White snow, black puddle

For every moment of happiness there is a tinge of sadness. For every moment of sadness there is a tinge of happiness. My Grandmother’s funeral was on my sixteenth birthday. Two weeks later, was my first Christmas with no snow. It seemed fitting. My Grandmother was good at many things. I can’t give her credit for making snow, but she was a necromancer of sorts. What mortal coils we family members dragged around all year long could be brought together on Christmas night by her beckoning.

Once someone brought a tape recorder and the adults had a lively debate over the semantics of words. Why is an orange called an orange? Why is that color orange and not blue? To my remembrance no conclusion was ever reached, but drunken philosophy is always entertaining.

When did I first started bartending? I must have been good at it. The family clientele never complained and occasionally paid in $5 bills. The tab was always open. Adults drank and cussed and if you were a child of a certain age you didn’t dare do the same. You were both literally and metaphorically, “At the kids table” whenever family was gathered. On the playground, I was a decorated war general, a legend among my peers.

Once when Aunt Jean told me to stop serving Great Grandpa Jim. I was obligated to translate his response, “Go to hell!” into kid language “Aunt Jean, Grandpa Jim says to go to h-e-double hockey sticks.” She opened her mouth to retort but decided to deliver the message herself.

The snow brings many things, but it often makes me think of death. It makes tracking easier. I don’t hunt to kill anything, only to bear witness to their existence. Most tracks and trails are made by deer, but I’ve seen just about every other Northwest animal, except a cougar. Once while climbing up a rocky outcrop I put my hand in the remnants of a cougar kill! It was gross, of course, but I couldn’t let go because I was moving too fast to seek a new handhold. It had been a deer. I hurled myself up onto the ledge and landed like a spider trying to balance over the carcass and not in it. There was no choice but to wipe my hand on my pants and keep moving. The nearest source of water was the neighbor’s cattle pond, and I must say, that kind of water would have been no less foul.

One morning at the beginning of an exploration I reached the end of the driveway at the same time as a truck passed. It hit something just up the road and kept on going. There in stark contrast against the freshly fallen snow was a black puddle of fur. It was a neighbor’s new puppy, a cocker spaniel. Such a beautiful precious little life. I could tell by his eyes he wanted to wag his tail, but the message couldn’t be received. His breath was shallow and raspy. I scooped him into my lap and sat high on the snowbank. I held him until the light left his eyes and his breath no longer gasped. Then I took him home and notified the family. Their two kids were under the age of five and maybe this was their first encounter with death, but it need not be scary. Nothing more could be done when you’re 13 miles from civilization on a Sunday.

While receiving presents is nice, the real gifts are the memories we make. Some of them are tragically wrapped and some I would have wished not to receive, but there they are.

One of my favorite gifts was a visit from a white wolf. Of all the ways it could have traveled, it chose to walk through my little light. I was working as a night housekeeper just outside of town on the interstate. The bus stop was a pinprick of light at the top of a hill on a mostly empty road. That night snow was coming down in big puffy flakes. The white wolf trotted diagonally through my circle of light. We looked at each other, then it faced forward and disappeared. It never hesitated. I could have been a potted plant for all it cared. That brief moment of eye contact. The huge paw prints assuring me I hadn’t imagined it. I’ve spent my whole life around different breeds of dogs. When you see a wolf, you know it’s a wolf.

Snow Patterns

Freshly fallen snow hushes the landscape, refracts the light, and sharpens the air. Nature’s mandala, crafted from water. A pattern of life and death. The wolves and bison of Yellowstone know this dance well.

Please enjoy this virtual walk as my gift to you. I won’t tell if you want to skip ahead for the animal sightings. For you this landscape might seem foreign, for me, I call it home.

Gardening with Bears

I envisioned that one morning I would be standing at the large living room window, cup of coffee in hand watching the field when a bear would stroll by. Blissfully safe in my house I would say, “Good morning, bear.” All cheery-like, of course.

