Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Lightning Forest Chapter Twenty-two: Bears

      For three months, after moving to the scrub, we searched for them. Melissa and I heard the stories, saw the crossing signs down by the highway. It was the right season. We knew there was at least one nearby. The trashcan was repeatedly raided and spread over an acre before we learned to keep it inside the garage. His broad muddy paws would leave brown blooms down the length of our concrete front walk, though I have never figured out where he found mud in this sandy wilderness or how he got it to stick to his paws until he reached our house. We got in the car and searched the evening, sitting quietly at an intersection where we could see for a distance in three or four directions. I read books. Lots of them. Bears were shy. And smart. If you ever saw one, you would be lucky, blessed even. The neighbors down the road spoke of them with a nervous chuckle. Yes, they had seen them, but only rarely. Rumors of cubs circulated.

Florida Black Bear Momma in our "Napping Tree"
      Then, one afternoon while the pool man and I worked on the filter in the backyard, a 400 pound bear rambled past the corner of the house, not more than 20 feet away from us. I breathed the word “Wow.” The pool man panicked. I stepped between them instinctively. The bear swung his enormous head around toward us, a pivot somewhere between his shoulders and neck. He moved like heavy machinery. Muscles rippled. I could hear the breath explode past his nostrils. Our eyes locked. My mind blanked. 20 feet! This huge drooling beast was hardly a step away.  I couldn’t even think if I had read a rule or not: look in their eyes, don’t look in their eyes, climb a tree, punch them in the head, play dead, fight with every last breath, run like a deer. I didn’t move a muscle. The distance between us, lawn and species, disappeared. Bears have beautifully expressive eyes. He drilled into me. He forced the connection and I couldn’t look away. His nostrils opened and he took me in. We met as mammals. He was evaluating my intentions. I'm sure he could hear my heart pounding hot in my chest. He noticed my fingers slowly clench, my pupils contract. But he saw more than that, I am sure. He recognized my newness here, my infantile attachment to this land I knew nothing about. In his eyes, I saw mossy logs filled with grubs, the moonlight rushing down on blueberry fields, the whistle of shotgun pellets overhead, and hidden swamps filled with palms, orchids, and giant moths. Part of you wants to cry when you look that deeply into a bear's eyes. By the twitch in his haunches, I could see his desire to run. The only reason he didn't run immediately was because he was worried that if he turned his back to me, I (half his weight) would attack him!  That is the great secret of the black bear. They are driven by two things, food and fear.

      His head swung back around, turned his body, and eased several slow steps before sprinting down the wooded path.  He was gone. I found myself reaching out into air after him, as if to say, “Wait! No! One more second!” Our eyes had locked in a moment that was so complete that I can still replay every second. I learned more in that brief look than I have in the 15 or so books I’ve read on bears since. Everything changed. The pool man never came back.

      I started seeing bears everywhere. I look out our windows at night and see them strolling by our patio. They raise their heads skyward, nostrils flaring, smelling the wind. I see them from the car sticking their heads out of the brush looking for a break in traffic. I see them up the trees, panting.  I’ve learned to recognize the sounds of one running past the house while I sit in the living room reading. I come face to face with them on trails once I learned how to walk silently. Big, old, embattled boars. Young mothers. Cubs. Adolescents. Bears with bright white chest patches. Cinnamon bears. Fat bears. Bears that were too thin. Bears with radio colors, bears with ear tags. Siblings. Enemies. Flirting bears. Playful curious bears. Angry bears. I named them if I saw them more than once. Munchkin. Tinkerbell. Radio. Red Tags. Low-rider. Slim. Mange Boy. Big Boy. Popeye is missing her right eye. The Two Amigos are two small bears that have stuck together for years. Thunder has a long white scar that runs from his right ear, across his head, and down his left cheekbone.

      The bear we named Mean Boy often uses the acre across the street as a place to sleep during the hot, languid summer days. There are a few enormous fallen pines that make a great shelter. We call him Mean Boy because his face is entirely black, ragged, and carried the droopy-eyed look of a short temper. He never seems particularly concerned when he sees us, unlike all the other bears. He walks with confidence. He isn't the tallest bear in these woods, but he is built wide and stocky. Any larger bear would have to think twice before tackling Mean Boy.

