I don’t share the primal fear of being eaten by a bear. That became abundantly clear halfway through an advance screening of Grizzly Man at the American Museum of Natural History. From the start of this documentary, we know that Timothy Treadwell, a boyish blond California surfer-type who summers in the Alaskan wilds as a self-appointed bear guardian, will come to a bad end. Yet he’s so enchanting early in the film as he addresses young grizzlies like dogs and adopts the fox who lives by his tent. By the mid-point though, my former wife, who’d initially suggested this screening for us, had seen enough. To her, Treadwell was bipolar, a troubled and untreated man on a suicide mission. Having suffered her own bipolar break, she didn’t want to watch any more, nor could I blame her. To leave wasn’t easy, not in those tightly packed auditorium seats, but she did it, whispering apologies all the way out the long row of knees. But I stayed. By then I was feeling envious of Treadwell, an adventurer who’d followed his impulse to live with the animals all the way to Alaska. Here I’d thought I’d made the bold jump by moving from midtown Manhattan into a Catskills log cabin. I’d become fascinated by black bears as the totem animal of my own transition to wilderness. But, in truth, I’d rarely seen one the woods, and then only fleetingly. Not Treadwell. He was out there. He spoke to his grizzlies by name. He went swimming with them, splashing about in cold black river water beside a brown beast twice his size.
After the film ended, we enjoyed a panel discussion with Werner Herzog, the director; a former girlfriend of Treadwell’s who’d helped with his bear advocacy work; and a Montana professor in a gray herringbone jacket and black framed eyeglasses over a black eye patch. Of the people on stage, he was the one to listen to, for he’d spent years studying bears in Alaska and now feared that this movie would encourage another nut job to risk getting killed. “You should not use a large carnivore as your personal therapist,” he told us several times. His students made their observations from the safety of raised platforms. But not until the end of the discussion did the professor tell us what we’d been waiting to hear, the story of the black eye patch. He’d once been mauled by a grizzly, he said, and had known for an awful moment that he would soon die. For some reason, the bear had walked away before killing him. But his face had been badly ripped. When he opened his good eye, he found himself looking out of his mouth.
A story like that you don’t forget. Yet back home in the Catskills several days later I took an afternoon hike out to Huckleberry Point. Halfway there on the trail, I spotted fifty feet off in the blueberry thickets the wide black shoulders of a young bear with its head buried in the greenery to pick fruits, blissfully unaware of me. I wanted to run over and hug the damn thing. My Inner Timothy Treadwell was alive and well. (Okay, full disclosure: I was also struck by how small it was compared to a grizzly. And I know that bears haven’t attacked a hiker in the Catskills in decades, if ever.)
At a Mayapple Press poets reading in Woodstock, I heard Judith McCombs, who lives outside Washington D.C. but writes a lot about wilderness. Once in Toronto she heard people who’d suffered grizzly attacks being interviewed for a video. She converted one of their accounts into a poem published first in Poetry Northwest and now included her book, The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected & New. As she read it to the room, I knew she was reading it to me.
Afterwards, You Learn
Afterwards, you learn to say
you were lucky, the last-year’s cubs
stayed safely behind her, breaking
the thickets for berries. Lucky
the wind from the darkening valley
turned cold, and your jacket was heavy,
and zipped to the neck. Lucky
you knew, too late for retreat
in that clearing of downfall and stone,
to drop and go fetal, arm
over neck, playing dead. Lucky
the backpack came off like an arm,
saving most of your arm, and kept her
busy till the grunting cubs
called her back to their feast.
Afterwards you learn to say
that the fault was yours: you were tired,
you were stubborn, making up for lost time
on that summer-growth trail through clearings
and thickets, the wind in your face,
not bothering to sing out or warn
what was there besides you, not waiting
for warnings to reach you.
But sometimes, in sleep, you go back
to that stonefall clearing, that edge
of safety where your scalp hair rises
like hackles for no reason you see,
and there is still enough time to go back
as that dark shape lifts upright
from its tangle of shadow, like a man
in a burly fur suit, peering out,
and you wake with the ghost hairs rising
like fur on your unscarred neck
and perfect right arm.