living with bears

Here in the mountains, the bears are coming down from the high ground. Every August it’s the same thing.

Here in the mountains, the bears are coming down from the high ground.

Every August it’s the same thing. The mountain ash berries, rose hips, Saskatoons and wild raspberries are ripe and fat and the bears begin to appear.

We see them on the roadside and lately they’ve become a fixture in our yard.

It’s not troubling. When you make a conscious decision to reside in bear country, you make a decision to learn to coexist with them.

You learn bear time. That’s a funny thing to hear from an Indian kid mostly raised in cities but the fact is you have to. After all, this is their land, and if anyone respects that statement, it’s an Indian.

What is troubling is the rash of reports in the news of bears losing their lives after run-ins with those who occupy their territory. The news from Coquitlam, BC, of two bears in two days being killed was unsettling. It saddened me.

I’m not afraid of bears but I am respectful and my wariness around them comes from a desire to allow them their dignity. They’re prowlers, foragers and we should all understand that.

My people say that the bears are protectors. In our Ojibway clan system, the Bear Clan is responsible for security and law. The totemic symbolism of bears is strength, fortitude, justice and wisdom.

They are revered for those spiritual, moral and ethical properties and respected for their strength and ferocity. In the Ojibway world, a bear is a special thing and I’ve learned through the years to hold them in the same regard.

My neighbours have different views. They range from outright fear to resentment. To them a bear is either a yard- and garbage-raiding pest or a vile predator intent on snatching the cat, the dog, or the child, or themselves.

When one is spotted in our small community they take care to let others know as soon as they can. They become as watchful as, well, bears.

This morning, as I wrote, the dog growled and I looked out to the end of the driveway to see a juvenile male reared up on his hind legs to chew on leaves and berries.

He wasn’t fearful despite the proximity to the house. A marvelous specimen. His coat was thick and unmatted and he had the rounded shape that comes from good feeding.

We watched him until he finally trotted through the yard, across the gravel road and off into the trees.

There was no need to call anyone. It was just a bear in a country of bears. He would find a place to hunker down as the early morning traffic rose and the community came alive and the high August heat built up. Later, when it cooled he’d emerge to forage in the berry bushes that surround us. That’s just how it is.

We’ve learned bear rules. We keep our garbage out of harm’s way until it’s dump day and we can dispose of it. We’re careful with our barbecue.

When we walk we keep an eye on the bushes and we talk higher.

None of this is any inconvenience and, in fact, it’s the very presence of the bears that keeps us vigilant about the state of our community. We see things we might ordinarily miss.

That’s the thing of it, really. We interact.

Even when we don’t know that we are, we’re in a constant state of influence with those we share the planet with. That’s a paraphrasing of an ancient traditional teaching but it’s relevant and perhaps, more important today than ever. Because the world is changing and it affects our relationship with other creatures.

The oceans are becoming more acidic, polar ice is melting, extreme weather, drought, floods, earthquakes, wildfires are more commonplace and bees are disappearing.

Those are only some of the rapid changes happening all around us. As much as our human lives change because of them, so do the lives of the animals around us.

We’ve encroached on their territory. We’ve caused atmospheric changes that reduce the amount of their natural forage foods. We’ve become careless with our waste.

We’ve become smug in our technology and innovation, more attuned to our screens, monitors and text messages than to the world around us. We only pay attention to the natural world when it bumps up against our modern sensibilities.

So bears are a grounding tool for me. When I see them, I am reminded of cultural teachings, old wisdom that has a significant part to play in how I negotiate my way around the world.

The bears are protectors. They are the embodiment of justice. You need to look at them with old eyes in order to see that. And that, in the end, may be their particular gift to all of us.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday.