The Doorway

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When I look into his face

I wonder

what he is thinking

as he loses himself

in sweet mountain mist.

He’s alone now.

His fear of the unknown

keeps him vigilant

ears erect,

mouth tasting air

standing on two legs to see

beyond summer’s diaphanous veil.

No wonder he climbs trees.

 

He’s not yet two.

Did she warn him

about the others

before she left?

Two legged threats armed

with hatred,

the need to destroy life

men addicted to power,

who will gladly spew fire

through his gut,

strike out an eye, maim a paw

so he cannot flee?

 

 

He slaps chipmunks

in repose,

scents fragrant white lilacs

clasps a metal can to his belly,

kicks it down the hill in play.

He bounds

towards the brook

for a bath,

circles back for protection

in a thicket of

young pines

for a nap.

 

He tolerates me

if not as friend

at least as one

who wishes him

no harm.

He peers around

rough bark like a child

playing hide and seek.

He’s curious to identify

to whom I am speaking.

He listens intently

when I caution him

like an anxious mother.

Do not trust.

Do not trust them.

I am the exception

to the rule.

 

Most want him dead

Skinned and hung –

a furry black skeleton –

a shroud on the wall,

his jaws forever frozen

in an impossible roar.

 

Always present,

Death stands at his door.

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The Art of Concealment

“Bears reintroduce us to our animal shadow, its biological reality in the outdoors, its eternal grip on our cultural soul.” Peter Nabokov

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Did you know that polar bears that hunt seals on ice flows slither along on their stomachs until the seal looks up? Next the bears cover their coal black noses with white paws and then rush the seal from 15 to 20 feet away.

My query (and fascination) revolves around how polar bears know that they have black noses? Do they look at themselves through the mirror of still waters? Are they engaged in self – reflection?

What kind of cognitive thought processes are involved in making the decision to use what polar bears “know” about themselves to hunt their prey successfully? How do all bears know what they know? This epistemological enigma haunts me.

The apparent consciousness of the importance of self concealment is something that I have witnessed repeatedly when “walking with black bears” in the forest as an ethologist – that is, a person who studies black bears in their natural environment.

Often I am astonished by the disappearing act of a bear who simply does not want to interact with me. His/her ability to melt into the forest leaves me wondering if the bear I was following through dense foliage was actually there in the first place.

That such a large animal can move with such speed, stealth, and grace is a Black bear behavior that never ceases to amaze me. Even if one chooses to tolerate my presence, s/he may slap a tree, or huff once or twice to remind me to keep my distance. If a bear turns, flattens his ears and lowers his head, I know this bear has changed his mind and is about to false charge me. If I choose to stand my ground this animal might race in my direction and inevitably veer off at the last moment. Having been the recipient of a false charge that really frightened me during my early research years, I choose instead to speak quietly to the bear telling him that I am leaving. I have never had a bear follow me after one of these encounters.

(Should a bear choose to allow me to accompany him/her – usually it is a yearling that allows me to participate – I am treated to behaviors that I would ordinarily miss like the choice of mushroom or a small flowering woodland plant like oxalis that a particular bear prefers to eat. Certain berries apparently appeal to different individuals because I have witnessed one bear passing by what seemed like a coveted delicacy, a bright red jack in the pulpit berry cluster to chose a single dogberry. Stopping to rake away dead softwood logs seems to be a universal passion, no doubt because tasty protein rich grubs/ants etc. are present during all the summer months).

Cubs are taught by their mothers the moment they leave their dens in the spring to climb a tree at the first sign of danger. Mother “umphs” and in seconds the clickety clack of tiny claws can be heard, if not seen as the young ones scamper so high up a tree that it is impossible to see one even if the researcher knows one is there (occasionally a cub refuses to stay treed and is cuffed or spanked by mother). Baby bears are usually masters of self – concealment!

Females with cubs are also very much afraid of large male bears who will sometimes kill the cubs but they are not afraid of humans. This does not mean that they are not wary. They are (All bears have to be taught to fear humans). When meeting a person a female Black bear with cubs will stand up on two legs to see the stranger better. If she perceives no threat she will change directions and move off deeper into the forest with the cubs trailing behind her. If threatened, she immediately trees her cubs to conceal them and starts running in the opposite direction. Many cubs have been orphaned by hunters who shoot the mother.

Grizzly and Black bears have an equally amazing ability to walk in each other’s footsteps, so that over time it is possible to witness trails made with deep indentations in boggy places. In the woodland areas I traverse bear trails are narrow and are used year after year by various Black bears who also conveniently, remain totally anonymous to anyone but their Ursine relatives. Do bears think about this strategy while they are walking, and if so what conclusions do they draw?

