On a summer day in 1997, I was sitting in my office simultaneously working and chatting online with Bill, who was in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He had a new job at a tech startup there so ours was, temporarily, a commuter relationship. I glanced idly out the window, then did a double-take. A medium-sized bear was ambling across the yard.
“BEAR!!” I typed in Bill’s chat box. And then, “BRB [be right back] gotta go see.”
I know I typed that second sentence. I have a clear and distinct memory of typing it. But Bill swears that at his end what he saw was “BEAR!!” and then…nothing for several minutes.
Meantime I was opening the door and looking cautiously outside. When my cat squeezed past me I said, “Be careful Simon! There’s a bear.” That was enough to spook the bear and it ran away. So I went back to my desk and resumed chatting with Bill, who was about to call to make sure I was all right.
There probably wasn’t much to worry about. The black bears in the Northeast are famously wimpy. Even though they’re around us all the time, so much so that keeping garbage cans outdoors is problematic, a nature writer friend tells me there are only four known instances in all of history of one attacking a human.
I love living in a place where a bear might wander by. I love that a giant black snake took up residence in my compost pile (once I looked it up and ascertained it wasn’t poisonous). Deer argue over our field. Hawks float overhead screaming their triple scream. We can’t see them, but we know we have a neighborhood full of barred owls because we hear them at night, asking each other “Who cooks for you?” over and over.
In early spring, the sound of peepers and trilling toads fills the night and I go out with a flashlight and rubber boots and stand around the wet part of the field till I home in on one so I can watch it peeping. Their troats expand and turn transluscent, like bubble gum bubbles.
All summer I mix sugar water for the hummingbirds that build nests in our trees — most likely because they’ve learned our house is a dependable source of sugar water. Knowing they’re nesting there, I make a point of keeping the feeders cleaned and filled. “They commit, so I have to commit,” is how I explain it. Later in the season, adolescent hummers come by and I love knowing that our yard is the only place they’ve ever lived. I like to think they’ll return in the spring with their new mates.
In the winter, it’s a similar story with the songbirds. I hang a feeder with a giant squirrel baffle from a tree outside the living room window and tufted titmice and chickadees stuff themselves all season. Finches, with their powerful beaks, park on the feeder perches, breaking up the seeds and eating them right there. Occasionally a piliated woodpecker, too lazy to hunt for grubs, hangs on the feeder chasing all the other birds away. A flashy cardinal couple wanders by, eating spilled seeds on the ground rather than the feeder. And of course there are always the squirrels who make their way past my baffle by means so varied and devious we had to use a webcam to find out how they did it.
Around here, we’re only supposed to feed songbirds from December 1 to April 1, because of the aforementioned bears. And the hummingbirds are only around from May to October or so. Which means there’s a month or two during late fall and spring when I’m feeding no one. It always seems a little lonely; it’s almost as if these wild things were my extra pets. Only now I’m about to stop feeding them forever. If we make our target departure date of September 1, I won’t even see this crop of hummers through the whole season.
I guess it’s fitting that this summer was only the second time in more than 20 years that I saw a bear in our yard. I was, again, sitting in my office, only this time it was about 1:30 a.m. The motion sensor light on our garage came on, and as always I peered out the window, trying to see what had set it off. If I hadn’t been looking for it, I wouldn’t have spotted the slightly blacker shape of a bear against the night. Right behind it was the exact same shape in miniature—the smallest cub I’ve ever seen. The cub did not gambole around but walked in lockstep right behind what I assume was its mother.
I was alone in the house; Bill was spending a month in Washington, playing gigs and preparing for our move. This time, I ran for my smartphone, both so I could take a video and send a text to Bill: “Bear followed by tiny cub just walked into garage!!”
Bill was performing and didn’t see my message, and by the time I got back to the window, I couldn’t see the bears either. The next day I made a lot of loud banging noises around and in the garage to see if they’d stayed. It seems they’d left right away. There was nothing in our garage to tempt them.
This is just random coincidence, but my pattern-loving human brain wants to parse it, to tease out some meaning. My final summer in the Hudson Valley, where I always thought I’d raise a child, where I tried and failed to bring that child to term, a mother bear with an almost-newborn cub strolls by to bid me farewell. I’m saying goodbye too, not only to this home and these woods, but also the life I once thought I’d have here.
I’m going on an adventure that would never have been possible if I had indeed become a parent. For everything lost, something else is gained. But I will miss these wild creatures who feel like they’re somehow mine. A small part of me wants to believe that in their way, they’ll miss me too.
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Image: Chris Miller.