John Haines 1924—2011

In 1996, as I made my great transition from a mid-town Manhattan apartment to a Catskills log cabin, I was accompanied in my imaginative fantasies by the bear. On the eve of this move, I took a workshop led by Barry Hopkins, a compelling art teacher, whom I was profiling for New Age Journal magazine. Out in the woods we built a crude hut out of branches that was our “earth womb.” Inside, Barry told us what he’d learned from thinking of himself as “Night Loon,” an identification with a wild animal that had given him insights into his character that had both the haunted and the ethereal so unforgettably entwined in the loon’s call. When Barry sent us out of the “earth womb” to spend half an hour by ourselves to choose our own natural identities, I sat by a stream and soon realized that I already had one in mind. The previous evening, while driving up from the City, I’d had a powerful daydream while listening to WDST’s jangly rock radio. By attending the workshop I was missing a friend’s party in Brooklyn at which we’d been invited to read a poem. I’d written a witty one for the occasion about pussy willows sold at the Union Square farmers’ market. But as I drove up the Thruway at night I had a fantasy of presenting an entirely different kind of poem at the party, an epic about a bear that I’d deliver like Jim Morrison dressed in a bear hide and backed by music for a shamanic performance. By the time I crawled into the “earth womb,” where we reconvened, I knew I was “Bear.”

Several years later, when I explored my fantasy in more depth, I discovered that I had unwittingly found my way into one of humanity’s oldest traditions, the identification with bears, an animal in which we see ourselves as in no other, an animal that still carries our wild selves. This story is memorably told in The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature by Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders. For an epigraph, they chose a poem by John Haines, which I’ve returned to upon learning of Haines’ death. This poem could be my life’s story. I suspect others have shared this experience as well.

The Turning


A bear loped before me
on a narrow, wooded road;
with a sound like a sudden
shifting of ashes, he turned
and plunged into his own blackness.


I keep a fire and tell a story:
I was born one winter
in a cave at the foot of a tree.

The wind thawing in a northern
forest opened a leafy road.

As I walked there, I heard
the tall sun burning its dead;
I turned and saw behind me
a charred companion,
my shed life.

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