Baby (Snapping Turtle) Steps

 

Look at its determined eye. At John Boyd Thacher Park (North), 2016

This newborn snapping turtle, along with its siblings, had come out of the nest in the gravel not a minute before we walked up on it, on the yellow Perimeter path at Thacher North. Coated in wet clay from under ground, it scrambled quickly for the nearby pond. Though only an inch and a half long, this baby was already fully itself, and on its way.

That’s me.

Right now I feel messy, roiling in the gunky mud of fears and expectations about the unknown. Half-baked, incomplete. But I will trust it’s about perspective: I am a baby snapping turtle, destined for size and strength I cannot imagine from my sticky clay birthing place, called to a future of sun-warmed water.

***

For the last eleven months I have been working half time.

In May of last year, a week or two before I leapt in to that job, I finished my initial Forest Therapy Guide training. On duty at the local library, I learned to scan and shelve materials, while at home I concentrated on the six month certification process, and graduated in November.

Back then I was pretty worried about taking those twenty hours a week for paid work away from my well established practices, and then the addition of the Guide training. Was I crazy? For almost seven years, I had had a much freer schedule, during which I became a serious writer of memoir and nature essays and a serious photographer. I also worked as a personal chef, accompanied a friend who was dying, trained as a yoga teacher, and created workshops for writers and artists.

Yes, I was pretty worried eleven months ago, but those who know me well were right. It all turned out fine—and in fact, excellently. Not only in my job, but in figuring out balance, even if it wasn’t the fully realized balance I so desired. Questions popped up, and I answered them as they came.

How to write? Request a work schedule primarily noon to 8 pm and then do the vital observations and editing while most of the world sleeps, between 4:30 and 8 am.

How to continue and increase my nature connection? Walk alone before dawn. Make walks and photo sessions with my hiking partner a happy requirement. Walk with friends sometimes at dinner break (mid-afternoon), and observe the seasonal changes in my city.

How to manage the inevitable exhaustion? Alternate those days of dinner walks with dinner nap days! Cry as I needed to, which turned out to be a lot.

Nesting eagle pair, Peebles Island State Park, glimpsed on a sunset self-care walk with a good friend.

***

The past eleven months, I haven’t posted any blog essays.

But I remind myself I am closing in on completion of the final draft of my first book-length manuscript.* I have written poetry for two small collections and for myself. Two of my photographs were chosen for the Thacher Nature Art Show this March, even though unfortunately I was too sick to attend the opening, see the exhibition, or even publicize it. This summer, I plan to be offering forest therapy walks in at least one place. And finally, I kept my promise to myself and posted this essay today.

I’ve been persevering, with self-compassion. Yes, alternating with panic and frustration and fallow periods, but those freak-outs allow me to come back, repeatedly, to self-compassion.

April’s first Oxalis (shamrock flower) with its fuzzy stems, searching out sun at Thacher North.

***
Now, next week—tomorrow! I begin a full time job with the state of New York.

I am feeling those same anxieties as when I started my half-time job last June: about performance, self care, managing my tendency to perfectionism, creating a new balance with forty hours a week gone, plus a commute by car now.

This challenge has been taking up quite a bit of time and energy, as at first I delved into the test taking within Civil Service, then interviews and decision making—while I maintained that half-time job.

This is not a place I ever intended or planned to be, taking an office day job in my mid-50s. I’ve loved my decades of creating a personalized daily and weekly schedule with its many layers of paid and unpaid work. I loved to be a parent, then a homeschooling parent, to run a massage therapy business and before that a tutoring business, manage a household and house and rehab of said house, cook nutritious local food tailored to multiple dietary requirements. And as part of the fabric of my life, to organize and work for social justice and community.

But in those early years, I also left no space for myself as writer and naturalist—didn’t even know I WAS either one—or for myself as a physical being who needed much more regular exercise and connection with the outdoors, along with moving meditation.

I took care of many people but not enough of myself.

When I started my half-time job I was very afraid of returning to that place of self disregard. Again, I acknowledge than in almost eleven months, I’ve done pretty well.
I also had some unexpected surprises.

