Reflections on Spirit

Note 5: Sierra Blanca (1953). 1/30/99

This is a story told by Bear:

I saw the old man standing at the center of a ring of Douglas fir or lodge pole pine saplings that had sprouted in a nearly perfect circle around the mother-tree. She was no longer there because the wind had knocked her down after the lightening strike had weakened her hold on the earth. If you looked carefully at the ground where the old man was standing you could still make out the circle of her trunk where it had not completely vanished back into the soil that had given her life. The old man stared down the line of her fall, at the small scattered pieces of wood and bark that still held the power to remind you of her living majesty and dominance over the children who had sprung up around her, as if he expected something to materialize out of the fog and mist that obscured the upper reaches of the mountain where I had always chosen to live my life. He did not seem to be aware of my presence along the bottom of the ravine that broke open from a slightly higher elevation onto the shelf of relatively level ground where the tree had fallen so many years before. I should not have expected otherwise since he spends most of his time, or at least most of the time I have been around him, in a kind of dream-state of contemplation which seems to overshadow what the rest of us cannot find a way to ignore.

I was as silent as a stone and almost as motionless. I held back in the quiet cover of the brush that lined the ravine, not ready yet to confront the old man. Even though he had never caused me any actual harm in all the time I had known him, it was nevertheless difficult for me, being the solitary kind of creature that I was, to approach any other living spirit without first steeling myself against the unwelcome sensations that such encounters always bring (as the philosopher once said, "all contact is bad contact except with one's equals"). My dealings with the old man in the past, as well as his previous association with other members of my tribe over the years, had never brought any positive benefit to me or to anyone I had ever met but our willingness to help him with his projects had brought us considerable prestige in general among the nations of men who had come to honored our spirit.

Being forced to interact with human beings was my greatest fear, especially at this particular time in my life because I was drawing near to the point when I would give birth to my newest set of cubs. While the old man himself was not exactly human in the strictest sense of the word, being more spirit than flesh as it were, he was almost always involved in some quest or another that invariably brought him around to interacting with people. I should be more precise in expressing my fears and concerns: people who honor our spirit, the people of the land of the sacred mountain, were for the most part dependable, if not predictable, when it came to confrontations with animals. like myself, who still occupied a place in the natural world. The ones that struck fear and loathing into my heart were the numberless others who had come to our country hundreds of years before with an irrepressible mission, so it seemed, to eradicate and destroy every living thing on the face of the earth. These pale-skinned demons had managed to push us higher and higher up the slopes of the mountain, and deeper and deeper into the forest than we were willing to go by the simple act of senselessly murdering our kind whenever they caught sight of us. The old man had sent word by his usual means that he needed my help with a plan the elders of his kind had set in motion several years before to redeem the catastrophe that had overtaken our world when the whiteman came into our country.

I was skeptical that anything he did to reverse the course of events would provide any positive benefit to any of us. It was, after all, true that the failure of his tribe in the beginning to deal adequately with the threat of the invasion was largely responsible for the circumstances now confronting us and the rest of the world. As much as I wanted to turn my back on his self-proclaimed need for my assistance, the thought of being able again to roam where I wanted without the fear of making even the slightest misstep along the lower reaches of the mountains, those wonderfully rich and fertile grounds that had been ours for countless generations in the past, those places of almost mystical power and hope and longing, the ones we had not seen for five hundred years because to walk there was the same as dying alone in the hell of the whiteman's hunt, that simple desire was enough to counteract the fear the old man's summons had generated in my heart. I watched him for another hour of the sun's journey across the sky, trying in my own mind to comprehend what invisible shapes and figures he could see in the mist along the shattered trunk of the mother-tree. I saw nothing through his mind's eye.

The old man's ability to wall off his inner space, like he lived in a hole in a rock without windows or doors, even to the benign gaze of one like me who meant him no harm, no ill-will whatsoever, but only sought the reassurance that he directed no dangerous intent back to me either, was the single most disquieting aspect of his presence on the mountain. He spent a goodly amount of his time elsewhere, in the desert along the river so I've been told, so we did not suffer his darkness very often. To most of my kind the knack, and surely it was an acquired ability and not an outright gift we had from the beginning, of seeing through the outer face of someone or something not remotely similar to us, the ability to judge before any act had occurred to establish the conditions under which relations with the alien, the strange, the unfamiliar were most likely to unfold, was so treasured and necessary to our survival that encountering someone or something able to close off our knowing was deeply disturbing and frightful.

The first time I encountered the old man, and he seems to have had the ability to conceal his true nature and intent for as long as he has existed, I could not decide whether to run away from him or stand and fight against the terror he seemed to bring along in his willingness to scatter his inner thoughts and motives into patterns and forms that could not be read, seen, or comprehended by anyone looking in at them from the outside. I had discussed this aspect of his being with the others of my kind, whenever I had chanced upon them in my wanderings, and everyone was equally shocked by his ability to wall off his inside from the rest of the world. I was so frightened that first time by the failure of my own ability to see him that I did nothing at all but gape at him like an idiot. Worse even than that, he seemed to enjoy my profound shock and terror. He even laughed at my fear of his opacity.

