keeping tracks

IMG_2094This last Sunday in November is the time each year that I give thanks for all the animals that still live in our forests as well as mourn those that suffered or died needlessly, especially for the “high” that so many hunters seem to experience  when they bring down their kill.

At dusk last night the three month – baiting hounding, trapping – hunting season ended for the Black Bear ( or four month season if you include hounding which allows hunters to “train” their dogs by running the bears to exhaustion and then treeing them – the only thing missing is the actual kill). The bears that survived are now able to enter the dens they dug last fall for an “almost” winter sleep. Bears don’t actually hibernate. In fact the mothers that will be giving birth in January will be sleepy now but will be fully awake and alert as they give birth and care for their cubs…

Deer season also came to a close last night at dusk (except for hunting with a musket and I don’t know of anyone around here that uses this method to kill a deer). Every year when the season ends I put out horse grain for those White -Tails that live around here. Last night I spread the grain on a board calling the deer in…Sure enough, they must have been listening because the board was clean this morning. I like knowing that the deer are aware that food will be available here all winter.

Although, some like the grouse, quail, snowshoe rabbits, and coyotes will continue to be hunted this moment of “thanks -giving”  re-aligns me with the soul and spirit of Nature even in the aftermath or in the continuing round of  death and dying – or at least this is what I hope.

Postscript: The picture of the doe was taken today (11/29) at 4:15 PM as she finished off the grain.

Red Bird’s Wife

IMG_2095Redbird’s Wife

You are an angel perched outside my window.

Wrapped in an olive coat and a feathered cap, delicately hopping, you descend twig by twig from wild apple’s highest branches. You turn your tufted head sideways, one beaded black eye shining in at me. You acknowledge our meeting with a series of orange beaked staccato chirps.

You and my Redbird…messengers of the Spirit.

Nature understands that loneliness smothers even the fiercest fire, bends even the strongest will to ground.

For a few moments an ocean of gratitude drowns roaring chthonic voices.

‘In the space in between’ giving thanks seems so natural on this pale gray day in late November, when wind chimes sing.

Because you have come.

“I’m right here!” I say.

A wave of wild trust binds us.

“And we are two!” she answers, his scarlet wings whirring as he clasps the branch to land beside her…

Thanksgiving Day      11/26/15

The Elusive Black Bear : A Natural History

The Elusive Black Bear: Natural History

Ursus americanus is the smallest of the three species of bears found in North America and the most reclusive. In Maine black bears although rarely encountered, often provoke irrational fear. Terrifying images of snarling black bears with bloody jaws poised for attack appear on the covers of hunting magazines and over the Internet, while thousands of children hug cuddly teddy bears. These extremes in attitude and behavior suggest that the bear embodies the Spirit of the Wilderness in both its most frightening and comforting aspects. But what do we really know about black bears as a mammalian species?

Paleontology teaches us that this shy denizen of the forest co – evolved into its present form on this continent 500,000 years ago with huge meat eating predators like the 1500 lb short faced bear and the Dire wolf which are now extinct. Black bears are native to this continent and are found nowhere else. To adapt and survive as prey animals black bears needed forest cover and learned to flee from the first sign of danger by hiding in thick brush or by climbing trees (the primary reason we rarely encounter them in the woods today). Before Europeans came to this country black bears could be found throughout the United States.

Today, because of extirpation and de –forestation black bears inhabit less than a half of their original range. Currently they are most commonly found in the northern parts of this country and in Canada where large tracts of arboreal woods still exist. Their dependence on mature forest for cover, protection, and for fall mast (food: beechnuts, acorns) is presently threatened in Maine because we continue to harvest beech and oaks before they are old enough to produce good crops of nuts. Maine has about 16 percent of mature nut producing forest left.

