Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Standing Guard Along The Shady Trail
It had once been an incredible tree, a huge Virginia Pine that stood guard along a shady trail on the south side of the mountain. I had played under it so many times, sitting at it's base gathering the stone-like bits of layered bark of rich chocolate brown. I would look up at the emerald crown far above and swear that nothing so strong and beautiful could be anything ordinary.
"You are a king! A Knightly King", I had told it once as a child. "You can be the Knight King of my forest and guard it from the enemy". The crown had swayed against the turquoise sky as if in agreement of his new royal posting. A position it had held for so many years as I grew up. But the Knight King had not lived long enough to see my own kids play beneath it. It had fallen after the first onslaught of the pine bore beetle. I had been so sad that spring, as I looked up into the stiff golden brown crown that no longer swayed or danced in the wind. I had felt like I had lost a friend. Then the wind had come and taken it down. It's once powerful trunk now busted into sections. Now, after falling to earth, my kids came to know this tree. A huge log to climb and play on. To practice balance and flight from. Ageing slowly and beautifully into a new form of life for the forest. A home to others.
Now it was sliced open, like a huge baked yam. Carefully though, just the top skin ripped off to reveal the soft orange of the rotted pine log. The pulpy inside had been pilfered, a careful search for bugs that left it fluffy and slightly piled. Not a bug was left.
I stood over it, my sap buckets still in hand, looking for claw marks or or foot prints. There were none, but I did not need them to tell me what had done this precise surgery on the fallen tree. I had not gathered sap on this side of the mountain since yesterday afternoon and the log had been, as it had been for many years, A large piece of trunk. It lay along the shaded trail, it's thick layered bark long gone and replaced by a beautiful blanket of moss and lichen of a dozen shades of green. The sun was often dappled and dancing on the colors and tiny insects could be seen crawling quickly along it in the summer, like busy little people in a small world. Fresh bits of bright chewed wood dust dotted the log's darker skin, giving hint to the hidden universe within. A universe that had been destroyed over night by the long ebony claws and hungry tongue of a black bear. The layer of dead leaves on the ground stole any chance of bear prints. The work of this damage might be easily credited to a coon, but for the size of it and nearby, a large stone had also been carefully over turned, leaving a perfect "fit the shape" hole beside it. I glanced around the nearby forest, looking for more of what might be out of place. Nothing. Nothing but quiet trees and sun dancing on the forest floor.
I headed back the trail towards home with my full buckets of sap sloshing and wondered at the very careful, almost delicate work of the bear. Maybe it had been one of the she-bears we had seen with cubs the summer before. They had been near the front porch, eating from the blackberry patch.
We surprised them. My mother and I were driving up the hill coming home from town. Their black coats had glistened, shining and shimmering in the sun like something liquid. The small female mother had swung around from the thicket of berry brambles and green leaves, looking right at us in her surprise, then loped quickly off into the woods, a cub chasing after her. The windows had been down in the truck and yet no sound had been heard of their fast retreat. Every movement had been a motion of grace and soft flowing black that shimmered with every step. We had stopped the truck, leaning forward in our seats, our mouths open as we took in this rare and special sight. We sat like that for a few long moments as if hoping they would come back. Then we had been so excited, chattering to each other about what we had just seen and how wonderful it was. How beautiful they had been and how lucky to see a cub as well. My words had suddenly stuck in my throat, but my mother's said what I could not.
"Oh My God", she whispered." There is Gab". We had both looked over towards the house at the same time. There, on the bottom step of the porch, just feet away from where the bear had been, was my daughter. She was singing softly to herself and playing with flower petals in the sunlight. She loved to play there and to walk the small loop of a path that went down the porch steps, up against the blackberry patch and back to the porch. She would walk that loop, singing her favorite songs and picking flowers, unaware of anything else around. Just as she was on this day, unaware of the danger that had been just a short lope away. Now as I walked out of the shadowed winter woods, into the sunlight of the open yard I remembered how I had felt suddenly cold on that hot August day many months ago. I, who had never been afraid of bears, had been chilled to the very bone by the thought of my young daughter having been so close to a mother bear and her cub. That had been only the first of three more bears seen in the area just in the next week, like a flood gate had been opened. One was a huge boar bear that had tried to get into the hog pen. That bear had not been afraid at all, even when we had fired a shot over his head, he had turned toward us and began walking our way. Another shot had sent him off, but very slowly as if not bothered by us or our danger to him. He had moved on though and had not been seen again by us or neighbors. The bears had been all of different sizes, so we knew that there were at least four bears on our mountain.
Our policy for how and when the kids played in the yard changed that day. No more playing just out in the side yard by themselves, where I could watch them from the window or playing on the porch alone. An adult was always with them. But then winter had come and we had let our guard down, the kids had played alone in the yard many times. The bears were suppose to have quieted down or gone to sleep for winter, so the bear biologist I had talked to during the summer, had told me. They would be no problem in the winter months, "Unless' he had added "they are very hungry or showed unnatural behavior, such as coming towards a human instead of fleeing" If that was the case then the bears' most likely been "ruined' as he worded it, and then they could be very dangerous. Most likely cause, he had told me, was baiting by "Bear Clubs"
I set my buckets down next to the others I had carried from the mountain that morning and looked back into the woods that surrounded our yard. Splattering sunlight and shadows on the forest floor, dark straight trunks and curving trails, dotted with sap buckets. No animals moving other then small song birds flitting from oak to pine looking for food. I had recently been told of a neighbor that was baiting bear on the mountain beside us.
A sudden clawing at my leg made me look down. Gracie the dachshund leaped and clawed at my shin to say hello.
"Great! Ruined Bears, Gracie!", I told her. "Time to put the kids on lock down again" I asked? No! Just be careful and I would keep an eye out for sign and watch closely for more bear talk along the trail