“They took all the trees
and put ‘em in a tree museum
and they charged all the people
a dollar and a half just to see ‘em”
The bear’s large claws gently slid down my face, his mouth within inches of my own, and I recall a horrible stench in his breath. My back was pressed against a tree, and there was no escape, as the bear reared up on his hind legs to look me over, face to face.
I had been living in the Canadian Rockies for a few years in the 1950s, and was lured to this spectacular mountain top near where I lived. It was the highest peak in view of my house, so I wanted to climb it to see the surrounding countryside, because it was obviously a grand viewing spot.
I climbed it by walking up, it was still beneath the treeline, above which no trees grew, and indeed, when I reached the top, I could see for miles in clearer air than must exist anywhere on earth today. There were no roads, telephone lines—nothing within my view to show humans had been there—just endless treetops extending as far as the eye could see.
Ten years old, I attended a one room school at the local sawmill, where there were giant hills of sawdust. In those days there were few rules on cutting down woodlands—it was believed that the forests were without end. There was no environmental movement—nothing to protect this masterpiece of Mother Nature’s genius.
One of my jobs as an older boy was to chop firewood and feed the pot belly stove that heated the schoolhouse. I also cleaned the outhouse, pumped water from the well for drinking and washing, and did other tasks as directed by the school’s lone teacher, a woman with the patience of Job.
One night my father drove the family to the garbage dump, where the headlights from his car illuminated about fifty black bears picking over the food scraps in the piles of trash. Bears ruled the forests, though the meanest animal at mating time was the bull moose.
A bull moose would attack anything that came between him and his mate. Big bulls can weigh almost a ton. I once watched, safely sitting at the edge of a cliff above him, as a bull moose attacked a field mouse, tearing up the ground until sparks filled the sky from his antlers scraping over rocks. Did he think the field mouse was going to try to take away his mate?
The moose would escape to the plowed roads when the snow was deep, and one caused my school bus to swerve into a ditch to avoid hitting him, so that we had to be rescued. The snow would average about 4 feet deep in winter.
So it was that I climbed the mountain in the spring, after the great snow melt that would leave this world deep in mud for a month.
The bear backed away from me, perhaps just curious, probably had never seen a human before, and he walked out of the pine glade. Immediately I started running, in bear country kids were always taught to run downhill to escape a bear, because bears tended to back down a steep hill. They are built to go fast up a hill or up a tree, with long hind legs and short front ones. Anyhow, the bear didn’t chase me, but at the time I wasn’t sure, so I ran as fast as I could through the mud, all the way home.
Days after my encounter with the bear I went into the woods to find Cree, the Native American who lived in a cabin covered with bear hides. I didn’t tell my family about it, because I’d have been beaten for climbing the mountain on my own, but had to get it out, and Cree was the one in which to confide such a tale.
“You were protected by bear spirit,” he told me. Cree had it that bears wanted to kill him. Every few weeks he would say a bear attacked him and he had to kill it in self-defense. He had a massive bow and arrows with large deadly broadheads on them.
The local community accused Cree of lying, because nobody else was attacked by bears, only Cree, and so often. It was said to be against the law to kill a bear for sport, so Cree was accused of lying because he always said it was self-defense.
Cree told me that around the turn of the twentieth century his father had killed a bear cub one spring to feed his family, and the mother bear had come for him. According to Cree his father shape-shifted into a crow and flew into the shadows of the trees where the she-bear could not see him.
Native Americans always made me do a double-take when they did this, so matter of factly describing things impossible in my European-centered way of thinking.
Cree told me his family was cursed by bear spirit from the time of eating the bear cub forward, and his killing of bears controlled the curse in the short term. Eventually a bear would kill him, bringing an end to the curse. Meanwhile, he said he had some control over bear spirit and had conferred enough on me that I had been protected from the bear on the mountain top.
Cree was a lonely man and appreciated the time I spent with him, listening to his tales. Once he showed my father and some other men and me a lake that he said no white man had ever seen before. We got there in an all terrain vehicle towing a boat. As fast as someone in the boat would cast his fishing line, he would catch a fish. I had never seen fishing like that. In a short time, the boat was filled with fish. Cree asked that we tell no one about the lake.
Cree said he had seen a brown bear as big as a horse, and horses in lumberjack country meant logging horses, bred for their size only, not beauty like Clydesdales. I imagined a monster. Perhaps the bear that had ended his life, because nobody ever found the bear, but it was assumed that Cree may have wounded one without hitting a vital spot. Of course, I’m certain that in his last seconds Cree believed it was the curse that finally got him.
I had seen the great woods, the massive northwestern forests that no longer exist in such a state of wilderness, except in my memories, an ecosystem filled with bears and moose, lynx and elk, grey wolves and white-tailed deer. More troubling, all of the great forests of the planet that bottled up so much of the earth’s carbon in preventing climate change are but a shadow of their former selves.
Thich Nhat Hahn tells the story of the last tree. When we get to the last tree, he tells us, people will want to touch it, because it will be so precious and healing. In time there will be long lines of people wanting to touch the last tree, and people will be limited in the time they can spend with it.
When I think of Joni Mitchell’s song, I envision a billionaire putting the last trees into a tree museum, and charging us to see them. Capitalists grant no value to nature, so when they turn a tree into a commodity, they call it “creating wealth,” as though no wealth existed when it was a tree in the wild, only when it’s chopped down and converted into lumber. Only when nature is destroyed does it have value to the capitalist.
I will never forget standing on the mountain and for a brief moment, seeing trees for ten miles out in any direction, and no sign of human intervention. I regret that no future child may ever get to see such a magnificent sight, bear spirit protection or not.
Jack Balkwill has been published from the little read Rectangle, magazine of the English Honor Society, to the (then) millions of readers USA Today and many progressive publications/web sites such as Z Magazine, In These Times, Counterpunch, This Can’t Be Happening, Intrepid Report, and Dissident Voice. He is author of “An Attack on the National Security State,” about peace activists in prison.