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Unexpected Lessons from a Black Bear

Published:
December 15, 2023
January 30, 2023
Read this reflective narrative about a black bear encounter.|Read this reflective narrative about a black bear encounter.

Maureen is used to seeing the occasional bear out her window. Living in New England, they’re a part of the environment. However, a close encounter with a black bear caused her to face her own vulnerability. Here’s how she discovered she’s better off learning from them than fearing them.

Over the years, I’ve spied out my back window various black bears in the southern New England wetlands, some with red tags in their inner ears. If the bear happened to then glide along my deck and front windows, the thrill was incredible: the tremendous size, curvature of the back, fur so black and shiny that it gleamed silver. That bear is just so beautiful, I thought, maybe even a sign of good luck, something magical brewing in my life.

That mindset abruptly changed when I encountered a black bear face-to-face for the very first time. It was during the thick of the pandemic, and I was out strolling in the spring sunshine. I was heading down to the pond of my condominium complex, hoping the blue heron had returned. As I came around the corner in the wooded area, a black bear was standing up with its front paws on a thick tree trunk, thirty yards away. I had never been this close to one without the protective walls and locked doors of my house. Terror flooded my system and my entire body pounded with fear. Without thinking, I turned back, and ran — faster than I ever had before. It took fifteen minutes to get home, with my neck craned the entire time, occasionally jogging backwards, expecting to see that dark shape emerge from behind the garages, heading toward me.      

When I rushed into my house, winded, the first thing I did was Google “black bears” — and laughed. While I knew that black bears are rarely aggressive toward people, I had still panicked, and did the exact wrong thing: “NEVER run from a bear: running may trigger a chase response,” Google told me.

I had literally run away from my fear, possibly making it worse. After that run-in, with the bears moving about more freely than ever since the neighborhood became quieted by the pandemic, I didn’t love them at all anymore. I feared them.

I view myself as a fairly intense nature lover. My spirituality is deepened and strengthened by daily walks in the woods, and I never fail to find metaphors that sustain and nourish me. Trees, brooks, clouds — all of it brings me closer to the spirit of God. When I spy deer families gently nibbling grasses, or the heron fishing with one leg bent, or the turtles crowding on a wet, fallen log, I am faced with their precious vulnerability. I slow down, become still, and peacefully observe their essence. 

But the bears tapped into my vulnerability. Though in subsequent encounters with those sudden, shaggy shapes, I observed that a bear doesn’t even turn its head when it comes across a human — they nonetheless fully rattled me. I tried to predict their paths, and their patterns, to no avail. What I realized is that the bears had begun to represent my complete and absolute powerlessness. I am, in fact, unable to control most things. And, even in spite of my faith, this is a truth I hate being reminded of most. 

Again, thankfully, a gallows humor underlies the situation. I learned that in all the towns in my entire state, mine has the most bears. At last count, 48. So this creates an abundant opportunity to face the truth that I am not the one in charge; God is. Every day, wondering how my walk will go, I know that I’ll enjoy it more if I find acceptance. Like the bears, unexpected events will make an appearance. I cannot outmaneuver scary things, or avoid them. This is life, and I struggle with it. 

But aren’t most beautiful and wonderful things also unplanned and unexpected? Getting to a place of calm with this perpetual lesson of powerlessness has been slow, but I’ve made progress. In my most recent bear crossing, I recognized the largest shape, but there were more: besides the mother, there were also three cubs. I pulled over to the shoulder to watch them nose through the fallen leaves and dry pine needles, looking for food. 

It was easier to admire their beauty when I was surrounded by the protection of my car. But I also had never seen a whole family — coming upon this sight felt like a gift. No longer wrapped up in my fear, I felt a fresh appreciation for their presence as they moved, a hungry unit of four. The cubs hid behind tree trunks and surprised one another in play. A rusty truck whizzed by with a loud muffler, and two of the cubs, alarmed by the noise, began to climb up a wide tree. Seeing their confused fear, my heart stirred. As the sound faded, the cubs relaxed and scampered over the leaf piles once again. The mother, her back turned, had remained rooted through it all.

I felt a connection stir. I’m a mother, too. My children, though grown, get scared. Sometimes I know what challenges they are dealing with, many times I don’t. But I try to be steady for them, like this mother. She walked, exquisitely shiny in the sun, setting out in a new direction toward the empty parking lot. I noticed for the first time how a bear’s front paws bend with the long claws underneath, curving under as they walk, but the back legs land fully on the ground. I felt that magic return. She didn’t look behind to see if her brood was there. One round little cub bounded eagerly after her. Soon all three were in motion and alongside her again, foraging, readying for winter.

I’ll probably never be fine with being near black bears without the security of my car or house, but I’m learning to be more open to the possibilities of life’s surprises. There was something about this scenario, in beholding the care and guidance of the bear mother, that lessened my fear, and reignited my love. I see the beauty in it, how this crisscrossing occurred, like so many things, beyond anything I planned. I never thought I would get this perspective, but I’m grateful (most of the time) that I live in this town. The black bears roam and wander, seek and search, and have taught me more about life than any other creatures in these woods. Can I keep welcoming their unexpected lessons?

Creators:
Maureen O’Brien
Published:
December 15, 2023
January 30, 2023
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