The Bear

I was staying in a one, room shack beside a river. The river, a majestic river, reminded me of the sound of a washing machine. My girlfriend was visiting. At night she punched me when a mouse ran over her face. It remains unclear whether her intent was to hurt the mouse or, as I now suspect, me. Each morning the old Czech woman across the dirt road would bring me a glass of fresh milk from the cows. She spoke little Spanish, I no Czech. I couldn’t convince her of the truth, that I am unable to digest milk much less the rich and creamy deliciousness offered warm from the animals. To avoid offense I would pour the milk out through a hole in the bottom of my shack. This attracted local dogs that half-wild and fully hungry, crawled beneath my floor to sup. But on this morning, my girlfriend drank the milk and we went out for a hike into the rainforest. Although this story only involves my girlfriend and me, and Czechs, it takes place in the cloud forests of Ecuador where the Czech woman and her (by then dead) husband escaped one or another moment of eastern European horror. The only other human character is the son of the old Czech woman, a botanist of sorts who was the reason we came to this place in the first place, a botanist as good as any I have ever met, a botanist wild with the sort of primitive sufficiency one can find sometimes at the edge of civilization, where a snake bite, for lack of any better solution might be treated with a dose of self-electrocution and a water wheel might be built on the basis of a dream in order to make electricity where otherwise there was none. It was the botanist with whom we went to the forest. He walked ahead of us, swinging a cigarette in one hand and a machete in the other. He walked fast, pausing only when he needed to pause between cigarettes to reload. We kept up, barely, and then almost not at all which is when we heard him yell. He yelled, I thought, lobo, wolf. Or maybe it was, my girlfriend was sure, loro, parrot. My girlfriend, an anthropologist, had a limited interest in parrots. She had already, elsewhere in Ecuador, seen many, from a distance, as people pointed toward them and, green and distant, they did little more than look like wobbling leaves. For a loro she would not run. For a lobo, I would. And so I did, up and over the hill, to the place where the botanist was standing. He smiled and took a drag on his cigarette. I didn’t see anything. He pointed up with his machete to a branch about twenty feet above me where a spectacled bear walked back and forth, teetering among the epiphytes. I yelled to my girlfriend, “OSO. This time she ran, for the bear. As she arrived, we all looked up. The bear looked down. There wasn’t much that needed to or could be said. What would the reasonable thing to have done been? Walked away perhaps. Taken a picture? Before we had a chance to wonder such things the botanist began to bang on the tree with his machete. He cut vines. He screamed. He threw stones. The bear, which had been making a sound something like a purr, now made an angrier noise. It had been teetering, now it was pacing, angrily. I told the botanist to stop. I wanted to explain gravity to him, wanted to explain in this moment between bear and humans who, clearly, had the upper hand (it was not us). The botanist said nothing. I asked him again, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” This time he replied, “giving this bear the fear of man. It will need it around here if it is going to stay alive.” With that, we walked on, climbed some trees, took in some views, looked for rare plants and then came back along the same path. When we did, the bear was still there. We looked up, smiled at its fuzzy loveliness and kept walking. If it remembered us at all, it would have remembered us as bad, malevolent gods of the underworld, shaking at existence, cutting at the trees on which all life, for a canopy bear, depends. There is no end to this story other than to note that the old Czech woman is dead, the botanist is alive and still smoking and the spectacled bears which numbered more than 200,000 when we were living in Ecuador now number fewer than 2000, all walking along the branches, all now very afraid of men.

By |2015-04-14T16:12:22-04:00April 13th, 2015|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

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