The burly young man
slouched his way along the narrow path through the forest, to where the great
bear lay, at the base of a tall, broad oak, and sat down, curling up against
the bear’s shaggy fur.
The great bear grunted, and said, “What
do you want, child? Why do you seek me?”
“Because you are warm,
and you have huge arms that can hold me in a great embrace, as you once did.”
“That is true,” said the Great Bear, turning
to the short hairless creature resting against it, “but then, I could also eat
“You said you wouldn’t.”
“I could knock your
head off with one blow.”
“But you won’t.”
“I could leave you here
and never care about you again.”
“But you won’t.”
“Won’t I?” Said Great
Bear. “I am not human like you. Don’t you remember, that I am a bear?”
“And yet, you have
shown me so much kindness over the years.”
“That is true. But that
was my choice. I do not follow your rules. I hunt, and dig, and eat; I protect
my cubs even if it means my death. I am a bear. I think and I move like a bear.
Why couldn’t I just up and kill you?”
“Besides the fact that
you haven’t already?”
“I could tire of you.”
“But you haven’t. How
many years has it been? Three? Four? Five?”
The bear looked up to the sun
shining through the thick branches. “I do not count the years.”
“That is true. But you
have done so much for me, in all that time. You have helped me survive. You
have seen me go from near death to life.
You have always been there for me, even while you protest, again and
again, that you are a dangerous bear in a dangerous place. For all you say, you
have wanted to help me.”
Great Bear grunted.
“You have been here many times, yes. And you have listened to me. Each time I
give aid, it is because I enjoy having a human around who listens to me.”
“What do the rest do?”
“Bang pots and yell,
mostly. I’m not sure if they’re trying to protect themselves or their precious
food, but either way, I feel unfairly rejected.”
“You’re the one who
says you can kill me on a whim.”
“That is true. Still,
when they bring out the red stinging mist – ”
“They call it pepper
“When they bring out
the red stinging mist, they are not listening to me. You, on the other hand,
are good to have around. I think, if I were to swipe your head
“There you go again!”
Great Bear turned, and
glared at him. “Don’t interrupt. As I was saying, if I were to swipe your head
off – which I have contemplated many times – I would miss you.”
“How often do you
“I didn’t used to.
Before I met you. Strange, now that I think about it. Before I met you, I was
Great Bear, but bear is mostly what I was. Only to dig, and forage, and gather
honeycombs and stare at the rising moon – that was all I was. But now? Now I
wonder. Most animals don’t wonder. My own children don’t wonder. They just do.
You, child of the world of humans, have become a part of me. Damn you!” She reared up,
throwing the young man off her, and clawed at the trunk of the tree, her head
lost within the tangle of the lower branches. “You’ve changed me! You gave me
wonder and contemplation, and now I am not what I was!”
“Nor am I,” said the
young man, standing. “For you have changed me. You taught me to dig, and to
hunt, and to climb trees. You taught me to sleep at noon and move at dusk. You
showed me the forest. There was a time when I
I wouldn’t be able to survive in either world, human or wild – you gave me the
chance to do either, when I might have been left with nothing.”
“Did I now?” Great Bear
lowered herself to all fours. “Have we mixed, then?”
“All those who admire
each other do.”
“Flatterer,” she said.
“But you never answered my question. What is it you want?”
“Perhaps just to sit
here, with you, like we used to.”
“Before you left this
“To sit together like
we used to. But you grew old, cub. I cannot care for you much longer. Bear cubs
grow old quickly, and go out into the world. You grew old, and went out into
the world. You are no longer a cub.”
“That is true.”
“You must find your own
“As I have done.”
“You must find your own
“He’s out there
somewhere.” The young man looked down the path.
“Then what can I do for
you, now?” The bear shook her head. “What’s left?”
The young man turned back to the bear, and
said, “Just – don’t let me forget this place. Don’t let me forget the forest,
or what you did for me. I will wander among other bears, and other peoples.
Send the word to them, however you can. If ever I misbehave
around the bears, make sure they keep me in line.”
“Surely that is up to
you,” said the bear, “you being a responsible adult now.”
“I may grow complacent,
“As do we all. Do not
forget me, then. For my part, though I wander and lumber on, back into
bearhood, and I stop wondering, and only dig and hunt again – I will not forget
you. And we may meet again, when you are old, and I am grizzled. We may meet again.”
“I await the day,” he
She reared up, and
gathered him in her arms, and held him there for a while.
Then she sank down, and
lumbered off into the trees. In a few moments, she was out of sight.
A scrawny boy, barely into his growing years,
sat at the base of a tree, weeping silently.
He heard a padding and a crashing in the
underbrush, and there before him stood a great bear.
