Bear: Companion of Winter
It might seem odd to introduce the topic of companions with an animal I have never seen. Why not the chickadees who flit among the moss-covered pine branches just outside my window? Why not the western hemlock, whose drooping peak nods in the wind thirty feet above the roof of the apartment complex across the street? Why not the crow who clings like an acrobat to the telephone wires above the yard and joins his companions every day about an hour before sunset, all of them gathering in a great, noisy, ambling flock making their way northwards towards the open green space of the nearby cemetery where they will settle down for an evening’s gossip? Why not the steller’s jay, or the red-cedar, or the pacific tree frog?
All of these are companions who share my urban landscape with me every day, going about their wild business. We nod to each other, exchange glances, touch fingertip to leaf-bud. These companions remind me that even in a decidedly urban landscape, “nature” is not something to be shuffled off out of the way. All things are natural, all things are holy. They remind me that I, too, am an animal of mud and blood, rock and bone, breath and sunlight.
So why the bear?
In part because not all of the companions who join us in this spiritual work will have the same lessons to teach us. And they will not teach us those lessons in the same ways.
The feathery red-cedars and the boisterous crows are companions of grace and persistence, guides who teach me of the cleverness and the sacred profanity of the ordinary. They are the crowd and the community, and their lessons are lessons of humor, humility, cooperation and stubborn self-confidence. They press their presence like a friendly elbow in the side, nudging me to renew my attention, to spend a moment reconnecting to the present here and now. They jostle and rustle and murmur of the interpenetrating intimacy of the natural, material world in which I live and move and have my being.
But not all of our companions will elbow their way into our lives and demand our attention. Some of them linger beyond the limits of our ordinary experiences, leaving only footprints and snapped twigs as traces of their presence. These are our guides to the depths of mystery and wilderness. They are dark wanderers who cross our paths only in the obscurity of a moonless night, whose form we seem to see only just on the periphery of our vision before it dissolves again into the tangled undergrowth of the unknown. They are the companions whose presence we sense with the thrill of uncertainty, that mixture of excitement and terror that gives rise to awe. Their breath is the sound on the edge of hearing that we catch just when we think we are alone.
Lest we forget that nature is not only familiar and intimate, but deeply wild and strange. Lest we forget that some things are hidden, and will remain hidden.
The bear is, for me, this kind of companion. She is elusive and unseen, though she has left traces of her presence in my life that beckon me to seek her out. My life is oddly full of people who have encountered bears in the wild, sometimes in the most unlikely places and at unexpected times. Their stories are like dark revelations of some eerie, shaman-like figure, sometimes mistaken for a shambling drifter, or a scavenger of garbage and discarded, broken things.
But maybe this all sounds overly romanticized, and I run the risk of being accused of sentimentality. I should say that, though I’ve never seen a bear in the wild, I’ve spent some time studying what information I could find on the bears that live in my area and their role in the local ecosystem.
Facts About Bears
Out here in the Pacific Northwest, as in many places, the American black bear (Ursus americanus) is by far the most common, with the larger brown bear (Ursus arctos) being much rarer. Both of these native species are shy of humans and will avoid contact, though suburban encroachment into their habitats has made bear encounters more likely in recent decades. Black bears have been known to take advantage of improperly managed garbage cans and bird-feeders in some suburban neighborhoods — especially those that border their preferred mountainous, heavily-forested habitats — and they’ll change their feeding behaviors to scavenge at night, when encounters with humans are less likely. Both black and brown bears are omnivorous and eat a wide variety of foods, though between 85 – 90% of their diet consists of plant-matter like grasses, roots, acorns, hazelnuts, pine cones, flowers, berries, sapwood, and fungi like mushrooms. When they do eat animals, they feast on insects, grubs, and small mammals, and bears that live in riparian forests or near coastal areas also enjoy fish.
In fact, here in the Pacific Northwest bears are considered by ecologists to be an “engineer species” — a species that plays a particularly important role in creating and maintaining the habitats on which they and other plants and animals depend. Feeding on the plentiful salmon returning from the ocean to freshwater during spawning season, bears will often carry half-eaten carcasses into the surrounding forest, helping to return much needed marine-derived nutrients (sometimes also called salmon-derived nutrients, or SDN) into the soil of the surrounding landscape. Without bear predation, which also makes these fish more readily available to other animals like bald eagles and racoons, more than 50% of these nutrients would be washed back downstream into estuaries and, eventually, back out to sea.
Bears have captured the imaginations of human beings for hundreds of thousands of years, and mythological traditions from around the world tell stories of the bear as a sacred animal. One of the bear’s enduring mysteries is its winter hibernation, when the animal retreats into a den — often a small cave or hollowed tree — to sleep until the warmth of spring returns. It is during this time of winter retreat that female bears give birth, most often to twins, and they emerge in the spring with these lively young cubs full of energy and curiosity about the world around them. This retreat into darkness during the harshest months of cold and scarcity naturally suggest to the imaginative mind a connection between the bear and the mysteries of death and rebirth, and a close relationship with the earth as both tomb and womb.
Modern science has not dispelled these mysteries but only served to deepen them. For a time, bears were not considered to be “true” hibernators because, although their heart-rate slows and their metabolism is suppressed during their winter torpor, their body temperature drops only a little and they can be roused much more easily than other hibernating mammals (such as squirrels and other rodents). More recently, however, biologists have discovered a number of surprising facts about bear hibernation which has led them to reclassify it as a highly efficient hibernator.
One of the most interesting of these new discoveries is that — unlike other hibernators, which must awaken every few days to move, eat and defecate — bears can sleep for extended periods of time without waking. During this time, which can last for weeks, a bear will neither eat nor release waste. Instead, it survives on the accumulated body fat from its summer and autumn foraging; a bear might lose up to half of its body weight during hibernation. Because a bear does not defecate during hibernation, its waste is biochemically recycled in the body. Many of these nutrients and proteins are used to help rebuild bone and muscle tissue which would otherwise weaken or deteriorate from long disuse. How exactly this process works is still a mystery to biologists, but research into this unique aspect of the bear’s anatomy might one day unlock the secret to combating diseases like osteoporosis, or even help human beings travel through space by allowing us to more easily cope with extended time in zero-gravity environments.
Another deepening mystery is the process of pregnancy and birth in female bears. Depending on habitat and climate, most bear cubs are born in the late winter to early spring, around January or February. The timing of when a female gives birth is only partly related to the mating season and time of conception, however. Bears will usually mate during the midsummer months of June and July, but a fertilized egg will remain free-floating in the female’s uterus for up to six months before implanting and continuing its development (what’s known as “delayed implantation”), at which time it will grow very quickly, in about eight weeks. The mother gives birth to her cubs in the midst of her long winter hibernation, and they feed on her milk until both mother and offspring are ready to emerge in the spring. Naturally, nursing and caring for her new cubs can put a strain on a female bear’s resources, and this is one reason why the implantation and development of the egg is delayed. If a female does not gain enough weight during her autumn foraging, or is unable to find an appropriately safe and protected den in which to settle down for the winter, the fertilized egg will not implant but will instead be reabsorbed into her body. This biological process acts as a natural form of population control when resources like food or shelter are scarce, and helps to ensure that the female will live to see another year when her prospects of a successful birth might be better.
Mysteries of Winter
It is no wonder, then, that the bear is an animal sacred to this wintery time of darkness and scarcity. Though we may learn a great deal about the facts of biology and ecology, it can be easy to forget that there is a dark, wild world only partly illuminated when we try to direct the bright light of scientific inquiry its way.
The bear is, for me, not only a sacred animal, but also a goddess. Her lessons are rooted in the soil that she nourishes with the blood and discarded carcasses of her prey. They are lessons of the dreaming soul, who gives birth to inspiration and creative work in the darkness of sleep during the longest nights of winter.
She is a solitary goddess, elusive and shy, a goddess of self-sufficiency and survival, of preparation, discipline and even at times asceticism. And yet she is fierce in her caring — not only for others, but also for herself. She teaches me that it is possible to carry the strong energy of summer at its height within myself, to bring it to fruition during even the darkest, coldest days when those summer days seem little more than a memory.
And she teaches me that I do not control divine inspiration, the conception of creativity and its manifestation — that it is not a linear, mechanistic process, but a mystery that demands self-care and patience and a willing body nurtured by a sheltering earth. There are times when long months of waiting in the dark must pass before something new is ready to begin in me. Creation happens in the dark. Some things are hidden, and will remain hidden.
These are, in many ways, frightening mysteries. The bear remains a hidden and unfamiliar animal to me, a presence that teases me with glimpses — the berry-studded scat on the side of the trail, the runic claw marks carved into the living bark of a tree. Like her black bears of the mountain forests, the goddess too is wild and frightening at times. She does not come when she is called. She does not stoop to answer my prayers or coddle me when I am feeling sorry for myself. She is not, to paraphrase Lewis, a tame bear. She demands that I go out into the wilds to seek her, that I enter the wilderness and mystery of Spirit. Even then, she withdraws at the clumsiness of my approach, and there are times when I know her only as a dark absence, a nameless longing that calls me out of myself, out into the world beyond, out into the waiting unknown.
Stay tuned next week for “Biophilia: On Love and Nature“….
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