(written after the Horrorfest known as the evening news convinced me to take a walk through the woods)
I saw it from atop a small hill where the woods thinned and the river hooked into a lazy L. Just standing there, staring out over the water as if pondering where it had all come from and where it was all going.
It’s presence was not shocking but still unexpected. They’re hard to spot this time of year. The colder months drive them into their dens to sleep and grow fat, turning the forests a bit safer in their absence. There’s less need to cast a backward glance for fear of what may be lurking. And glance you should. The woods are no place to be lost in thought when they’re about. Those creatures are sneaky for their size. Quick. Not there one moment but on you the next, tearing into your flesh without even the courtesy of a “May I?”
I’d seen wild animals in the woods before. Both the tiny ones that cause no harm and the big ones who will gladly do so. This one was big. Bigger than most. It’s coat was heavy and brown and it’s paws left deep marks in the soggy dirt. Even from that distance, it was intimidating. A pang of fear shuddered through me. If it decided to look away from the river and toward me, that small moment of decision would be crucial. Staying put would be a risk. Running would be worse. Everyone knew that running often led to chasing and chasing often led to being caught.
But in the end I decided to stay. Partly because I was afraid of that chase, but mostly because I thought I was hidden well enough. Watching a beast—and make no mistake, this was a beast—is an enthralling experience. We’re all curious creatures, eager to glimpse into the unknown as long as the chances of it glancing back are slim.
It turned and ambled down the riverbank, pausing to kick over a rock and study the underside. The brush on the opposite side of the bank snapped. The sound jerked it’s head with equal parts readiness and apprehension. It remained still for a few moments, eyes narrowed, and then resumed its walk down the riverbank toward the trail.
I followed at a distance, reminding myself of the damage they’ve been known to cause. It’s been said by some they were misunderstood creatures, that far from brutes they had a capacity for higher thinking and deeper emotion. But I’d never seen it. My experience taught me otherwise.
I’d seen the way they mark their territory, thrashing and growling and destroying. They will tolerate one another, but not for long; I’d seen them fight, seen them argue and threaten, and it’s not for the squeamish. They bellow and growl and bristle. They kill.
I didn’t know if a wild animal was inherent good or naturally evil, but I knew you could judge them the same way you could judge anything else, and that was by what you see them do rather than what you thought they were capable of doing.
I’d seen others at ease with being close in proximity to them, thinking that being “at peace” or “one with” would somehow bring a crude sense of enlightenment. Not me. I knew better. You could break an animal. You could train it and teach it and love it. But you could not tame it. They were wild, all of them. And I could never be persuaded to believe anything other than the fact that beneath their beauty and grace lay a heart that thumped to only the basest of instincts.
I kept its back to me as we travelled, by the meandering river and onto the meandering trail to the gravel road beyond. I stopped there, and it was in the stillness of the shadows that I became aware of why I had been watching it all that time. Not to observe or study or fulfill any lingering curiosity, but just to make sure it was leaving. Just to see it go.
Because the humans have made a mess of their own world, and we bears don’t want them making a mess of ours.