“What is this?” said the bear. “A hairless
thing with skinny limbs and bright eyes. A human. How strange.”
“What is this?” said the boy, between his
sobs. “A bear speaks. How strange.”
“What is this?” said the bear. “A human talks
back to me. I could eat you, little cub.” It bared its teeth.
“But will you?” The boy looked up, into that
The bear closed its jaws.“Perhaps not today.”
“Shall I come back tomorrow, to be eaten?” He looked down.
“Do that,” said Great
Bear, “and perhaps I will not eat you.”
“I could stay away
forever,” said the boy, looking up. “I could run and hide and never give myself
up, and then you wouldn’t be able to eat me anyway.”
“And will you?”
“I am too weary even to
look for a hiding place.”
“Well then,” said the bear, “I suppose I
shall see you here tomorrow.”
“It’s a date.”
The sinewy boy stood in front of a mighty oak tree. It had fallen in the storm, taking a smaller tree with it. Above their resting place, there was a great gap in the canopy, open to the blue sky. A few clouds
scudded overhead in the soft wind, too small to block the light of day.
As he stood there,
tears came to his eyes.
The Great Bear padded
up silently beside him, and said, “I can smell your tears, and your grief. Why
do you cry?”
“This was the largest
tree in the forest,” said the boy. “The oldest tree, maybe.”
“It was also the tree
where we met.”
“So, it’s just sentimental, you know? I saw
this tree nearly as often as I saw you. I’ve made bread from its myriad acorns,
learned to climb trees in its huge branches. And now it’s gone.”
“What do you mean, so?
It meant a lot to me!”
“Trees fall all the
time. They grow old, and they wither and die.”
“I know. But did this
one have to? I’ve known it for so long. Years.”
years. You want to hold on to things. How strange. Why hold on to things when
they can be lost so easily?”
“You protect your
“To the death. And then
they grow tall and strong and fat, and I let them go. And I forget them. They
have their own lives to lead.”
“But this tree isn’t
just gone,” said the boy. “It’s dead. I’ll never see it again.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.
You may see it again, even it's gone.”
“What do you mean?” He gestured to the tree.
“It’s fallen. No more soil, no more rain to nourish it. I can’t put it back.
“Look,” said the great
bear, and nodded to the new clearing.
Green plants were
growing there, tall and lush in the sunlight. The boy looked closer. There were
tiny sprouts surrounding the trunk.
“The tree’s death has
opened up the sky,” said the bear. “It has let sunlight in. Now green young
stems will grow here, bushes and flowers and waving grass. Deer and rabbits and
berries will grow here, and I shall feast. Death will become life, and more
life then before. Look.” She nodded to the trunk. A tiny mouse ran out of a
hole in the rotting wood. “Mice and bark beetles and termites, ants and worms
and grubs, will crawl through the wood, and turn it into dirt, over the years.
There is more life within the wood than before. Look.” She nodded to oak
seedlings that had already sprouted. “New trees will grow here, and in time
they will become mighty, and block out the light, and this place will become
barren again. But for now, it is as it must be. Forests huge and old and dark have little light within then, and so they have no bushes, few birds, little food.
I cannot go there. This place, here, has sunlight. It is like the borders of
the forest, only within the forest. I depend on such borderlands, and meadows
like these. It is all good.”
“Do you not forage in
the same places?” said Great Bear.
“I do,” said the boy.
“Such places always have more birds and more berries, now that I think about
it. I never wondered why.”
“Boundaries,” said the
bear. “Meeting places. One wave strikes another, and then there are four waves,
then eight. I wonder why I didn’t
think of that before.”
“Perhaps you are set in
your ways,” said the boy, “however wise they may be. Humans change all the
“You would do well to
set yourself solidly in good habits,” said the bear.
“I’m human,” said the
boy, “not a bear. I am more capricious, more greedy and grasping, more quick to
“Are you not a bear?
How, then, were you able to speak to me, that first time we met?”
“You spoke to me first.”
“That is true.”
The sinewy boy stood before the great river.
It was shrunk to a thin
trickle. Fish lay in the dust, stinking.
Great Bear was in the
dust, eating what fish she could, nosing them all and leaving those that were
“Aren’t you worried?”
said the boy.
“About what?” the bear
raised her head to stare at the boy.
“This drought,” said
the boy. “This famine. The trees are brown and the land is barren. Even the
humans in the city are having trouble finding food.”
“Well,” said the bear,
looking to the brown crowns of the trees, “some of my cubs will die. Perhaps I
will die. But my family will do its best to survive the lean times, as they
always have, and I do now.”
“But aren’t you angry?”