Although considered omnivores, black bears are 85 percent vegetarian; consuming tender green shoots, corms, roots, buds and flowers in early spring. Tasty beetles, grubs, ants, and larva come next providing the bulk of bear protein. It isn’t until the berry crops appear in early summer that black bears begin to gain weight. Without an adequate fall mast of high caloric acorns, beechnuts (in northern Maine the only nut crop) black bears won’t gain enough weight to survive hibernation/torpor. Of all the possible foods a bear might eat only five percent of a bear’s diet consists of fish, carrion, or the occasional fawn/young moose.

After emerging from their dens in April it takes bears about two/three weeks for their metabolism to return to normal. By May bears are hungry and may be driven (instinct overrides caution) into people’s backyards to eat birdseed and unsecured garbage if natural foods aren’t available. Wandering young sub- adult males that are also searching for new territories are the greatest offenders. Removing birdfeeders and securing garbage can easily remedy this conflict.

Mothers with cubs emerge last in the spring and stay close to the den while the cubs (from one to three) continue to practice their climbing skills. Mothers teach their small (6-10 LB) cubs to tree themselves at the first sign of danger. As the season progresses the mother will leave her young hidden safely in the trees to forage on her own or when she visits a bait site later that summer.

Contrary to popular belief, it would be difficult to get between a mother and her cubs because at the first sign of danger she trees the cubs and runs away (however, grizzly bears and polar bears may attack if they believe their cubs are threatened). In Maine females breed in June and July and practice delayed implantation which means that the blastocyst floats freely in uterus and will not develop until late fall after the mother enters the den. If the female hasn’t put on enough fat she will abort. Cubs are born in January weighing about 12 ounces, and mother is awake and alert responding to each cub’s needs. Cubs’ blue eyes open at about four weeks and they begin to climb around the den shortly thereafter. Black bear milk is richer than that of any mammal in North America and the cubs will suckle well into their second year. First year cubs will den with mother in the fall (unless the mother has been shot) and family break –up occurs the following spring (early June in Maine) when the female goes into estrus. This long period of childhood/adolescence – 17 to 19 months is needed so that black bears can teach their young the skills they need to survive. Although females maintain home ranges of about 5-6 square miles (that they will share with their daughters) they will travel up to 50 miles out of their home territories to show the cubs where to find berries and nuts.

Black Bears have been prey animals for a long time and are understandably very NERVOUS around humans avoiding them whenever possible. All are very much afraid of other bears until they recognize them as kin. Females with cubs are particularly afraid of males who will sometimes kill a cub in order to bring a female back into estrus. Not much is known about adult male bears beyond the fact that they leave their mother’s territory as sub adults in their second or third year, appear to have very large/flexible ranges and have exceptional navigational abilities.

Black bears have a very large brain in relationship to their body size and scientific studies indicate that these animals are highly intelligent and surpass chimps in some learning abilities. Black bears have also been observed using tools. What bears do with body fluids during what can be a six to seven month “hibernation” is a mystery. They do not defecate or urinate during torpor (unless a female is birthing cubs) and they do not lose muscle tissue.

Without Minnesota’s bear biologist Lynn Roger’s groundbreaking “trust based research” which includes but is not limited to telemetry, videos and den cams we wouldn’t know that we could radio collar bears without tranquilizers, or that we could develop relationships with some bears in order to learn about bear behavior from observing individuals and kinship groups in the wild. For more than 30 years Lynn and his students and literally hundreds of participants have been collecting and analyzing data in the field by observing bears as they forage, interact, mate, rest etc. With trust based research the goal is to have the black bears become comfortable enough with humans to ignore them while the bears are being observed in their natural habitat. Ironically, the most difficult part of this discipline is getting a bear to tolerate human presence. Most bears are simply too shy. If bears were as dangerous as we are told they are by the state agencies like Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (MDIF&W) trust based research simply could not have been done for all these years without incident. In Maine the MDIF&W does not practice a methodology that includes direct interaction with black bears. Why? The notion of developing individual relationships with bears undermines the “official” MDIF&W position that black bears are dangerous predators that must be killed in order to control their numbers.

