Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A Message to the Bear

To be permitted to live where wildness intersects with my life is a blessing. To be at the edge, where forces so much greater than my small human life rage and live and go on seemingly forever has been a delight to me.

When the great floods came to the river in my first year there, I incautiously refused to move till the last moment, not wanting to miss the opportunity to see the river at full flood, carrying away giant trees, surging golden and dangerous and beautiful in the winter light.

I tend to run into danger, not away from it, with a crazy trust.

And when life comes and batters my little world, usually I am able to look up with some odd delight at the power of the contact.

My hopeful heart has been an annoyance and an amusement to those who love me. Early on in my relationship with my partner of a quarter decade he presented me with a cartoon from the New Yorker. (sometimes I wonder how many communications have been opened with New Yorker cartoons). It was titled Pollyanna in Hell. There, amidst the flames and demons, a brightly smiling woman commented to her partner something like "Isn't this wonderful? So warm. We won't need our winter coats!"

Now that the bear has come my partner looks at me in disbelief. We survey the damage--first one cabin wall taken out, and books scattered on the forest floor--then boards removed from another--then another.

The bear has been on our hill a few weeks now. He's calling me back to the woods, and I am so happy for this. For the past couple years, while my partner has traveled back and forth to the rustic cabin, our youngest and I have remained in town. We are fortunate that we have some private rooms in our store building, and are adaptable. Gabe had grown frightened--and with cause--that the trees might fall on the cabin. Indeed, some have fallen pretty near. And his health has been better in a warmer, more insulated space.

And Champ, the rescued pitbull, needs very controlled supervision. Thus, bit by bit, I went into a quasi exile from my home. We do whatever we must do; I knew my partner would try to keep my home gardens alive, and that he'd treasure the woods on my behalf.

I also knew, alas, that I was probably surrendering my cabin to disarray and clutter, for my dear is someone who piles papers he might read someday, and things that may be useful somewhere, sometime, all around him.

Reports of the condition of my homestead from my eldest son, who would go out fairly often, were so dire I began to wonder if I could stand to return--oh yes, I knew I should somehow manage it, but in my complex life where was there time?

And then the bear arrived. My home is actually within a wildlife corridor; the bears go to the ocean in the springtime and then in late summer, after they mate, they wander back to the mountains. Usually they pass through fairly quickly, unlike the mountain lions, who have settled in some years to raise their kittens near us, and very unlike the deer, who roam the hills freely, or the little foxes who live by the creeks.

I knew I needed to go home to check the damage and start planning the rebuilding process. Suddenly there were ways to arrange this. My daughter could look after her little brother; there are hours in the early morning before we open the shop; we can close a day or two a week.

Last week my partner and I went out for a day of clearing and assessment. Yes, the scene was pretty bad--walls torn open, things scattered everywhere. It's a big task. That day, as I cleared the main room and talked with the dogs--Buddy, who travels back and forth, my aged laborador, and the lovely Mai, the fearful and yet strong protector of the homestead--who took my reappearance with calm "of course you are here"--Paul ran into the bear. Bear was sleeping near my herb garden; Paul was getting water from the spring. He backed away, and the bear backed away.

The bear has been ranging the hillside. A neighbor's orchard is demolished. Other neighbors are in fear for their lives--for black bears are strong. As I marvelled at how my hazel trees have grown I caught the scent of bear--but couldn't see him.

I figure he is a young bear, in his first year without his mother, a little confused, a little uncertain. He has found that at our house there is water, and Mai's food, and he comes back at dawn and dusk to check things out.

The next time I went out--a couple mornings ago--one of the windows had been smashed open. Glittering shards of glass lay across the windowseat, over the floor.

I picked them up, carefully, and swept the floor again, and continued with the sorting and clearing and assessment. We will need new walls, at least one new window. The roof needs patching.

I stood in the middle of this horrible mess, smiling with joy. "Isn't this a wonderful opportunity?" I asked my dear, who looked at me with bleak disbelief.
"We've needed to fix this place up--now we can, we can think about what we need now, how to make this lovely again, and comfortable"

He scowled and walked away. I remembered Pollyanna.

And the bear--to have such wild force close by. It's innocent force. The bear has no evil agenda or hatred--he perhaps thinks of my cabin as a very large log, full of tasty things.

Sadly, his days are probably limited now. Fish and Game officers were called in by the orchard owners, and a trap has been set. I thought it was a humane trap. I thought bear would be taken somewhere safe and distant--but now I have been told that's not how it happens: bears are caught, and when caught, they are killed, because they have shown themselves dangerous.

So, I have been trying to send messages to the bear: go on, over the mountain top, down to the east branch of the river. Please go. Ignore that trap in the orchard, and go fast, before they know you are there. You'll have to pass up the goats at the hilltop, and I know that might be hard--but do it. Go on.

