true tale of sun and moon, three bears, paradise and the
like riding the crest of a wave, so that just as you're
most enjoying the high buoyant arc as it rolls against the
sky, you find it curling under you, dropping through the
air and tumbling you under to churn in the roiling surf,
wondering where the surface was.
like the full moon passing from its swollen glory into a
belated remnant, now pale against the morning glare.
the red-topped grasses reminding you that time always passes
faster than you think; that death will come before you are
had been sick for two weeks, in a July where, as always,
there's so much to be done. The garden sets the pace but
in some years, like this one, it's only the symbol for the
piling up of events, emergencies, outdoor chores, places
to go. With such a glut of possibility, I accepted the scaling
down of activity with sullen grace, narrowing my focus to
the necessary tasks at hand: feeding the family, answering
email. I even began to enjoy a chance to catch up on those
books gathering months of dust on the shelf by my bed...finally
finishing off The White Goddess,
for instance, that dense tome with its tales of the ancient
Muse and her two children, Star-son and Serpent.
weather turned hot and sunny, meanwhile--the first stretch
of solid blue in a year, or more, it seemed; and I took
to roasting the last of the lingering cold out of me, sunning
on the lawn under the cherry trees...gazing up at the rich
dark green of their leaves and the reddening cherries against
the backdrop of impossible blue, the glorious golden sun
at its zenith. In the midst of this unmanageable growth
and unhealthy, underlying ferment, I had just turned fifty.
was a morning there, less than a week ago, as I sat on the
porch of the house eating a late-morning meal and looking
out at the horizon brimming with still firs against sky
rippled with slight still clouds, over the garden basking
in full repose at its peak of production, when it appeared
that this was a magical land, another world, a charmed country,
a realm removed from time and rain and action and suffering.
I made some remark to my partner Carol about the flow of
the seasons here in this interior B.C. mountain rainforest,
that we really have one long season through the year, punctuated
by two interludes: deep winter, when the cold locks in and
the land is bound with bundled snow; and this, now, deep
course, with the observation comes the passing of what is
observed. On a walk three mornings later, I noticed our
local landmark, 9000 foot Mount Willet, showing an unfamiliar
aspect from our vantage to the north--appearing conical,
instead of angled sharply one way against the sky. But I
took a moment to form the words, as our steps carried us
downward under the line of tall trees, and when I voiced
them the peak was no longer visible.
my time of sickness I had put off a longer walk down the
hill to my original house--the one I had built a decade
ago and this year had rented out, while I lived with Carol
and her two sons in their house. The tenant in my house
was never there, but had left it full of Y2K food supplies.
His plan was to vacate in another month, and in the meantime
a friend of mine was going to come and stay there for a
couple of weeks. I wanted to check on things; to prune and
thin the orchard; to pick raspberries and cherries; to clean
up and prepare a space inside for my visiting friend.
heat had become intense, jumping from its months-long pattern
of twenties and rain, to thirties and full sun. The mosquitoes
had taken a couple of days to hatch, it seemed, in the heat
and in the fullness of the moon, and now they were appearing
in clouds. The humidity was rising daily.
yard and orchard were covered with four, five, six-foot
high grasses and weeds, bending in waves under their own
weight. The raspberries and cherries were just coming on.
The fruit trees were full of vertical suckers, this year's
growth, and badly in need of a summer pruning. Coming through
this jungle I approached the ginger-colored house.
was a gaping, jagged hole where the swinging cat door had
been, near the bottom of the padlocked door to the porch.
A bear had forced its way through the thin plywood around
the existing opening, gone into the porch, opened the doorknob
to the main door and waltzed into the house to a cornucopia
of cat food, brown rice, sunflower seeds, potato chips.
The remains of this first wave of plunder now lay scattered
about in overturned barrels and buckets and shredded bags.
The bathroom featured a bar of soap slightly nibbled, some
toilet-paper confetti, scattered toothbrushes still in their
cases, a plastic-framed mirror tipped into the tub.
felt fortunate that the house was not totally wrecked. The
walk-in pantry, full of an even more enticing array of goodies
in more fragile glass and plastic containers, was miraculously
untouched, beyond a simple swinging door. I must have crashed
this bear's party after only a couple of days of feasting;
and I dreaded to realize it was far from over.
walked about the house in a daze, surveying the damage and
beginning to pick up the pieces. Absently I swept and gathered
debris into an empty barrel, as if soothing myself with
the possibility of restoring a patina of human order to
an impossible situation, a repeatable destruction. Finally,
countering dread with determination, I got down to business,
checking every entrance and making a list of materials:
nails for toenailing doors shut; boards for barricades;
patches for the torn opening.
