* BEAR WITNESS *
was the cover article for the November 2004 issue
of Shared Vision magazine.]
The fall is a sad season for me. (Don’t ask.) At this poignant time of year I try to soothe myself with beauty. One of the loveliest things I know is the view from the top of Mount Seymour—Vancouver’s sprawl to the southwest, Mount Baker’s cone cloud-borne on the southeast horizon, and the rest a vista of back-country crags. And so, one morning, at the cusp of autumn, I started up the trail to the beckoning heights.
It was just after 7 a.m. A crescent moon was melting into the brightening sky. I was first to tread the path that day. My breath and my bootsteps filled the silence as I climbed through the woods. Suddenly the bushes to my left burst apart. Hissing, a jet-black young bear leapt out onto the trail. It loped back a few paces, and swivelled its head toward me. Our eyes met. In a moment of pure wildness, time stood still.
As I stared at those bottomless eyes, I felt that the bear and I were peering into each other, and into ourselves. In that frozen instant, like merged shadows, we were not two.
Within the bear’s eyes I saw a cedar carving. I had seen it before, at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. This Coast Salish wall-board depicts a bear crawling from the crescent mouth of its lair, coming nose-to-nose with a man on his belly. The man grips a rattle in one hand, a knife in the other. Their eyes are locked, intimate, waiting for a move. This is how a person of vision meets the gaze of the cosmos. Smokey the Bear doesn’t exist; we’d best have a weapon. But if we slit the false screen that splits culture and nature, we know we’re not apart from the grand rhythm; a rattle keeps the beat of the dance. Whether the step is bear-slays-man or man-slays-bear, it’s the same dance. It hurts either way. But the sting of life’s loss is past endurance only when we’re deaf to the rattle’s voice. We all, eventually, meet the bear. And we never walk away unchanged. I was taught this lesson by the words and the flesh of those who’ve survived.
Humans have been bumping noses with bears ever since we’ve had noses to bump. The first bears, raccoon-sized things, roamed the earth 20 million years ago. When our own furry forebears came down from the trees about 16 million years later, bears were there to greet (and eat) them. Old Stone Age folk plumbed the caves that honeycombed parts of western Europe to paint cryptic icons on the walls. Such underworld jaunts were peril-fraught, as the caverns were dens of monsters—huge beasts of the now-extinct species Ursus spelaeus: Cave Bear. These hulks were mainly vegetarian, but wouldn’t have passed up a meaty snack if it wandered right into their living room and started redecorating. After all, ursine Martha Stewarts had already decked their lairs with crescent swirls clawed into the rock. Leaving sunlight’s safety, clutching spears and paints and flickering lamps, our ancestors plunged far into the subterranean night. Why? To encounter, and to be transformed.
A savage maxim: For a new self to be born, an old one must die. This verity is softened in the genial face of today’s rites of passage in which we trade one status or identity for another—the baptisms and bar mitzvahs, weddings and wakes. But in primal cultures, initiations had teeth.
For children to attain adulthood, for uncanny youths to become shamans, they first were plucked from daily life’s routines, for these are the scaffolds that hold the self in place. They were taken to those numinous locales - peaks and caves - where the otherworld’s presence feels near. Here is where soul-changing powers lurked: the spirits, the gods, the dead.
Danger haunted the way. Fierce creatures guarding the sacred depths had to be dealt with. The secret to overcoming the protectors was not to battle them as enemies, but to become one with the truth that they guard. The cavern at Bara-Bahau in France’s Dordogne region is striped with the claw-work of cave bears. Some prehistoric pilgrim took the harrowing trip to the heart of their den, and left a signature too: among the bears’ traceries is the outline of a human hand. In the moment of initiation, man and monster are nearer than kin.
You can find the grotto of Montespan in the cave-pocked foothills of the French Pyrenees. For 15 millennia, something has crouched sphinx-like here in the blackness. It has the mass and contours of a bear, sculpted from a mound of clay. This model was likely sheathed with a pelt, and an actual head affixed (a skull was found between the forepaws). Think of the initiate’s first shocked glimpse of its eyes agleam in the sputtering torchlight. In 1923, religious scholar Rudolf Otto described the meeting with the holy as a mysterium tremendum, an awareness of one’s own smallness, frailty, and ignorance in the face of vast and unknowable being. In settings like Montespan, humans first sought, and found, an audience with the Mystery.
The ancients thought that bears were born as fleshy lumps that were literally licked into shape by their mothers. And so it was for the cave-born initiates, their being shaped anew by their deepworld encounters. The cavern rites were lost to dust long before the pyramids were dreamed of. But whatever transpired down there, this we know: when we come eye to eye with a mask of the Infinite, we grow or we shatter.
In later ages, bears still kept spiritual company. The Greek Artemis, the Celtic Artio, and the Roman Diana were all goddesses of forest, moon, and bear. A bronze sculpture unearthed at Berne, Switzerland has Artio in a chair, proffering fruit to an enormous bear that looks happy as a puppy getting a biscuit. Charming; but we mustn’t forget the mysterium. The myths remind us: witness Actaeon, who was hunting with his dogs in Mount Cithaeron’s woods. He chanced on Diana bathing with her nymphs in a pool. Enraged by this peeper, the goddess changed him into a stag. His hounds promptly tore him to bits.
