NONFICTION

From Issue I (2016)

 

Food for Bears

by KAYANN SHORT

Overset | CAROLINE MILLER  Digital photography, 2015

Overset | CAROLINE MILLER
Digital photography, 2015


AFTER THE AUTUMNAL EQUINOX, the days grow quickly cooler. We go outside one night to view the eclipse of the perigree moon with its strange, orange light. I don’t go outside at night as incautiously as I used to do. We’re accustomed to owls, bats, raccoons, and coyotes accompanying our nighttime forays on the farm. After this season’s encounters with bears on our land, I’m more aware than ever that I’m not always alone in the dark.

I spend the night after the equinox at my daughter’s house, waking just before light to wait for my three-year-old grandson, who wakes up early himself. In the hallway nightlight I see his silhouette appear round the corner of my doorway as he pauses to see if I’m up. “Good morning,” we say at the same time and laugh. As he pulls himself onto the bed, I ask, “Did you have any dreams?” I’m not sure he knows about dreaming yet, but he nods.

“I dreamed about Charlie,” he tells me with a serious look in his eyes.

I haven’t heard about Charlie before. I wonder if that’s the name of a kid from school. “Who’s Charlie?”

“He’s a friendly bear, but he has a loud ROAR!” (The last word is delivered just as you’d expect from a friendly-but-loud bear named Charlie.)

“I’m glad you have a bear friend named Charlie,” I tell my grandson with a hug. At three, his world is filled with animals from picture books, the popular educational video series Wild Kratts, and frequent visits to the zoo. I’m especially glad that my worries about this summer’s bears haven’t deterred him from imagining one as a friend. If I didn’t know it before, I’m certain now that bears walk alongside humans, an arrangement that benefits us both. Even though they’re wild creatures, bears can be our companions on this earth. I hope my grandson will always feel friendship for bears.

 

“WEATHER WHIPLASH” IS THE TERM I’ve heard lately for the increased unpredictability and sudden, ping-pong changes in weather patterns these days. Weather has always been unpredictable for farmers, but the changing climate makes it even more volatile as weather patterns now veer toward extremes. Having a lifetime of familiarity with the weather in this region, I know we’ve entered an era of uncharted climate conversion, but to what we’re converting isn’t clear. A three-hour hailstorm—an unusual event on our farm—destroyed the entire crop of tomatoes we’d planted just that day. A long, warm autumn the year before seemed like a good thing when we were picking tomatoes at the end of October, but was devastating when the first freeze, a week into November, brought a sudden, nearly eighty-degree drop in temperatures, shocking trees that hadn’t yet begun to go dormant and killing 30 percent of our fruit trees, some of which had been standing for more than fifty years. Because farming operates in seasonal cycles, that abrupt freeze meant the loss of next summer’s fruit, with no apples for gallons and gallons of cider like we’d just pressed a couple months before.

 

HALFWAY THROUGH JUNE, I am eating lunch with my partner, John, on the screened porch of our farm’s community room when we sense something moving nearby. We are not at all prepared to see a magnificent black bear with a tan face amble around the corner of the ditch bank and onto the wooden bridge fifty feet from where we sit. We watch in stunned silence as the bear sits down, Buddha-like, on the planks near the end of the bridge, licks its paw, and looks around.

“What shall we do?” I whisper without turning my head.

“Nothing,” John answers. We stay as still as possible, intent on the bear’s every move as it sits serenely on our wooden bridge, watching the water flow. It doesn’t seem to see us through the screen, but it may smell us or something of the human about our place. Soon it puts its front paws down, turns around, and wanders off the way it came, stopping to tip the nearby bench with its paw first in case it finds food underneath.

Did we really see a bear? A real bear? It came and went so quickly, it seemed more a spirit than a wild animal. Still, I wait a few minutes before tiptoeing out across the bridge to check where the bear has gone. Bears can move very quickly; by the time I cross the bridge, it has disappeared into the trees along the ditch. It occurs to me I’ve been enchanted by the bear’s wild beauty, lustrous fur, and wise face. This desire to follow must be what “animal magnetism” means. Even though it wasn’t doing any harm on the bridge and didn’t threaten us in any way, I realize I’m not being prudent by stalking a bear. I want to see the bear again—from a distance—but I decide to give it a little more time to make its getaway, even if that means I will miss another encounter.

After fifteen minutes, John and I cross the bridge together and walk out to check on the bees in the east field. In hindsight, we might have taken the truck for protection, but we were still under the spell of the encounter. Holding hands and looking into the ditch for anywhere a bear might be hiding, we find only a trampled spot along the bank where the bear stopped to check for bugs at the base of some trees. We don’t run into the bear again and the bees are fine, but the next day we install an electric fence around the hives, just in case.

