1. Wonderful to hear from you, Paul. Firstly, thanks for the kind words on the post. I’m also delighted to hear you’re enjoying the book, and I appreciate your interest in it.

      About the book tour: I’d really been hoping to arrange an event for Vancouver but didn’t manage to pin one down before I was offered a reading elsewhere that used up my final spare day. Here is the full list of events, but the closest I come to Vancouver is Victoria, unless you happen to be travelling for any reason to any of the other places at the same time. It would certainly be a real pleasure to meet up anywhere en route.

      Hope this finds you well, Paul, and do drop me a line if you have any new writing or posts coming out as I’d love to catch up with them.

      Best wishes for a joyful and creative 2014!

      Julian

    1. That’s wonderful, Tim! Thanks for thinking of me and Notes from Near and Far. I going to have to find a way of including this haiku on the site somehow, as it beautifully captures the essence of the blog.

      Cheers for that, and my very best wishes to you for a creative and adventure-filled 2014.

  7. Another beautifully rendered moment, Julian. It is frigid frigid right now in Minnesota, so I was happy to be taken to a place of such alert and bursting life.

    And you know if I lived on the west coast of America I would drive and drive to one or more of your readings. *sigh* Regardless, I’ll be clapping you on from my corner of the web! Exciting!

    1. Thanks ever so much, Emily – as always. Such a pleasure hearing from you, and it would be even finer if we had the chance to meet up. Buy it would be an awfully long drive to reach the west coast! I appreciate the clapping from the digital bleachers.

      Hope all is well with the family and that you’re managing to keep warm in what I hear is a terribly cold winter. Sending my best wishes from here for a wondrous and creative 2014!.

  8. I grew up in the Finnish woods where coming across bears, boars or even wolves was always at the back of the mind, but I never did. Your encounter sends shivers up and down the spine!

    1. I’ve long wanted to explore the forests of the north, and Finland has crossed my mind from time to time, so it’s lovely to read your comment here, is-Britt. Thanks very much, and I hope the shivers subsided!

      1. If you do explore the Finnish woods, you may come across a surprising and controversial phenomenon that has come to notice in recent years: the use of Thai labor to pick berries for Finnish food processing companies during the summer months. I mention it because you have written about encounters with migrant labor in the north of Greece, but it’s not something much associated with the Nordics. Other than that, I can only say that going slow is the only way to explore the north because with the exception of Norway, the drama is small and easily missed if you are traveling too fast.

        1. Thanks for this, Lis-Britt! Definitely a story I’d be interested in, and I’ve heard nothing at all before about Thai labourers picking berries in Finland. Going slow is a fine way to travel, so it sounds like it would suit me very well :)

  9. From the depths of the city, let me say that these visions of nature and the embracing seasons are most appreciated. The descending clouds, the startling light, the hidden creatures all make for another thrilling, intuitive post.

    1. Thank you, Aubrey. You always bring a lovely poetry to your comments, and this one is no different. So pleased this encounter in the mountains reached you in the city. Best wishes from here to there!

  10. Julian, I’ve been offline for weeks and am just now reading this — under a drought-blue sky with chickadees perching on my laptop screen, a break from writing about a bear encounter myself (not my own, thank goodness) — I feel so “in your head and on your page!” Every single time I read one of your posts or essays I end up with tears in my eyes and a smile on my face, moved deeply by your prose and the connections you so seamlessly make. I get lessons in nature, life and craft all at once – thank you.

    1. Many thanks, as always, for such a lovely comment, Jenny. I’m looking forward to hearing about the bear encounter you’re writing about, I must say! And I was just reading about those “drought-blue skies” of yours; very worrying. But looking forward to being there and meeting soon!

  11. “All that was ever wild remains within us.” How very, very, very true that is. Thank you!

    What a beautiful piece, the photo of the meadow (what are those flowers?) has stuck in my mind for a few weeks. And the encounter with the bear out in the open compared to the enclosed woodland has a very striking and visceral feel to it. Some of us can only dream of such experiences. I shared your piece with my colleagues (conservationists), they enjoyed your blog.

    And I’m looking forward to getting a copy of your book from my local independent bookseller.

    Daniel

    1. Wonderful to hear from you, Daniel! And many thanks for the kind words, on both this and the marsh country posts. I’m a big fan of your work, and your recent piece on ancient woodlands was excellent and inspiring.

      I hope you’re right about the marsh country and the airport proposal. I’m optimistic myself, but when I began exploring the Hoo Peninsula a year ago I never would have imagined that the proposal would be taken seriously at all, for a host of reasons. And here we are, presumably for political expediency, giving it further consideration, despite rumours that the intention had been to categorically rule it out. In the UK these days, I feel that everywhere is potentially vulnerable, as your recent post alluded to. I remain optimistic, however, that a remarkable part of southern England will be preserved, though whether for the reasons it should be, or because the economic cost proves unjustifiable, I don’t know. Cliffe Pools are wonderful, but the whole peninsula rewards further exploration. Hope you enjoy it!

      I’m so pleased you enjoyed this bear country post as well. The flowers are a type of mountain dianthus, an astonishing carpet of colour in early summer. I feel extremely grateful to have had this bear experience, and it’s affected me deeply. One of those moments that linger long in a life.

      Many thanks for your interest in the book, and I hope you enjoy it, Daniel. I really appreciate it. From these lakes of grey winter light to your south London woodlands, a toast to those moments of wild beauty.

      Julian

      1. Great to hear from you, thanks for your in-depth and sincere response. I think that the peninsula is under threat because very few people have been there or would even know where it is. It’s the culture of ‘what’s in it for me?’ that has become so prevalent here.

        Thank you for the identification, dianthus, I will hopefully see them in the wild one day.

        And thank you again for reading the woodland article, it is something that angers me greatly, but it is a chance for us to express to the UK at large just how important woodlands are culturally, ecologically and I hope in a sustainable economic way.

        I’m about to read your new piece, in a London that is under water!

        Daniel

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