We have a three – month long hunting season in Maine. We are the only state in this country that utilizes steel traps to hunt bears. Bears have been known to gnaw off their paws to get free. The use of hounds outfitted with sophisticated GPS units violates traditional hunting ethics, as does the practice of bear baiting which only began in the eighties. What kind of sportsmanship is involved with all three practices when a bear becomes the unwilling victim to those who simply stand there and shoot a trapped bear, a treed bear, or a bear with his head in a can? Worse, as any skilled field researcher will attest to, it is almost impossible to sex a bear before shooting it. What this means practically is that almost as many female bears are shot in this state as males. If those females have first year cubs they will die a death of slow starvation, or be killed by other omnivores. In the last ten years Maine has voted twice to defeat a bill that would end the above hunting practices which would encourage hunters to hunt black bears in a more traditional manner as they do in other states.

Ursus americanus has been in its present form for 500,000 years, 300,000 years before humans inhabited the earth. Bears are literally our Elders. It seems ironic to me that we need to “manage” and “control” these animals when black bears thrived on this continent without human intervention for millenium. I am also dismayed because humans continue to ignore a chilling fact: it is the exploding human population that is devouring earth’s resources at an unprecedented level. Animal populations aren’t the problem, we are.

Indigenous peoples had deep respect for the black bear. Many eastern and western tribes believed that the bear was the “Owner of the Animals” and the most powerful plant healer of all. Acquiring black bear “medicine” involved complex rituals that included hunting “Grandfather” bear who was also believed to sacrifice himself to feed the People. Perhaps we have something to learn from the way these elusive denizens of the forest conduct themselves? If bears ruled the world we would have no wars.

The chances of being killed by a black bear are about a million to one. An important question to ask is why so few of these wild bears retaliate when we have treated them with such cruelty? One obvious answer is that black bears are reclusive prey animals that want to co –exist with humans in peace if only we would let them.

Becoming a Naturalist and discovering Black Bears

Some of my earliest memories are tied to being in love with Nature – my little brother and I identified the different tadpoles that inhabited our vernal pools, captured our friends the bull frogs from local ponds so that we could stroke their slippery skin and gaze into gold rimmed eyes, inhaled the intoxicating scent of spring wildflowers, peered at the giant faces of sunflowers that followed the sun as it arced across the sky, caught pulsing green fireflies to keep in jars overnight, hatched praying mantis babies that clung to billowing bedroom curtains, adopted baby rabbits to release back into the wild, raised horned toads and lizards that we kept fed with mealy worms, turned over rocks to search for small snakes who would slither into hibernation in our year round terrarium, watched stars fall out of the sky as we slept on blankets in the field. The world of Nature was the glue that bound us irrevocably to each other, animals, plants, and trees – and the “powers of place.”

My grandparents lived on an old pre-revolutionary farm and my brother and I spent every moment we could in the woods that surrounded the house. Our dogs always accompanied us and they often chose the trails we would take. We dragged cardboard boxes that contained battered but colorful field guides along with us. Even before my little brother could read I taught him the names of the creatures and plants we encountered at the brook and in the woods. We both felt most at home in this world that seemed permeated with wonder. I dreamed of becoming a biologist or a veterinarian, my brother would study bugs.

High school Biology was my first encounter with science with a capital “S”. Here we dissected dead animals and drew two dimensional “objective” diagrams of animal parts that had nothing to do with the animals I loved with such passion. When the bull – frogs arrived for dissection I was aghast for these amphibians were my beloved friends. I promptly threw up in front of my classmates and had to leave the class in deep humiliation. I decided then that “Science” was more about studying dead things than learning about real animals and that I wanted nothing to do with it. It would be years before it dawned on me that with this decision I split my passion for nature away from academic science. The two would not meet again until mid -life after my children were grown.