During periods when a number of Black bears use the same general area a network of trails appear. Sometimes one path runs parallel with another with only a few trees in between. During mating season the use of this network of trails allows dominant and sub adult male bears to avoid each other without conflict, a fact that always leaves me with a sense of deep respect, because bears choose not to engage in open conflict whenever possible. Black Bears use saplings and brush as a form of concealment to avoid potential problems.

Another example of self – concealment that Black bears exhibit is one that always makes me laugh. Even when a bear is curious about me s/he will usually insist upon peering at me through a screen of twigs, or from behind the trunk of a tree. And make no mistake, Black bears are very curious about people who do not threaten them (I have read that the same is true of other bears but I am writing from personal experience and don’t want to generalize). Curiosity is a sign of intelligence.

There is a distinct pecking order that is part of bear biology with older males on top, females and cubs beneath, and yearlings at the very bottom. After leaving their mothers in June/July (if the mother hasn’t been shot the year before) male yearlings (second year cubs) are also searching for new territories. Young females spend their lives living in their mother’s home range, so the young males are at the greatest risk. Tragically, it is these young male bears that are most often shot and killed.

Black bears are diurnal animals – that is they are normally active early in the day, nap in the afternoon, feed again before dusk and sleep during the night. However, due to the pressure put upon them by hunters they have become “night bears.” By the end of a yearling’s first summer the bear has adapted to becoming nocturnal in order to survive, another example of using concealment as a strategy by choosing the safety of darkness.

More fascinating is what happens when it is time for a northern Black bear to enter a den for the last time before hibernation. If there is snow on the ground a bear will walk backwards in his own tracks to enter his winter abode. Why would s/he go to so much trouble unless the bear was aware of the need for self-concealment from his/her worst enemy, man?

The art of concealment is well developed in Black bears biologically because they evolved as prey animals. The animals survived because they could climb trees in a flash. In areas where there is no forest cover Black bears are absent because these native bears co –evolved on this continent with the carnivorous (now extinct) short faced bear and lived in heavily forested areas where they found safety in trees. Even 4 LB cubs can disappear up a tree in seconds. We now know, thanks to bear biologist Lynn Roger’s video cams, that cubs practice climbing in the den, just three weeks after birth. Today, Black bears are most commonly found in arboreal forests in northern areas that stretch into the Canadian Shield but small populations exist in southern in mountainous areas like those in northern New Mexico.

That bears also have an ability to reflect on their behavior before acting in a particular way seems quite obvious to me not just because of their ability to conceal themselves. Some of this concealment behavior is, of course, related to survival (biology) as already mentioned, but their thinking is not. Bears have navigational skills that defy explanation, they have complex, sophisticated, flexible, and poorly understood social organizations, they love to play, and can heal themselves of wounds with plants from the forest (How do they know which plants to use as a poultrice or to ingest?).

By developing the intelligence and forethought needed to act in ways that require bears to think ahead into the future as well as to solve immediate problems is enough to blur the distinction between bear and man on a permanent basis from my point of view.

In closing I dedicate this little essay on the “Art of Concealment” to one male yearling in particular and by extension to all wandering bears that face a perilous fall journey as they search out new territories, or stay in one they have already chosen while being hunted mercilessly by man.

May They Learn Fast.

May They Learn Well.

May they live through the winter in order to feel the warmth of the return of the sun as it appears over a spring horizon as they emerge from their dens …

 

 

September, the Moon Bear’s Full Moon

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This morning the sun rose blood red over the trees splashing crimson fire over the ground…The first frost has come and gone and now the humidity is on the rise as thunderclouds float like specters above the mountains. What am I to make of this natural occurrence?

Nature is the mirror in which I see myself.

I have just learned from my friend Harriet that Black Bears are crossing the Border from Maine into Canada, where they, like other refugees, are finding a more compassionate place to live. In Canada bears are not slaughtered (by baiting, hounding, trapping) for sixteen weeks a year like they are in this country.

The only thing worse than listening to hunters target shoot for hours is hearing one or two gunshots and then a sickening silence like I did on this sultry afternoon. Another bear dead?

I call September’s full moon the Moon Bear’s Moon not just because so many Black bears will be killed this month, but because Moon Bears are real Asian Black bears who have also survived unspeakable treatment.

Asian Moon Bears have endured intolerable suffering on “Bear Farms” at the hands of humans who force them to live out their lives in steel cages so small that they cannot stand up or move around – ever. Crude catheters are inserted into their bodies and they are milked for bile until they eventually perish. Some are blinded, or lose teeth, others have paws hacked off. Eventually they die from diseases like cancer around 15 years of age.

Ethologist/biologist Marc Bekoff and primatologist Jane Goodall stepped in and began a program to end this intolerable suffering. Jasper, once a victim of this atrocity became the first ambassador for Animals Asia, and since that time many bears have been rehabilitated although bear farming continues to thrive.

