(This actually happened a few years ago, but I updated it to be part of the book tour.)
Last night in the rain and the near dark, my husband Mario and I went out into the forest with our tracker friend, Linda, and a friend of hers. We went deep into the wild. We were looking for wild things, and we were hoping to find bears.
We walked until Linda pointed to a dark place under some Douglas fir trees and said to her friend, "You sit there. Click your tongue if you see something."
Then the three of us walked until Linda said to me, "You're small. Crawl in through there." She showed me a rip in the metal fence. The tear in the fence was rather alarming since it looked as though some comic book character had come and pulled apart the fence to create an entrance or exit into or out of another world.
I went through the rip and sat under an evergreen tree. By or upon elk poop. It was raining, and I was dressed in a plastic bag and three layers of coats, a shirt, a camisole, and two pairs of slacks.
Mario and Linda walked on, but I didn't see where they went. I sat in the falling darkness, alone, still, quiet, watching and listening to the forest, the meadow, and the sky. I looked out at the forest and the giant hemlock trees that towered over all the other trees, slightly bent at their tops, as though they were bowing in prayer.
It grew dark. The rain began earnestly, drifting down from the clouds like a veil, a veil that fell again and again, gorgeously, sensually. I had never heard anything quite as wonderful as this rain falling on the forest. I watched the hemlocks take the rain and breathe it in, and I did the same.
I wondered if we would see any bears. The thought of a bear encounter made me a little nervous. I had dreamed about bears for years, until I wrote my novel Her Frozen Wild where bears and bear-people were central to the story. Once I finished the novel, the bear dreams nearly stopped. In researching the novel, I had learned that many indigenous people believed humans and bears were related. Before they hunted bears, Siberians and Native Americans followed elaborate rituals to honor the bear.
I’d also discovered stories about humans giving birth to bears in European, Native American, and Asian folk tales. In many different cultures, people often believed that humans could shape-shift into bears and vice versa. The great warrior berserkers were thought to shape-shift into bears when they put on a bearskin. (The word berserkers means “bear shirt.”) People believed this accounted for the berserkers fierceness and bravery in battle.
On some of my hikes in the forest, I had encountered signs of bears. I’d seen two short horizontal lines on tree trunks which I knew were teeth marks of a bear trying to get to the tree cambium. On other hikes we’d taken, Linda had pointed out claw marks on trees that were either bear or cougar. I had also seen a black bear in these forests once. I was in a car at the time, and the bear ran away faster than I’d ever seen anything that big run.
When I was a child growing up in Michigan, I heard about grizzly bears eating people in Yellowstone. All grown up and at the beginning of our married life, Mario and I stayed at Yellowstone Park one night. There were “beware of the bears” signs everywhere. I was terrified. We decided not to pitch a tent. Instead, we slept in the car. I had a very realistic dream of a bear trying to get into the car. I woke up gasping for air, my heart racing. That may have been my first bear dream.
The idea of encountering a bear in the woods did not fill me with happiness. In fact, it frightened me. I wanted bears living in the forest, of course, just like I wanted cougars in the forest. But I didn’t want to run into either of them during my treks. I imagined they wouldn’t be that thrilled to run into me either.
Once I dreamed I was a grizzly bear; I looked down and saw bear claws instead of hands. It seemed quite natural and right that I was a grizzly bear. In another dream, a bear was rampaging my neighborhood. When he roared into my house, I faced him, despite my terror. I told him I would make love with him--I would become his bear wife--if he would leave everyone else alone. He agreed to this bargain.
When I was writing Her Frozen Wild, Mario and I learned the bear dance from a Siberian shaman. At the end of the training, she said we were part of the Bear Clan.
This day, as it grew dark outside, I sat on the Earth amongst the wild things. I hadn’t heard anyone click their tongue to let us know they had seen something. I wondered where my husband was, but I figured he was safe with Linda. She was powerful enough to scare off any bear. Or at least she’d be able to get the bears to engage in a conversation with her until everyone understood we were all related. She had told us that when bear and human encounters went wrong it was usually because humans miscommunicated their intentions. We no longer understood the language of bear.
Somewhere in these woods, bears wandered. At least I hoped they did. Maybe they sat underneath trees to get out of the rain. Just like me. I wanted to close my eyes and sleep with my body next to the Earth, just like the bears. If I did that, maybe when I awakened, I would have bear claws again.
Too soon, Linda came and got me. As we all walked back to our cars, Linda told us that bears had ripped the hole in the fence I had climbed through. "The forest service comes out and fixes it,” she said, “and the bears keep ripping it open."
I shivered as I listened to her. Had I known who had created the rip in the fence, would I have sat so near to it, right on the path of the bears?
Yes, I decided, yes, yes, yes. And I was ready to do it again and again. Eventually I might run into a relative of mine. By then, perhaps, I would remember how to speak with bears.
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