In the intervening years I studied psychology in college, married a lobster fisherman and moved to an island fifteen miles out to sea off the coast of Maine. For the first two years I wandered around a granite jewel with it cathedral of trees, high cliffs, and silvery moonlit waters falling in love with the birds, animals, and flowers just as I once did on my grandparents farm as a child. The feeling of being at “one with the universe” kept me naturally high. I was walking on air.

When my first son was born I crashed to earth with a thud, losing myself in the Mother “Hood.” The starving young naturalist disappeared as I became fixated on mothering, discovering to my horror that I had no idea how to parent such a difficult baby and aggressive toddler (It never occurred to me then that part of the reason I was so anxious about mothering was because I was un -mothered myself). A year after the birth of my son l became pregnant again …

It wasn’t until my youngest son left home that the naturalist once again entered the foreground of my life. It began with a yearning that pulled me like a magnet back into the forest. I started taking long meandering walks with my beloved dogs. I became the child I had left behind, a sponge eagerly soaking in the essence of each new plant and animal I met. I heard voices crying out in the shrinking coastal landscape and spent hours observing and listening to animals and birds. I tried to make sense of the occasional words that rose unbidden in my mind, or as feelings in my body, in response to my questions. I fell in love with trees and they started to converse with me, most frequently through scent. I reflected on the astonishing beauty of the plants and flowers that I now had time to grow in my garden. I was already a serious student of the Jungian tradition having studied Greek and European mythology and now I added Native American mythology to my studies to gain broader knowledge of the natural and symbolic world of these animals and plants as seen from an Indigenous perspective. Although I had been brought up as a westerner I have Native American roots and I wondered if my passion for animals, beginning with my dogs, was connected to my native heritage. My journals were full of questions about the possible meaning behind the relationships I developed with animals/plants in the wild. I began to perceive myself as part of a complex interconnected living organism called the Earth.

Observing and recording observations within an animal’s natural habitat, studying its natural history, drawing tentative conclusions about certain behaviors that might indicate what the animal might be thinking and feeling helped me perceive individuals through different lenses and from different perspectives. Reminding myself that there was always a link between the observer and the observed, and that each time I watched a creature I was entering the actual “field” of the animal I was studying in a participatory way helped me keep an open mind. When I dreamed of animals I paid close attention believing these animated (soul -like) presences were much more mysterious than the “instinctual forces” they were considered to be in Jungian parlance.I almost always found mythological parallels when studying any animal. I kept track of all these ideas by keeping a journal that I could always refer back to help me sort though, and weave the various threads together. As a result I developed a distinct multivalenced pattern as a Naturalist.

But it wasn’t until I began camping in the western mountains of Maine that I discovered the Universe as a plethora of possibilities. Sleeping under the stars with fireflies blinking over my head, startled by the red tailed hawk whose winged presence soared through the blue dome of the sky during daylight hours, struck by the constellation of the Great Bear who whirled through the night following each season gave me the sense that I was being called to Something. One night I had a dream and when I awakened I could still hear the Voice of the Wilderness calling my name. During this period I also became obsessed with black bears. I researched and dreamed about them. I discovered that in Native American mythology the bear was a powerful Healer. How I longed to see one! In retrospect it seemed quite natural that I would one day leave the coast and move to the mountains to follow the Bears.

Imagine my dismay when five years passed without my ever encountering Ursus americanus while living in the western mountains of Maine! I was heartbroken. During the interim period I continued my practice of observing, researching and writing about the animals and plants I encountered. I also studied the work of Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, a renegade biologist/plant physicist/author who initiated me into an even larger perspective with his farsighted books “The Presence of the Past” and “A New Science of Life” in which he hypothesized that all nature was alive and aware, that consciousness extends outward to include all of nature, and that some kind of mental activity or consciousness is present in all physical systems at all levels of organization from electrons to galaxies. He also hypothesized that each species (including humans) has a collective memory that each individual contributes and tapped into for specific information relative to that particular species and no other. Most of Sheldrake’s radical theorizing made perfect sense to me. Finally, here was a biologist that saw the natural world in much the way I did! I did not care that his holistic approach to Nature was dismissed or that he was called the “Black Jack” of Biology. Because of him I was finally able to forge a bridge between the natural world I loved and science with a capital “S” In that process I learned more about field theory and I was also introduced to the world of quantum physics. I gradually integrated the New Sciences into my perspective and work as a naturalist.