Best picture I have of Mean Boy
      As it turns out, we live on a bear highway. This area is a greenway between the Wekiva River basin and the Ocala National Forest. The population of bears is more dense here than anywhere in Florida.  Bears can be found throughout the state, but they are obviously much more common in wild areas. Bears require a lot of acreage to survive. If they are seen in other places, they are most likely traveling between wild forests.

      Black bears are social animals even though they don’t seem to like each other very much. They are solitary, but they long for information on other bears like letters from overseas. Bears share the same roads and pathways to critical locations in their territory, forming tunnels in the underbrush and tamping down grass. They pen their correspondence with scent, leaving notes in the sedges as they walk, by clawing landmark trees, leaving urine and feces along the pathways.  These markers tell a story about the bear that leaves them; age, gender, health, fertility, and how recently they’ve passed by. Their feces also serves as a menu for the local area, telling other bears what cuisine is currently available. In this way, they know each others’ whereabouts and can carefully time their feedings so they don’t have to meet accidentally. If they find themselves in a new area, they can discover opportunities for food by following the scent highway. It will certainly lead to somewhere important. Our yard is one of those highways.

      Bears get into trouble around people, and there are a lot of people south of here. People get scared of bears lurking about and have the bears picked up. Tagged, collared and shamed, they are often shipped up into the Ocala forest or even further north into Osceola or Appalachicola. On their long trek back to town, the tagged bears walk southward through my yard, back into trouble. The landscape fountain out front is a well-known watering hole. I will often walk outside to find a strange bear quenching his thirst in the bubbling sculpture. Bears are extraordinary in their willingness to accept and profit from our technology. They are also pretty good at circumventing it. The bear highway curves around just out of reach of the motion-detector floodlight on the corner of our house. Even bears that have never seen this yard know exactly where to find water and where to walk to avoid the floodlight.

      Bear fur, I swear, is the most light-absorbing material to cover any animal. The thick matte-black fur seems to take in more light than it reflects, allowing the bear to disappear from view as soon as it steps behind the first bush. Even when you look at them in the wide open, the details seem to fade away. In the darkest of moonless nights, the bears are darker still. Bears come out of nowhere, they melt into nothingness. They know this truth and walk in the edge of shadows. They walk silently if they don’t want to be noticed. They will crash through the palmettos like a truck if they don’t want you to follow. This is their trick that must be breached. Your brain must be retrained to see what doesn’t want to be seen.

A young Florida black bear on our trail
      The first bear in my life was as a child growing up in Millinocket, Maine. Millinocket was, and is, a papermill surrounded by hundreds of miles of rocky thicket, peat bogs, snow, train tracks, and moose. The county dump was a niche carved out of the pines, a pile of bags and appliances and papers. Each evening, a small contingent of cars would pull in and wait. Bears would climb up over the pile of garbage to the front where the freshest of the day’s waste had been dumped. It is fairly typical in areas with plenty of food for bears to tolerate each other, even appearing to enjoy each other’s company. Here, the bears were drive-thru entertainers. Bags were torn and shredded. Boxes were overturned. They begged at car doors. The spoils were divided.

      I also remember the sad, toothless bears living at roadside attractions in Maine. Clotheslines with empty coffee cans attached could be filled with marshmallows and the bears would pull the treats up to their balconies. The bear mind is so attuned to food that any amount of indignity can be endured for a snack. It has been said that, when it comes to food, black bears are smarter than chimpanzees. Fear and food may be the two motivators for bears, but food often overrides fear. Those bears may have been mere vapors of the glorious wild bears that roamed freely just within sight of the roadside zoos, but I suspect that somewhere in their inner life, they believed that they were getting the best of us.