“You keep going on
about that. What good is it to be angry?” She sat in the dust, picking a fish
“Because humans did
this,” said the boy, gesturing to the trees. “They choked the sky and they
felled the trees, filled in the rivers, stopped up the rivers, and rent the
“And you think the
warming of late is their fault?”
“They did all the
things you mentioned,” said the bear, “but warming happens and cooling happens.
Without warming we’d be stuck in an ice age still – that was a terrible time,
let me tell you. In such turnings, who adapts survives, and who does not adapt,
perishes, and this has been the way of the world since the world was made.”
“But this is worse than
“Can’t you get at least
a little worried?”
“I wonder,” said the
bear, “how are your people, your humans, adapting?”
“I don’t know. Some of them try to. Some of
them refuse. Some of them make their habits worse. Some of them make their
habits worse out of spite.”
“Then they will
“But – ”
“The wind and the water
swirl on, and hear no objections. If your people do not adapt, they will
dwindle, perhaps to perish. That is final.”
“Cries of mercy are
lost in the roar of the ripping wind and the crashing wave,” said the
bear. “That is final.”
The boy raised a finger,
as if to make a point, but the bear wandered off without a word.
The strapping boy stood
before a fallen tree, in the deep snow. The sun was getting low in the winter
sky, and the deep blue shadows of the bare forest were deepening.
The boy wiped the sweat
from his brow, put his axe down, and surveyed his handiwork.
The great bear came padding through the snow,
faster, running. Roaring. She swept at the boy, and knocked him down.
“What?” he said. “What
did I do?” He started to reach for his axe, then stopped.
“I didn’t want you to
fell any trees!” said the bear, rearing up. “You’ve been told to behave, or
else you die! You oaf! What have you done?”
“I thought you wanted
the canopy opened,” said the boy.
“That doesn’t mean you
do it!” said the bear. “You’re just supposed to let it happen on its own! This
forest is not yours to destroy!”
“I wasn’t going to
destroy it,” said the boy, “I just wanted this one tree.”
“For what? Firewood?”
“I thought of building
a shelter,” said the boy. “Maybe a tiny cabin.”
“Home isn’t good
“It took me enough
effort to get back into there, and its peace is becoming increasingly unstable.”
The bear sank to the ground. “I showed
you how to dig a warm cave. Isn’t that good enough?”
“I guess I’m just
wanting windows,” said the boy. “Some luxury in this place.”
“Windows? Luxury? I
know neither of these words. I won’t let you build a cabin. What do you think
would happen if everybody built a cabin in these woods, out of wood from these
“No more woods?”
“No more woods.” She
looked at the axe. “As has happened time and again.” She turned her head, and
gazed off into the distance. “You are human. Can you not stick to the city?”
“The city? Of all the
people you could say that to, you choose the one who’s been exiled from the
city in the first place! I tolerate the city. I do not love it.”
“It is where humans do
the least damage.”
“And my home? With all
that’s happened there?”
“How long will you run
from your problem? You have come to me for aid and comfort. But I cannot solve
your greatest problem. That’s up to you.”
“Go home, cub, and
determine if your home is truly lost to you. Then come back to me.”
“But – ”
“ Go home, cub, or I will not hide this axe
for you, and I will bring down the wrath of the other bears upon you.”
“And if you fell trees
in this place again, I will kill you myself.”
“You never make good on
“Do you want to find
out? I have covered for you enough. Go.”
“I’m going,” said the boy.
He scampered through the snow.
The strapping boy stood
between the thick, wet leaves, looking out at the dusty clearing that baked in
Large yellow machines
idled, amidst the holes where stumps had been. It had been a rainy spring, but
this clearing was dry today, full of cracked earth where damp leaves had been.
It was dead.
Great Bear stood
“This is your forest,”
whispered the boy.
“No it isn’t,” said the
bear. “I just live here. Can’t say I own the place. Nobody can.”
“Well, these people are
trying to say so,” said the boy. “Why don’t you do something about it?”
Great Bear huffed, and
said, “There’s nothing I can do.” She turned, and lumbered away. Soon she was
out of sight.
“I – what?” Said the
boy. “I don’t understand you! You say you’ll kill me for cutting down one tree,
and then you just let these people chop down a whole clearing? What’s the
matter with –”
“What’s all this
racket?” said a burly man, brushing the leaves aside. “Hey!” He turned to the
work crew. “It’s that kid the police are looking for! Catch him!”
“Oh, just leave me
alone,” said the boy, and he scrambled up a tree. “You can’t cut down trees
fast enough to catch me!”
He ran to the end of a
large branch, leapt to another tree, and soon was lost to his shouting
Great Bear: Part 2 —>