A Nature Writer Lets the Outside In

TW Column by Steven Lewis

The Chilly, Enduring Odor of Bear

 


Early in March each year, I can smell it coming. Spring, that is. So I can also smell the bears turning in their caves.

Soon thereafter, I’ll be waking daily at sunrise and tiptoeing to the bedroom window to see if they have lumbered out after the long winter. I scan the park-like yard for emptied, mangled bird feeders. Garbage strewn around. Fence posts ripped from the garden.

Black BearThese bear “visits” are recent phenomena around this unintentional cage we call home. As near back as the last century, our big backyard seemed rather harmless and bucolic, with a swing set, tree house, and goldfish pond. Here in the shade of the Shawangunk Mountains, we heard and saw little more than crickets buzzing, birds chirping, wild turkeys gobbling, deer nibbling grass, and the occasional garter snake slithering under the upside-down wheelbarrow—a wholly benign landscape to laud over our friends in their big dangerous cities.

But somewhere around the turn of this century—perhaps as an omen of things to come in a world growing both tamer and wilder each day—the formerly timid deer seemed to gain courage and began eating our roses, which led, a season later and several yards closer to home, to our azaleas, and then to the yew bushes beside the front porch, stripped to ugly brown sticks poking through the white snow, me bursting through the unlocked door in socks and screaming bloody murder.

A year or two later, our buzzing summer nights became pierced by howling coyotes, fisher cats shrieking like little girls, that terrible-beyond-thinking yelp of bunnies caught in some carnivore’s incisors. Then the first bear, a beautiful 400-pound male, lumbered into our backyard as if he owned the place. And he was not alone.

In practical terms, I understand that bears are less of a threat to limb and life than the occasional rattler slithering down from the rocks. But for those esteemed readers whose connection to the wild world ends with the Discovery Channel, please know that a black bear standing seven feet tall, reaching for birdseed or berries, is a daunting, jaw-dropping sight. And, unlike snakes or deer, they don’t slither away or scamper for the tree line when you open the door…or when you bang pots and pans…or even when you stand as tall as the ranger tells you to stand, making your own territorial stand.  Like the most arrogant of overgrown, muscularly arrogant inhabitants of your nightmares, they don’t even flinch. If you’re not food, you don’t exist. If you are, best stay inside.

CoyoteWe now sometimes find ourselves trapped in our house, noses pressed to the windows, pondering the seismic shift that has occurred in the way we regard this home in the woods.

I am a teacher and a writer. So half of each day I work inside this civilized oasis of cinder blocks and wooden joists, double-paned glass and fiberglass insulation, sheetrock, and art on the walls—this gash of an intrusion into forest. For more than thirty years, I have made a living reflecting on the nature of life as a member of a small pack (we have seven kids) traveling through the various landscapes in which we seek sustenance.

To some degree, my work as a writer is to get myself back to the primitive wordless understanding of what it means to walk upon this earth—and then to use the tools of civilization to try to translate this understanding into narratives told in a pitch that humans can hear. If I don’t get back there into the forest, I know my work will be flat and uninteresting. Writers who write without an understanding of what lies beyond the intimate tree line might as well be writing Saturday to-do lists.

Which is precisely what I do the first Saturday after the bears return from their caves around Bonticou Crag. The list defines our to-dos not just for that Saturday but for the entire summer:

  • bear proof the garbage bin—check
  • erect a new fence around the garden—check
  • reinforce the posts that hold the birdfeeders—check
  • bring in the birdfeeders each night—check
  • let the dogs out whenever the grandchildren are playing in the yard—check
  • protect the goldfish in the small pond from becoming hors d’oeuvres—check
  • hang the hot dogs and marshmallows from high branches when we camp out back near the stream—check
  • lock the doors before we go to sleep each night—check and double check

Living in this narrow ecological DMZ, where the sounds of natural selection punctuate our nightly dreams, I am reminded each spring that this house is nothing more than a fallen tree, that the lawn is merely a clearing full of food and danger, that we share the gurgling stream with creatures who, after all these millennia, still don’t accept the notion of our dominion—that the weekend work I do to keep out the animals must be abandoned Monday mornings when I sit down at my computer and invite them back in.