      The image of a bear existing in a human-free wilderness is an artifact. The concept of a pristine behavioral pattern is unrealistic in today’s world. Bears are more nocturnal in the company of humans in an attempt to avoid contact. The lure of garbage for bears and the promise of undeveloped land for humans is so primal that the prime habitat is destined to be shared. Although the trash causes abnormal growth patterns, the high-caloric enriched diet is a boon for bears. Once accustomed to the fatty and sweet foods found in trash, bears start to lose interest in their healthy natural diet of palmetto berries and acorns. Who doesn’t prefer cheese and chocolate over broccoli and wheat grass?  They have more cubs than they would with a natural diet. But while bear populations may appear to be growing, the average age is decreasing. The half-eaten hamburgers, Cheetos, and sour cream have a price. It forces bears to cross highways where they are being hit in ever-increasing rates. Bears are illegally shot by private landowners. Bears get too close to suburban areas where they are feared and relocated. The trip back to their territory takes them over more dangerous roads. The wisdom that comes with age is being lost. Older, smarter bears are less common, so most of the future generations are being raised by mothers that prefer human trash, eroding their ancestral techniques for surviving in the wild. Are they slowly forgetting the nuances of a natural diet? This balance between bear and man is precarious. Don’t be fooled by this younger, larger community of bears. A little too much development in Central Florida and the bear population will crash. A few more busy roads here and the habitat will become too fragmented and dangerous. The bears will retreat further back into the Ocala forest.

      The Florida black bear’s favorite scrub foods include acorns, palmetto berries, sabal dates, sedges, hickory nuts, shiny blueberry, gopher apples, pawpaws, holly berries, and hearts of palm. They are one of the few predators of the muskmare walkingstick. The chemical defense of the walkingstick protects it from most animals. To the bear, the pungent squirt is a fortuitous spicy burst. They eat mushrooms, they tear open old logs looking for bess beetle larva. They dig out the juicy mycelium of stinkhorns.  Beyond insects, they are not particularly predatory, but they do enjoy carrion and will kill young fawns when they can find them.

      Their hunger gets worse in autumn. They tear down all of my banana trees to chew on the juicy centers. They destroy the birdfeeder. They chew my garden hoses. They explore every possible food source. I’ve found tooth marks in my water softener. I’ve found bears in my garage while I was mowing the lawn. Flower pots are crushed. One of my plastic pink flamingos was mutilated. They steal things. An area rug that I was drying on the picnic table disappeared overnight. The autumnal bacchanal is, of course, necessary for hibernation and birthing cubs. Two years ago, I surprised a young female digging through a pile of flowerpots on the side of my garage.  She stood up in shock, cried, and ran. Her hind leg caught up on a thick looping vine and she fell face-first onto the ground. Forgetting her fear for a brief moment, she turned and looked at me with a light-hearted, embarrassed expression that I will never forget.  For all of the destruction and thievery, I find comfort knowing the bears are out there, in the night, challenging my perceptions. They make me question my surroundings. They are hungry enough and big enough to be noticed, to be an equivalent. A peer. There is a mind in the woods, strategizing, analyzing, goofing up. I sleep better knowing the night is not left in the care of insects alone.

      Florida bears don’t truly hibernate, but they go into a sleepy phase starting sometime in early January and ending in early April. No animal sleeps through winter with the aplomb of a bear. Needing no food, they do not need to eliminate any waste which makes them unique among hibernating mammals. Even more miraculous is their emergence in the spring because they retain their muscle mass. They seem impervious to entropy. Not all Central Florida bears go completely asleep like their northern relatives, but their activity is so restrictive that you are unlikely to see one during this time.  They laze about, far from humans. The palmetto bowls no longer crash with bears. You won’t hear the cubs’ stout claws scraping up the slash pines as they climb to safety. You no longer have to look over your shoulder when you go out at night, or wonder what lies around the corner. The bear tunnels begin to grow in. You can put your garbage by the roadside the night before pick-up and sleep comfortably that you won’t have to clean it all up in the morning. By all practical means, things seem more pastoral. The deer step gently out onto the lawns. 

      But when for too long I haven’t seen them, they visit me in dreams. Once you have looked a bear in the eyes with the mutual understanding that comes in that scary, clumsy moment, you will be followed to bed. Bears will not be denied a place in the human consciousness.  One night they will devour you. One night they will nuzzle into your arms. One night, they will show you their ferny enclaves, teach you their subtle language. Symbols of strength, intelligence, resurrection, and divinity, people have throughout history tried to possess the bear spirit. Cave walls were painted, hearts were eaten, clans were named, constellations were traced, bear galls were dried and shipped to Asia.  Elizabethan audiences loved watching bears tortured and torn limb from limb in bloody spectacles. Once, I saw a roadkill bear on the side of the road, deep in the forest, beheaded and completely skinned, its fatty musculature stinking in the sun. The paws were chopped off, the brains taken for the tanning. Was this a bear that I knew, that drank from my fountain? Was this Thunder? His beautiful light-absorbing skin now lies in someone’s TV den, destined for a garage sale when the novelty wears off. Humans want to possess the power of Bear.