He told me then, as I was sure he intended to do again now, that he wanted me to seek out a particular member of the tribe of people living on the mountain and bring him or her into the clan of the mountain bear. He had never sought me out for that task before that terrible first time and I was naturally honored, pleased, and not in the least bit anxious about being given that opportunity to perform the ritual for one of our human friends. Even one such as me begins life as a fool.

The confrontation with the young woman he had sent me to find turned out to be disastrous. Through no fault of my own, and in spite of everything I attempted to do, she became so frightened and so estranged from her true self that she ran wildly to the river, which was rain-swollen from the spring storms and, trying to cross at just the wrong place along the bank to escape from me, she slipped from the crossing stones and fell into the strongest path of the current. She never came up to the air again.

The old man said he did not blame me for the tragedy. I can't tell you how relieved I was to be told by him that I had done nothing wrong, especially in light of the fact that I never would have approached her in the first place if he had not insisted that I do so. His "not your fault" meant nothing to me since I had already reached that conclusion long before he got around to telling me so. Before she fell from the stones I could see her inner face. I knew she thought I would mark her with a terrible scar, leaving her too damaged to be desirable in the eyes of the others of her tribe. She ran from me to escape the terrible loneliness she believed was bound to afflict her after our encounter. While things like that have happened in the past to others sought by the mountain bear, I have never been responsible for inflicting such pain on any human being, nor would I ever be likely to do so. Many of the stories of her tribe, which I have had some small part in telling, tend to over-emphasize that fate among far too many of those chosen by one of us. People, strangely, tell more than needs to be said and say things that are not true to make a story seem more significant than it actually is, as if being chosen by one of us needed a terrible detail or two to increase the value of the ritual itself. We try not to be offended too much by human habits.

Just as I was beginning to think the time had come to make my arrival known to the old man, or to turn back along the ravine to seek a deeper solitude than I then enjoyed, he turned toward my shelter and called out my name. He had probably known my presence from the minute of my first hesitation to approach his circle of trees. "Thinking of going back the way you came?" he asked with one of his irritating smiles, as I emerged from the brush. He always makes you aware of the difference between his knowing and your own. "I have other things to think about, other thing to do, aside from whatever it is you called me for," I replied, trying not to sound more petulant than I felt. "Worried about your new brood?" he said, as if certain of his statement of fact. "Only because you know about them," I replied as I drew my bulk through a space between two trees and entered his circle. I sat quietly in front of him staring directly into his cold, hard, obsidian eyes. Doing that was like looking into death.

No one knew exactly what the old man was. Clearly he had connections to the ancestral spirits that ruled the land. He seemed, however, to be older than they were. How that was possible no one could imagine. Some thought he was a creator spirit of some sort, that he had been involved in the very creation of the world. Why he would remain fixed to the earth he had created was a question none of us could solve. Some speculated that he had come back from the other world in order to save his creation from the destruction wrought by the emergence of the whiteman in our country. That made no sense, of course. If the old man had created the world, then he was also responsible for the whiteman and had created the very agent that was now destroying the earth. What sense does that make. If he were actually concerned about the situation and was powerful enough to create, then why did he hesitate to remove the problem from the land. The whiteman could be swept away in the blink of an eye if the power that made them so desired. The old man, apparently, had other plans, ones that did not make sense to any of us who became involved with them.

"I have something important for you to do," he said. "You always do," I replied. "Really important this time," he insisted, as if my response had called his very existence into question. I waited for him to continue. "There is someone I want you to mark for the clan. He will be on the sacred mountain three months from now. You already know the place," he said, and went on rapidly telling me how he expected me to return to the river, a place I had not been, and did not intend to revisit under any circumstances, since the day I had driven the young woman to her death in the swirling waters of the spring flood so many years before. I told him no, that I would not be going back that way for any reason. He insisted. He pleaded at first and then began to threaten me with every kind of terrible consequence he could imagine. He told me he would drive me from the very mountain itself if I did not agree to do what he asked. I had no doubt that he would make good on his promise, that he had the will and the power to do whatever he wanted.

There were so many reasons for me to refuse. My cubs would be born before his target reached the mountain (from where he did not say). True, they would be old enough by then to cause me only minor problems if everything went well along the way to doing what the old man asked but I did not want them to start their lives anywhere near a place that had caused me so much pain. The saddleback where the river had its origin was difficult terrain. Getting there from where we were made it necessary to cross areas where everything was steep up and down hillsides covered with loose gravel and stones the size of small caves. There were breaks in the mountain's side that fell off into deep ravines and gullies all along the path we would have to take. We would have to make our way above the timberline on the sacred mountain into the kind of places no one with any sense would want to venture without a life and death compulsion. I could not believe the old man expected me to travel in such places with cubs too young to fend for themselves. I told him he was crazy to expect my help.

