Ghost Black Bear
It is an early September, as Uncle Bear and I walk a class IV road through the woods outside of Noyesville, Vermont. Noyesville is the buckshot scatter of aged trailers, weary hunting camps, a few newer log cabins, and family farms dotting these thick woods. Uncle Bear and I each shoulder a tree stand and tree ladder. We are heavy with the tools of bow hunting. I am heavy with ignorance. For the first time, I will be hanging deer stands, preparing for a hunting season less than a month away. I am excited and nervous about this new pursuit.
Somewhere down this class IV road, Uncle Bear stops near a cluster of trees. Uncle Bear’s beard is peppered and bushy, obscuring his face. Thick glasses give him the cupped ring around the eyes of a bear. And his reticent nature, his aloofness, mirrors a bear.
Uncle Bear says, “I was hunting one winter. The snow was falling like crazy. A blizzard. And I heard this racket coming from these woods.” Uncle Bear points to the uphill side of the trail. “All of the sudden, a goddamn buck with a huge rack jumps out of the woods.” Uncle Bear spreads his arms so I can imagine the rack. “Right at me.”
Uncle Bear’s face is alive with story. His eyes bloom behind thick glasses. “And this goddamn buck is about to land in my lap. As it’s in the air, it sees me and twists all up in the air,” Uncle Bear says as he himself twists his body. “This buck lands at my feet in a crumple. I’m too damned shocked to even grab my bow or move out of the way. The buck jumps up, leaps right into that barbed wire fence there,” and Uncle Bear points at an old barbwire fence that has nearlyrusted into the landscape, a barb wire fence I hadn’t even noticed, “falls down, gets up, leaps over the fence and bounds away.” Uncle Bear shakes his head at the memory.
“I’m just standing there trying to catch my breath and figure out what the hell just happened when a doe comes bounding out of the woods and she’s so pissed off with the buck that she doesn’t even see me. She just jumps right past me, chasing the buck away.” Uncle Bear laughs his baritone laugh.
These woods—probably hundreds of acres around Danville—are an intimate landscape to Uncle Bear, one known not just by the physical contours of ridges and hills and valleys and creek beds but by stories of his family upon this land and his time with the animals he’s tracked and observed and hunted. His history is these softwoods and the animals they home.
With the deer story hanging in the air, we walk twenty-five yards up the old two track road. Uncle Bear stops and points to an apple tree hidden in the forest on the west side of the road. This apple tree, like so many others in Vermont, was planted back when this land was homesteaded, when Vermont was cleared of trees, tilled for farming, put to agricultural use. Back when this “Green Mountain State” was anything but the green of trees. Back then 90% of the state was clear cut so farmers could graze sheep. But the land was rocky and the growing seasons short, so farmers quit or moved west to Ohio where the topsoil was wrist deep.
Now where we walk is state land purchased in the 1960s when people were happy to sell homesteads for cash in hand. The state turned much of those purchases into wildlife management areas, thick forest land, deer hunting land.
Uncle Bear nods at the apple tree where he sometimes hangs a tree stand on a nearby softwood. “And that’s,” Uncle Bear says with a smile, “why I call this deer stand Stampede.”
But there are no apples on the tree this year. It’s a rough year for wild apples. And withno deer food here, we don’t put up a stand. Instead, we keep walking up the dirt road, deeper into the woods, our shoulders heavy with tree stands and ladders, headed, hopefully, toward a tree bending with apples, toward a softwood tree ready to cradle a deer stand.
As we walk down this old Class IV road, I think about what has led me to pick up a bow for the first time at age forty-two. I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania. Come this time of year, Pennsylvania is overrun with hunters clutching rifles. But not only did I not hunt, but no one in my family hunted. Not my dad or mom. Not uncles or aunts. Not siblings or cousins. The best I can come up with for why we don’t hunt is that though our family traces its history in Bangor back to the 1740s, for three generations my family abandoned our rural town in the northeast part of the state for work in Philadelphia. We, a family of once-homesteaders, became shipbuilders. We gave up our tie to land for the necessity of money. By the time my grandparents and parents returned to Bangor when I was thirteen, the knowledge of the hunt had bled from our family tree.
But, now, in 2012, Sarah and I have recently moved to Vermont. Sarah’s Aunt Alicia and
Uncle Bear live just down the road. Now as Sarah and I settle into Vermont, Uncle Bear and Aunt Alicia teach us to garden organically these short Vermont summers. They take us on hikes. They tell us stories of place. And ever since the first days of meeting Uncle Bear, he talks, obsessively, about hunting.
For someone like me who has carved a life by living near wild, Uncle Bear’s stories ring
like metal struck hard against metal. I spent years building trails in remote wilderness areas in the Pacific Northwest and Desert Southwest. I hand built a cabin using mostly reclaimed material in the mountains of Colorado. I backpacked the 500 mile Colorado Trail. But I had never hunted. As Uncle Bear tells me his hunting stories, something feels as if hunting might bring me closer to the truth of being human, being animal, being a part of a larger system of life. It feels, maybe or almost, as if hunting might teach me about a missing piece of my authentic self, one that my family abandoned when they traded agrarian for urban.
And even though authentic self and being animal seem overindulgent for a pragmatic like me, still, the ideas feel right. Hunting might, it seems, teach me to become something larger than myself. To not just trek or bike through the wilds in an attempt to adventure but to learn another way of entering these woods, another way of knowing land and self. To become something more than a person who plays in the woods and becomes, maybe, what we always have been—hunters, predators, gatherers, a part of the woods, wildlife itself.
