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Alternative Culture Magazine

Deep Summer

A true tale of sun and moon, three bears, paradise and the fall

It's 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.

It's like the full moon passing from its swollen glory into a belated remnant, now pale against the morning glare.

It's the red-topped grasses reminding you that time always passes faster than you think; that death will come before you are ready.

I 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.

The 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.

There 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 summer.

Of 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.

During 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.

The 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.

My 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.

There 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.

I 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.

I 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.

When 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.

Forced 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.

The 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.

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.

The 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.

As 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 another chance.

An 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.

This 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.

Cautiously 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.

Up 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.

I 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.

The 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.

She 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.

I 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.

So 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.

Deep summer--so fleeting it was over the day I noticed it--was long gone now. We were into the dying season.

© Nowick Gray

"Deep Summer" appears in the 2014 collection, My Country: Essays and Stories from the Edge of Wilderness.
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The Metaphysics of Bears - poetry by Fred Sengmueller


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