I just came back from a walk in our woods, and for the first time, I have seen a bear.
Oh, I've seen cubs before, even before we moved out of downtown. As woods have grown up around the small cities in Western Massachusetts, bears have found places to live that are awkwardly close to humans; about a year ago, for instance, the wildlife police had to remove a mother bear with cubs who had made a den in a drainage culvert in the heart of a thickly settled neighborhood. We even had a treed bear in a sidewalk oak tree just off Main Street a few years back. That took some pretty skillful work to remove the bear cub without killing him.
And it's well known that only a fool leaves a bird feeder in place once the snow starts to melt. Bears love bird feeders. And garbage, so it's a good idea to plan accordingly, especially if you have dogs or small children.
All that is common sense. So, yeah, I've seen bears before, and I've known about bears for years.
But it's not the same.
I was out hiking the trails behind our house, admiring the views just starting to emerge where the leaves are thinning to a scrim of green and gold at the crest of the ridge, and thinking to myself, "I know there are bears in these woods. I wonder why I have never seen one?"
I've seen so many deer that I've almost become blase about it. (Almost. There is something so regal about a deer, particularly with antlers, that I can't imagine ever taking them truly for granted.) I see turkey, wild geese, red-tailed hawks, red squirrels... all kinds of critters. But not--until today--a bear.
I'd reached the place at the top of a steep scramble through dense hemlock trees--I was meditating on the place of hemlocks and chestnuts in New England forests, past and future, and wondering how the few deciduous trees would respond if woolly adelgids remove the hemlocks from slopes like the one I was on--when I turned onto a sunny bit of path, glanced up, and saw the bear. Fully grown, large, alone. A male?
I had been singing, quietly, as I walked. When I saw the bear, I froze for an instant, the hairs on the back of my neck riffling in the breeze... and then raised my voice a bit louder in song.
(It was a nicely appropriate song. One of my own, with very few words, in a minor key but with an upbeat tempo, about turning the Wheel of the Year. Suitable to the occasion of encountering a bear feasting in preparation for winter, I thought.)
The bear, unconcerned, continued on his way upslope, into a beautiful stretch of white pines and oaks behind barbed wire, posted against trespassers. Bears, of course, pay no attention to such signs.
I admired the smoothness of his walk, the beauty of his shape, for just a moment more, then bowed, called out a blessing, and turned back and returned along the same trail I had been following.
I'm not a very theological Pagan. I take my gods and my spirits as I find them, and they do not necessarily have a place in any historical pantheon. There is the Dark Lady of Vernal Pools, for instance, whom I sometimes sense at the bottoms of muddy spring puddles and streams. There is the spirit of deer and forest and time, whom I call by the name Herne, though that is almost certainly not his name. There's Rosie, the Lady who spins at the root of a great tree in a vast cavern of dreams...
And there are the elder brothers and sisters, the deer, the oaks... the bears.
All things, in their right places, are filled with magic, with numen. And today, I got to see my elder brother, the bear, in his home. It was not surprising.
But it was very, very good.