He was totally unmoved by my pleadings and after hours of argument, interspersed with long minutes of hostile silence, I finally gave in to his anger and threats. He then told me what he wanted me to do. I could not believe what he said. There was a young child, too young if you ask me to be involved with anything like having to confront a full grown bear while wandering lost and alone in the forest, especially when you consider the fact that this child was a lost member of a northern tribe and had lived his entire life in a city. He wanted me to mark such a child for the clan. "To what purpose?" I asked as soon as I had recovered enough from my outrage, and indeed a resurgence of the terror I had inspired in another one of the old man's projects in virtually the same place along the same river. "It is absolutely necessary," he said. "Not just necessary but imperative that the child be brought into contact with his true origin in the clan. Years and years of planning will be wasted if the opportunity slips away because of a few uncomfortable feelings you might still harbor over an accident that was not even your fault. You must do as I ask. He will never return to the mountain again in time and if you fail to meet him now there will never be another chance," he said vehemently. "A chance for what, pray tell. A chance for me to frighten another child to death?" "Not at all. You worry too much. All you need to do is show yourself to the child from a distance. Nothing more."

After the long journey to the other side of the mountain from my home territory, after the birth of the two cubs that now rolled and batted at each other a few feet from where I rested in the shade of a stand of hemlock and aspen, I found a suitable place along a game-trail that followed the river for several miles down into the lower elevations of the valley the river had carved out of the stone of the mountain's face. I could see nearly to the desert that encircled the southern and eastern sides of the range where the sacred peak had always stood. According to the old man, the child would be coming down the trail around mid-morning and I had decided to position myself in a thick clump of low shrubbery facing in the opposite direction from which he would be coming. I thought it would be best for him to see my back and not have to look directly into my eyes, into my face, as he approached. I believed that would ease the terror somewhat that he was bound to experience in confronting a creature such as I knew myself to be. The cubs would be safely on the other side of the shrubs and carefully out of sight. I expected the event to take no more than a few seconds and then we could be on our way back to our regular ground.

As soon as I heard the child making his way along the trail, I took my cubs to the other side of the thicket, circled back to the opposite side, crawled into an opening I had found that allowed me to approach to within a foot or two of where the cubs were waiting, and began to dig apart a rotted log that concealed a fair supply of grubs for the children to eat. That would occupy them, and keep them close, while I attended to the old man's business of the day.

Life, unfortunately, is unpredictable, filled with contingency, and no matter how carefully a plan is laid, a path defined, any number of unforeseen and unforeseeable events and circumstances can arise that make the best of plans fail at a crucial moment. The child was moving down the trail more quickly and less cautiously than I anticipated. He had no skill at all for dealing with the ordinary kinds of danger that exist in a forest. He was lost already and did not know where he was relative to the other people with whom he had come to the mountain. He was already frightened at being alone. My second mistake, after failing to anticipate his state of near panic, was that I had not taken the direction of the wind into account when I picked the location for the confrontation. Humans, of course, are always careful when they hunt to approach their prey with the wind in their face. The child was not hunting, did not know that rule anyway, and was traveling with the wind at his back. That was a problem for me because my cubs caught his human scent well before he was visible to them along the trail.

My little ones smelled the child's fear and became frightened themselves. By the time I was able to pull myself back and out of the thicket the child had walked straight up my back. He was standing less that two feet away from me and from the first sight I had of his face, his eyes, I could tell he had seen the cubs as they broke from the other side of the thicket and ran down the trail away from the human. As I turned to face him squarely, the back of my left paw struck him on the side of his head and knocked him to the ground. To this day I am not sure whether I meant to strike out at him or not. He was so pitiful, so small, so white-faced with terror that I wondered if the old man had made a mistake about who his grandparents might have been. Part of me wanted to protect my cubs from the human. He was not capable of hurting them but the fact that he had seen them at all put them in as much danger as they could possibly encounter. Or so it seemed to me at the time. In that split second when I realized he had seen them I lost all power to stop the blow. My own fear for their safety swallowed me up as I struck the side of his head.

He was unconscious but not dead. I could see his breath rising and falling in his chest. The things he wore on his face, across his eyes, were broken. There was a small trickle of blood above his left eye on the side that had taken the force of my paw. The cut was probably caused by the broken pieces of his eye-things as they flew from his face. There was nothing on the back of my paw that could have cut his skin and I was sure my claws had not touched him at all. I was unsure what to do at that point. Staying there to watch over him was probably too dangerous, both for me and for my cubs. The other people with the child would pursue me to the ends of the earth if they knew I had hurt him. They probably had guns too. I did the only thing I could do. I left him there beside the trail and followed the path my children had taken when they smelled the fear of the lost child.

The rest of this story is too painful for words, too horrible for memory to contain. Before I could catch up with my cubs, they were attacked and slaughtered by a solitary male who had come upon them a few hundred yards down the trail from where the whitechild found his way into the clan of the mountain bear. I never saw the old man again. I never go back in my mind to the sound the mountain river makes when the storms of spring force its water from the banks to wash away the blood that helping him has always cost. I never go back there in my mind at all.

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