Little Bear dropped out of line behind the others and knelt in the snow under a tall Ponderosa Pine. Her hands, crude paws in wet mittens, scraped at the stiff snow beneath the tree, revealing the slender green and golden needles below. The rest of the children, dragging a sled piled high with backpacks over the trail, moved ahead. Little Bear was in her own world. And yet, she wasn’t.
We had just been back to our forest home for the first time in over a month. The day before Christmas vacation a major snowstorm had blown in, canceling our winter celebration in the forest, and beginning the long holiday a day early. We hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye.
“Hey look!” Griffin had shouted when we first arrived, “the house is still up!” Some of the children ran under the shelter, a crude lean-to made of pine boughs that we had used for snacking and storytelling. “Somebody knocked over the stones,” Advah said, pouting, referring to the little fire pit inside where we had warmed our hands and toasted bread. I sat under the old Juniper by the river, spying the castoffs of days past, pieces of yarn, green and pink, a red string that had once tied a tiny felt bird to a stick. There was a pile of bright green moss at the base of the trunk that had served as an altar, a pillow and a magic carpet. Buried nearby was a piece of bone, over which Wolfie had spontaneously prayed for the children of Syria.
Pema shouted to Ada, “Let’s go see if the gnomes are still there!” and took off through the trees. The last time we were here, about a month ago, we had made little gnomes from tree branches. The children had used a small handsaw to cut a small piece from a cylindrical branch, with an angle cut on one side that, when painted with a face, looked like a pointed hat. They had even laid out a little nativity with a grass arch, Christmas “trees”, and a tiny baby Jesus gnome. Silke had woven a grass donkey.
We spent the rest of the day searching out old haunts, eating lunch and telling stories. Now we were finally headed back out. Our backpacks were loaded onto the sled and hitched to a team of horses. Ada had the rope around her waist in front, followed by Pema, then Griffin, Advah and Little Bear. Esperanza held caboose, catching errant bags if they tumbled off the sled, which they did frequently. The horses weren’t exactly used to their harnesses yet, and as the team advanced the snowy trail, encircled by a long green rope, they bonked and tripped continuously, a journey that had mostly been filled with laughter.
“No, you can’t hold it like that!” Griffin shouted at Advah, who stopped and let go, only to be bounced from behind by Little Bear. The horseplay was giving way to nips. “Stop it,” Little Bear whined in her signature tone, b-flat. She has a way of speaking as though she doubts anyone will listen, the sort of cynicism one would expect of a teenager. To my eyes and ears, she is perhaps the most observant and mature of the group, but her feigned boredom often turns into real boredom. She is at times utterly morose, stubborn as a mule.
If Little Bear is a mule, Griffin is a colt. He is a ball of energy that enlivens every occasion, but sometimes sours the moment by naively crashing into people and contexts he’s not even aware of. Ada, at the front of our team, is a prancer, spirited and playful, but delicate. Pema, my own daughter, is probably another mule, sure-footed and hefty. Like Little Bear, she pays close attention to the social dynamics in the group, which occasionally overwhelms her with sadness and uncertainty, particularly if she feels left out. Our colt and prancer, quite pleased to just be themselves, don’t often encounter that problem.
Advah is a pony. Diminutive in size and temperament, she has the gift of observing the tiny things that most of the other kids ignore. There are moments when she and I, our faces pressed close to the earth, share a secret understanding and her huge, round eyes light up like stars. Esperanza rides side-saddle, meaning she is finicky, agile and elegant. She is plenty fast and playful, but tends to observe decorum and the rules, often demanding the same of her playmates. Like most well-bred horses though, one can still observe her rebellious independence lurking underneath. She is just this side of tame.
“Children,” Silke sang above the complaints and arguments of the kids. They stopped and turned to her, the well-trained horses that they are. Silke is an incredible trainer who manages to lead her team with neither carrot nor stick. The children follow her lead simply because they trust her. “What do horses do when they are harnessed together?” she asked in her sing-song voice. “They have to have space, yah?” she continued, her German accent landing with full force on the final yah. “You need to give each other room, so that you’re not bumping into each other.”
Pema, who was squishing Ada in front, slid two steps back. Griffin took a couple steps forward, closing the gap. Advah now had some space, and Little Bear, who had mostly been tripping on the sled with the back of her heel, was free to walk. Silke turned around and the team set off once again. We made it about twenty feet before a new set of turns, through some tightly packed tree trunks, caused a bit of chaos in our team. “Hey!” shouted Griffin, “Stop that!” “Hay is for horses,” sang Silke, walking further ahead. Little Bear quietly slipped out of harness and fell behind Esperanza in the rear. She would have slipped past me too if I had not slowed my pace.
Past the trees, the kids were all jockeying for position again, while Esperanza shouted “Wait!” and dutifully chased after lost gear. Little Bear wove her thick frame slowly through the tree trunks, me following. I could feel the disappointment sinking into her body. Her arms hung low and she scraped the sides of her jacket against the rough bark, ambivalent. She has a way of isolating herself, silently and stealthily. As we exited the other side of the trees, the horses were already beyond the next turn. She knelt under a tall Ponderosa, and began to paw at the snow.