Amazingly, these rehabilitated animals are not only capable of forgiving their tormentors but some even learn to trust humans again, attaching themselves to their caregivers, as well as to others. This kind of Ursine forgiveness and compassion towards humans is astonishing and heartrending. Having witnessed this kind of behavior firsthand I choose to honor all bears during this Full Moon in September when so many will be killed in this country.

Tonight, on the eve of the Full Moon I call on the Power and the Spirit of the Moon Bears to be present for their people, helping Black Bears to live, or to die a death without suffering.

Every Foundation needs a bear den!

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Here is a picture that Iren took after she visited the foundation hole for the new Casita.

I think this is a most creative natural sculpture that only Iren could think of! Iren is a genius and can create art out of virtually anything. Art that leaves me in perpetual AWE.

I think EVERY foundation needs a bear den.

Bears know how to deal with inclement conditions, they sleep without losing muscle tissue, recycle waste, give birth (to young or creative endeavors) in the safety of a den or under the snow.

Bears are powerful plant and root healers having a complex relationship with both.

Bears know how to heal their own wounds.

Indigenous peoples revere the bear as protector and healer.

What better way to create the space for a new home?

I must also include Bruce’s intuition that the bear of the den in question needed eyes. I totally agree! I was surprised to learn that he pulled what he thought were two quarters out of his pocket and added them to the sculpture. Later he realized that he had pulled out one quarter and one nickel by accident! I didn’t realize until he told me that the eyes were made of silver – no wonder they gleam in the afternoon light!

August 28th begins the “official” bear slaughter in Maine (baiting, hounding and trapping). When I look at this picture I imagine a 70 pound shy and reclusive bear digging his own den in a very safe place and send bear prayers his way.

Thanks Iren (and Bruce) for providing me with such a wonderful image – one that has a heart full of hope and deep gratitude at its core.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catapulted From One World to Another

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Returning from Abiquiu, New Mexico to Maine split me in two. Part of me is there and part of me is here.

A four – day driving marathon is only important in retrospect because we survived it.

Arriving safely at dusk in light rain gray tree frogs trilled in the leaf laden tree trunks – a sound that I have longed for in my dreams… The drought in Maine that continues in spite of the monsoon leaves my brook two feet below normal – and yet the water flows still, so I am grateful.

The next morning a Luna moth (they only live two weeks in this form and have no mouths to eat) graced the porch window.

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Starving deer girded many fruit trees, ate most of my medicinal elderberry bush, and are presently feasting on fresh grape leaves thick with tiny grapes, but in this world the first summer emerald green inspires the poet in me just as the sound of the brook soothes me into sleep like Red Willow River recently did, the memory of which remains as fresh as the first day I ever heard its symphony.

Phoebes nested above the door and the young fledged about three days after our arrival. I was thrilled.

Last night we went to an art show and on the way home I successfully saved one fat green frog and a nubbly brown toad from extinction – other’s we just couldn’t stop for because other cars bore down on us.

EVERY SAVED LIFE MATTERS.

 

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(Above: Datura from New Mexico that I grew this spring from seed bloomed first morning after our return perhaps in gratitude for light  -it spent 4 days in the back of a trunk).

White pines have new lime green shoots at least a foot long paths are overgrown and in need of a trim. My tree slaughtering neighbor damage has been mitigated by new tree growth… Nature is such a powerful model for survival. “Just keep growing,” S/he intones with every action.

Lemon lilies are late and their fragrance is overpowering in the overgrown field. Around the house, old – fashioned peonies, honeysuckle, my favorite lavender blue clematis, dame’s rocket (early phlox), and deer chewed bee balm (very strong mint) will eventually bloom anyway. My gardens have gone wild and I am simply enjoying what I see. Yesterday, one bumblebee visited and the hummingbirds are here but are fewer in number.

The thick umbrella shade of the deciduous trees that hold us in the arms of this hollow dims the fierce summer sun (or will when it returns) and the stunning feathery ferns are a feast for wild eyes.

A moment of joy flooded me when we saw the little 70-pound yearling, this one a male black bear – one who is a descendant of the kinship group I studied for 15 years. He doesn’t have much of a chance for survival since bear slaughter, “practice hunting” with dogs, begins this week (July) and the 4-month killing season erupts in earnest this August. Folks brag that they have a hundred percent chance of killing a bear in Maine, and they are correct. Yearlings like this male bear are at the greatest risk because they need to travel to find a new uninhabited territory. European settlers have taken over native land with a vengeance – slaughtering Native peoples and any animals/trees/plants that got in their way. Now the bears (like the people who are stuffed onto reservations) have no place to go. This story does not have a happy ending.

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(Above – phoebes ready for first flight)

For this precious moment there is peace here in this sanctuary – although the exploding bombs of the Fourth of July “celebrations” are still ahead.

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.