It was a few falls ago when I came home one late afternoon, only to find the floor covered in broken glass and pieces of pottery. It looked like a serious and not untalented artist had been at work. The pieces lay arranged in grotesque fashion, jutting up like mountaintops above a valley floor of olive oil, eggs, flour and oats; the oats in particular disconcerting, suspended in the oil like the slit eyes of goats. Taken together, the collage was disturbing and beautiful enough to warrant a picture; some might even have called it art if it hadn’t covered the floor.
More beautiful still were the bear prints pressed into the counter.
That morning, I’d painted the kitchen counter top in my backwoods cabin a fire-truck red. It matched the trim on the windows and gave the cabin a genial air. I don’t actually believe my improvements attracted the bears, but you can never be sure. Bears spend a good part of their time hanging out in alpine meadows with the flowers. It can be argued they have a sense of aesthetics. When marking off territory, males will reach up to scrape bark off trees in vertical strips, the claw marks they leave behind in no way inferior to the patterns of raked stones you’ll see in Japanese zen gardens. In the fall, bears become gardeners themselves, pruning apple and plum trees with, if not delicacy, a certain amateur gusto.
Even so, the bears that visited me were not what you would call amateurs. I found out that for two weeks, a sow and her two medicine-ball cubs had been mauling cabins and prying doorjambs off root cellars, feasting on everything from expensive wheat berries to Purina Dog Chow. They must have thought they’d hit the jackpot. For the record, I 'd cleaned up my site of any bear attractants because I know it’s all too true that a fed bear is a dead bear.
Unknown to me, half a dozen homes in the cabin community had already been raided, and one of them, an unoccupied rental home, had been turned into a semi-permanent base camp. A friend with an outbuilding that housed his freezer told me that he had to physically push one plump cub out an open window. He said the little fellow was scared to jump down.
In order to reach the butter in my cabin, momma bear had found it necessary to hop up onto the still tacky counter. She would have stood there like an immense and curious bee, her four feet bunched under her like a single pillar supporting her zeppelin of fur. Then with a sweep of a paw, she raked the shelves Western-style, clearing them of everything, including the whiskey. Mission accomplished — I can imagine her delight when the honey pot came down — she turned and put a wet nose to the window. "Just checking."
The coast being clear, the three dragged the spoils of my pantry out onto the front lawn where high cumulus clouds, temperatures in the 80s, and a touch of breeze provided the perfect excuse for a picnic. "Here, have some jam with that." It was a glorious day. Tiger lilies nodded their extravagant heads. My cat, having donated 20 pounds of his food, watched from the top of a wood pile. He apparently stayed there until I came home.
With such inviting surroundings, such tasty and varied food, the bears must have been in no hurry to leave. Eventually, a neighbor happened by, and with classic nonchalance, mom lifted herself off her haunches and called to her children. My neighbor describes their departure, the three wandering away, the cubs gamboling, high on molasses, mom sauntering, savoring the last of the honey.
Sadly, I no longer have the counter with the red bear prints. Somewhere along the line it was shifted to the tool shed, and from there, eventually, to a burn pile. It doesn’t matter.
Just knowing I had been visited by such distinguished guests gives me deep pleasure, and, ironically, a sense of safety. I feel the proximity of bears tethers me more securely to the land, to something we so casually call nature. Fear, of course, is a hot commodity these days. It sells well. But if ever the mountains and valleys around my home are empty of bears, that’s when I’ll become truly afraid.
Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Stevensville, Montana.
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