A summer walk in the Selway, in country where I’ve never been, crossing a creek barefooted, to keep my boots dry.
It’s strange to think about my sweat being whisked by the shuddering current and becoming shared in infinitesimal fashion with all the other chemistries that surge down through the old forest, through the gills and the brains of the salmon waiting below.
The forest is dense, the old growth soft gold light sprinkling down on the rushing little creek, and on the new-green leaves of everything, and on the just-emerged bright flower blossoms: paintbrush, bellflower, lupine, arnica. The creek is wild, and the trail is right beside it, so that it’s loud; I’m hiking strong and a little fast, I suppose, though I’m not aware of how fast I’m going until I’m forced to come to a quick stop because of the big chocolate-colored bear nosing around in the glacier lilies at the trail’s edge, back in the shade, just on the other side of a column of that beautiful sunlight.
He’s less than 30 feet away, and he didn’t hear me and didn’t smell me, with the morning’s down-current breeze trickling away from him; and with his head down in the lilies, he didn’t see me.
He’s just being a bear, in one of the few unguarded moments, perhaps, in his life. It’s likely no one’s been on this trail all year—not since last hunting season—and the eight months of vacation must have been good for him.
I’m simultaneously trying to identify him—there’s a big muscular hump between his shoulders, and it’s the dark color that big male grizzlies sometimes get—while the sober recognition of my foolishness, my taken-for-granted-ness, stretches the moment into that strange quality where the walls of time seem to fall away.
The only thing reassuring about the scene (other than the fact that the bear has not yet lifted his head to behold me) is that he’s eating flowers. It’s a pretty scene, like something from a children’s illustrated Bible—the lion and the lamb lying down together. How can something so at peace among the lilies be capable of—much less interested in—killing and eating you?
There are no grizzlies in the Selway: so say the scientists. There are grizzlies within sight of the Selway; grizzlies in the Rattlesnake outside of Missoula, and in the Ninemile Valley, 30 miles away—a day’s walk for a bear—but, as if some imaginary dotted line exists, the animals aren’t found here. (Actually the line is not so imaginary; Interstate 90 is the barrier. A few years ago, one grizzly did try to cross, but was struck by a truck).
Two seconds, three seconds, maybe four. I take a few steps back and into the flowers myself. I’m slightly downhill of the bear—I’ve decided it is a black bear, because I can’t see its claws (a grizzly this big—300 pounds, or more?—would have daggers visible at this point-blank range). But I’m concerned that when the bear looks up—as it inevitably must—its instinctive fear-response will cause it to bolt right at me, forced to attack before it has time to think.
The faintest thought, a gauze of a thought—drifting, like fog, or passing slowly over my mind, like the gradual rotation of the light filtering through the canopy, falling upon some flowers and not others, warming some soil but not other soil—announces itself to me: This could be how you die; in a few seconds you may be charged by this bear, and killed and eaten. It seems unlikely, but the set-up is certainly right for it. Strangely, I’m not frightened.
Concerned, or deeply perplexed, yes, but to be faced—imminently—with the possibility of so intimate an experience as one’s death, my detachment is puzzling. The matter doesn’t feel insignificant, nor do I think I’m in denial—there’s a big-ass bear a few feet away who’s about to get a rude surprise—but still, there’s something like an ancient understanding of the agreement, the contract, that got us all here.
If life is about something more than the mechanical beating of the heart and the metered pulses of one’s lungs—and I think it is—then might death, too, be about something more than the mere cessation of these things?
The bear grazes on, as content as an old man working in his garden. He’s in habitat that grizzlies should be occupying, doing the things grizzlies would do, but they are gone, I think again—and this, too, registers dimly as a kind of mistake, a glitch in the natural history of the world.
How strange for the pastoral to coexist within me right next to alarm. The scene is so beautiful that, despite the danger, I want to take a picture.
He spies my movement as I reach for my camera. He jumps a little, as if receiving a small shock, and bristles for a moment, then turns quickly around and hurries away a short distance before slowing to a more dignified walk as he does the math: Hey, wait a minute, I outweigh this guy two-to-one, why am I running?
He slows further, but continues up the trail, into the shadows; and after giving him the dignity of increased space and the personal boundaries I’ve disrupted, I start up the trail too, eager to get on with the day, and all that lies ahead of me.