      Hoagland had his turtles, Oliver her geese, Leopold his Silphium and pine, but they were all captivated by the bear. They all knew the presence of bear in the forest, seen or unseen, changes the tone, alters the light. A forest without bear loses its vitality, its edge. I do not believe we are all hopeless romantics anthropomorphizing bears. I believe we are discovering something of ourselves in their raw wildness. Maybe more than any other animal, the bear has crossed cultures and time universally where it is known to have lived. Maybe more than any other animal, bears have something to teach us. Cast out from heaven, we reach out to another awareness, another intelligence. We are co-conspirators, sharing rich emotional lives, common life goals and fears. Do we inhabit their dreams as well, chasing them relentlessly through the underbrush, our rifles spitting fire? Are we their totems, their familiars?

      This morning I awoke to the sound of heavy equipment in reverse. My heart sinks. Without getting out of bed, I knew what was happening because the “For Sale” sign had been posted on the acre lot across the street for over a month now. There are few sounds more disheartening than the diesel growls of land-clearing machines in the morning air.

      And what a beautiful morning it is! A cold front had pushed through during the night and knocked the humidity down to a reasonable level for the first time since last winter. It signals the first day of fall. Fall in scrub land means time for the palmetto berry harvest and window panes clear of condensation. It means the lovebugs are gone and we can wash our cars with some hope of it lasting. It means the air conditioner gets a few moments of rest, it means the lawn will slow its mad dash to the sun and the mowing can wait until the weekend. In my backyard, it means the butterflies have a renewed sense of urgency in their mating. Their eggs flow more freely. The males need less poetry to seduce.

      Sap pours from the broken trunks of sand pines that had survived three hurricanes this summer. Finally, they are pulled stump up and all, so nothing will survive. You can't build a house on stumps. Mean Boy’s den is torn to pieces. The machine leans its shoulder into the large sprawling live oak at the center of the lot. The oak will not die without a fight. Chainsaws dismember it. Puffs of black smoke. Still, the oak won’t budge. I begin to harbor hope that the tree is too much for mankind, the new owners will have to buy another lot somewhere. The men take a break.

      That live oak, arms stretched out to the ground and to the sky, must be ancient. It is, by far, the largest hardwood I’ve seen around here. It somehow survived the fires that frequent this land. I used to scramble over it trying to catch the grizzled mantids that prefer its mossy limbs. Grizzled mantids are lichen mimics. When sitting still, they look entirely like a patch of lichen growing on bark. Their wings have all the requisite little curls, edges, flaps, and ridges. They seem to change color to match whatever lichens are nearby.

      As the live oak finally surrenders to a machine ironically named 'Caterpillar,' I wonder if the new neighbors will appreciate the mysterious grizzled mantis.  I wonder if they will understand that the toughest, scrappiest bear on the block slept in their bed before their bed was even there. Will there be indifference or regret? That old oak lay in an enormous dirty pile in the center of the acre like a headless skinned corpse, ready to be burned, sent up in a billow.

      I walk back to my yard, my own patch of lawn and concrete. The ancient Greeks believed that mother bears licked their formless, newborn cubs into shape like they were made of clay. Bears were sculptors of life, creators. The belief lasted for centuries. It seems obvious now that the cubs are born perfectly formed and the mother is simply cleaning her newborn. The image fell from use. Bears may not sculpt their young, but they are sculptors of the forest. No other single animal has such a profound impact on the forest it lives in and the psychology of the people living nearby. Bears are, indeed, creators.  I can’t imagine living in the scrub without them; our charming, suspicious, sometimes nuisance companions.  I suspect that when it does happen and bears no longer use the highway in my yard or raid every birdfeeder for miles, the indifferent and cruel neighbors will miss them too. Our trash might be safer, but our dreams will be empty.

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