In silence, Uncle Bear and I walk through this early autumn forest. The hardwood leaves have yet to reach their brilliant peak. Instead, they’ve just begun that final, slow death from vibrant green of life and chlorophyll to the colors of early autumn as photosynthesis ceases during these shortening day. The leaves begin their arc toward the burn of autumn; those once hidden pigments—the carotenoids of reds and oranges, the xanthophylls of yellows, and the anthocyanins of reds and purples—rise to the leave’s surface.
Seeing the slow death on the trees makes me wonder about my own role in death and if I will be able to kill an animal this October. I wonder if I will be able to pull back my bow and let an arrow pierce the two lungs of a deer. And I question how killing a life can bring us closer to nature, which is the only reason I long to hunt—to be closer to the wildness around me, to be closer to the sources of my food. So I ask Uncle Bear, “You often talk about how hunting brings you closer to the land. How so?”
Uncle Bear says, “You know I love growing my garden.” Uncle Bear and Aunt Alicia
grow a massive garden, all organic, that feeds them much of their food. “Aunt Alicia and I go out and turn up a piece of soil, and nurture the soil, and grow plants, and harvest them, and store them so we have food all winter.” Uncle Bear pauses and we walk in silence for a moment. “But even that type of small scale, organic farming displaced wildlife habitat.”
“But with hunting, it’s more environmentally responsible than almost any other production of food you can imagine. A deer grows from birth to adulthood right in these woods with absolutely no external energy input, in other words, no fossil fuels. It’s all from the sun, growing all the plants that the deer feeds on. There’s absolutely no waste to that system whatsoever.”
Uncle Bear, beneath a canopy of maples, pauses and turns to me to emphasize his next point. “And when a person chooses to rely on wild animals to feed themselves, we become closer to them, we appreciate them more. I don’t want to say that I appreciate animals more than somebody who just intrinsically appreciates deer, but I’m probably more likely to be a protector of wildlife and wildlife habitat if they’re essential for my survival.”
I question how my own connection to wildlife will change with hunting. Before I picked up a bow, I always saw animals as either friends—dogs and hummingbirds and herons and beavers—or invisible—many insects and birds I couldn’t identify and other similarly invisible animals—or problems—mice and rats and the squirrels that my dog chases after.
But hunting forces me to see animals as other things as well—predators and prey, food to nurture not just me but all animals. And to be a hunter, I need to learn how these animals live, where and when they feed, how they can grow complacent or scared.
Uncle Bear, now passionate about his ideas, keeps talking, his ideas coming out in short bursts. “Then there’s the whole choosing to be an active participant in the cycle of life and death. It brings an appreciation for all creatures that often doesn’t exist when we let the blood be on somebody else’s hands, when we go to the supermarket and buy a package of steak or chicken and don’t think about how someone else killed these animals, butchered them, packaged them.”
And he’s right. For all my life, my meat—and actually all my food—has come from elsewhere. For all I knew, it as likely fell from the sky as was butchered at some corporate ranch.
Uncle Bear continues, “But since I choose to do that killing myself, it brings me closer to them. To effectively depend on deer as an important part of your own sustenance, you have to, especially with a bow, you have to become one with the deer. There becomes no separation between yourself and the deer; you are one and the same. Your life and that deer’s life and this death become the same.”
As Uncle Bear quiets, we walk toward our final apple tree. I think of all the things Uncle Bear never mentions—blood lust, killing a trophy buck, the sport of it all. And the lack of those ideas is why I trust him to lead me into the woods, to teach me about this nasty and complicated killing business. Because, at least for Uncle Bear, hunting is the most ethical thing he knows how to do.
Finally, we reach a good place for a deer stand well over a mile back. Uncle Bear walks to the apple tree near where he plans on hanging the stand he calls Rip-off. His fingers dance across the flaked apple bark.
“See the bear claws?” Uncle Bear asks as he points to the tree’s bark.
I bend close to the scabbed apple tree and search for whatever Uncle Bear sees, something invisible to me. All of the sudden, thin, tan vertical scars appear where a bear drove her claws in as she climbed after apples.
Just moments ago, before Uncle Bear pointed them out, these scars did not exist to me. There was no story of a black bear here, climbing this tree. But Uncle Bear conjures an entire history into existence. I close my eyes and see the bear, maybe a small female bear, climbing this tree, reaching for apples, knocking them to the ground.
And just like that, a new story is created. A new way to see landscape is born through close observation, through knowledge of landscape, through knowledge of animals.
I think this right here is what Uncle Bear was talking about. Hunting offers a new way to live within our world. A way in which we humans leave less of a footprint. A way in which we rob a life but also rob fewer natural resources. A way in which we see the “bear marks” of the wildness surrounding us. And we understand life and death and appreciate life all the more because we’ve taken enough through death.
Once Uncle Bear and I hang the tree stand in Rip-off, we walk the mile back toward our trucks. Along the way, Uncle Bear kneels down beside a pile of bear scat. He pulls it apart with a stick. “Lots of apples,” he says, pointing to a yellow-orange mush. “And some berries. And this is all grass,” he says as he tears apart the scat. “I’ve heard stories—though I don’t know if it’s true or not—that bears eat grass in autumn to plug up their asses before hibernation.”
Again, another new story is born from the earth, rising into my mind, teaching me a new way to see the wild world surrounding me.
Sean Prentiss, winner of the National Outdoor Book Award and a 2016 finalist for the Vermont Book Award and the Colorado Book Award, has lived in most parts of the United States—the East Coast, Florida, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and now New England. And wherever he has lived, writing, place, and the power of stories have been a part of his life. He is the author of Finding Abbey: A Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, and the co-author of Environmental and Nature Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology.