It was one of those days in June when the days seem strangely endless. The land was verdant and growing. All the trees were crowned with dark, healthy green leaves, and the grass in the hayfields called for its first cutting.
But that would not happen today. About noon, the skies darkened and a hard summer rain fell. It rained for most of that afternoon.
It was a Saturday, and I wanted to be outside. These balmy late June days very quickly morph into the swelter of July, when you feel as if you’ve stepped into some stinking hot jungle in Southeast Asia and forget that this land has ever seen a subzero reading or has ever been covered in a dry, crisp arctic snow. Those are the days when the air makes the clothes stick to your body as the sweat trails down your back.
Most June days aren’t like that. They are one of times when it actually does feel like you live in actual temperate zone. The rest of the year, it is either looming towards Siberia or steaming into Vietnam.
in this way, my time as a dweller in the temperate forest was limited, and it was being limited now in the downpour.
The rain would stop soon. I knew it would. I’d seen the weather map. The rain would stop.
The length of a wet weekend is something that should be measured in eons, but a wet weekend in late June should be measured in eternities.
So when the rain finally did cease, I was more than eager to go out.
There is no other way to describe the air after a good summer rain other than to describe it as “rainwashed.” It’s like the whole land has had a good scalding bath. There is a crispness to it that makes everything seem as if it’s been renewed.
The torrents of raindrops trickled down from the great tulip trees and oaks, and the sound of rain still filled the air, though the rain clouds had long since departed. To walk in a forest after the rain is to listen to downpour’s ghost as canopy sheds the water.
I didn’t think to grab the camera or call the dog. I just needed to go out and be in the forest as it slowly drips dry.
I walked along the old gravel road out to the hayfield. Water gushed along the ditches and into culvert pipes, and the hayfield’s access road was a swampy, muddy mess. I was wearing crocs, which allowed the clay mud to enter through their holes and soil my feet. The summer mud feels nice against the toes, as if it calls me to a time when my kind walked barefoot over the mud, grounded in the soil with every step.
A cottontail rabbit spooked and charged long into the tail grass. I assumed it was a doe with a litter in tall grass below the road, and she was working her way down there to nurse them. My approach spoiled her plans, and I knew she would just hide out in the grass until I was long gone. Then she’d approach her nest and gently uncover the crumpled covering grass blades and stems to reveal the nest. The little rabbits would resting in a bowl of grass lined with their mother’s fur, and she would stand over the bowl while they nursed. Then, she would cover the nest again and go her merry way to graze in the dusk.
If I’d been a little more curious, I would have hunted around the tall grass in search of that nest, but I wasn’t in an exploring mood. I wanted to get to the woods. Maybe I’d hear the barred owls calling on the opposite ridges or perhaps come across a box turtle out on a worm-hunting expedition after the rain.
Hunting for a rabbit nest in the wet, tall grass just wasn’t what I wanted to do.
So I walked on.
As I entered the woods, the rain kept dripping down the trees. It was almost a hypnotic sound. The evening sun was casting its light through the leaves, illuminating the them as if they were covered in Christmas lights.
It was perfection for a June evening.
I followed the logging road up a steep bank and then followed it along a sharp curve.
And there before me stood the beast.
A massive black bear stood no more than 15 feet from me.
To say I was shocked would have been an understatement. I’d see bears at zoos from the side of the road, and over the years, I’ve come across bear scat on the forest floor and black hairs in the undergrowth. I’ve even caught bears on trail camera, but never before had I walked into one.
The bear was a shocked with my presence as I was of his. His eyes stared hard at me. The tan markings on his muzzle and above his eyes reminded me of the tan points on a doberman or Rottweiler. But he was like a Rottweiler built along the lines of a gorilla, shaggy fur covering bulging muscles.
His eyes were intelligent but clearly showed his terror. The raindrops dripping from the trees had muffled my footsteps, and by accident, I had approached the bear from upwind. He couldn’t have smelled me.
He was in a bad spot. Black bears have been hunted in West Virginia for as long as people have lived in West Virginia. The indigenous people at their meat and used their fat and wore their fur, and the early mountain men turned to bears as a reliable source for red meat.
He had no reason to see my kind as anything but bad news, and as soon as he realized I was a human, he launched himself through the pines. His form was nothing more than a black shadow that seemed float away at high speed. His feet tore through though leaves and twigs in a loud cacophony as the shadow form disappeared from view.
It was only a brief few seconds, but it had a certain magic to it. The Eastern states have been denuded of all our great predators. The wolves and cougars were killed off in these Allegheny foothills long ago, but the bears remained. West Virginia’s DNR protected the bears. There were only a couple of hundred of them in the state when I was born. Now, there may be as many as 10,000.
The black bear is a survivor, a living relic of what was once wild country filled with great predators. No more dire wolves or Smilodons. No more American lions.
All that remains is this shadow of a beast, which shuffles through the undergrowth on cautious feet.
“If you go out in the woods today. You’re sure of a big surprise,” goes the children’s rhyme about the Teddy bear picnic.
On that June evening, a bear surprised me, and I surprised him. The shadow beast was revealed to me in the clear evening sun just before the solstice.
And just as soon as we met, he slipped off into the world of thickets and shadows and deadfalls. He was hidden again to live the mysterious life of a bear.
In their mystery lies their magic, their allure, their mystique.
And thus it always should be.