Oh joy! It’s October again! Fall weather, Halloween, and, of course, trekking in the mountains to look at the leaves. Now, everybody may not do that last bit, but it is part of October at the Hendrix household. A vacation week must be held in reserve to be used in the October mountain leaf parade. It’s my wife’s fault. She has this earth goddess thing going that you almost have to experience to believe. Things like cutting grass, sawing wood, and piling sticks are chores to anyone else, but they are highly entertaining and a source of great contentment to her. So it naturally follows that the Blue Ridge is a magnet to her in October. Usually, we camp out in a tent when we go. This year, she’s opted for a motel. I don’t know why and I’m not dumb enough to ask: we old, married men know when to keep our mouths shut. Motel or not, though, a large portion of each day will be spent stomping around in the mountains among God’s trees. For my wife, the mountains in October mean beautiful colors; nippy-cold, clean air; rippling, clear streams; campfires; marshmallows toasted on a stick; stately trees; snuggling in sleeping bags; eggs and bacon cooked over an open fire; long hikes; and peace. Now, I enjoy all of those things, but to me, the mountains have one meaning that overwhelms all others. The mountains mean bears.
There are bears in the mountains. No news to you, I’m sure, but do you really feel the weight of that statement? There are BEARS in the MOUNTAINS. Bears are the only inhabitants of North America that regularly challenge their position vis-a`-vis human beings on the food chain. A snake may bite you, an elk or a moose may run you down, but only a bear will look at you and think “Lunch”. Well, a wolf or a cougar might also do that, but there aren’t many of them around and none of them are on the Blue Ridge. However, there are lots and lots of bears up there. Please don’t tell me to just look at the trees. I do look at the trees. Of course I look at trees; bears hide behind and in trees. Also, please don’t quote to me all the stuff that so-called “bear experts” say about how unlikely it is that a bear might actually attack you. I’ve read a bunch of their books about why bears attack and what you should do if that happens. Basically, their books boil down to two points: (1) we don’t know why bears attack, though we have some really good-sounding theories, and (2) if, when you get attacked, you try something and don’t get killed, you did the right thing: if you do get killed, you didn’t.
I’m not exactly afraid of bears, but I am definitely “bear-fearing,” in the sense that people may be God-fearing. I have a great deal of respect for bears. When I’m preparing to follow my wife into the deep woods or sleep there with only a paper-thin tent between me and their teeth and claws, I think a lot about bears. I’m worried that a bear may come and I will not be prepared. Of course, I’d like to be prepared by being inside a Sherman tank. Hey, you laugh, but Tom Clancy, the famous author, had a Sherman tank and he was never attacked by a bear. Success speaks for itself. But, the wife and I usually camp and hike on Federal land and, as the rangers won’t even let you have a pistol for defense, I’m sure a tank would get me report-ed to Homeland Security. I took a spear once, but let me caution you about long, sharp objects in tents around air mattresses. Totally explainable accidents will sometimes occur that can put everyone in an ill humor — at least, everyone that was intending to sleep on that mattress. Davy Crockett, American humorist and famous frontiersperson, once said he could grin a bear down, but that has always seemed to me to be scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to anti-bear defensive methods. I might attempt it, but only after tried and true bear defense techniques like screaming and running have proved unsuccessful.
Yes, friends, there are bears in the mountains and I am going to the mountains. My cup of joy runneth over, splasheth down the front of my shirt and dribbleth a little on my shoes. Actually, I’ve only seen two bears in the wild in all the years we’ve been going to the mountains: one dashed across the highway just behind my car and the other wandered through a campground sampling the contents of all the coolers he could find. That is, to say the least, anti-climactic bear behavior. Maybe this year, though, I’ll get to see a bear up close as he rips away various pieces of my anatomy, some of which I still use. It happened to a hiker a few years ago; it could happen to me. So considering all of this, why am I sad when I think about the decline of top predators on planet earth?
In his book Monster Of God, David Quammen says that future generations will look back at this time and envy us because we live in a world with lions, tigers, and bears. They will live in a world of sparrows, squirrels and rats. Top predators, the ones that populate our mythology and fill our minds with fear and respect, are all on the road to extinction. As we destroy more of their habitat to make room for more of us, we reduce their populations until they are no longer healthy, or even viable. In our human wisdom, we destroy that which presents the slightest threat to us. We “improve” the world that God has given us. Human beings improving on the work of God: when you say it like that, it sounds a little scary. Perhaps such a “safe” world will not be an improvement. After all, when the bears are no longer in the mountains, all you’ll be left with up there is a bunch of stupid leaves.
~ Kurt Hendrix
Originally published in the Wingate UMC newsletter for October 2015.
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