What is now known by the sorrel and the roan?
By the chestnut, and the bay, and the gelding grey?
It is: Stay by the gate you are given.
Remain in your place, for your season.
O had the overfed dead but listened
To that high-fence, horse-sense, wisdom…
But,—Joanna Newsom, “Monkey and Bear”
“Did you hear that, Bear?” said monkey,
“We’ll get out of here, fair and square—
They’ve left the gate open wide!”
The bear didn’t come to our yard because it got greedy, but because I did.
One spring I decided to leave our bird feeders out longer than advised or advisable, hoping to lure rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings. When it worked, I continued to fill them as soon as they were depleted. My neighbors across the brook spoke of bears snuffling around their back porch, and once or twice I heard the echo of a late-night gunshot through our narrow hill valley, but in five years I never saw one. I’d never seen a wild bear in my life.
The birds were a balm after the long Vermont winter. Though during spring migration our woods teem with vividly colored warblers, both resident and those just passing through, it can take some patience to spot them in the foliage. To view grosbeaks and buntings requires only a cylinder or two of black oil sunflower seeds, a facing window or lawn chair, and a willingness to tempt fate that the free food won’t attract company.
Though birds were my primary goal, if I’d been honest with myself I didn’t mind risking it. My parents two hours south in Massachusetts saw bears, even photographed them in the same backyard woods where I grew up imagining I lived in a great wilderness despite never seeing an animal larger than a gray squirrel. Over the past couple of decades, a number of species have recovered their former ranges in New England, and my folks regularly see deer, bobcat, bear, even moose on occasion. A flock of thirty or more turkeys comes through daily. Whenever I used to hear an anecdote of someone from White River Junction or Northampton or Manchester watching a bear rummage through their poorly secured garbage, I felt a twinge of jealousy but for the clean-up.
So spring gave way to summer, and in the long late afternoons my daughters and I would be alerted to the living room window by a bunting announcing itself with a bright metallic chiiiip! There it would be, tentative, brilliantly blue, half-hidden in the branches of the ornamental magnolia, gathering the courage to swoop in for a seed. Until, of course, one August morning when my wife texted me on her walk to her car that the feeder pole was bent almost to the ground, the cheap plastic yellow feeder smashed: i think a bear was here. And on the other side of the house, the trash bin tipped over, flotsam strewn halfway down the long dirt driveway.
I took that as a sign to finally put away the seed four months too late, taking my lumps and picking up, piece by piece, slimed reminders of our household’s waste. As I secured the bin inside our woodshed where I should have always kept it, I eyed the woods.
In December, when we felt reasonably sure any black bear would be dozing, I replaced the yellow feeder with the same make and model and bought a suet cage too as if to make up for lost time. All winter long we kept up with the mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, and juncos. When song sparrows showed up in the first week of March, hopping through the yellow grass to pick through the fallen and overlooked, I thought again about the bear, and debated how long to keep the seed out. Would it come back, or had it just been passing through, its territory elsewhere? I thought I had time—Vermont advises taking feeders in by March 31—but was disabused of that in the form of the feeder pole once again curved down to bear mouth height, the feeder itself missing until my wife found it in the woods, not in pieces this time but still busted and empty. A few days later, the first pandemic lockdown began.
More time will shake the truth out from all the data and details, but in the spring of 2020, reports—some real, some fake—started circulating from all over the world about animals returning to cities and other places where they hadn’t appeared in years, if ever in human memory. Dolphins in canals, for example. “Nature is healing” became a meme first out of fervent hope, then as a joke. But many people picked up on the partial explanation that more wildlife was being noticed because more people were at home to notice it. I was one, watching the season unfold from my little home office looking downhill to a four-season brook, perched in a peacefulness that felt surreal when juxtaposed against the mounting grief of the world beyond, where an unseen menace lay in wait to strike anyone down who let their guard down. Who got complacent or reckless. Even those who didn’t.
On a weekend run to town for groceries, I impulsively bought another feeder when I saw a more expensive design on clearance. Red and metallic, its hinged bar would close off access to the seed when depressed by a creature as heavy as a squirrel. It lasted two nights, and then was gone. A week later, on the morning of the last dusting of snow, we realized we’d left the trash out of the woodshed when we found garbage trailing up the hill, including the soggy milk cartons and plastic containers from the lunches the elementary school had started delivering. I climbed the hill in a spot less covered in brambles and other prickly underbrush so I could pick up the trash as I came back down. At the top of the rise was the bird feeder still intact.
Migratory birds returned. Phoebes came back to the nest they’d affixed to the side of our house. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers made helices of little holes up and down the trunks of the basswoods. While working at my desk I watched a pair of chestnut-sided warblers build a nest in a patch of purple-flowered raspberry until the leaves finally obscured their little cup of woven bark strips and plant down. And I noticed species I had never seen at my house, including northern parula, blue-winged warbler, and woodcock. For a couple of weeks, a wood thrush sang in the crepuscular hours, breaking and filling and breaking my anxiety-riddled heart.