I fell in love with my community again, through people I met as they came for books, DVDs, and music. I fell in love with my historic and struggling town again, through those walks before dawn. At the library I got to glory in organization and creation of order, in the quiet and in the chaos of deliveries from other libraries. I experienced kind, patient, and interesting co-workers.

A wide variety of humanity walked through the heavy wooden doors of our building and gasped at the Tiffany window behind the circulation desk. They also fought with their children, suffered daily frustrations without some of the skills I’ve been lucky enough to develop, showed me patience and compassion, and thrilled with their first library cards.

I handled a lot of books but didn’t read many at first. Then I took out piles of them, like raiding the candy store. Now I’ve settled into 20 to 30 books out at a time, and gotten to enjoy popular items along with dusty volumes pulled from the stacks. After a couple years of illness and depletion and a very sad inability to read long-form writing, I can stick with a whole book and read it over time or in an afternoon.

I hope to still work some hours at the library, because of these gifts I have found.

Post-March blizzard, curls of heaped snow compete with the curlicues and angles of the library’s 1897 architecture.

***

Now I’m going into this full time day job. I was fretting, anxious, anticipating the worst, as I pursued the actual getting of the job. I was also able to observe, feel, analyze what spoke to me, what didn’t, and know I had a choice—not something I’d really felt before.

I hate that I’ve been so wrapped up in learning these balances I haven’t been able to do the essay writing, finish all books I’ve been writing, sort and enjoy my photos.

I try to listen to those around me, those who love me, who again say I will be fine. I return to leaving behind perfectionism and fear of Armageddon brought on by my own mistakes. The details of learning how to follow all my goals will be familiar AND unexpected. I will attempt not to anticipate all the problems or things I might dislike, and be open to the surprises.

In the muck to come, I will remember my turtle-ness and my snapping-ness. My completeness and my newness. I will remember that I’m just starting on this part of the journey, and that I am well on my way.

I will hike and take photos and guide walks. I will do yoga and meditation. I will do my personal writing and my creative writing. I will travel, close in and far away. I will cherish my friends and beloveds and attend to my own wisdom.

The pond awaits.

And the sky above….

*I am presently editing the first book of essays, poems, and photos that Carole Fults and I are co-authoring, gathered from years spent together at Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area, in Berne, NY. More news soon!

Doing this book editing, I realize—I have been through all this before. For example, my blog post entitled “January Thaw.” Guess what! I have been stuck in my writing when my attention just had to go elsewhere, my creative energies spread into a job search, a business build, a health crisis. I forget. Then I return to myself, and remember. Thanks to my readers, for waiting and for encouraging me in the remembering.

Landing: A tale of very late spring

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Meadow at Hebert Arboretum, Pittsfield MA, one site in my Forest Therapy Guide Training.

In late May, I experienced the first part of my Forest Therapy Guide training: seven cold but beautiful days in western Massachusetts woods, gardens, and farms.

Initially, I had a hard time settling in. I was distracted by calls from my regular life and then my A-Plus Student thoughts barged in.

I knew enough to confess at the start, so in our opening circle I stepped forward.

“I don’t feel like I’ve mentally landed here yet. One of my big challenges is to overcome perfectionism. Please help me make mistakes. I know life is about falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up, and I am still scared of both of those.”

Later, one of my fellow trainees, Stana, wrote on rocks for each of us. She gifted me with the message Perfectly Imperfect.

I landed.

***

One of the deep and unexpected pleasures of that week was to experience the outdoors like a little kid.

—I “broke the rules” (whose rules? I ask now) when I took off my shoes and squished my toes into a huge patch of shiny green moss.
—Then I floated my feet in the cold early spring water of a mountain stream.
—Doing that, I splattered sticky mud all over myself and then wiped my numb feet dry on my pants. On my pants!
—I got amazed all over again by the shape of leaves, the sparkle of seeds flying, and the glow of dandelions in a meadow. I poked out my tongue to taste the wind.
—I let myself touch trees and sit quietly for long periods of time.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

To see leaves from a different angle, differently lit.