Reality likes to kick sand everywhere though. I found myself instead at the far end of the field, on my hands and knees, pulling dirt and rocks away from a diseased Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) stump infected with Eastern hazelnut blight. A diseased acorn can further the blight by birds and squirrels that forget a cache, allowing a diseased tree to become rooted. It can decimate an agricultural hazelnut grove. A cash crop in the nearby state of Oregon.

So, there I was being a good citizen for both humans and trees alike when a big black bear (Ursus americanus) decided to walk by. I knew he was in the ‘hood. I’d often seen fresh bear patties along the street. Bobcats, Coyotes, and the like drop “scat”, but bears make patties, large dark piles of bear poop. Around here it usually has cherry pits in it, even the coyotes will help themselves to the native Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana L.), the ornamentals that line the road at our street entrance, or the ones planted for backyard fruit. Washington state is the apple state, but we grow a lot of cherries too.

So it was, that the bear finally came before the patty. My dog was sleeping on the porch attached to a 15ft tether. We do this because she’s got a strong prey drive. All it would take is an errant squirrel or rabbit and she would chase it to no end until a vehicle stopped her. She’s got no sense when she spots a living squeaky toy. On this morning, her sleep was disturbed by something much larger. She started barking like crazy. I understand all of her barks, but this one was new. I stood up quickly with my hands on my hips wondering, “What does this bark mean?”

I turned around and there he was, less than ten feet from me! I could make out the individual hairs on his nose. He stopped abruptly and so did I. I’ve seen wild black bears before in the woods at a distance, equivalent to the size of a fat Golden retriever, but this suburban bear was huge. At least 800 hundred pounds. What the hell are people putting in their trash around here? Raw steaks and donuts?

All I could hear was my dogs frantic barking and the sound of my own heart beating. The bear sized me up and I did the same without making eye contact or any posturing that might be taken as a threat. We need some space. Yes, we definitely need some space between us. I’ve got a sharp axe and a sledgehammer within reach, but no desire to fight. He seems to agree. So I say in a carefully measured voice, “Why don’t I just back up towards the noisemaker on the porch, yeah?”

I back up slowly putting distance between us, glancing at the bear, not staring, not challenging. Once I’ve doubled the space between us the bear felts safe to proceed with his morning constitutional. He continues walking down the field toward the street. He was so quiet for such a big beast! I always thought they would be huffier and gruntier to give me some warning, like in the movies. It’s surreal to watch those massive paws walk so quietly. My mind wants to give it a soundtrack like a T. Rex is walking by. Pound, pound, pound with each step, but they don’t. They don’t make a sound and the birds have betrayed me. Just like a deer, when I hear the chorus of birds suddenly stop, I’m alerted that somethings wrong. I’ll pop my head up and look just as surely as if the dog has barked. Now I have learned another new thing. In the opinion of small birds, a bear is no threat.

Why do I pay attention to birds? Because cougars will hid expertly in the bushes, but they can’t hide from the birds, nor can the coyote, but mostly I listen to the birds, because they feel the vibrations in the air before I can. They were my first clue, just before the Nisqually quake hit our area on Feb 28th, 2001. So I listen to the birds as we perpetually wait for “the big one”, the day the Cascadian subduction zone give a great heave and snaps out the surface like we’re particles on a dirty rug.

But wait, there’s more to this bear story! When Mister Big Bear reached the road my neighbor from three doors down was there walking his puny little Shitzu. They all stopped unsure what to do. Poor Mister Bear has a new dance partner. The little dog was too scared to bark. Another neighbor rode to the rescue in his mid-life crisis, a metallic blue corvette. He stopped so the other neighbor and his little dog could hop in. They waited until Mr. Big Bear felt comfortable enough to pass. People who don’t live around here consider my City a “suburb” of Seattle, but we’re not. We have pastures and fields. The tallest building in our downtown city core doesn’t exceed seven floors. We live in what researchers and biologists call the urban-wildlife interface. I call it sub-rural as an antonym to sub-urban (suburban).  

Recommendation:

What Happens When You Plant a Pile of Bear Scat? – Cool Green Science

Bear Behaviour – Understanding black and grizzly bears – BearSmart.com