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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org


I. Mythology

I have never seen a bear in the wild: only those old photographs, appalling in the wiry man's smile as he holds the lifeless cub's skin; or something like Marty Stouffer's Wild America, where photographers chase a young female through Pennsylvania forests into a den already lined with spying lenses.

And it's not that I haven't tried, inspired by books like Grizzly Years by Doug Peacock, and poems like Galways Kinnell's "The Bear," and more importantly by the pure muscle of animal itself. Perhaps it is something we build up to.

I'm flipping through my American Indian myths and legends book and hoping to find a good bear story. There is comfort in indigenous stories, a natural truth that defies any European logic, and yet an absurdity demanding that we acknowledge the world for what it is—largely undefinable. A Modac myth tells that the first Indians descended from grizzly bears, and so the Northern California tribe will not kill grizzlies. A Tewa tale has it that Rabbit outwitted Brother Bear, and so won rights to pick the red fruited prickly pears in the bear's West Texas hunting grounds, nearly driving him out. And the Haida of British Columbia sing the Song of the Bears, a pact of ageless friendship between man and forest counterpart.

How many myths will there be before I too witness the slow and powerful frame descending from thick woods to pick autumn's ripe blackberries? How should I build such a mighty tale?

2. Witness

My construction is minimal. I am crouched beneath a toppled fir, the frayed branches serving as shield, as dry twigs and leaves and anything available has been piled to blind. I am downwind of the stream, downstream of the mountain. It is called Bear Lake Mountain, appropriately.

A strong square of light pours down the evergreens and onto the rocky shore of farther bank, where it lights up disheveled layers of sumac. The shrubs' leaves are green-yellow off deep red branches. Soon the leaves will turn and the ground will flare with autumn's botanical fire. The stream is deep and cold, moving swiftly around the rocks that are neither light nor dark. I watch them as if they might move, tumbling into the water or sparring among their heavy selves to escape that rolling life. But they are motionless, like most of the scene.

Occasionally a slight breeze rattles the thin-stemmed bushes, moves the tops of pine and spruce and fir, but there is nothing else. I have been waiting here for so long now I hear my bones creak. Instead of flimsy blind I should have built sturdy bench.

The lighted square slowly tracks from left to right, west to east, as the arcing sun counters, east to west. I lean back and find relief on a tree trunk. My eyes are nearly closed, the stream's motion a late afternoon lullaby, when the shadow alerts me.

Suddenly the full brown body of a bear—a bear!—slips from the forest into the opening on the stream's far side. Her thickness is announced further by a layer of fat building for wintry sleep, perhaps only weeks away. She moves cautiously over tangled brush to the water's edge and lowers her head. I can see clearly now her lighter muzzle, almost the beige of sandstone, against the darker brown of face and ears. Her eyes are black, with a tiny point of white reflection. The small ears twitch slightly as she drinks, offering contrast with the cinnamon back nearly metallic in the frame of sunlight. Her nose is soft coal, obviously damp without the stream's rushing, rounding out the triangular shape of immense head.

She looks up and scans the bank. Her eyes run across me and seem to miss my haphazard fort. But there must be something, because she lifts her furred muzzle to the cool air and takes two long breaths. She is puzzled, I think. What is this odd clump of darkness so purposefully piled? she thinks. What creature has bedded down in such elaborate form?

She lifts the long claws of a hind foot and scratches muscular shoulder. At first she is cautious, deliberate; but then the pleasure overtakes her, and she lets the wide foot go wild. It starts above the matted hair of shoulder blade and works its way down her thick front leg to just above right elbow. Suddenly she stops and sniffs the air again. She may be on to me.

3. Decision

I must move quickly slowly, raise my camera as fast as I can without making a sound. It seems hours before it reaches eye-level, hours more before I shift the cylindrical lens into focus. There is no time to adjust light levels, no time to set speed. My finger is hovering above the small silver button that controls the shutter, that will send a click as loud as schoolboys and undoubtedly send the bear running.

But this is the moment, and a decision must be made. Do I withhold the trigger finger and watch the bear as unnoticeable, I hope, as any nameless bush? Or do I make my move, capture beyond my humanly short memory her chestnut image for years to come? The light is waning. She backs from the water and stands firmly on all four legs. Her eyes move toward me and the rough hair on her back rises. Slightly. She senses.

Click! The shutter races through three frames before she turns and crashes into the sheltering forest, the sumacs closing over her frantic trail.

Soon the rushing stream covers the sound of her retreat. It is hours before the current quiets my quick breaths and pounding pulse.

4. Image

Weeks later I hold the photograph of my Rocky Mountain black bear. I am having difficulty believing that I saw a bear in the wild, and the image doesn't make it any more realistic. What legend has formed, what tale constructed? What long nights will I stay up reading poem after mythical poem in delirious search for that single bear?


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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