When I returned home, I felt full, maybe overfull—not just of natural connections but also because I’d met and deeply interacted with almost twenty new people.

My apartment door opened onto piles of winter clothes to be put away and a layer of dust on everything. The workload of the six-month certification process multiplied then roiled in my imagination like a thunderhead, and finally, a brand new part-time job started, which would squeeze twenty hours a week out of my already constricted calendar. My thoughts turned dark.

Of course, life always changes and gives us experiences; some times are simply a bit more intense. So I kept returning to that yoga mind to observe, ask what does it feel like? and not attach future-meaning to anything.

Landing back home was bumpier than landing in Massachusetts.

****

Luckily the forest—and my hiking buddy C—called. We were weeks overdue for an outing.

Partridge Run was our destination. “I wonder how the ponds are?” C asked, after a quick hug hello.

Version 2

Spring ferns unfurled–just enough for that quick hug!

We started out on one path and ran into the same damned poison ivy we’d seen the first time we’d spring-hiked it. We backed out carefully, as if the reddening leaves might rear up and attack us, and chose another route.

We wandered the edge of Hidden Pond, where algae bubbled. Tiny azure flowers winked at us—-it was birds-eye speedwell (common field veronica) dotting the grass along with dandelions.

Version 2

Birds-eye speedwell and dandelions, Partridge Run, Berne NY.

I was busy with the flowers and what floats in late spring water, when she hollered, “Look! Look! A dragonfly! And I think it is brand new!” I looked over and the creature was so recently emerged that it was still drying, still unfolding.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Iridescence of appendages new to the air.

The wings were like stained glass panes, but clear, and bent-angled as they opened to flatten as we watched. You could see how the wings had folded into that tiny grasshopper-shaped exoskeleton—and how they expanded now.

I’m no entomologist, but thanks to internet image collections, I’d identified these brown casts—the exuviae—in my photos before.

Version 2

What is left behind.

I knew to look for the white threads that had until recently been attached to the digestive organs. Sure enough, just under our glorious new orange dragonfly was the dry discarded shell it seemed to have come from. After taking many pictures, I moved the grass back to partially cover the dragonfly; we didn’t want it eaten by predators because of us.

Right away I started studying the pond edge. “I want to find one, too!”—but instead saw a second exuviae. Then a third, and fourth.

Finally, dozens of exuviae were revealed, but no live dragonfly.

“Our buddy seems to be a late bloomer,” C commented. I’d been seeing dragonflies all morning along the ponds and paths, and now realized where they had probably come from.

As I wandered farther away from C’s initial find, I couldn’t help smiling over the sloughed off insect larvae skins, and my inability to find anything else. However, I continued to seriously search.

C called me over: “More! more!” She was practically jumping up and down.

In that moment, there was no chaotic apartment pulling at me, no fighting A-plus student worry about studies to come. I found myself bounding like I was five or eight, like myself.

My pack thumped my back, and swung back and forth, as my excited legs pumped me over.

To ask, “What? Let me see!” To hear my pal thrill and laugh. To joyously kneel down and then slow my breathing. To find a smaller, multicolored dragonfly uncurling wings, its slightly furry body moving in the novel light.

Version 2

See the unfurling, straightening, bent wings?

I didn’t have to find the sparkling insect. My friend did. In fact, I am now calling C “the dragonfly whisperer,” to let go of my need to be the one in charge. I can experience and be grateful, let go of distractions and anxieties, and trust that all will be well.

I am starting to land again. As I do, let me be perfectly imperfect, a late bloomer.

Let me be an end-of-May dragonfly.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Another fine gift of that May morning: the first scarlet tanager I’ve ever seen in the woods.

Part the Seventh, Wherein I Leave Town, Discover Mistakes I Have Made, and Worry

Bitter, bitter February cold and snow.

Dawn in bitter, bitter February: one window to the right glimmers warmly.

