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Field Notebook

February 25, 2013
Waking the Bear

Black Bear acrylic on layered plexiglass by artist Ben Strawn:
Black Bear acrylic on layered plexiglass by artist Ben Strawn:
Late winter in the high desert mesas, I was walking through a gorgeous blizzard, big flakes coming down where sometimes you couldn't see 50 feet. I had a daypack and an umbrella, out for an afternoon stroll among caprocks and twisted desert junipers. There was a low overhang in the sandstone, a little under waist-high. I laid my open umbrella to the side and got on my knees, looking into this shadowy chamber, thinking maybe I could shelter here. Scooting into cramped darkness, putting down my hands to feel ahead through cactus needles and old, decayed bones dragged in, I was surprised how much the pack rats had brought piled up, the floor feeling soft, like a bed.

I was slightly blinded from the brightness of snow outside, suddenly now in the dark. It was then that I felt breath on my face. The breath of something else. I froze, my eyes slow to let me see. A pair of eyes began to resolve not two feet away. I blinked to try and see what it was, my mind flipping through a 16th-second rolodex. Porcupine? Eyes too close together. Raccoon? No, much too large for a raccoon.

Ridiculously, I thought panther, completely out of its geographic range, but that was only because the face of the animal was clearly black.

My eyes finally figured out what I was seeing. It was a black bear. One suddenly woken from hibernation.

You don't expect Ursus americanas to be denning in the dry piƱon-pine and juniper tree mesas of the Four Corners. You think of them up in the mountains. But now I was thinking of one right here. It was looking back over its shoulder at me, its body curled up. I could see the crease of its nostrils where they'd been tucked for warmth into the fur of hibernation.

The expression on its face was unmistakable. It was having a nightmare, or what it was hoping was a nightmare.

At that instant I blurted, Oh, sorry, and backed straight out of the shelter.

Now I was standing in a snowstorm, up on my feet again. Breathing.

I didn't allow a single thought, everything mechanical at this point. Best to get on with your business. I snatched up my umbrella, shook it out, and began to walk away.

Somewhere in my head, though, I was strangely aware of the bear, the one I had seen only two seconds ago. I could hear the rustle of my own gear, the hush of my boots in fresh snow, as if I were curled up and listening from inside the shelter. I could see my khaki-knee-level pants carrying me away, leaving the entrance open and no longer menacing. I continued beneath the mesa's edge as the sound of me faded, and relief slowly came to the bear where I thought I could feel it tucking its snout back into its own fur, eyes closing, settling back into winter.

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