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Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2

Essay

 

Judith Freeman

The Tunnel Rock Diary

Judith Freeman is the author of three novels The Chinchilla Farm (Norton, 1989), Set for Life (Norton, 1991), A Desert of Pure Feeling (Pantheon, 1996), and a collection of short stories. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction in 1997.

 

Wednesday, June 22,1994. On our walk to Malm Gulch with the dogs, we spotted two blue herons in flight, heading up river. The sky behind Bald Mountain, where the sun had just set, turned pink, then coral, salmon, rust, and finally took on the lurid tones of flame, as if the clouds were lit by fire. It was both ominous and dramatic and I wondered, why such a vivid, almost violently-colored, sunset?

The alfalfa is beginning to bud; the first crop will be cut next week-a little earlier than usual.

Both the baby owls over in the rock above the swimming hole and the baby ravens in the elm out in the yard have learned to fly now and can be seen careening awkwardly above the fields and river. The adult ravens scold me every time I step outside, as if to say, How dare you enter our territory!

The wind came up and was blowing hard by the time we reached the mouth of the gulch. It began to rain, then stopped as suddenly as it started. Sitting under the cottonwoods, with the wind blowing furiously from the southwest, I looked up to see how the leaves were swept to one side, revealing their silvery undercolor, pressed into clusters, like quivering orbs of cotton.

I spotted a mustang up near Lone Pine this week, a white stallion who surprised me as I crested a ridge on my horse and saw him standing on a hillside not far away. He stared at me for a while, I stared at him, and then he trotted off, his neck arched proudly and his tail flowing in the wind.

August 15. In the evening I sat with the dogs on the porch, looking out over the valley filled with smoke-an unholy light, the result of a forest fire that's been burning for days near McCall. This explains the vivid sunsets. There's another fire near Loon Creek up the Yankee Fork. It can't help that the winds have been gusting all day. Fires are burning everywhere in the West, from Washington to New Mexico. Drought. Fires. Storms that pass through, setting off fires with lightening strikes and moving on without leaving any rain. Some days the thunder rolls through the hills, echoing and resounding in the canyons, so that it seems the hills themselves are emitting long, low growls.

September 4. We were awakened this morning at quarter to six by the sound of something crashing out on the back porch. Tony got up and went into my study to look out the window and when he turned on the outside light he saw a bear looking back at him, only a few feet away. He cried, There's a bear on the porch! and I quickly got up and ran to the window. The bear was standing next to the barbecue, on which we'd cooked salmon the night before. He'd obviously been attracted by the lingering smell of fish, He didn't run away, but stood there gazing at us for a few moments, then slowly headed down the steps. When he reached the garden path, he stopped and looked back at us over his shoulder. Frieda, our dog, let out the lowest growl and the hair rose on her back, and the bear disappeared into the darkness. Later, when I checked the yard, I found a pile of crimson scat. The compost heap had been dug up and old vegetable peelings were scattered everywhere.

The presence of a bear nearby has spooked the horses. They wouldn't come into the corral for their morning oats when I called them, but stood huddled together in the field, their flanks pressed close and their ears pricked forward. At the slightest noise or movement, they'd take off running, then stop and bunch up again, wary and alert.

When we called our neighbors, Don and Polly, to tell them about the bear and warn them to be on the lookout, Polly said she'd have to bear proof her freezer, which is full of meat and sits outside in the carport. Bears, whose sense of smell is extraordinary, have been known to sniff out food even in locked freezers and pry them open.

Polly also said she discovered a dead beaver on the banks of the canal between their place and ours. She thinks it had been intentionally killed by the rancher up river to keep it from damming the canal that he relies on for irrigation. We were upset by the news. We've enjoyed watching the beavers here; they're such beautiful creatures and much larger than one imagines. There was no need to kill the beaver: he could have been trapped and relocated. Another example of the unfeeling attitude toward animals so common in some parts of this country.

Later Polly called to say the bear had been seen over at Dick Settle's place, at the mouth of Malm Gulch. He raided their garbage in the night. Last seen, he was headed up river, moving toward Bay Horse Canyon.

I can't help but feel sorry for the bears, There's no berry crop to speak of this year due to drought and the fires burning in the back country. They must be terribly hungry to risk coming down out of the hills in search of food. There are reports of bear sightings all up and down the river.

Sept. 10. The bear ate the dead beaver. The carcass has disappeared. It was so large, so bulky, it seems certain that the bear carried it away since we couldn:t find any trace of it. Then this afternoon, when Tony was down at the river fishing, he came upon the skeleton of the beaver lying among the rocks, It was picked dean save for a single furry paw left intact. We felt happy that at least the beaver had not gone to waste but provided a mucb needed meal for the hungry bear. I found more scat down by the barn this morning. The horses are still nervous. The bear must still be very nearby. We now lock the kitchen door at night instead of just closing the screen door as we usually do.