February 21. Right now I am out of town for a few days and in the course of deeper online research, discover I have been wrong—wrong!! Now I am kicking myself.

The appropriate recipe to feed a rescued butterfly: sports drink or sugar, soy sauce and water.

Will it be like when my kids were little, and I made what felt like grave errors? Or will the butterfly, like my children, be just fine? I am trying my best! I want to say. I didn’t know she needed electrolytes!

Was I more concerned about anatomy and theory, than the actual care of my Dainty? What about the potential exploitation (can you exploit a butterfly?) spending more energy in being excited, and telling people about it, than knowing what I am doing?

I was brought up to never make a mistake, because mistakes could be (probably would be) fatal: I was trained to pursue perfection while the attainment of it slipped further and further away. What a tightrope, and how exhausting!

Worry is wasted energy.

Lately instead I let go of worry, learn from missteps what to do next time, and concentrate on maintaining a sense of humor and curiosity.

However, I still can fixate about messing up, asking, “How could I have avoided this mistake?” when sometimes we can’t avoid, no matter what we do.

Away, snowshoeing to the base of the frozen sixty foot tall falls at Plotterkill Creek.

Away, snowshoeing with friends to the base of the completely frozen, sixty foot tall waterfall at Plotterkill Creek.

I acknowledge the ultimate end of the butterfly and the call to not be so attached. Not to be cold, but to be reasonable. I ask: What does “accompanying” mean? How far do we go? How do we hold onto who we are, and who/what the other person/creature is, and not inflict our beliefs about how things “should be”?

The Dainty Sulphur is in a holding pattern right now. If it flies away to where I can’t see it and then dies while I am gone, I will not know what has happened—like with so many people and creatures in our lives. If I find it dead, then that was its life; I will thank it for the gifts it gave and go on living myself.

February 25. I’m home again. Dainty was in the bedroom, ruminating on the rug.

This morning I moved her on a Q-tip into the sun-splashed kitchen, to the red dish-drying mat. She warmed up and opened her wings, but I don’t want to disturb her any more; already once she flew to the ice-cold window and beat her wings against it. Over and over the butterfly determinedly goes to the window, driven to get out. At least this afternoon she is sitting in the sun, wings out to absorb its heat.

Dainty lists a bit against the red mat.

Dainty lists a bit against the red mat.

She flies violently against obstacles to the outside world: the rug, the red mat, the glass. She is weaker, aging. But I can’t do much except offer food, and help here and there when she seems in a bit of trouble. Maybe she needed to clean her wings off or warm up. Looks like she’s kneeling against the window, into the light. Perhaps that is all she needs.

I hear birds chipping and twittering, like chickadees I saw in the pines the other day, chasing each other. This sounds like a bunch of sparrows or robins. I can’t open the window to look, since the butterfly is there. Is spring perhaps on its way?

Dainty flaps and flaps against the glass. I startle at the intermittent flitting beat of her wings, a soft sound. The warmth of the strong February morning sun enlivens her.

Meanwhile, plants on the sill silently absorb sunlight into their deeply green leaves, veins visible and almost pulsing, like the insect veins visible in the yellow of her wings.

She is so small on the windowsill.

She is so small on the windowsill.

The butterfly glows in the sun, near the plant that is glowing. She flutters, stops, flutters-flutters-flutters, stops. Is this an end-of-life push or just the brightness that draws her to move?

I can’t see it yet, but I feel drawn as well, to the possibility of snow melt and vegetation greening–out of the brown that waits unseen, underneath our current drifts of white.

February bird in snow, outside my window

February starling in snow, outside my window

Essay Tangles and Snarls

How I felt, essays all gnarled and ugly, on my way into the retreat.

Feeling defeated, essays all gnarled and ugly, on my way into the retreat.

Even with a short piece of writing, sometimes the initial story gets entwined in another.

The second small bit knots up with a third, maybe even a fourth and fifth, and all of a sudden you the author face thousands of words when you were only looking for a couple hundred. All the threads of connection seem intrinsically linked. Where can you slice so you aren’t left with a chopped up pile of confusion?

