Friday, February 27, 2009

Bears, Pigs, and Roses...oh my!

There aren't a lot of bears in Pennsylvania, and if you want to see one you generally have to hunt for it. But there's always that one-in-a-million time.....

Fall was a wonderful time of year in the little pocket of land between the mountains where I was raised. It was cool, there weren't many bugs, and each day brought a new drift of pungent leaves piling up around the trees. Snakes had gone into hibernation, or were about to, and the air simply cooled your nose and didn't freeze it solid yet.

Our two big gardens held only the stubble of cornstalks, a few discarded brown leaves and perhaps a dropped clay pot. All the gardens were generally beds of dark brown, damp soil, with Gramma's rose garden being the exception. That plot of earth held only the bare limbs of pruned roses, waiting for the spring to bring them back to life. Oh, and a set of deep, unquestioningly identifiable footprints.

Late in the evening, after we were sent upstairs, my sister and I loved to climb out of bed, sneak to the heater grate in the floor, and listen to my grandparents as they sat in the kitchen in quiet, evening conversation. One night, I remember the talk was sparse and to my young ears the words sounded grave. I heard the words "keep watch," and "keep the girls close," and "plain as day," and "crushed one of the rose plants," but couldn't make out anything more.

The next day, we had relatives over. Deer season was about to begin, and Grampa and several uncles had gathered in the kitchen to clean guns and catch up on what each other had been doing for the past year.

At dusk, I decided to go for a walk with my little cocker spaniel, Buffy. An old railroad bed ran behind the house, and along the base of the mountain. The ties had long since been removed and the bed was now a wide flat path that stretched the length of the property and up through the woods. Beyond the railroad bed were our pigs. They occupied a large pen Grampa had fashioned by running the fencing up the side of the mountain and back down. Level with the railroad bed, was the water trough, the feed trough, and the barrel containing the pig feed mash.

Buffy and I crossed the small creek that drained from our pond, passed the chicken coop where the hens had begun their evening acent up the stairs to the warm henhouse, and then started up the small rise to the railroad bed. Suddenly, Buffy stopped and stood as still as stone. As I watched, she began a shudder that encompassed her entire furry frame. With a sound that I'd never heard from her, she backed up and ran, whining and yelping, down the rise and directly for the house.

I peered into the darkness of the woods. Overhanging Witch Hazel branches and beech obscured the view for a few moments. Finally, as my eyes adjusted, I saw a huge dark mass plugging the open end of the overturned feed barrel. In all my young years, I had never seen a bear in real ife, and at first I didn't know what I was looking at.

Ever so slowly, however, it backed out of the barrel. Fascination held me to the spot until the bear was fully out of the barrel. Then it stood up. My brain finally put my legs into gear and I'm sure my feet didn't touch the ground as I ran across the creek, through the back yard, and into the house.

The slamming door caught everyone's attention and I guess the look on my face and my little dog's frantic arrival just before me brought understanding before I could even speak. For a moment there was silence, then suddenly there was a mad rush for the back door. Cleaning rags flew into the air and shotguns were being snapped tight over shells. Gramma sat me in the kitchen rocker, began peeling off my coat and examining me for damage. That done, a cookie cured my fear.

5 men were across the creek within an instant, creeping up the rise to the railroad bed...guns aimed into the murkiness of the woods. Suddenly, as my grampa told it later, they all watched as the bear again backed out of the feed barrel where he'd returned after he scared me off. They all watched as the bear lifted himself to his full, adult height. 5 men raised 5 shotguns. Grampa peered down his site and lifted a hand to stay the others. Saying not a word, he pointed to the bear. There in the deepening twilight of the woods, something shone about the neck of the bear. It lowered itself to the ground and began a slow plod toward the men. Grampa spoke quietly, telling the others to hold off. The bear ambled to the railroad bed, 10-15 feet from the men, gazed languidly at them a moment, then began a slow walk up the bed and into the woods. As it walked, a long chain hanging from the neck swayed to and fro. A tame bear.

Grampa and my uncles looked at each other in wonder. With a few grins and chuckles, the men walked back to the house. Suddenly, there was much more than gossip to discuss.