Hot winds have been blowing every afternoon. Yet the garden flourishes. I'm picking corn to freeze and gathering the last of the squash, beans, peas. New fires are burning. The smoke is very thick in the valley tonight. Yesterday, while sprinkling the garden, I watched the goldfinches flitting among the sunflowers, which have grown to startling heights. Polly says I could take a prize for the tallest sunflowers in the county.

Sept, 23. What a strange and sad experience with the bears over the last ten days. The night after Tony discovered the beaver's skeleton, the bear returned to our porch. This time, when we heard a noise and turned on the light, we discovered the bear had brought her cub. Our bear was not a he but a she. The cub was sitting up on the railing and when it saw us it scurried up a little elm next to the porch, and the sow soon followed. Not wishing to frighten them further, we turned off the light and returned to bed.

For the next four or five nights we didn't see the bears, but noticed that the local Fish and Game Department had set out traps down by the river in an effort to catch them. Because the traps remained empty, we thought perhaps the sow and her cub had moved on. But one morning, when I let the dogs out early and heard them barking, I went to investigate and walked out into the yard just as the cub, pursued by the dogs, raced by and shimmied up a tree. I called the dogs into the house and waited, thinking the sow must be somewhere nearby. When she didn't show up, I called the Fish and Game officer, who told us the sow had been killed on the highway two nights earlier. She had been hit by a truck in front of Howard Cutler's ranch. The driver had reported seeing a little cub, standing near its dead mother, before it ran off into the darkness.

So the cub sitting in the tree in our front yard was an orphan now. Mark, the Fish and Game officer, asked if he could bring a trap out and set it up in the yard with the hope of catching the cub, and we agreed.

The trap was attached to a portable trailer, a large metal barrel on wheels with heavy wire mesh at either end. Inside, hanging from a hook, was the bait, a hunk of fresh meat. When, and if, the bear grabbed for the meat, it activated a spring and the door snapped shut, trapping the bear inside. Mark prepared the trap and then left, telling us to call him if the cub took the bait.

After he'd gone, we settled down to waiting. We went about our morning chores, all the while watching the cub through the window. I had very n-dxed feelings. Mark, when he'd seen the cub, thought it was so small and undernourished it was unlikely it could be released in the wild and survive the coming winter. Most likely it would have to go to a zoo where it would spend the rest of its life. This seemed an unhappy prospect to me, but what was the alternative? If it wasn't trapped, it would most likely die of starvation or be killed on the road like its mother.

We were thinking about these unhappy scenarios when suddenly we saw the cub begin to climb down from the tree, slowly and very warily. For a long while he stood and relieved himself in the long grass, with the trap only a few yards away. He sniffed the air, and smelling the meat began to move toward it. But we could sense the conflicting urges in him-the hunger and the fear-that caused him to advance and then retreat in uncertainty. Yet clearly he was starving and, in the end, the smell of the meat won out: eventually he entered the cage, grabbed for the meat, and the heavy metal door clanged shut. We called Mark with the news.

The cub stayed in our yard that entire day while Mark made calls to zoos tying to find him a home. But zoos are fall of bears and nobody wanted a young, undernourished cub. Mark kept us informed of his efforts and insisted he'd keep trying but the situation was beginning to look grim.

Meanwhile, we spent a lot of time with the little cub during that long day of waiting. Every now and then we'd go out into the yard and sit quietly by the cage. At first he hissed at us and smacked his jaws in fear. He no longer was interested in the meat and sat listless in a comer of the cage. But then we picked some crab apples from a nearby tree and offered them to him, pushing them through the wire mesh of the cage, and gradually he came to take them from us, curling his little tongue around the crab apples, almost taking them from our hand. And in time he seemed to relax. I talked to him in a low voice, and even sang him a few little songs to soothe him. In some way, and in a fashion that is difficult to explain, I began to feel a very deep connection with that little bear.

The sun was setting by the time we finally got a call from Mark saying he'd found a home for the cub. A man near Boise was willing to take him and feed him over the winter. In fact, Mark explained, the man was taking four orphaned cubs --- ours and three others, including a set of twins whose mother had been shot by a rancher. The man had a large bam and the cubs could be kept there and fed through a trap door with a minimum of contact with humans, and the hope was they could be released into the wild in the spring.

The last glimpse we had of the cub was of him looking back at us through the wire mesh as his cage was towed down the driveway. We stood in the fading light, our arms around each other, watching him until he disappeared. I think both of us wanted to believe he would make it, that someday he would be returned to the wild.

Claude Levi Strauss once wrote, "Animals are good to think with." And I realized, walking back toward the house, that it had been a very good and moving experience for me, just to have had the rare opportunity to think with that little bear for a while.

 

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