On top of it, the perfectionist editor-in-your-head won’t let go: The relationships between these things are amazing! amazing I tell you! She can’t allow the piece be simple and stand on its own.

That’s what happened to a blog-bound essay, then several essays, I planned to finish in October.
November.
December.

I did lots of other writing, for small groups and for the radio. I prepared to curate an evening of local memoir readings. I applied to artist residencies and photo exhibits.

Cut to the last weekend of January. I held one of my quarterly Move with Mindfulness/Write with Ease workshops. In the cozy retreat house, I led yoga and stretches for the writers and sun-on-snow hikes up the hill onto white pine lined trails. I cooked Mexican black bean soup and sweet rhubarb and blueberry coffeecakes.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Mexican Black Bean soup savory with cumin, multi-colored carrots,  cheese curds and fresh cilantro.

No internet or TV, no voice phone service, and only minimal housekeeping interrupted us; instead, session followed session, where everyone was writing, including me.

The themes of the weekend were phrases we use often on the yoga mat:
Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

They apply equally well to writing.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

On the mats, in the welcoming morning warmth.

After one hike, I knocked the snow off my boots, made a cup of hot tea, and turned on my laptop. For months I’d averted my eyes, stomach aching, when confronted by the working titles on my computer screen. This time I clicked on the documents one by one to open them all together and finally faced down the matted tangle of five to eight potential blog posts.

I got mad when I saw how close I’d been to finished on several of them.
I got sad at how seasonal the topics “could have been.”
Then I got determined.

Over and over I learn the same lessons. That’s part of why I teach them.
Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

See the pretty things hidden in the tangles?

See the pretty thing hidden in the tangles?

I can’t yank apart the knots between them, I thought; that will break the teeth of the comb, and accomplish the same thing as sharp scissors snipping haphazardly (remember to be grounded). How were the strands initially woven together? My previous efforts deserve gentleness (relax what you can) and not being in a hurry (be curious).

What do you do to a mental or writing knot?

Same as the visualization in yoga: straighten out, unwind, free, loosen, unclasp, release. Breathe!

Deep sigh after deep sigh followed, with shouts of “D’uh!” (often, embarrassingly, out loud) as I realized places to tease out a conceptual filament and drop it separate. The connections didn’t have to be quite so tight as first imagined; pictured it in medical terms, the conjoining was at the toe, not the chest, and therefore my surgical intervention was simpler, with fewer complications.

Still struggling, I asked: What do you do with a physical knot of tightness in massage therapy? Breathe into the pain, stay with it and it will lessen. Your body (and your writing) will be happy you are paying attention. Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

I did that with my essay snarls. Over and over again. What a relief.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Thump! Bump-bump! Pine cone rides the wind over snowy ground. Can I fly free, like that?

I’m not finished. But during the next few months, thanks to that weekend of attention to body and attention to writing, I look forward to posting some completely out-of-season, close (if not finished), relatively unsnarled meditations.

The sun setting on my work, at Still Point Retreat Center.

The sun setting on my work, sparkling its light everywhere, at Still Point Retreat Center.

A radio essay, as your holiday gift

Christmas lights in New York City, 2014

Christmas lights in New York City, 2014

Here’s part of why I have been otherwise-occupied the last month or so: one of several essays I’ve written for public radio.

The link is not direct, and as time goes on you will have to search through a couple layers on the website, but for your listening pleasure:

Go to http://wamc.org .  Search for Programs: The Roundtable, December 22, 2014 Listener Essay (11:35 am) and look for Diane Kavanaugh-Black, “God Rest Ye Merry, Elmo Doll.”

The A-plus student sighs in relief, that the only recording error was not her own; but it would have been fine if she had made mistakes, too.

Peace, stillness, and plenty of sparkling lights to you all.

To Be Human

Pollen frosted close up of roadside chicory flower.

Pollen sparkled stamens of common roadside chicory: delicate and tough together.

I’ve been off the grid for many months, in terms of writing posts, due to some health issues.

