Bear with Me

One of my favourite stories is about an old hunter who wishes to die because he feels lonely and useless. He has outlived his family and friends. He plans to give himself to the bears so at least he can serve some purpose at the end of his life. But when he lies down on the bear path near his village and encounters a bear and his companions, he realizes he’s not ready to die.

When I heard this tale from a storytelling colleague at a Winnipeg coffee house, it spoke to my heart. I researched long and hard and spoke with many Indigenous elders to find a way that I could begin telling this story myself.

Bears were not something we planned on dealing with when we moved from the city to this 130-acre farm ten years ago. It was soon after we took possession of the land that we heard about the bear path. Old-timers say the bears have been coming along the river each spring and summer since before settlers came into the region. Ancient burials have been found where the river pours itself into the larger Winnipeg River at Seven Sisters Falls, exposed when land shifted or water levels changed. The bear trail is worn parallel to the river as the bears travel along its banks.

That first summer I had noticed the narrow path of beaten grass and told my husband, “Oh, it’s likely deer or those coyotes we hear in the night.” But when I walked down to the river, I saw a mama bear and three cubs. The cubs were asleep in the high branches of two ash trees and the mother was asleep at the foot of one of the trees. I didn’t come any closer. Now I could imagine lying on the path waiting for the bears to come and eat me and could empathize with the old hunter’s change of mind.

Every spring and summer since, I have looked for the bears’ return to the riverbank and the woods nearby. Now, when I tell the story of the old hunter, I bring to it my own experience of living very near the annual bear sightings. Being an oral storyteller means gathering stories, listening to tales of people’s lives, and often teaching them how to fashion their own stories. Because of my rural living experiences, I can help others express that combination of fascination and dread that a bear sighting often brings.

I tell stories whenever I am asked to come to a school, library, or community event. I now know so many stories that I find myself telling them even in gatherings with friends or family. “That reminds me of a story,” I begin. My rural neighbours will often comment, “I bet you could tell a good story about that.”

One neighbour, a trapper, taught me about the use of old trappers’ cabins in the bush, and I was able to include this teaching in my story of a man who was saved by a wolf. I last told this particular story at an international storytelling festival, taking place over Zoom, and I was struck by how listeners in India and Britain were enchanted by my tale of the bush in winter, and enthralled by the actions of the wolf leading the man to safety.

Moving away from the city to this land has also enriched my visual art practice. All of the land is an art form that I can work with. Who needs a water feature when we have butter yellow marsh marigolds blooming along the watercourse in the ravine every spring? Who needs a planetarium when the night sky is carpeted with stars or lit by a full moon? The land is so ever-present, unimpeded by concrete and traffic noise, that I am compelled to express my feelings for it rather than faithfully render it. I am conscious of a settling in, a rootedness, and so my paintings have become more abstract, reflecting emotions and a sense of wonder instead of recognizable details.

The huge barn has also been a source of inspiration. Once housing a herd of dairy cattle, it is now completely empty. House concerts, bus tours, and art shows have filled the space over the years. One summer, when I was particularly concerned about climate change, I mounted a video installation about planet earth in the loft. Over two hundred people viewed it in one month. The barn itself was as much an attraction, truth be told, as my storytelling and my art pieces, it’s upper loft reminiscent of a cathedral.

installation showing lights and water in an empty barn

Skin of this Planet by Mary Chown

I have dismantled the barn installation but the effects of climate change are felt here every season. Some summers, there hasn’t been enough rain, while at other times the land is soaked so much that you could ring it out like a sponge and the water rushes down all the little gullies and ravines into the river. Lately we haven’t had enough snow cover and many of our perennials have not made it through. Up until now we’ve had a rich variety of insect life and bird life, mostly because the ravine and riverbank are forested, wild grasses and thistles grow on the hillsides, and we planted many additional trees and shrubs. Winter is usually full of chickadees and nuthatches with a visit every year from the pine or evening grosbeaks. Not so the last two or three years. Fewer birds come to our feeders or visit the fields.

Our small apiary of bees is constantly confused by the changing weather patterns, and we have to keep a close watch on them to make sure they are dry enough, warm enough, cool enough, or have enough to eat. When it’s unseasonably mild in March, the bees fly out looking for food, and may start to lay eggs too soon. But when it’s too cold in April, the bees may die if we don’t feed them. Two years ago we lost ten hives in the early spring.

Which brings me back to the bears. Some years they are thin and mangy, other years sleek and round and chubby. They’re always looking for food and they will eat anything.

One year a big male bear managed to climb through the window into our honey house; I don’t know how he squeezed in. Our extracted honey was sitting in an interior chamber keeping warm, and luckily for us Raven barked that night and the bear somehow managed to get away, but the interior wall of our honey house will forever carry the mark of the bear claw well over six feet high. When children come to visit, I relish taking them into the honey house and showing them the bear claw on the wall.

The bear returned more recently and hit pay dirt. Five fifty-pound bags of chicken feed were stored in the old garage and we were never able to close the door properly. In the morning, three bags were missing. The first bag of poultry feed was lying near the fire pit at the edge of the ravine. Feed spilled out of it where the bear’s claws had raked it open. Following a trail of trampled grass, we found the other two bags at the bottom of the ravine. They were partly covered with dried grass as if the bear had tried to cache them. We were almost reluctant to retrieve the feed, but our hens needed it too.

Bear stories have multiplied since moving to the farm. Many of my city friends comment that my husband and I seem to be living an adventurous existence out here, and of course this is true. All the plants, trees, and insects we see daily have enriched our lives beyond measure. We aren’t in nature; rather, we are part of nature. Sometimes, I am aware of a great longing in people who visit us from the city. You can tell by how they look around, breathe in, relax. They may come to buy honey or they may be a friend who sleeps over and comments on how quiet it is at night, how settled they feel. I really believe that our hearts seek a union with earth, sky, and water.

When the old hunter, lying there on the path meets the bears, he has a change of heart. On a whim he invites all the bears to a feast at his house. When they arrive the next day, he has prepared trays of salmon and wild cranberries for them. The oldest bear tells the hunter that he too is often lonely, and whenever the old hunter feels that way, he should remember the bears’ visit. The hunter doesn’t really understand what the old bear is saying but the story tells us that “he listened with his heart.” The following day, a young bear returns to the hunter’s house to tell him what the old bear had said. This time, the hunter understands: the young bear can speak both human and bear because he was once human. I think that is my favourite part of the story, that fluid boundary between species that exists in the world of stories—and just possibly in our waking world too, if we listened with our heart.

 

About Mary Chown

Mary Louise Chown is a storyteller, visual artist, and musician who has told stories around the world, and taught storytelling at all levels. Believing that every story is a teaching story and all stories are sacred, she has brought her art into healthcare settings and schools and community centres. She has performed at festivals across Canada, including the Yukon International Storytelling Festival, the Winnipeg International Folk Festival, and the Toronto Storytelling Festival, to name only a few. She toured Alberta during the Canadian Children's Book Week, and was invited as guest teller and musician to the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik, NWT. She co-founded the Manitoba Storytelling Guild and has served as Storyteller in Residence at the Winnipeg Millenium Library. She has travelled extensively in rural and northern Manitoba with the Manitoba Arts Council's Artist-in-the-Schools program where her week-long residencies paired storytelling with art-making for students of all ages. She lives on a farm on the beautiful Whitemouth River, where she keeps bees and laying hens. She believes that visual art and storytelling both use imagery and metaphor to express the beauty and variety of the world we live in and our deepest hopes and cares.

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