Of bears and women

Walking composition

“The easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it. If you believe you have control, then you believe you’re at the top. And if you’re at the top, then people who aren’t like you . . . well, they’ve got to be somewhere lower, right? Every species does this.” —Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit

Last week a grizzly bear got into my sister’s chicken coop.

That is not the most interesting part of this story. The most interesting part is the stupid part, the part where I was pretty sure I heard a bear trying to get into the coop (I heard chicken-coop-invasion noises as I was brushing my teeth by an open window—my sister lives next door to me and we knew a bear was in the area, it having been seen down the road that morning), and my brilliant idea was that I would go out with a flashlight and chase away what was surely a small-ish black bear with noise and light. No, I do not know what I was thinking. It might have been the stupidest thing I’ve done in my life, and that’s a pretty high bar.

I got my spouse to join me, grabbed a flashlight—which was sitting right next to the several containers of bear spray we own, by the way—and headed out waving the light around and yelling.

This did not drive the bear away. What it did do was prompt an ursine nose with large teeth and an unwelcoming growl to greet me around three feet from the coop. I raced back inside, called Fish, Wildlife & Parks and then the police dispatch because FWP was of course closed because it was late, and sat there wondering how I could be so monumentally stupid as to go outside at night to confront a bear. What was I thinking?

In coming decades, this will be a funny and lesson-filled story that we will all retell, but last Thursday evening it was anything but. I would have deserved it if the bear had gone after me. Devastatingly, it ate every single chicken.

I won’t blame you if you never take anything I say seriously again. Honestly, who makes a decision that dumb? I really hope it’s the stupidest thing I ever do in my life.

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Some videos of flooding subways in New York City reminded me vividly of riding out Hurricane Sandy, or Superstorm Sandy or whatever it was, in barely upstate New York, and how many people lost homes and heat and the gas lines and our flooded road and who remembers what else as the storm made the city—and our barely-upstate town—almost unlivable for at least a couple of weeks. Unlivable because of infrastructure, of the way we’ve built our world, dependent on roads and electrical lines and extensive systems to pump out water.

The fragility of our life in New York was brought home to me before that hurricane, in a strange, wet snowstorm that killed the power and stranded me when I was alone and pregnant with a 2-year-old. Nothing about being pregnant or alone with a toddler made my life precarious in that snowstorm. It was the dependence on the roads, and power lines, to access anything that made life possible.

We keep trying to control the world around us, and it keeps reminding us that no, we’re not in control.

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After I called dispatch for the bear, two police cars showed up and one officer walked close enough to the coop to inform us that we were dealing with about a 2-year-old grizzly, and then high-tailed it back to hang around their cars waiting for FWP. Who, since they are likely understaffed and underfunded like almost every other public agency, had nobody to send out.

The bear eventually exited, after an hour and a half or more, through the hole you see in the photo above, and ran off down the road. FWP set out a trap the next day, caught the bear, and relocated all 200 pounds of her far off in the mountains. She had raided another chicken coop nearby the previous day and was clearly set on setting up house for a while.

The weekend was quickly followed by local area people having bitter fights on NextDoor over bears and coexistence—not this bear, mind, other bears in areas nearby. Which made me sad but also tired. I like having wildlife around. I’ve never been really scared of bears until now (mountain lions always gave me more of the visceral chill). I know we need to be more responsible, like picking our apples and keeping trash indoors and installing bear-proof fencing, if people like me want to insist that we need to live with the wildlife that’s native to the area. Domination versus partnership, coexistence versus suppression and commodification. The transition is hard, but it seems harder to continue on the way we have been.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bright idea to go chase a bear away with nothing but a flashlight. I think about coexistence a lot, but have clearly forgotten that it should involve some cultivation of common sense. And a reminder of what I often mention, that any notion of rights needs to come with a healthy balance of responsibilities.

Bonus photo: not all that clear, but another neighbor got a shot of the bear in our yard before FWP set up the trap

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Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:

  • This interview with professor of Russian and East European studies Kristen Ghodsee on “Red nostalgia”—Eastern European longing for the reliability of communism—on the Last Born in the Wilderness podcast was very interesting (and engaging; Ghodsee wrote a book called Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism and is a fun speaker). Having family in Russia (and since my father has run a business in Moscow since 1992), I certainly paid attention to the rocky years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but can’t say I thought deeply about the long-term psychological effects: “The countries of Eastern Europe after 1989 . . . and then after 1991, they all went through a depression in the ’90s that was longer and deeper than the Great Depression in the United States in the ’30s. . . . A lot of countries still, in 2021, do not have the standard of living that they had under communism in 1991, 30 years later.”

  • This article from Shelterwood Forest Farms on the Lost Forest Gardens of Europe sparked all kinds of little curiosity nodes in my brain. How did the author learn about cultura promiscua, or mixed cultivation agricultural systems in Italy? Or the importance of hazel trees in Mesolithic Europe? This seems like a fruitful field to explore.

  • I wish Montana Quarterly had more online offerings. John Clayton (author of the book Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands) has two essays in the most recent two issues I’d love to recommend, including one on a much-referred to 1800s mountain man diary that turned out to be a fabrication and how it informs the complexity of believing in fixed historical narratives; and another (which is online) on Dashiell Hammett’s time with the Pinkerton Detective Agency and how Butte, Montana, influenced his hard-boiled detective novels.

  • I recently started catching up on my backlog of Montana Outdoors—it’s easy to forget what a well written and edited magazine it is (thank you to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks for 50 years of excellence there). Several articles stood out as I worked my way through 2020’s issues, including one on the modern disdain for catching and eating fish (as opposed to catch-and-release), a debate I didn’t even realize existed, having eaten every (legal) fish I ever caught in my life until this July—it’s on page 28 via this link to the issu layout.

  • I’ve only watched part of this documentary, but a local physical therapist recommended a Netflix movie to me on mushrooms, titled Fantastic Fungi. Merlin Sheldrake’s book on mushrooms, Entangled Life, is still on my shelf to read, and probably will be for a long time, so this is looking to be a nice placeholder until I get to it.