I never imagined I would engage in a formal study of black bears. All I wanted was to meet one. When I saw my first yearling it was at my camp. Joy permeated my body as I watched the young bear gently extract seed from one of my bird feeders, inhale it, and leave the tube intact on the ground as he bounded off into the forest. Although I never had another bear visit my sanctuary, I did occasionally get a glimpse of other young bears while hiking with my dog (who I taught to be quiet in the woods when she was a puppy). With one exception. One year I encountered a bear that seemed as curious about me as I was about him. Although he always bolted initially, the sound of my voice seemed to calm this hundred pound animal with his black eyes, light muzzle and wet nose, and after a minute or two he would reverse his direction and walk towards me stopping about ten feet away to watch me from behind a sapling or some lacy hemlock fronds. I began to call him “Sweetie Bear” and was utterly astounded when I met him the following year. By this time I believed that it was a privilege to see any black bears because most were so frightened of humans. Around here we hunted them with such a vengeance that they melted into the forest at the first whiff of human scent. After meeting Sweetie Bear for two seasons my fascination blossomed into the wild hope that I could study this bear in his natural habitat. If I camped in his territory would Sweetie Bear continue allow me to observe him? This question haunted me with increasing urgency.

One afternoon I had just waded through a wild rushing stream and was standing under some old fringed hemlocks with my dog in my arms when I heard footsteps behind me. The hair on my neck stood up; I was paralyzed by the thought of some human following me through the woods. Courageously, I turned around to face the intruder discovering to my great relief and joy that it was Sweetie Bear! Since I was hiking that day in a different part of the forest I wondered how he had found me. When I spoke to him he listened intently, his round ears rotating like radar as he peered at me with eyes that shone like brown marble beads. I always brought along some nuts for a snack while hiking – that day I had almonds and pecans – I placed the nuts on the ground between us. In seconds he closed the gap to sniff, tongue, and swallow the treats and then he looked up at me with what seemed like hopeful anticipation, and dare I say it? Trust. I made a gesture. Opening my hands to show him that I had no more nuts I spoke to him gently while shaking my head and I could see that he understood. I was jubilant – We were really communicating! In that moment I made a decision I would never come to regret. I looked around me at the sinuous stream winding its way to the sea, the old hemlocks that shaded and sheltered the ground keeping the area cool on the hottest of days, the thick clumps of sphagnum moss hugging the banks, the large granite stones tossed aside by the glacier, the low flat ground that surrounded this most fragrant woodland hollow and breathed deeply. Turning back to Sweetie Bear I remarked excitedly “this is where I am going to learn about you and your people!” As I wended my way home that afternoon I almost got lost because I was marveling over the fact that I had been imagining just such a place for a study area but it never seemed “real” to me until that afternoon… And I certainly never thought that a bear would help me choose the spot!

Just before dusk I returned to the hollow with my dog, bedding, a small tent, some bear treats and set up housekeeping. I hadn’t been there for more than fifteen minutes before Sweetie Bear arrived to welcome me. I gave him some seed that he devoured with relish. Then he stood up on two legs and hugged a large white pine on the hill behind us, marking it with his scent. Things were looking up. I knew that marking an area was Sweetie Bear’s way of establishing his territory. Although I couldn’t know it then this occasion would mark the beginning of a fifteen – year study of black bears through the lens of one bear’s kinship group. What I did know was that I had crossed an invisible threshold and was now officially apprenticed to the mysterious world of the Black Bear.