The bears are back. In a three-week span we’ve seen five different black bears, all of them close by, not out there, but right here.
Out in the woods when you meet a bear, a certain clarity consumes you, a focused emptiness. The world falls away, and only you and the bear exist. All senses focus on rich black fur, quivering nostrils, and dark eyes. Then the bear snorts and you realize the danger. “Back,” you tell your feet, and they move you away from the bear and also from that empty clarity, that moment of grace now gone.
That happened last year when I encountered our first bears here on our Virginia farm. I had been hiking home from the pond in the late evening. Pine-filtered light glowed in the dusky woods, and our dogs had left the trail halfway back to dig at some groundhog. When I pushed up the last hill, something black moved in the draw ahead. I saw a hump only, dark movement. For a moment, I thought, “That’s not our dog. She’s still behind me.” Then I saw a second black back and waited to witness what I wanted. The creatures came up out of the small hollow and stood forty feet away, uphill, three of them, not two.
Black Bears; Mama, Two Cubs. She saw me, smelled me, and grunted. The two young scooted up nearby trees. But one hesitated, only climbed a few feet. The sow didn’t like this, so she lunged and snorted at him. Up he scrambled, his mother’s warning, and ire, heeded.
Then she faced me.
Bear Bones // Jim Minick will appear at M. Judson Booksellers & Storytellers’ Books & A Beer series, August 25, 6:30-8:30 p.m. For more, go to mjudsonbooks.com.
But I was already backing down the trail; when she lunged at the cantankerous cub, I had tiptoed backwards until I only saw her head. I looked one last time to see her huge nose sniffing my retreat, then I turned to hurry away.
Once out of the woods, I jumped with hyper glee. “She was so beautiful,” I kept whispering to myself; so black, so solid, so stunning. A rare occurrence, a spectacular event. A chance meeting touched by fear but mostly overwhelming beauty.
But this summer, the bears have come out of the woods. Because of the drought, they’ve returned hungrier, in greater number, and much closer—as in too close to our house. Now when we meet, the empty clarity has changed into something much bigger and darker.
Despite size and almost constant hunger, black bears are relatively safe when encountered, so the books say. Car wrecks and dog bites harm more people than black bears, but still, on rare occasions, these bruins have stalked and killed humans. That changes the feel of the ground on our daily ambles.
The first bear is the largest. We just returned home and are stretching our bodies with a brief jaunt up the ridge behind our house. At the crest, luckily, I see the black figure before the dogs do. He runs towards us down the very farm road we stand on. He’s moving fast and galloping for fun, it looks like, his ears up, head turned to the side, dark eyes looking downhill and away. I clap as loud as I can and instantly he veers off the ridge and away. Our dogs finally see him and give chase but he’s already disappeared. Like good dogs they return, like a good bear he is gone.
The second bear is much smaller, an adolescent, maybe 200 pounds to the other’s 400. Again, on the same ridge behind our house, I take a short leg-stretcher at dusk. Where the ridge dips into a swale, our smallest dog charges through the unmown grass, scenting something to chase. The other two mutts follow, and within a breath, all three of them, all 200-combined-pounds of growling dog, tuck tail and run back to me.
Then I see why. The black bear is chasing them. I clap and shout and he only stops, doesn’t run away. We’re twenty feet apart, the dogs behind me but still barking. A twitch of tan fur rims his ears, the nostrils blow out and suck in. He stands on hind feet to get a better sense of me, this new surprise. “THIS IS MY HILL,” I yell. He doesn’t budge, so I yell it again and keep clapping. I feel no empty clarity this time, not even fear, just anger, so I foolishly take a step toward him. Finally he turns and retreats back into the woods, but not far. I walk backward and see him again, just inside the tree line, up on hind feet sniffing the air, watching us retreat.
The third encounter occurs at the house. As usual when something major happens, I’m away, Sarah, my wife, at home by herself. This time it is a different mama and her two cubs. Out the window, Sarah by chance sees a black movement near the blueberries. She glances down to her feet, to make sure our one black dog still sleeps on the floor. She does, so Sarah steps onto the porch to watch and this time she sees a second small black ball—two cubs are rolling down the hill, stopping to stand on hind feet and check each blueberry bush.
“Where’s the mama?” Sarah keeps wondering. The cubs chase each other into the meadow’s thick grass, then realize they’ve strayed too far. They hustle back through the blueberries, jump the potatoes and enter the corn. When they do, Sarah hears the distinct crack of a corn stalk breaking. Mama is out of sight and feasting on our almost-ripe corn.
This time, Sarah claps and shouts, but she’s more fascinated than angry and she’s read to keep the emotion out of her voice, to yell—if you can— calmly. It works. Mama bear steps out of the corn and tries to find Sarah hidden in the vine-covered deck. One cub even stands up on hind feet for a better look. Sarah keeps slowly shouting in a deep voice, “THIS IS MY CORN. LEAVE IT ALONE.” The trio climbs the fence and slips back into the forest.
Sarah waits a few hours and then inspects the corn patch. The bear ate a dozen ears, and she did so with amazing agility. I would expect any bear to eat the whole ear, to chomp and chew green husk, sweet kernels, and hard cob, all of it mashed together in big bites. This bear did not. Like a person, she stripped back the husk and somehow she ate just the kernels, nothing else. Did she hold it delicately between forepaws to get the sweet milk, or did she brace it against the ground, slowly twirl it against the dirt? We’ll never know. All she left were a few black hairs and a circle of ground littered with clean cobs.
Jim Minick is the author of five books, including the novel Fire Is Your Water and The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family, winner of the SIBA Best Nonfiction Book of the Year Award. His honors include the Jean Ritchie Fellowship in Appalachian Writing, and the Fred Chappell Fellowship at University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Minick’s work has appeared in many publications including Poets & Writers, Oxford American, Orion, Shenandoah, Encyclopedia of Appalachia, The Sun, Conversations with Wendell Berry, San Francisco Chronicle, Appalachian Journal, and The Roanoke Times. Currently, he is assistant professor of English at Augusta University and core faculty at Converse College’s low-residency MFA program.