I’ve had near-bear experiences before, but none that prepared me for so large an animal at so close a range. From piles of scat and paw prints to slashed melons and mangled beehives, we’ve found evidence of bears on our land and John has seen one here from further away. Still, we were surprised to see a bear in the middle of a June day; they usually come down in the fall before hibernation.

What we hadn’t taken into account was last November’s freeze coupled with a late spring frost. The same seventy-some-degree drop in one-day temperature that destroyed our fruit harvest also decimated the food supply in the mountains that bears and other animals depend on, especially as they prepare for their long winter hibernation. Biologists call this phenomenon “food collapse,” as the food chain loses one of its links. Weather whiplash strikes again.

Later that night, we hear a noise outside like a door slamming. Ten minutes after that, our neighbor calls to say the bear was in her yard and is now heading for the highway. I run down our driveway with my camera in the hope of getting a picture from a safe distance, but when I notice that the bear has knocked over our trash can, I think better of being outside with an animal that large roaming around.

I call my daughter about the next day’s visit to the farm with my grandson. We decide we can keep an eye open for another encounter while still having fun outside. We’re on the lookout, especially when we notice a car slow down on the highway as if an animal might be crossing, but we don’t see a bear that day. I am both relieved and disappointed not to share the beauty of such an animal with my grandson.

Like humans, bears are opportunistic omnivores. They’ll eat what they find. When encountering a bear, it’s good to remember that, with the exception of grizzlies, humans aren’t food for bears; we are not their prey. They’ll only attack if they feel threatened. Keeping a safe distance from all bears is the best plan, even if we’re drawn to their charisma. In my enchantment with bears I had to remember that their claws—not to mention the muscle and bone behind them—can easily maim and kill.

As the summer days pass, a certain kind of dark shadow in the trees makes me pause. If one bear has come down from the foothills, what’s to stop another from following? On the way out to the garden, we find a small paw print in the mud, probably a young bear checking on the bees, which we’re relieved to see are still safe. Next we find a large pile of oily bear scat near our greenhouse, a little close for comfort. And then we find the back barn door pulled out from the bottom as if a bear has tried to crawl underneath.

Worried about our members who come to the farm for their share of vegetables each week, we notify them that bears are in the area and put strong latches on the barn and chicken coop. We caution everyone to close the doors behind them when they’re in the barn and when they leave. No one complains; our members are sympathetic to the bears’ plight. “Poor bears,” they say in the barn. “They’re just hungry.” Despite this empathy, we hope that none of our members will run into a bear, just as we hope that a bear won’t run into one of our members.

The bears aren’t just at our farm. They’re spotted in town, crossing the river and wandering through people’s backyards. With so many bears around, I start to anticipate another bear encounter. A friend who lived in Alaska teaches me what to do if I confront a bear: clap my hands and yell as loudly as possible, “Go away, bear! Go away!” Another friend suggests banging pie plates together when we’re outside at night. I don’t go quite that far in precaution but I do practice clapping and yelling, just in case.

And so the season goes. We make the summer’s first pesto, cover our crops with net to deter deer, and hope the second round of tomatoes has time to ripen before the first fall frost. We pick rhubarb in July, something we’ve never done before, since it’s usually an early season crop—and that’s weeks after the hailstorm ripped the plants to shreds. Rhubarb revival, I call it. We are happy to have more rhubarb, but it’s unsettling to realize our climate has changed enough to alter the growth pattern of a perennial plant. Perhaps the hail stimulated the plants into going to seed again as a survival mechanism. Is rhubarb sending us a lesson about adaptation we ought to heed?

I read a report about governors in states with large rural populations meeting to discuss the impact of climate change. People in rural areas, they realize, will be more heavily impacted than people in cities, at least initially, since we depend on weather for our livelihoods, live closer to the natural world, and have reduced access to emergency services. I never hear about the outcome of that meeting, but I am glad that officials are recognizing the difficulties farmers and others in non-urban communities are already facing.

Weather has always been the factor least under a farmer’s control. Today, that incapacity is magnified by a political paralysis to stop the conditions creating even more instability in the climate upon which we depend. In the midst of all this uncertainty, one thing’s for sure: it’ll take more than banging a couple of pie plates together to face off what’s coming.

At 7:30 on a Friday morning in August, our elderly neighbor calls for help. A bear has just attacked her goats, leaving one goat dying with a slash through its neck. The latch on her goat shed was broken and the goats had gotten out in the night, attracting a hungry bear looking for whatever food it could find. She’s scared the bear off for now, but needs help with the goat. As John heads over to see what he can do, I go outside to check the chickens. They don’t seem disturbed, but as I’m standing at the coop with the hose in my hand, something tells me to look around. A very large black bear is approaching the chickens—and me—not more than twenty feet away.