 


Publication Information

  • “The chilly, enduring odor of bear” is a quote from “The Bear” by Galway Kinnell.

Art Information

  • “Black Bear” © Mike Bender; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain
  • “Coyote Scouting Around” © Daniel Vucsko; Creative Commons license

 


Steven Lewis

Steven Lewis is a longtime mentor at SUNY-Empire State College, a member of the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute faculty, and an active freelance writer.

His work has been published in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, AARP Magazine, Ladies Home Journal, and a biblically long list of parenting magazines. His books include Zen and the Art of Fatherhood (Dutton), The ABCs of Real Family Values (Plume), The Complete Guide for the Anxious Groom (Career Press), Fear and Loathing of Boca Raton: A Hippie's Guide to the Second Sixties (Quill Driver Books), and a recent collection of poems, A Month on a Barrier Island (Millrock Writers).

He is also turning the corner on a new novel and, newly intrigued by the possibilities of lulu.com, is packaging some novellas he originally wrote for his seven children to give to his fifteen (and counting) grandchildren.


 

Comments

"To some degree, my work as a writer is to get myself back to the primitive wordless understanding of what it means to walk upon this earth—and then to use the tools of civilization to try to translate this understanding into narratives told in a pitch that humans can hear."

Steve: Not unlike the bear in your backyard, I find myself staring (with pleasure) at you standing there, looking out and writing what you see and understand. I'm not sure I've read a better description of the writer's job than the one I've quoted above. Not only do your words remind me of Thoreau (who imagine to have been a bear-like shambler himself) but they make me -- however momentarily -- want to take a hike. And that's high praise, from someone who's usually entirely content to stop and eat the roses.

I'm intrigued by this notion of working to keep things out and then letting the same back in on a different level. It reminds me of the idea/fact that during pregnancy the little being has to be put in a placenta so the woman's body doesn't attack it as a foreign invader. always these separations and modifications, these allocations and considerations! interesting...also, i love this:

"I am reminded each spring that this house is nothing more than a fallen tree..."

Hurricane Irene has come and gone and as I force myself to sit and begin again the hard work of writing I can't keep from staring out the window toward the swollen stream. Nature kisses and nature assaults. What Steve didn't get to mention in his beautifully written piece about bears was that just days ago he was kayaking down the road to his house. We live in a world so full of wonder that you have to wonder what tomorrow may bring.

the island i inhabit each summer boasts an ever growing membership of bears to the community. here, they are cultural icons of clans as old as this archipelago and the mythology they perpetuate. this too is true of the raven, the eagle, and the killer whale. here they are crests of heraldic significance to history past and future. it is the call of the wild and the retreat from the mild and as steve so aptly said; "I am reminded each spring that this house is nothing more than a fallen tree, that the lawn is merely a clearing full of food and danger, that we share the gurgling stream with creatures who, after all these millennia, still don’t accept the notion of our dominion..."

i can only say. ain't it great to some times be bait .....

This is quite wonderful. After years of howling in the darkness of the freelance print world, it's downright amazing to hear voices in the wilderness.
Jeremiah--I love the idea of stopping and eating the roses.

Very natural writing. Your lyrical prose flows like a river into my heart. Thank you. As I sit at my desk everyday except Sunday and continue the daily process of writing a novel it is encouraging to be reminded that when all is said and done that I’ve gotten back in touch with “the primitive wordless understanding of what it means to walk upon this earth—and then to use the tools of civilization to try to translate this understanding into narratives told in a pitch that humans can hear.”

I think that’s a very cool concept and hopefully when I’ve reached the last page of my manuscript I’ll be able to say that I accomplished more than a practical To Do list.

Merci mon ami

Oh, do I hear you. I spend at least part of each day that I can outside. I find myself impatient with students who can't name a single wildflower, or who are convinced that the only thing that resides in the woods is a serial killer.

Writing and the natural world are inseparable. As a non-believer, my sense of my true size comes from nature. Without an acknowledgment that "the ocean is large and my boat is so small," how could I ever write?

Beautiful essay on life outside of the city. Thank you.

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