It’s been hard to let go of the happy disciplines I crafted over time in favor of other, uninvited ones: from days of writing and hiking and yoga studies and business building, to pain management, miserable medication interactions, diet changes, self-care regimens and (even though it was minor surgery) post surgical rehab.

Unable to sit on the floor and do my yoga in its usual way, I had to figure out what part of my practice “transfers.” Sometimes I couldn’t look ahead into the future, or even the next thirty minutes, so the asana practice simplified into breathing in the moment, then breathing into only-the-very-next moment.

Sometimes I felt like this frog at Partridge Run: barely head out of water, plagued by flies.

Sometimes I felt like this frog at Partridge Run: head barely out of water, plagued by swarms of flies that just wouldn’t leave.

Until I’m consumed by Being-Ill Time, I don’t recognize that my usual experience is Relatively-Healthy (even though I’ve done this being-ill thing before). Since February, I’ve stepped out of ordinary time–like the final months with my friend J. Because it went on for a while, illness became my ordinary time. I had to give up activities I was attached to, like honing essays for this blog.

I stayed with the disappointment, frustration, and unexpected physical weakness. I centered on curiosity, listening to what was actually going on in my body, instead of anticipating procedures with dread or remembering previous ones with trepidation.

I had to bring my self-care tools with me into Being-Ill Time, and develop some new ones. (More on that in later posts.)

Daisy--closed, preparing for bloom.

Daisy–closed, preparing for bloom.

As humans, we often have to respond to what happens that we don’t choose. To glory in the pain-free moments. To become comfortable in “waiting to see” and not making plans. Here I thought I was moving so much more slowly than in my old perfectionistic, A+ Student self. Now I have been taught to go even slower.

Of course initially my mind went crazy with thoughts: How long will this last? How bad will it get? Am I a wimp?—justifying myself to loads of imaginary detractors.

Then one day on the way to replenish my medical supplies, I ran into an acquaintance who asked about what I was up to.

I’ve been ill lately, but I teach writing and movement workshops—and I’ll be doing yoga with hiking at a local nature area this summer.

But what do you DO?

With my sister, I’m working on a book about meditation and the creative process. Progress continues on the memoir. I’ve been enjoying my nature photography as well.

But what do you DO?

Hearing these persistent questions, I could have become discouraged. No, I’m not working a typical nine-to-five job with a fancy title or perks. I’ve been sick, so certainly my business’s forward movement has been disrupted.

However, for the first time, instead of self-judging, I noticed how her thought patterns and expectations of how I measured my life were upsetting HER. The chosen flexibility and unconventional schedule of my life—which made her uncomfortable—were getting me through some tough times. My response? I didn’t take it personally. I merely wished her well and went on my way.

Daisy, full open in morning dew.

Daisy, full open in morning dew.

It reminds me of what I used to ask my adult literacy students: Not Where do you work? but rather How do you spend your days? The question delved into who they were as people, and acknowledged that personal value is not based on how much money we make or our job descriptions. Some of us raise children, make a community, rest in retirement, volunteer, enjoy our professions or, alternatively, do meaningless repetitive things in order to pay the bills.

The better questions: How do you feel about how you spend your days? What’s important to you? What have you learned about being a human?

I’ve spent my days lately paying attention to what’s happening in my very human (concurrently fragile and powerful) body, researching, breathing, undergoing, recovering. I am living in my moments, honing skills of survival that I also tuck away for when I might need them next.

Dragonfly at Partridge Run seen on a recent come-back hike: symbol of (among other things) renewal after hardship, transformation, adaptability, joy and lightness.

Dragonfly at Partridge Run seen on a recent come-back hike: symbol of (among other things) renewal after hardship, transformation, adaptability, joy and lightness.

 

Lions and Tigers and Peaches, Oh My!

