In Bear Country

Seeing Someone or Something

An Essay.

In late autumn Ridge Road, the country road where I live, settles into all the shades of brown. I associate the season with a winter coat I owned when I was ten, my second favorite coat of all time.  A brown-ish and otherwise humble garment, it contained all of the shades of late autumn in its fabric.  I know this to be true because even at ten I was enchanted enough with the coat to hold the fabric up to almost every single dead leaf or stalk I ever saw while wearing it.

Back in November I took a walk down my road on one such brown afternoon.  Everything crunched.  About halfway down the big hill a brisk wind arrived suddenly, rippling a pile of leaves along the verge in front of me as though somebody were shaking my old winter coat.  Revealed on the pavement was a flat chipmunk.  Road kill, I thought, and was preparing to move it when the chipmunk sprang up, did a crazy little dance toward me, realized I too was alive, and then dashed into the high grass off the verge.  From there it complained angrily in warbler-like chip-notes.  I could imagine it shaking its little human-seeming fist within the weeds.

In some ways (but not all ways) November usually appeals to me, because of the shades of color seen at no other time, because of the feeling—as the leaves and undergrowth disappear—of a slate being wiped clean, and because of surprises like that chipmunk.  This past November, not so much, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Surprise number one on my walk that day was the chipmunk.  Surprise two: I spoke to my neighbors who live at the bottom of the long hill, about a mile away from my house, and they told me they’d “seen something” on Ridge Road.

I like these neighbors and in fact consider their two highly eccentric dogs, Dora and Newman, to be god-dogs of mine.  Recently, my neighbors said, “something” took down the bird feeder in their back yard and cleaned it of oiled sunflower seed, carefully and meticulously, as though using a small toothbrush.  Nothing was pulled apart and the now empty feeder had been placed on their deck, a hint, perhaps, to refill it soon.  The next night they heard the dogs barking, turned on the floodlight out back, and there was a black bear on the deck, looking for the bird feeder they’d put in the garage.  Joe grabbed his phone and took a picture.  The whole neighborhood has since examined this picture closely: a sad black bear, not so very big, staring baffled and red-eyed into a distance that fades into darkness.  The bear looks embarrassed and not a little hungover.

Bear sightings in the area started back in the summer with rumors of people seeing “someone or something” in the very early morning or the very early evening.  “Someone or something odd.”  In a small town rumors spread quickly.  Soon fuzzy pictures appeared online.  The rumors appeared to be true—the pictures were so fuzzy the dark shape appeared to be “someone or something” in a twilit landscape.  I thought it was possibly a short-ish, round-ish kid in a dark sheet crossing a street or field.  Or a small, dark boulder rolled into the middle of a street or field.  Or maybe the thumb of someone or something taking the pictures.

We finally got a clear video of an actual bear strolling down an Oswego street not so far from downtown.  This downtown bear, according to a DEC guy with whom my neighbors talked, was unlikely to be the bear now on Ridge Road.  They like big territories and the bears have been spreading out from the Adirondacks for years now, looking for space.  However, the downtown bear in the video also looked sad and embarrassed, lumbering awkwardly, looking nervously over its shoulder at some point above the camera.  One wonders if all bears are drinkers, since this one seemed hung-over, too, but of course there are things beyond alcohol capable of producing that expression.

At any rate, although for years I have been light-hearted and exuberant on my Ridge Road excursions, I came to be circumspect on all walks over the extended course of these bear rumors and sightings.  There are several reasons for this circumspection, but none of them have to do with being afraid I’d encounter our neighborhood bear, who is welcome here as far as I’m concerned.

One possible reason for it: all fall we began to have hunters in the neighborhood.  This December I got a pair of snowshoes in order to enjoy some of the constant lake effect snow we get because of Lake Ontario on our northern border.  On my second trip out in the snowshoes, deep in the woods across the street from my house, I heard shotgun blasts, two in quick succession not far from where I stood.  I cleared out.  Back out of the woods I saw a strange pick-up parked on the roadside.  An energy company owns the woods and it’s posted for no hunting and usually the posting is respected.  My thinking is that the bear’s existence proved too tempting a lure for the hunters, and they were probably shooting at deer (illegally) having seen no bear.

