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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Free Association (p. 240)

From chapter "The Other Side of Darkness"

One of the curses of being even remotely aware of the effects and trajectory of our civilization is that it’s increasingly difficult, especially for those who maintain touch with their capacity to spontaneously free associate, to feel unalloyed happiness, even in the presence of intense beauty. It is difficult to see salmon spawn without remembering the silt that clogs the stream, and without knowing that one day it was not two, nor three, nor even four fish that someone would see, but so many that the water would be white from the whipping of their tails and the cutting of their fins through the surface of the water. It is hard to listen to the frogs who sing outside my window—last year they were so loud I could not be heard, were I to talk in a normal voice near the pond—without being aware of the worldwide anthropogenic die-off of amphibians. It is early February, and only a few frogs are yet here. I feel tense, and wonder each day if this will be the year the frogs don’t return, that I experience my own silent spring. I see clusters of newt or salamander eggs in the pond, and remember the tiger salamanders of my youth. They were everywhere, it seemed. Now my organic farmer friends in North Dakota tell me tiger salamanders are disappearing, victims of the same and different pesticides that poison the Smith River delta. When I was a child, I caught a dolly varden trout, big, beautiful, and, we discovered when we cleaned her, gravid. Now dolly vardens—no longer called that, but instead bull trout—are endangered. I cannot tell you how many times I have stood deep in forests, and heard these forests speak, as birds call to each other, squirrels chatter, and as the trees themselves talk, groaning and creaking, or moaning like whales, and I cannot tell you how many times I have then heard far beyond these voices the throaty roar of log trucks, or the rasping whine of gunning chainsaws.

Tonight I had a visitor. I was working (okay, damnit, you caught me, I was playing a computer baseball game) and the dogs began to bark. I live in a forest. Many times I politely asked the dogs to be quiet. Each time, they looked at me, sort of nodded, walked in circles, and layed down. As soon as I returned inside, they started barking again. Finally, though, once, when I was outside, I heard branches creaking in a nearby tree. I lit a lantern and walked the three-eighths of a mile to my mom’s to get a flashlight (lanterns cast a circle of light, yet I needed a beam), then walked back. My mom thought it might be a possum, but I had my doubts. I shined the light into the tree where I thought I’d heard the sound. Nothing. I moved closer. Still nothing. Closer still. Suddenly from a different direction, and from much lower in the tree than I’d expected, I heard a cough and heard branches striking each other. I’m not normally skittish, but I have to admit I skittered pretty damn quickly—using the least elegant of skitter’sdefinitions—a half- dozen skittering steps away, and refocused the beam. It was a bear, probably a yearling.

I’ve seen bears plenty in my life. I like them. They don’t scare me. (Okay, you got me again: I’ve been in griz country, and I have to admit theyintimidate me just a tad, especially at night, when I’m in my sleeping bag, drifting off, and somewhere not so far away (not nearly far enough away) I hear a twig snap, and then another. . . .) When I was about twelve, I used to go bare-hands fishing with my sister’s husband, Al, in a mountain stream. I’d crawl to streamside, then jump up suddenly and watch the trout scatter (perhaps the underwater equivalent of skitter) to hide in tiny caves beneath rocks. I’d wade in to find them. I didn’t keep them but just looked at them closely and let them go. Once, I was standing thigh-deep in the stream, wearing cutoffs, no shirt, and no shoes, when I heard a sound on the far bank, maybe five feet away. I looked up to see a bear. Al said, “Run, Derrick!”

“I’m not going to run. I’m not wearing any shoes.”

The bear was as surprised as we were. She turned and ran away, notwithstanding the fact that she didn’t have any shoes either.

On this land I’ve seen bear tracks quite a few times, including the biggest black bear track I’ve ever seen, and once lost deep in the woods I saw the place where this bear probably sleeps, in a hollow beneath a big downed redwood: The grass was flattened, and there were brownish-black hairs caught on nearby branches. Another time I left a big pile of apples out for the bears, and was rewarded in the same spot a few days later with an almost equally big pile of bear shit, apple skins, and other chunks clearly visible in the scat. I’ve seen the big bear once, ambling down the trail, away from me. My mom has seen it, too, in so doing solving a bit of a mystery at her house. Each night the dogs’ food would be gone, even if the dogs were at my place. She figured opossums were eating it. But the first night she brought the food inside, she heard a noise on the porch, and when she went to investigate found herself nose-to-nose with the bear. Then another night she accidentally left her garage door open; the bear carried a garbage can of dog food into the driveway, dumped it, and feasted. Last week I got home from a tour to see my sliding glass door, normally open a foot or so to allow cats easy egress, wide open, and a bag of dog food outside. I knew immediately what had happened, and was thankful the bear hadn’t made a mess. I much prefer dealing with polite and even meticulous bears over the messier ones.

The point is that no matter how many times I’ve seen bears, each time I encounter one anew it continues to be a gift and a joy, even when the bear causes me damage, as when I used to be a beekeeper and bears got to the bees. This meeting was no exception. I walked the dogs back to my mom’s and put them in her garage, so they wouldn’t scare the bear. Then I returned. I shined the light up in the branches but didn’t see it. Moving the flashlight down the trunk, I saw the bear at the base, just a few feet, actually, from where I had walked. I looked at it. It was cinnamon. It looked back at me, though I’m not sure what it could see behind the beam. I thanked it for its politeness, and apologized for the dogs scaring it. I told it I would be glad to bring it some food, somewhere away from the house. It just stared at me. I stared at it. Then it started chuffing. I like bears, but I’m also fully aware that this bear, young as it is, still outweighs me, and has bigger teeth and claws than I. I’m also fully aware that I do not know its language: I don’t know what the chuffing means. I decided to go inside. There, I read, in a book on bears, “If you hear one chuffing, Watch out! It means the bear is angry, or surly,” or maybe, I thought, just sick of hearing first dogs and then a human yammering at it.

Here’s the real point: I loved this encounter with a wild bear, with another being, with thisparticular bear in thisparticular tree on thisparticular night, but I could not keep myself from remembering—almost instantly, when I first saw the bear—something that happened when I lived in northeastern Nevada some fifteen years ago. There had been no bears in Elko County for decades, maybe a half-century. One wandered in from Idaho. It got scared and ran up a tree. You can probably guess what happened next. A rancher shot it. I don’t know if another bear has wandered in. I would not blame them for avoiding the region.