And thanks for your demolition project--you've given us quite a few puzzles to solve. But more, dear bear, you've brought me back to my home, where my children were born and grew up, like you, running through the woods, eating berries, delighting in the beautiful abundant world.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Dr. Griffitt and the ginkgo tree

These days my desk is covered with odd bits and pieces from the past, as my youngest brother keeps methodically scanning old family papers into the computer, making mysterious attachments, and sending them to me, just a few a day. He began this months ago with the love letters of our grandparents, and as that saga came to its end--arrangments to meet in San Francisco, my grandmother carefully packing her cedar chest and shipping it to the new home her finance had bought for $5,000 in a suburb of Los Angeles back there in 1923--I grew a little wistful. No more escapes to the past. But my brother hadn't told me how much the same cedar chest, now in his home, held.

When my grandmother sent it west it contained the linens she'd embroidered, and some pretty china, and her most important contribution to the new household: a complete set of the works of Mark Twain, plus a lot of other books. "You can have a house without much furniture, but not without books" she said, and my grandfather agreed.

And it was a close thing. After months of delicate and ardent correspondence, after gifts of flowers, after a dutiful letter to her family, asking for her hand in marriage--though my grandfather wrote privately "your family had better agree, because I'm marrying you one way or another", my grandmother, a week before she was to board the train to San Francisco, suddenly had doubts. She was always the one who seemed to hold back a little--he'd be saying how happy they'd be together, how much he loved her--and she'd be writing that spring hadn't come to the mountains yet, and did he ever go to church? The week before that, my grandfather had written daily. And then there was a gap of 4 days. And then she wrote that unless she received a letter from him she was unpacking her bags and not going. She just wasn't certain. Did he really love her?
True, said she, there would not be time for him to write after he received this letter. But at least, if he was waiting in the train station, and if he hadn't sent her a letter--well, he need not wait for her. She wasn't going to be there.

He'd written, of course, and off she went, to a city she'd never seen, and they were married on July 18, 1923 by a minister they'd never known, with two witnesses drawn from the streets. And yes, mostly, as the years went by, I think they were happy.

So, reading these last letters, I sighed. "Too bad they didn't write from kitchen to living room later" I emailed my brother. He said nothing, but sent on another odd group of attachments to download and read.

And so I read today a letter from...let me count back--my Great-great grandfather. Or maybe three greats back. Written in the 1868 in a fine hand, to his young granddaughter, Mary, also called Molly by her friends. She was traveling away from home, and her grandfather wrote to her that he was deeply pleased by her demeanor, her modesty, her attention to the treasures of heaven, not the temptations of this world. He bids her be quiet and hopeful, and seek for the beauty in all things. He promises that she will thus live a long life, and assures her that a modest and comely woman, though not wealthy in possessions, will yet be cherished and find her way with excellent good success. And he will always hold her lovingly in his heart and mind and prayers as she journeys.

The modest young Molly would be courted and wed, and bear 11 children, of whom the youngest was my grandfather. She lived to be nearly 100 years old, and died surrounded by many of her children, and their children.

I turn the copy of this letter about in my hands, thinking of the man who wrote it. He was a doctor and a surgeon. I have a photograph of him, given me by my father, and the intelligence and compassion in the eyes of the bearded middle aged man staring out at me always touched me. They were eyes that saw a great deal. During the Civil War, in the 1860's, he served on the Union side (in my family there were brothers who took arms up to fight on opposite sides; there were also men who fled west to avoid the fighting).Doc Griffitt went with the Union Army, tending the wounded and the sick.

He was captured, and taken to Andersonville, the southern prison that many horror stories have come out of. Now we might shrug: we've learned of Abu Ghraib; we have prisons and horrors and wars all over the planet. But for those times, Andersonville was the name of tragedy and death. There were two doctors there, for the hundreds and hundreds of men. There was little food, no comfort, no medicine, little water, little hope.
He tended the men he was with, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.
He found a tiny stream of clear water flowing at the edge of the compound, and from this he brought pure water to his patients.

And there he looked at the green trees.

Long after the war ended--in 1908-- he was asked to go back to Andersonville to identify the graves of the soldiers he'd failed to save, the ones he held and talked with as they died, the ones he helped bury. And he did. And he was asked to help design a monument for the dead of Andersonville prison. He took a little seedling of one of the trees by the pure stream, and had it planted as a memorial. As far as I know the tree is still alive, spreading green leaves and comfort.

There's something in that story that captures my heart. I return to his good wishes for his granddaughter, and realize that this letter was written not all that long after he came out of the hell hole that was that prison. "Pay attention to the beautiful and true things" he writes her. And perhaps he was thinking of the light through green leaves, and pure water.