I tried to remove the hinges on the outer door in order
to truck it up the hill for major repairs, I was buzzed
by wasps streaming out from the siding just over the door.
A yellow-uniformed rank of them sat waiting there ready
for my next approach, as if asserting nature's will against
my efforts to reclaim this house as my own.
to retreat, I went back up the hill in my truck for reinforcements:
insect killer, tools, nails, boards, thicker plywood. I
came back and doggedly set to work. First donning silk netting
and long pants and sleeves, I blasted the wasp nest with
a killing fog. I patched the enlarged cat door with three
layers of plywood and boards, nailed from both sides. I
blocked and nailed all the openings to the greenhouse entrance.
On the main door I installed a barricade over the doorknob;
blocked off its cat door; added a wire latch. There wasn't
much I could do about that pantry door, besides the minor
deterrent of a high latch; I would have to hope the outer
defenses would hold.
next morning, July 20, I went down the hill around 9:30
to see if the bear, or bears, had come back. There was a
mother with two cubs at large in the community, already
responsible for breaking into freezers and houses, and it
seemed likely this was her idea of a great new home for
the summer, at least. This time I came on foot, with a gun
just in case. On my approach to the house I saw, as if in
a single frame, the fresh debris of shattered plywood outside
the newly opened wound in the door, and black shapes moving
in the grass behind the house. In that same instant I heard
the mother grunting to her cubs, or to me, and they waddled
off into the forest.
was quick, a little too quick, to reach for the bullets
in my pack and take off after them, loading the .30-30 as
I walked. The slower cubs set the pace, and I caught up
with them a hundred yards into the woods. When I came within
sight, the cubs went up a tree, and the mother circled around
anxiously, unsure of what to do. I held my distance, not
wanting to provoke her, while looking for a good shooting
angle from a supporting tree. My heart was pounding--this
was my chance to put an end to this madness, to solve the
problem that threatened to haunt the rest of the summer.
got off a quick shot with a decent view of her tawny face
and black breast. She bolted, but not far, with the cubs
still treed. I waited till she was still enough to find
her in my sight again, and fired. She bolted again. I was
still too excited, too anxious. I didn't want to miss, but
I didn't want to miss my chance, either. Two more shots...and
the way the last one was lined up I felt she must be hit,
but she bounded about active as ever, and I had to retrace
my steps for more bullets which I'd left loose in my pack.
When I came back with the two remaining cartridges, the
bears were gone.
was discouraged. There was some hope she was wounded and
would simply go deeper into the forest to bleed to death.
Maybe she was still unhit but would be frightened enough
to stay away--but I rather doubted she would, with that
deluxe larder calling to her stomach. I would have to go
to work again, this time with more ingenuity or better materials;
and if she were determined to continue the siege, I would
have to find a way to meet up with her again--maybe sleeping
in "her" house, if necessary.
damage to the outer door was worse than before. The 3/4
inch plywood patch was chewed to bits; the nailed boards
were pulled free. This time, as if seeking an easier or
larger opening, the bear had also pulled off the first two
boards from the porch wall, where the building paper now
lay exposed but intact. Apparently the cat door sufficed
once more, because a pair of boots inside the porch were
tumbled about; but the main door had held.
an interim measure I replaced the siding and the remains
of the door patch, then went home for lunch, more materials,
and more bullets...reflecting on my own ineptitude as a
marksman. It occurred to me then, too late, that in my haste
I'd been targeting within the larger circle around the beaded
gunsight, but not taking care to line the bead itself neatly
within the tiny notch of the rear sight. It didn't help
that I wore my glasses for long-range vision, blurring the
notch too close to my eyes. Correcting this sighting problem
with more care and a more all-purpose pair of glasses, I
now felt sure, would make all the difference...if I got
anxiously sober lunch and resupply of materials later, I
was down the hill again in the truck for the afternoon shift.
This time I parked at the end of the driveway and approached
on foot with rifle at the ready, in case the bear had made
a quick return in my absence. I recalled the time almost
two decades earlier, when I'd just begun living on this
raw new homesite in tent and tipi, storing sacks of bulk
food in barrels further down the hill in an abandoned dome.
That was an unfinished structure with open windows only
partially boarded over, and a bear had begun getting in
the windows and breaking into the barrels. I spent an evil
summer's night there sleeping in ambush in the loft, but
not really sleeping at all between the fierce attacks of
mosquitoes, skittering of rats in the dome, and noises from
the woods all night. In the morning I had taken a break
with a short hike up to the homesite for breakfast, only
to return an hour later to find the bear had helped itself
to breakfast from the unguarded barrels.
time the offending bear had not come back--yet--and so I
set to work rebuilding the porch door with a thick square
of aluminum plate set behind tightly nailed metal roofing.
I covered the adjoining section of porch wall also with
roofing; and added a third piece to the inside of the pantry's
cat door, just for good measure. Cleaning up the scraps
of shredded plywood and pulling nails from the failed wooden
patch, I was startled then to hear a strange growling, close
by...a gurgling, throaty roar, a hideous moan, an animal
cursing. The truck with my rifle was parked between me and
the sound; I couldn't see her or the cubs.
I approached the truck, heart thumping. Instantly my throat
had become dry as summer dust; but I wouldn't stop for water
now. I took the rifle from the back seat with a dozen fresh
cartridges, put on my alternate pair of glasses, and followed
the disappearing sounds up the trail. I still could not
see what I was tracking, but I heard the occasional grunt
or snapping of wood to keep me going in the right direction.
I was wary of a wounded or simply angry mother, but encouraged
by her slow and steady progress away from me.
the ridge into the flatland of birch and thimbleberries,
I gave pursuit, cautious and taut with attention to sound
and movement in the underbrush. Still in a t-shirt, I was
plagued by mosquitoes and thirst, fearful yet more determined
than ever...and I thought of the poor soldiers on Guadalcanal
creeping up the sweltering hill under fire by the Japanese,
in the film The
Thin Red Line.
caught sight of them finally, a vision of idyllic nature:
two cubs rising on hind feet to spar playfully, while mother
nosed leaf-high through the rustling thimbleberry bushes.
I stopped and sighted, followed a little, looked and sighted
again...but was teased by the shifting glimpses of black
amid the sea of green. I didn't want to shoot the cubs first.
This was a dangerous enough game as it was. But a game it
wasn't. I had my life as well as theirs in my hands. I felt
backed against a wall, at war with these creatures because
they had attacked, and were going to keep attacking, my
house, the home I had built, until they'd broken through
and sacked it completely. So if I had to take the war to
them, to their territory, so be it. If I was therefore exposing
myself to danger, it was better than the alternative: to
watch my house being torn apart, piece by piece.
bears seemed to have settled into a comfortable area, not
moving far anymore. I glided closer, jockeying for aim from
behind a comforting clump of birches. Still I couldn't quite
get the clear line of sight I needed on the mother. I was
reluctant to move further into the open, drawing attention
to myself and surprising the mother at close range on her
turf. But I was growing impatient. The mosquitoes were coming
at me. It was time to make a move. I stepped out to a more
open view between me and them. The cubs saw me first and
went up the tree. The mother shuffled around under the tree
wondering what the fuss was about. I never saw her face
again but got a good view of black to sight against, drew
the bead into the notch, and fired.
tumbled over with a paw thrown up in the air and I knew
the shot was good. Quickly I decided what I hadn't yet brought
to full consciousness: that the cubs would have to follow.
Whether they could survive on their own was questionable.
So was the morality, or "humaneness," of forcing
them to try. The previous winter a scrawny orphan had been
shot in the snow on Christmas Eve, after weeks of garbage
raids and overnight "hibernations" in warm compost
bins. Then there was the more serious matter of these cubs's
education. Having watched their mother systematically breach
freezers, porches, sheds and houses so as to feed on a steady
diet of humans' rich food, they would surely follow in her
footsteps if left alive.
might have decided earlier to leave this whole grim job
to a regional conservation officer--except that he had already
set a trap for this bear, given up and moved it to an urban
problem area. Local information had it that he would have
shot all three; since a cub tranquilized eighty feet up
a tree was doomed to a quick death anyway.
I kept my eyes on unfinished business: sighted on the first
cub and dropped it beside the mother. The second cub was
luckier, or unluckier; as, shaky from the killing, I missed,
and it scrambled down the tree to go wandering, meekly bawling,
into the bush. Scared and confused, it peered at me from
behind a tree like a child playing hide-and-seek, but now
I had to fire again. The cub went up the tree, and up, and
up, and I fired again and missed, and it went higher, until
finally I recovered a steady hand and finished the story.
The cub dropped sixty feet to the ground and bounced into
a heap. I could only then walk away, with an unsettled mixture
of gratitude and regret, leaving them all to the nature
they had left for their brief and filling journey through
the land of humanity.
summer--so fleeting it was over the day I noticed it--was
long gone now. We were into the dying season.
"Deep Summer" appears in the 2014 collection, My Country: Essays and Stories from the Edge of Wilderness.
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Metaphysics of Bears - poetry by Fred Sengmueller