When I walk out the door I glimpse the tracks on the thin coating of snow in front of the fence. A cardinal is singing to a bittersweet orange glow that is spreading over the horizon. My heart pounds as a surge of joy floods my body. The footprints curve to the left and vanish behind the Mother Tree, an old wild field pine that is situated at the edge of the small clearing that surrounds my 600 square foot log cabin.
I deliberately step into the footprints that begin at the bird feeder with a thrill of anticipation, noting the curved claw marks that reveal the identity of their owner. A Black bear visited here last night. The bear’s front and human-like hind paws are small, not those of an adult. This animal is probably two or three years old. Since I rarely see where the bears go after they leave my protected yard, this late spring snowfall is a gift.
As I cover each bear track with my own, I enter a meditative state with ease. Memory surfaces. I recall the first moments I spent on this property in rain so torrential that the contours of the land were totally obscured, as were the gentle curves of the mountains beyond. Water. The scent was overpowering, permeating my psyche as well as drenching my body as I moved towards the sound of a rushing brook…
Fogbound, I reach the edge of the field and peer down over the bank. A buck with a rack of velvet antlers stares up at me with what might be astonishment. Stunned, I return his gaze. My Native Passamaquoddy name is “Little Deer.” The pull I experience is so powerful I gasp. It is as if the roots of this land rise up to claim me. I belong here. Within a few months this property and I become one after passing the necessary papers…
In the forty years I have lived here the land has never let me go.
Oddly, Black bear dreams precipitated my acquiring this land in the foothills of Western Maine at a time when it was still considered wilderness. Images of these animals appeared repeatedly over a period of about five years. Each dream bear made direct eye contact with me that was so compelling that although I had never had a penchant for bears, I developed a peculiar fascination for these animals that mushroomed after I moved here from the coast. It was in this forest that I glimpsed and befriended my first yearling, eventually coming to study Black bears in a formal academic way.
My twenty – acre property is sandwiched between others that have been heavily logged in recent years. Bears need large pines to climb for safety and no intact forests are left except mine, although natural foods are abundant here in early spring. If I am going to see a bear it will be at this time of year. I step in track after track with feet that have become prayers, a mantra: ‘Please let this bear return. Please let him/her befriend me.’ I am lonely for ursine companionship.
When I first lived here I built and lived in a 6×12 foot camp that was located across the brook in the woods. After my log cabin was built I moved up the hill into the field.
Because I believe that nature knows best how to care for the land, when s/he grew a white pine forest over most of the old farm field around my house, I adapted. As the first succession trees flourished I created serpentine ribbons through the needle – strewn and moss covered ground.
Some paths took me to the brook, others climbed a knoll I call cedar hill. In the late spring denizens of the woodland, trailing arbutus, wild lily of the valley, and twin – flowers carpet the ground. Apple and cherry trees, chokecherries, hobble – bush, and partridgeberry provide fruit for the animals, as do the blueberries and brambleberries that are scattered on the hill in late summer. In protected cedar thickets, deer, fox, grouse, rabbits and hares bed down to sleep. Turkeys roost in the evergreens. Weasels, martens, and mink streak around the semi -frozen brook in winter. Coyotes roam over every undulating trail at night, as do the deer.
This morning I am walking in bear tracks on my favorite trail, the one that leads down to the protected half-acre field, the only area on this property that I keep mowed once a year.
Even during the hottest summer days a meander under these pines is always refreshingly cool. The pungent scent of white pine pitch, moist earth, and the sound and sweetness of running water creates a longing in me to breathe this perfume forever. During the winter the path is wide enough to snowshoe or walk through with ease.
I am surprised the bear has chosen this trail because it’s open. To my right a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees cascades down the hill. Other narrow mossy paths crisscross, some running parallel with the brook that empties into another stream in the wetlands below.
At the end of this path light pierces the dark green pine arch regardless of the season. Still tracking, I move out of the woods into the field that is ringed with prickly wild rose bushes and fruit trees; tall lacy cedars reign near the brook. The sky is molten.
The bear’s pads have crushed the leaves of heart shaped violets, old-fashioned narcissus, swamp iris, young lupine, and lemon lilies whose tips are just breaking ground. Roses, milkweed, goldenrod, and asters will follow, festooning the field with color into late fall. I continue to step in each footprint, wincing. I dislike smashing new – born shoots.
In the center of this meadow is a cluster of crabapple trees that is so heavily laden with berries by late July that a couple of branches are bowed almost to the ground. The pear tree wears a crown of pears. All summer bears used to feed and sleep at night well hidden in the waist – high grasses of this untouched field. Perhaps if this one stays, s/he will too.
The bear’s tracks now veer to the right towards the brook. I won’t follow them further because I don’t want the bear to feel intimidated by my presence if s/he is living here; bears need privacy. I see pads disappearing into thick stands of balsam.
I turn east to gaze at Bryant Mountain feeling the familiar gut wrenching grief, remembering when all of these mountains were robed in lush green. What remains are rutted brown, machine tormented hills. The pines are gone.
I am pleased by the direction the bear has taken. There are grubs in the fallen logs, jack in the pulpit corms to dig, willow catkins to feast upon, jellied eggs, and at the edge of the swamp, tasty young grasses to imbibe. All of these items provide much needed nourishment during this season. There are also plenty of large pine trees for a bear to climb for safety from predators, and rock dens to rest in on warm days after a tumble in the spongy sphagnum bog or a swim in the brook.
I call out to the bear, “I love you”.
Momentarily entranced by the sharp swords of emerald green grasses that are poking through the snow, I stop, reflecting on the magic I feel wandering through this field during all seasons, day and night. Because of the meadow’s northeastern exposure it is also my favorite place to watch stars, meteor showers, and rising full moons while tracing patterns of Cassiopeia and the Great Bear in the night sky. During the fall and winter months I witness northern lights and alpine glow setting the mountains on fire. As I reverse directions to return to the house I am caught by a sense of wonder. I have walked in the tracks of a Black bear and entered the field of my dreams.