It was a test, one that I had failed many times before. In a way, she wished I would fail, simply walking ahead, or issuing the prototypical “Come on, Little Bear,” a delicate taste of the horsewhip. I would have proven, once again, that no one had noticed, no one really cared. She acting engaged, as if she were building something out of the snow, but it was obvious she wasn’t. Her mittens were soaked, the kind of children’s mittens with an inner layer that becomes impossible to straighten out. She had already brought her mittens up to me several times that day, almost pleased about the fact that she and I would not be able to get them on correctly. It seemed to amuse her. As she hacked at the snow, I knew she could barely sculpt her hand into anything but a fist.
This is her way. She wears her disappointment like ill-fitting clothes, almost like a badge of honor. Larger than the rest of the kids, a bit overweight, she sometimes treats her body like her lunch bag, which she commonly drags on the ground behind her. Her whole expression at these times exudes, “I don’t care.” Perhaps she’s not a mule after all, but more like Eeyore, the hapless donkey in the Winnie the Pooh stories. Then again, her name, Little Bear, is also an apt description.
I have encountered a wild bear only once in my life. I was riding my bike on a mountain trail and, swerving quickly around a blind corner, came face to face with a baby bear, thickly matted with brown fur. It was early spring. I stopped suddenly, as did the bear, both of us expressing shock and curiosity for a brief second, before another sense kicked in and we took off in opposite directions. The bear, brown and chubby, loped off the trail into the dense shrub oaks, while I awkwardly turned my bike around, imagining, as all well-bred city boys will do, that it’s mother was nearby and I was, at all cost, never to come between a mother bear and her cub.
That was almost ten years ago. I’ve never seen another bear since, though I see their tracks and poop and claw marks - signs of them - all the time. I know of at least two active bear caves. I am in the woods all the time, and have crossed that same path where I saw the baby bear dozens if not hundreds of times. Still, no bears.
Little Bear, the person, is not unlike that little cub. She is a bright and curious child when she feels safe, but she’s quick to vanish from sight. She is most happy when romping with the other kids, when she loses her storyline a little, and becomes an imperturbable plaything. She is perhaps the only child who, because of her sheer size, is not overwhelmed by Griffin’s tireless energy. Solid as a tree trunk, her stocky build and high tolerance for discomfort make her the center of wrestling piles. I have seen her countless times, with two or three other children, wildly swinging and jostling inside one of the hammocks tied between trees in the forest. At those times, her laughter is wild and free.
And then there are these darker moments, where, for whatever reason, she pulls away from the group of her own accord. She is prodded, often enough, by mild disagreement, but the kind that rallies most kids into bids for dominance. Little Bear is by far the most physically dominant, so it is the social tension - largely within her own mind - that seems to be the occasion of her withdrawal.
At least, this is what I was thinking as I stopped next to her on the snowy path. Eyes to the ground, pretending to be absorbed in her task, she was waiting for me to pass, “like all the others,” so that she could believe in the story of her isolation. But I’m not scared of bears anymore.
“Hey Little Bear,” I said, approaching cautiously, suddenly recalling that, “Hay is for horses.”
“Hey,” Little Bear groaned, b-flat, her crude paws working at the snow.
We were silent for a moment. A slight breeze wrapped itself around the tree trunk, lifting the faint smell of butterscotch from the bark. The sun, behind a thick bank of gray clouds, bathed us in soft ambient light. There were so many ways to ruin this moment with words.
Years ago, I went on a camping trip with a friend, backpacking through Yellowstone Park. There are grizzly bears there, and when we registered with the ranger station we had to watch a video about bear safety. One of the park rangers told us that since it was only two of us, a relatively small group, we should make a lot of noise as we traveled to alert the bears in the area to our presence - so we wouldn’t surprise one. We even carried a bottle of “bear spray”, a canister of mace the size and shape of a small fire extinguisher.
My friend and I, heeding the ranger’s advice, shouted “No bears!” every few minutes while we were hiking, often ten or fifteen miles a day, for the entire length of our trip. We made a game of it, laughing at ourselves as we carried our hefty packs through the forests and grasslands. “No bears!” I’d shout, and he’d shout back, “No bears!” The wildflowers were magnificent. The cold water in the rivers and lakes was almost inebriating. I was experiencing this kind of wilderness for the first time in my life.
One night, camped near a muddy riverbank, we followed a set of bear tracks, the round pads accented by the puncture marks of long claws. After twenty or thirty feet, my friend shouted, “Holy shit!” There, in the mud, was a much larger print. We had been following a baby’s tracks. This was the mama, a massive print larger than my hand, fingers spread wide. At the tip of each pad was huge depression from what must have been claws as big as my fingers. “No bears!” we shouted, suddenly standing tall and scanning the horizon. We listened extra hard that night through the walls of our tent.
We made it out a couple days later, shouting “No bears!” to the very end. We didn’t see any bears. We didn’t see any buffalo. No dear. No elk. No wolves. No badgers. No moose. No fox. We spent five days in isolated parts of the park, and I can’t recall seeing a single animal, save maybe a small bird or two. “No bears!” If the trees could have got up and walked away, I think they would have.
I stood silently with Little Bear in the forest for what seemed like a long time, though was probably less than two minutes. “Hey,” I said again, softly. Little Bear turned around. We looked at each other’s eyes for a moment. “Hey,” she said.