A fine painting by Giuseppe Cesari, made around 1600 and now in the Louvre, shows the moment. The nude deity stands in the pool, the lunar crescent gracing her hair, fretful nymphs splashing all around. She leans toward Actaeon, who looks suitably amazed as antlers sprout from his head. The dogs leap and snap. But something isn’t right here. Diana doesn’t look peeved at all; rather, she stares intently at the hunter, with perhaps the ghost of a smile, and stretches her arms with palms open, almost as if to catch him in an embrace. The artistry hints at a subtext.
The key to Cesari’s image might lie in the writings of an Italian contemporary, the philosopher Giordano Bruno (whose surname derives from a root meaning “bear”). Bruno felt that the tale of Actaeon and Diana was not just a plea for divine anger management, but an allegory of self-transmutation. What sort of hunt, he asked, ends with the hunter turning into that which he hunts? It can only be the hunt for wisdom - the deepest truth is the oneness of all, which can’t be grasped by something outside of that unity. If we open our hearts wide enough, we’ll be embraced by reality’s naked fullness. But our notion of ourselves as separate beings – the very ground of our everyday experience – will be shredded. Alas, the thought of hugging bare goddesses was a tad pagan for the Catholic church. Bruno was roasted at the stake for heresy.
Christendom wasn’t kind to the goddess or her bears. The biblical bear is a symbol of hazard and violence–recall the slavering brute “like to a bear” in Daniel’s famous dream, three ribs lodged in its fangs, primed to “devour much flesh”. And any beast so cozy with heathen deities was surely one of Lucifer’s pets. St. Niklaus von der Flue said that Jesus clad in shining bear skin came to him in a vision; but the sartorially satanic detail was blanked from the official account.
Lacking friends in Christian high places, the bear’s main role in Western society was in Sunday entertainments. In “bear gardens”, captured cubs would be staked and rent by dogs to the glee of the crowd, including Queen Elizabeth I, an aficionado.
Today we share the globe with eight species of bear, including the moon bear of East Asia, the South Asian sun bear and sloth bear, South America’s spectacled bear, the polar bear of Arctic climes, and the beloved panda. Overall, bears aren’t faring well with humans, and their ranges are dwindling. But here in B.C. our native bruins, the grizzly and the black bear, still prowl their ancestral turf. Our 13,000 grizzlies are deemed vulnerable but not endangered, and the black-bear population of B.C. has never been larger. The current estimate of 150,000 is nearly double that of 1870. So many bears are pouring into Whistler and Vancouver’s North Shore that we seem to be part of an experiment in cross-species community living.
The black bear is an omnivore, or, as the naturalist John Muir put it, “To him almost everything is food except granite.” (It’s been soberly noted that bears won’t touch sauerkraut either.) A neighbourhood stocked with trash cans and greasy grills is a bear buffet. The familiars of Artemis now busy themselves adorning our lanes with garbage and leaving steaming scat piles beside what’s left of our backyard bird-feeders. In Whistler, there’s been a rash of home invasions and car break-ins by bears. I’ve even heard that bears have been hanging out in hardware stores, trying to get copies made of stolen keys. Can’t we all just get along?
We’d better, because we can’t run and we can’t hide. If a black bear of average fitness had entered the Olympic 100-metre race beside Donovan Bailey, it would have whipped Bailey by more than two seconds. If a bear rushes you from 30 metres, it will be on you in under three seconds. And it climbs almost as fast. Unless your escape-tree has an express elevator, you’re in for a bear hug.
People cross paths with bears thousands of times yearly in this province. Nearly all these meetings are brief and peaceful. But, quite rarely, the nightmare happens: a bear attack. Survivors of the worst maulings roll into the emergency room with the epic of the ravage inscribed on their skin, the bloody crescents of bites along the limbs. Parts have been eaten, most often buttocks and scalp.
Minds as well as bodies are gnawed by such horrors. The assault may keep echoing in the victim’s soul. Psychiatrists call this post-traumatic stress disorder. On constant vigil, tensed for the merest hint of threat, a murmur in the hall or a tapping on the pane can trip the panic. Teeth and claws maul survivors’ dreams and visit waking life as flashbacks.
A young hiker who was charged by a grizzly found that the bear often dropped by her room in the plastic surgery ward. Whenever she roused from her fitful sleep, it was looming by the bed. Its fur and fangs spat sparks. She was in constant terror. At the time, I worked as a clinical psychologist in the hospital.
I wasn’t sure what I could do to help. But I could feel her strain. She was fighting the bear with every ounce of strength. And I thought of the cedar carving I’d seen at the Museum of Anthropology. She was all knife, no rattle. I had an idea.
First, we talked about where she was from, what she liked to do, favourite foods and boyfriends and such. I sensed that she was relaxing. I told her I was going to ask her to do something surprising, something she should only do if she trusted me. She said she did.
“You push so hard to keep that bear away. But I want you to call it into the room. Now. I’m right here, it will be okay.” Her eyes were wide with fear, but only for an instant.
Then she did it. “It’s here”, she whispered.
“You’re a brave one. What if you could notice that the bear is changing colour? Let’s say, it’s turning… green. Tell me what’s happening.”
“Yes, it is turning green!”
“What if it started to shrink…smaller and smaller…like a little teddy bear?”
“Yes, yes.” She was crying, but with relief. By giving up her heroic effort to drive away the bear, she found that she regained control. She stopped the fight, and joined the dance. Her eyes calmed. She seemed to be looking far away. In a moment of pure wildness, the bear at the bedside turned to me, infinity in its eyes.
And then, on Seymour’s slope, the flow of time unfroze. My ursine epiphany had passed. With a last sniff, my fellow creature scrammed into the bush, bearing off a small flake of my pain.
Grateful, I resumed the climb.