“I fill a gap in your life;
I owe that to your brother.”
These words were spoken to me just a few days ago by a biologist/naturalist who has been a mentor and is now becoming a dear friend…
I can’t get the sentence out of my head. I am seventy – five years old, and once, a very long time ago, I had a little brother with whom I shared a mutual love of the natural world. I must have introduced him to frogs and birds because I was his older sister by three years, but I have no memory to fit any particular scene. It was as if we had always loved every living creature, spider and firefly, skunk, moon, frog, tree, and deer together. When he died I lost myself, and wandered through the underworld for many years.
Nature* saved me.
After hiding out in my house for eleven years because I couldn’t bear the anguish of witnessing the natural beauty of the changing seasons, bird song, the cacophony of spring peepers, the sound of the sea – my grief for the loss of my brother ran that deep – One day, Grace intervened. And I emerged like a butterfly who splits her chrysalis, and begins to dry her wings in the morning sun in readiness for eventual flight.
From then on I became Nature’s fiercest advocate dedicating my life to being emotionally present for every wondrous/terrifying event Nature presented me with. This resulted in my becoming a dedicated nature writer, teacher, Jungian analyst, and finally an ethologist accruing various degrees in the process.
I could never bring my brother back but I could live our legacy. As my relationships with animals both wild and tame (I always had dogs) deepened I became fascinated by interspecies communication because it became increasingly evident that reciprocity was part of every interaction I had with animals. I never discussed this idea with anyone for fear of ridicule but it was part of my secret everyday world…
Then I fell in love with wild Black bears, and eventually moved to the mountains of western Maine to be near them. To my great joy these wild animals appeared on my property which was small – I had twenty acres – mountain springs bubbled up in the woods, two sphagnum bogs provided cool moist refuges, and a brook ringed the property on three sides. Two feeder brooks cascaded down the mountain in the spring and early summer and a large marsh was full of spring grasses. The mixed deciduous and conifer forest had been cut before I bought the property and I promised the trees and the land that this forest would not be tampered with as long as I lived there…
Today, 35 years later walking through this undisturbed woodland still brings me the deepest peace.
I knew nothing about Black bears but when one followed me up the hill one spring evening I intuitively understood that a new phase of my life was beginning.
At first I was frightened as well as fascinated by our encounters, but gradually the bears taught me I had nothing to fear. One would appear on my doorstep waiting patiently for a snack; another decided I needed to wait until he had finished combing the ground for bird – seed before allowing me to go to the post office. Mothers nursed cubs outside my bedroom window after dusk. All came and went as they pleased, carving intricate paths around my house to avoid one another during mating season. I let the bears teach me how to behave around them. They enjoyed sitting or lying down close to me but were rarely interested in personal contact. One bear in particular loved to watch me garden. He would hide behind a screen of twigs and when I was finished planting he would dig up my seeds!
When my dog was dying another bear came and slept on my back porch. My bed hugged that wall and I could have literally touched him; we were that close. When I wept the bear would put his nose to the window to peer in at me, a gesture that comforted me like no other. Clearly deep compassion and curiosity and were an intricate part of some of these Black bears’ lives, I knew from personal experience, but oh so rarely could I find evidence of these behaviors in scientific literature, so I kept my observations/feelings to myself for years.
So often I longed for someone I could have discussed these subjects with….
Recognizing after a bit that I was studying Black bears in more than a casual way, I began an academic search that resulted in the discovery of this biologist and the eventual friendship that is now developing on a personal as well as it once did on an academic level. Although we have only met briefly, there is a sense of deep familiarity between us that I initially found astonishing, shocking, baffling, bewildering, mind-bending. I wonder if I will ever become accustomed to it.
We have a lifetime of common interests. We both began our lives as budding naturalists… His appreciation for Nature led him to become a scientist and a professional photographer. I once thought I too would study biology but a thirteen year’s old encounter with dead frogs (who were my friends) in biology class led to a trauma I never recovered from. Yet, this experience also set me free to study Nature in a way that was meaningful to me although I was never “successful” in the professional sense.
I am severely directionally dyslexic and cannot manipulate the simplest mechanical device and yet my amateur love of photography also captures something of the spirit of Nature with the simplest of images.
His lifetime dedication and brilliant cutting edge research in spite of almost impossible odds continues to be a model for me even as I continue my own research and advocate for all bears.
He is consistent in his actions, and consistency is a quality that I must have in relationship because I have abandonment issues. I was an unwanted child.
Because of his visionary lifetime persistence he continues to set a powerful example that I am compelled to follow.
His and my love for all bears (but in particular black bears) eclipses everything else, and once I witnessed the intimacy of this relationship between him and his bears in the flesh, I knew I had found “home” in some indefinable way.
I love his bears like my own.
His words come back to haunt me:
“I fill a gap in your life;
I owe that to your brother.”
To have this personal gap bridged is the greatest gift this man could give me.
Huge bear hugs would help too!
*I always capitalize Nature to highlight how important S/he is ( transgender) and how impoverished human understanding perceives her as something to be manipulated, contained, controlled and worst of all, dismissed as irrelevant.