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