The Natural World

The Black Velvet Hole in the Woods

The Black Velvet Hole in the Woods


This year, the bear just left his footprint in the mud as he walked away from our bird feeder. Last year he took the feeder. Sunflower seeds seem like such a poor early spring meal for as big an animal as a black bear, especially since it has been a long time since blueberry season and the fattening repasts of the fall.

Nothing like a long winter nap to make you a bit peckish, only to find that nature isn’t providing many treats just yet. Yes, the sap is flowing; grubs are in the works; the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” is driving the flower—but intention doesn’t fill a big furry belly.

Whenever it’s time to be on the watch for sleepy bears, I think of what Sally said: “A bear is like a black velvet hole in the woods.” There are so many dark spots—stumps and shadows that end up not being a bear stepping forth and sniffing the breeze—that when the bear is finally there it takes a minute to realize exactly what you’re seeing.

We had been living in our house in the woods only a few weeks when something dark caught my eye. It was black velvet and it was moving. Sure enough, a bear was meandering through the cedars and across our leach field not twenty feet from the house, not the least bit concerned about stealth or disguise.

“Bear!” I exclaimed, and jumped for the camera. Alas, no film. Binoculars were handy. So we contented ourselves with observing—and being observed. He sniffed around the woodpile out back, lifting his head over the top log to peer at his audience, then sauntered toward my son’s little cabin, fifty yards away.

Spencer too is a bear at six in the morning, and not open to communication until closer to noon. But he did happen to have his cell phone with him. We gave him a call.

“Spencer,” I said, “There’s a bear coming your way.”

An eighteen-year old boy is not customarily very lucid at the crack of dawn. The approach of the bear, however, proved an effective wake up call, and Spencer descended from the sleeping loft and peered out the picture window—into the big face of the bear.

The bear was less impressed by Cabin Guy in boxers than with the leftover marshmallows and hamburger grease around the campfire, and so he busied himself sniffing out morsels. Then he trundled up the hill and melted nonchalantly back into velvet.

A bear’s mythological character trumps its status as local wildlife phenomenon. Bears are constellations and totems and moods and desires.

And are we not bears, as we climb March hill? Spring calls forth a bit of the bear in each of us, including that black cloak that disguises our winter selves to our spring selves, and, for a few weeks, lets us blend in, but also drives us forth, stretching and yearning for April’s sun. We have to look twice to see our own footprints in the mud. We’ve come to blend too thoroughly with our emotional winter “woods.” We too are hungry, foraging, hanging around bird feeders, and campfires…and dreaming of the plump berries to come.


Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania.

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