Orange newt in thick mud, August, Partridge Run

Orange newt in thick August mud at Partridge Run, Berne NY

Over two months ago, my buddy C and I hiked an overgrown path at Partridge Run, south of Albany. Like two girls in a fairy tale, we hopped and skipped and lolly-gagged, cameras instead of baskets-to-Grandma in hand. Small frogs surprised, bursting up with powerful rear legs from well-hidden spots in the mud. Orange newts appeared and disappeared, foreshortened limbs squiggling their torsos in cartoon fashion. We moseyed along, but then were stopped short by encroaching poison ivy and, smartly, turned around.

On the trail back to the car we spied something. A dark thing, in the middle of the path. A rock? A tree limb? An ailing creature? Cue the scary Little Red Riding Hood music.

I kneeled down to examine it. Looked up at my hiking partner, concerned. Looked down to take in the evidence again. Squinted up as we nodded simultaneously.

Yup.
Looks like it.
Bear, huh?
Yeah, see the blackberry seeds in it?
It smells musky around here–must be pretty fresh.
Oh. Look here in the mud. A claw print.

Straightaway we realized we should have been alert in the woods for something other than late summer wildflowers, amphibians, and butterflies. We quickly re-oriented to the aqua paint on the trees—Long Path “blazes” that marked our exit out.

Bee on the wing in late summer

Bee on the wing, before.

Only once before I’d been close to a bear in the wild (and known it), and that was a few months earlier at Kripalu. One early morning as the sangha gathered around a guest speaker, he noted drily: “You may want to look out the window.”

Across the back lawn, a youngster Ursidae was galumphing and gamboling, presumably drawn by the smell of our breakfast cooking. Since we saw the bear through glass, it was much more like a zoo encounter than a live one, though it made us all think twice before taking the paths alone at dusk.

Bears have also shown up in my nightmares, though not recently. Terror comes from a sudden smothering attack in the dark, from the inability to escape a creature so much larger and more powerful than me.

What I do know outside of nightmares: Black bears live in this part of New York, but not brown bears or the subset of brown bears known as grizzlies, which have a reputation of being more aggressive than black bears. The advice: Don’t hang out near rich food sources like fruit. Don’t get between a mother bear and her cubs. Hibernation starts in October and if you see a bear in January be very careful: it is likely a female, in labor, the most inclined to attack.

On the other hand, I have heard many stories of fairly peaceable bear-human encounters, where everybody just backed away.  Because, very importantly, bears are reclusive, prefer not to run into humans, and so we hikers should proactively announce our presence by making noise, shaking bells or singing.

***
Therefore, back in the woods, my helpful hiking mate, who was aware we should not be silent in case we came upon the depositor of the dung, began to shout.
Oh Mr. Bear, Mr. Bear!
SHE’S the plump and juicy one. I am the old stringy one. (Pause, as if listening.)
Yes, the one with the baseball cap, that’s her.

Only half-laughing, we sped our legs to cover territory fast, then faster. She continued:  Oh Mr. Bear, Mr. Bear! We had a lovely visit but we’re leaving now!

Arriving unscathed at the car, we weren’t ready to give up on our day in spite of run-ins with poison ivy and bear poo. We drove south, arriving at a more civilized path, one that led to Tubbs Pond.

I remarked as we sat down by the water, Glad I didn’t stop to eat my lunch in the woods.

Then it dawned on me the horrendous portent of what I carried in my bag, into what had proven to be active bear territory—cue more sinister music—as my fellow hiker hollered gleefully into the trees nearby,  Oh Mr. Bear! Mr. Bear! 
She’s got A QUARTER OF A PEACH PIE in her bag!

I whispered: And (more dawning, a veritable sunburn of realization) a sandwich, peanut butter and–

Whereupon she added with relish to her public service announcement:  AND HONEY!

Peace pie, water and sky on the Tubbs Pond dock.

Peach pie, water and sky at Tubbs Pond.

In the sunlight of the Tubbs Pond dock, safely consuming my late-summer pastry, I thought: Huh. In our hurry to get the heck outta there, fresh bear scat in our noses, I did not stop to take pictures.

And was beginning to regret it.