Now is the moment for which I’d practiced all summer. I hang up the hose, clap my hands, and say in the loudest voice I can muster, “Get away, bear! Get away!” The bear pauses and hunches forward on its front paws, then quickly springs and wheels in a run toward the front of the house.

When a bear’s muscles move, its fur glistens and ripples like velvet grass in a breeze. I pause a minute to be sure I’ve actually seen a bear and another moment to consider how it shook its big head as it crouched and turned like a kid with a dare: “Come and get me.” Was this bear playing with me? Figuring I’m safer inside than out, I run toward the back of the house, realizing that if the bear circles around the bunkhouse, I may meet it on our back porch.

But I don’t. I run into the house and down to the front windows to see if the bear comes by. No bear in sight. I call our neighbor to warn John that a bear is at the farm so he’ll watch for it when he comes home. But when my neighbor answers, she says the bear must have turned again while I was getting to the house; they’ve just watched it run through their front yard and into the neighbor’s on the other side, where it headed towards the foothills. For now, the bear has left the area.

During all this excitement, the veterinarian has arrived to euthanize the dying goat. John will come home for the tractor so he can transport the dead goat to our driveway, where animal cremation services can pick it up. I wait with our neighbor and the goat. I’m sad that the goat died but I’m still under the bear’s spell—I can’t feel as sad for the goat as I do for the bear, who had to leave its mountain home to find food down below. If it weren’t for weather whiplash, that bear would never have killed that goat.

Our neighbor has already called the Office of Wildlife Management. After the officer talks with her, he comes over to ask if he can trap the bear on our property. We are really sorry to hear this; it’s not a decision we want to make. We reluctantly agree because we think the bear will be back for other livestock—maybe even ours. With so many people coming and going here, we are nervous about anyone running into a potentially aggressive bear.

As I watch, the officer drives the trap to the back wooded spot between our two properties. He baits it with a maple doughnut, cantaloupe, canned cat food, and peach pie doused with anise oil, which apparently is attractive to bears. The trap is a six-by-four metal cage on a trailer. When a bear crawls in, its weight trips the heavy door shut. John and I check the trap before we go to bed that night but find it still empty.

Hollow | CAROLINE MILLER  Digital photography, 2015

Hollow | CAROLINE MILLER
Digital photography, 2015

MY FIRST THOUGHT on waking Saturday is the bear. We walk outside and can see it in the trap as we look through our binoculars from a safe distance. Even from there, we can tell it’s a big bear from the way its silhouette fills the cage. We call the officer and arrange for him to come at 9:15, after our working members have gone out to the field. When they arrive, we gather at the barn to tell them about the bear, but no one goes back to the trees to see it.

I wait for the officer’s arrival before I approach the trap. I feel sick to see the poor bear there with only enough room to turn around or lay on the floor, which it does with its sad eyes looking up at us as it cries. “Cry” is the right word; the sound is as heart-rending as the cry of our own species. “They make that sound when they know they’re defeated,” the officer tells me. Later he says, “This is the worst part of my job.”

I watch as the officer hitches the trailer to the truck. While he is looking for tie-downs, I stand only two feet from the bear as it tries to bite the steel bar of the trap with its startlingly large teeth. “I’m sorry, bear,” I whisper. For a crazy second, I imagine opening the door to let the bear escape. Then I realize that an angry, frustrated bear might attack the first thing it sees—me. I wonder what might have happened if we’d let the bear go. I also wonder whether we’d caught the right bear. While the size seems right, its muzzle seems darker than the one I’d seen the day before. The officer says it was most likely the same bear coming back for the other goats. He also says it was one of the biggest bears they’ve ever caught.

The bear keeps moaning from deep in its throat, a low, sad keening that I will never forget. With its huge arm, it hits the floor of the cage, startling the officer as he double-checks the lock on the door. “It’s okay, buddy,” he says as he puts a cover with air vents over the trap for the bear’s trip down the road. The officer tells me he’s angry that people don’t take better precautions to keep the bears away from their homes, like locking up pets and livestock and keeping their trash in their garage. I know the saying “A fed bear is a dead bear,” but I also know that in our changing climate, we can’t always predict what a hungry bear will do.

I ask the officer what will happen next. They will take the bear to the wildlife office, give it something to knock it out, and then kill it. I don’t think “kill it” were his words, but that’s what he meant. “Can’t it be relocated?” I ask. No, once a bear kills livestock—and they suspect this was the bear that had killed chickens in our area, too—it has to be put down: something to do with liability, the world having come to decisions made in this way. I ask when the bears will return to the mountains to hibernate. “Usually, when they’re full,” he says. “This year, we don’t know.”

