I spotted a bear on my way to work.
He crossed the road not thirty yards ahead of my truck, black and burly and bigger than my big dog: a Maine black bear. I was so surprised to see him, gallivanting across the road on his way to work, that I spent the rest of the day pondering his appearance. I’d like to think that he did the same, pondering the burly man that he had seen in the truck.
I e-mailed my friend in Chicago, who complained: ‘It’s not fair that you get to see a bear on the way to work while I only get to see strip malls.’ My friend on the farm, Ben, emailed back: ‘You are definitely living in the right place.’ I am.
The bear was a bolt of wildness, as if the edges of two contiguous but asynchronous worlds had momentarily touched. His bear world is one layer beneath the people world in our rural neck of the woods, but given the shyness of bears it is still unexpected for them to touch. This being Robert McCloskey country, I wondered if he could be Little Bear, or perhaps little Bear’s mother. She had clearly made it through another Maine winter in fine form. This was a robust, well-upholstered bear who must have eaten plenty of blueberries last summer.
When I regaled local friends with my sighting, I discovered that bears abound. Many people here have bear stories, as it turns out, which always have a different feel to them than other wildlife encounters. By spotting a bear, one is married in name and location to the presence of something ‘other.’ The bear that has appeared is now inextricably linked to its spotter. Ed, the native brook trout vizier, has a bear. It is a goofy, lazy bear that comes and sits on the stream bank at the stone bridge in McCaslin’s brook to watch Ed fish and wait for handouts. Ed’s brother’s bear chased him out of the woods in the Six Mile Square: a she-bear, whose big paw prints I have seen in the gully made by the stream that flows out of Dunc’s meadow to Littlefield’s Cove. At least that’s Ed’s version.
My bear crossed the road just before Fred Motycka’s driveway, where he runs his ingenious homemade gravel sifter, a section of road on the verge between open meadow and orchard and spruce forest by Grindle’s Point. The bear must have been in transit from the grassy fields below the Rumney house to the piney woods that lead down toward Sandra’s house. Had he tired of raspberries and felt a hankering for clams or mussels? A saltwater bear. Sandra’s house verges on the inter-tidal zone.
Which makes him Sandra’s bear, because he has been making himself known to her for months, though Sandra had yet to lay eyes on him. Fine with her: the prospect of a large black bear sharing her space is not necessarily a comfort. Bronwen, Sandra’s business partner, has seen the bear in Sandra’s yard. And I must now assume that I have too. He will be known as Sandra’s bear because his frequent visits to her property, to leave bearish messages on her deck and fur on her fence, where he has paused to scritch his back, have become legend through Sandra’s reports. There is now affirmation of the bear there.
A bear’s mythological import, as in the Native American tradition, is different from its status as local wildlife phenomenon. I admired writer N. Scott Momaday’s way of speaking. Before he read his poems and stories, he told his listeners: ‘I am a bear.’ Going beyond spotting the animal, he signified a whole tradition of deep affinity and self-characterization with bears. One of his stories referred to the naming of the son of Otters Going On. A bear ‘walked through the circles of tepees, and it paused before the tepee of Otters Going On. Everyone watched; everyone was amazed. When the wife of Otters Going On gave birth to a male child, Otters Going On made a shield for him, a very powerful bear shield. Setmaunt, Walking Bear, the son of Otters Going On, carried the shield far and wide.’ (In the Presence of the Sun). He also explained the origin of constellations and the big volcanic plug in Wyoming, grooved by bear claws. Europeans refer to it as Devil’s Tower.
Though an unexpected sight, my bear was not unanticipated. Last fall, a different bear walked out of the woods into our small town. Several people spotted him as he roamed from the forest through backyards and along Battle Avenue. Bicyclers saw him. Major Skinner saw him. Various neighbors sitting down to breakfast must have been treated to Loping Bear Hankering for Pancakes. Someone happened to have a camera. The bear’s photo ran on the local cable channel for months, which stirred my hope for a spotting.
And now that my hope has been fulfilled, I would like to be able to say, with Momaday, that the appearance of my bear signifies something. Seeing Sandra’s Bear inspired reverence, elevating the appearance of this wonderful, shy denizen of my peninsula to an opportunity for mythical naming: of him and me. Thus, I too am now a bear, by association. And I wish to have a shield, though I’m afraid it would just bear the image of a bear ambling into the woods in front of a rusty blue Ford F-150 pick up truck. But that is sufficient. I would carry it far and wide. And henceforth, traveling the road between Fred Motycka’s gravel sifter and the Rumney house, I will at least be known unto myself as ‘Spotting Sandra’s Bear.’
First published in The Christian Science Monitor.