I ventured to my partner: Can we go back? I’d love to get a picture maybe of the tracks…is that crazy? My heart thumped in my throat like our legs had moved: a little fast, then faster. Without too much hesitation, she acquiesced. Only twenty minutes of walking, we figured…

Of course I was afraid. It would be a calculated risk. End of summer, blackberries obviously nearby, recent proof right in our footsteps of large alarming creatures–at least one of them.

But if I let the fear beat me, I might regret it forever, I thought. I really wanted photographic evidence of what we’d seen.

And lately I’m tired of being afraid of things, always stopping with “Maybe I’ll hurt myself, maybe I’ll look stupid, maybe I can’t be A+ at anything.” My new more honest self says: “Of course maybe I’ll hurt myself doing new things and of course I look stupid sometimes and yes, maybe the bear will return to the scene of his crime—er, droppings”—but should I let that keep me away?

My pulse continued to increase. I noted and then ignored it, as we climbed back into her vehicle.

After all, it was with some knowledge that we were deciding to proceed—to make noise, and look up and around while hiking, not just at our feet. Aware that if the wind is blowing at your back, the bear can smell you up to a mile away; if at your face, you can stumble on them because they can’t smell you at all.

Not out of the car a minute, hand cupped around her mouth, my buddy started:
The peach pie is in her belly, if you’re looking for a treat.

Jingling keys and singing, we found the path. She mumbled under her breath: Can’t believe we are going back into bear infested woods to get a ratsa-fratsa picture. I thought to myself—If I get attacked by a bear I’m gonna not only feel stupid, I’m going to have BEEN stupid.

Off to the side, something dark and thick swam forward in the woods; my eyes bulged and attention narrowed sharply–Oh my god, there’s a bear!

–Oh, a burned stump. In pseudo bravery, an aside to the cutthroat hiking partner: Here is where in the scary movie they say: Don’t do it! Don’t go back! You know there are bears in there!

Heart still thumping hard, I slowed my inhale, slowed my exhale. It didn’t help.

Maybe this IS a scary movie, I thought. Maybe I AM part of a fairy tale, but I can’t think about it now; I’m busy paying attention to my surroundings I shook my keys louder.

We walked quickly, one ahead, one in back.
I will stay behind you and have my camera ready, so I can take pictures when the bear comes out to greet you. She snickered mercilessly.

I hoped she knew it’s ok to take pictures with a small camera, but not one with a big lens because the bear interprets that as a large and very aggressive eye. I did know that when you encounter a bear, you look sideways at the ground, and back away or circle around.

Joe Pye Weed, with a non-lethal creature.

Earlier we’d passed Joe Pye Weed, visited by a non-lethal creature.

We arrived at the fated spot much more quickly than we thought we would; fear definitely distorts your sense of time. Involved in looking for the prints again, we walked along the path identifying deer and raccoon in the thick mud, and others, including the horse’s hooves we’d seen all over Partridge Run.

Then there they were–round, small, but bear’s prints, definitely not dog, definitely not people or coyote…click-click the camera went. I neglected to check the woods every second or two. In fact, the more bear-free minutes that passed, the less afraid I felt. We finished and hurried back to the car, the distance even shorter this time.

On our final steps:
A granola bar, Mr. Bear, I think she’s got one of THOSE still.

In the car, we giggled in relief. I had faced my fear AND gotten the pictures.

***

I am glad I had a hiking partner who was willing to go back, even if she was (verbally anyway) also willing to throw me to the omnivores. Glad I got to enjoy my peach pie, and the fairy tale lesson did not involve being swallowed and cut out again, or some outside hero saving me. Glad I’ve learned to not live without fear but to feel it and choose my action.

Having a wicked-funny friend along sure helps.

***

Postscript: At home I analyzed the photos. The ground was so wet and gravelly, it was hard to capture the details of the prints that were visible three-dimensionally, in person. You can’t see where we saw that nails and claws had dug in, versus just some other animal’s pads displacing the mud. But the dung was delightfully clear.

Yup, there it is.

Yup, there it is. The pile of scat was not large, hence the bear wasn’t either. Which is just what the size of the prints indicated as well.