I watch the trailer pulling away with its bear cargo and feel sick at heart. At least it was an older bear, the officer had said. It likely wouldn’t survive the coming winter. I think that one less bear competing for food might be good, but I know that’s wrong, a reflection of how out-of-balance our climate and its many ecosystems have become.

 

NOW IN THE COOL AUTUMN, I scan the ground for prints or scat and check the compost pile every morning. After we saw the first bear, I stopped putting fruit scraps in the compost. Instead, I threw our rotten peaches and watermelon rinds in the irrigation ditch and watched them bob downstream. With no berries growing in the mountains, any whiff of fruit could attract a prowling bear. Since the officer took the bear away, watermelon rinds in the compost pile lay softly rotting.

I admit I miss finding evidence of the bear on the property; I miss the bear’s presence. But I’d received our neighbor’s early morning call. I’d scared the bear away as it approached our chickens. I’d given permission for the trap on our land. I’d stood with the caged bear as it struck the bars with its paw. I’d listened to it cry in admission of defeat. I’d watched the wildlife officer drive off with it in his trap. I’d learned a bear that killed livestock would be eliminated. I’d helped to kill that bear, and now it wouldn’t be back.

If the latch hadn’t been broken, if the goats hadn’t been out, if the bear hadn’t killed the goat. Going back further, if the November freeze hadn’t killed the fruit, if the mountains hadn’t suffered food collapse, if the climate weren’t unstable, if we could stop ruining our environment. If, if, if. Sometimes I wake at night with my heart pounding, but not from fear of a bear. Instead, it is wonder I feel at having been in the presence of such an animal—and sadness to be a part of its demise.

 

ON CHRISTMAS EVE at my parents’ house near an open space across which wildlife still travels, we hear the yap of coyotes caroling. My sister carries my grandson outside to listen to the coyotes calling to each other across the arroyos not far from the house. As we listen from the doorstep, my grandson whispers, “I’m a little bit afraid,” but his eyes flash with more excitement than fear. Early the next morning, I see a coyote emerge from the bushes growing in the arroyo and call my mom to watch it with me. As I scan the snowy field toward the horizon, another coyote comes into view. The pair of them saunter along in the cold sunshine, seeming in no hurry to get anywhere. I wish my grandson were still here. At three, he has yet to see a real coyote, even though he sleeps with a stuffed one he named Little Howler. When he’s older, he can spend the night at the farm. Surely, we’ll hear coyotes yipping and yapping like a pack of rowdy teenagers strolling in the dark night.

But coyotes aren’t the only animals on my grandson’s mind for a farm visit. When I tell him that we can keep a lookout for coyotes on the farm when he next comes to visit, his eyes sparkle as he adds, “And bears!” I smile, but I don’t make any promises. I’d love for him to see a bear at the farm, but I know it’s best for all of us if he doesn’t.

 

OUR CHANCES FOR SURVIVAL on this planet grow slimmer every day. By “our,” I mean humans, but the fate of most species doesn’t look any brighter; if the planet keeps warming, we’ll take them down with us, if not before us. This year’s food collapse has taught me that the fate of bears and the fate of humans aren’t separate. If there’s no food for bears, they’ll look for food where they can find it: human habitat. But no food for bears means our food supply is also endangered. If the loss continues, we’ll be in peril together. Probably, we already are.

It’s tragic that human actions are degrading bears’ natural habitat and threatening their survival, yet in a sad way, I’m comforted that our fate is entangled with bears. Maybe paying attention to bears will help us understand the precious balance of our ecosystems, the crucial ecological kinship between threatened species, and the urgency in protecting the environments that support us all. If we don’t, we’ll have more bears in our backyards and more encounters to remind us to quit acting selfishly because we’re not alone. In the struggle to save the future from a cage of our own defeat, it’s good to know that bears are nosing around out there.

 

Kayann Short

Kayann Short, PhD, is the author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, a memoir of reunion with her family’s farming past and a call to action for agricultural preservation today. Her work has appeared in various literary magazines, including Pilgrimage, The Courier, and Mad River Review, and her essay “Soil vs Dirt: A Reverie on Getting Down to Earth” appears in the recent anthology Dirt: A Love Story. A former faculty member at the University of Colorado Boulder, she farms, teaches, and writes at Stonebridge Farm on Colorado’s Front Range.

Caroline Miller

Caroline Miller is an amateur photographer living in picturesque southwest Colorado. She studied photography at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, before moving west to work with horses and take in the landscape.