Meanwhile a danger factor has entered our home equation where it never existed before.

There is also an odd kind of concentration that comes with walking as winter and cold come on, and this too can bring on circumspection.  Possibly this has to do with the way you have to tuck your chin against the wind, pull in the drawbridges of your extremities, walk constantly through the fog of your own breath.  These things are all boundaries that don’t get drawn in summer.

But mainly the circumspection came, as many of you know, because in May of last year my relationship of thirteen years ended quite abruptly.  It is very difficult to let go of such things.  Almost every picture of me taken during the past year has surprised an expression on my face that I recognize as that of the black bear’s—sad, embarrassed, a little haunted or hunted, vaguely hung-over.  The appearance of the bear only increased this feeling of being hemmed in.  My ex-girlfriend had for a couple of years commented that she’d seen “something” that looked like a bear, and I had either paid little attention, or had teased her unmercifully about mistaking dogs for bears.  In a profound way I had become blind to what she saw.

For many months after our break-up, through last summer and fall and winter, I knocked around with bear-like awkwardness.  I mean this literally, knocking my body into things in my house I’ve never knocked into before, as though I really became blind and some prankster had moved all my furniture an inch to the right.

One dark early morning, going to Dunkin Donuts for my coffee and conversation with friends, I fell flat on my face going up the decking steps to the garage—the first time I’ve ever done that. Another day I walked straight into a large locust tree in my back yard, barking my chin against the trunk of the tree and then, falling, knocking my knee on an exposed root.  My massage therapist kept finding dark bruises all over me.  She’s a very good person, and I grew afraid she thought I was being abused.  “I keep tripping up and down stairs and running into doorways,” I explained earnestly, and there was an awkward silence.

I don’t like saying to people that I have been hurt badly, but I will say it to you: I had been.  I spent the summer avidly watching all the wildlife that intersects with Ridge Road, one sighting after another of wild turkeys, deer, opossums, raccoons, snapping turtles, bird after bird after bird, and snakes galore.  It seemed as if I could find a tonic for my grief if only I observed the local flora and fauna with enough insight and attentiveness—the very observation, insight and attentiveness I surely must have lacked in the last years of that relationship.

In summer I decided it was time for me to start seeing someone.  I made some phone calls to out-of-towners whom I had once thought attractive but hadn’t seen in many years.  As it happened, this was another way of knocking into things.  The calls resulted in a series of darkly comic conversations, most of which ended in nostalgic remembrance of things past, followed up later by Christmas cards emphasizing loved ones and extended family.

I had been warned about this by friends, warned about the many downsides of dating “too soon,” although I was as heedless of this advice as a thirteen-year-old sneaking out for a forbidden rendezvous.  They were right and I was not.  In fact, I feel an apology might be necessary to the thirteen-year-old I created in the simile above, since for all I know she would have shown better sense than I did in those phone calls and at one particularly disastrous dinner out where, impossibly, I turned off the lights in the whole restaurant with the back of my head, and then poked my dinner date in the eye when hugging goodbye at the end of the meal, accidentally flicking her contact into the parking lot, never to be found again.

It is now April and spring on Ridge Road.  The buds of leaves are fat in the tops of the trees, my forsythia is yellowing, and my sweet, white primroses already embrace our warming upstate New York landscape.  And I think I have begun to stop my bear country ways.

For example, I recently acquired my first favorite coat, an astonishingly simple and beautiful coat hand-made on a loom out of very fine yarn by a Massachusetts woman I have come to admire from afar.  The coat is mostly black and I might easily look like a bear in it, except that all of the hems are edged by a band of gold so rich that it shines as though sunlight were hitting it all the time, inside, outside, on cloudy days or in the middle of the night.  If there is the least glimmer of light, that coat shines, and there has so far always been a glimmer of light.

I haven’t knocked into anything for weeks and weeks.

And yesterday I saw for myself our bear on Ridge Road.  We met halfway down the long hill.  I must tell you that he did not look haunted or hunted or hung-over, nor did he look sad.  He looked a little shy, I’ll admit, and he did not stay long and he did not look back when he left.  But he also seemed rather graceful, as though coming upon somebody or something and then leaving were a natural interlude, oddly familiar, and not at all awkward.

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