We bought a trail camera and secured it around the base of the magnolia, pointed toward the edge of the yard where a couple of years earlier my wife, Britt, had cleared a little path down to the brook with a shovel and some loose bricks now covered with moss. One night in early June, a musky smell woke her up that was so strong she had to sleep on the couch. In the morning we checked the camera, which around midnight had captured a juvenile bear ambling past our daughters’ sandbox before turning down the footpath. Black bears aren’t known to smell unless they’ve rolled in something stinky, but weeks later I woke up close to dawn and noticed a distinct funk in the air. Then I heard the tinkling of glass bottles, and in the dimmest morning light saw a large silhouette futzing with our recycling. Not wanting to wake up the whole house I hissed through my teeth and shined my phone’s impotent flashlight through the screened window. For a split second I wondered if I should go outside so I could finally, fully see a bear. Then I laid in bed until the sun rose, went outside, and cleaned up after it.
The visits were getting more frequent and the bear’s behavior more bold. As Vermont was at the time ahead of the curve in containing the COVID-19 virus, businesses started to reopen and more and more counties opened to cross-state travel. One afternoon, while at work 30 minutes to the north of my home, Britt texted me.
holy moly the bear is here
will it get [the dog]?
probably not. where is the bear?
up the hill
can you call her in?
it was in the dead tree by the girls room
VERY CLOSE TO ME
the dead fallen tree?
were you outside?
and i heard it scrounging around
i’m hoping sully has no idea
was it the same size as the one in the video?
i think so
did [the bear] notice you there?
once i started yelling and ringing the bell
but not when i was real close to it
it was VERY LARGE
i hear it again
Not many weeks after this encounter, she texted me again from the living room after the girls were asleep. The bear was knocking over the red metal feeder that I’d set up again at some point, pointlessly. We watched it from the mud room, my first time seeing a wild bear. We guess it was a male, not a yearling but not fully an adult. Maybe 2 or 3 years old.
In August we drove three-and-a-half hours to a remote pond north of Rangeley, Maine. I brought along Andrew Krivak’s novel The Bear and read it in two days. The setting is a post-apocalyptic landscape but one that has mostly healed. The young girl and her father at the beginning are the last two humans on the planet. The titular bear circles the narrative for a while before emerging as a key companion, guide, and ultimate witness of the end of humanity’s journey on the planet. I read it in a squat lawn chair at the pond’s edge where a white cedar grew horizontally from the bank for ten feet before curving up toward the sun, as if some enormous hand had tried but ultimately failed to hold it down. I thought a book like this might feel too on the nose for the current moment, might swell the pit of anxiety that seems to sit right on top of my stomach most days. But with the soundtrack of a loon there on the pond shore, blue dragonflies whizzing by, my daughters hooting and squealing, racing back and forth in the grass, I felt calm. And of course, the book made me think of the bear back home and wonder what it was up to.
In the fall we behaved ourselves, were dutiful and clean. We worked and were grateful. We continued to cultivate the patience we needed until we could see family and friends, and of course now we’d already seen the bear. Put a face to the mischief (both his and ours). The veil of green that rose around us at the start of the pandemic began gradually to dry, wilt, and drop. The birds that had stopped singing their courtship songs by midsummer began to leave in waves for points south. The warbler nest was revealed again leaf by leaf. On an unseasonably warm October evening we stayed out late, built a fire, cleaned up the garden. Then I heard crunching in the brush and dry leaves off the side of the house. Britt stood up and walked toward the source of the noice. Sully trotted out of the woods, a relief. But then Britt paused, “Wait.” There was something in the woods. It was a fraught moment before she realized it wasn’t moving.
The bear had died thirty feet from the house, slumped in a seepy patch of ground at the base of the short rise where spring meltwater collects but never fully percolates. I remembered the gunshots I’d heard at night from across the brook earlier in the week. There was no blood that I could see, but a bear’s fur is thick, and I could only see one side of him anyway. Gases escaping through his nostrils made little bubbles in the muddy water, but his body didn’t swell with breath. He was gone. We didn’t know how long he’d been there. As the game warden would later explain, it can take a while for a dead bear to smell strongly enough to attract scavengers—again, thick fur.
It took me longer than it should have to realize the part I played in his death. Like the unmasked fellow shoppers at the grocery store on the weekend, my behavior posed less potential risk to myself than it did to others. There’s a bear in the woods but you might glimpse a tropically blue bird. There’s a pandemic going down but you can’t—due either to the demands of your job or habit or stubbornness—modify your routines to avoid unnecessary danger. For a week until the warden came to collect his body, I visited the bear several times a day. The bear looked small, much smaller than he’d seemed months earlier pawing for seed, if it was the same bear. I’d always wanted to see a bear and now here one was that I could see any time. I could touch him, just stoop down and run my hand across his oily coat if I wanted. Instead, I held back. Wishes are often granted in terrible ways.