The Bears of California


Leslie Soule


Copyright 2019 by Leslie Soule

Honorable Mention--2019 Animal Nonfiction


Photo of California State Flag.

So there I was, pondering what to write about. I had a weird dream last night, after a long weekend of work, gardening at my friend Tom’s mother’s house in Placerville. In my dream, I wandered my house, and it was full of snakes. I like snakes. But in my dream, there were far too many of them to deal with. I had the problem of trying to find tanks for all of these snakes, and the problem was that there were far too many snakes to deal with, and not enough tanks to house them all. Since this is a recurring dream, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder what it means – and I’ve come up with the idea that it’s my mind’s way of telling me that I’m stressed about my current “to do” list – too much to do, and not enough time to do it in. Too many snakes, and not enough tanks to house them all. But there’s more to worry about in life, than just snakes.

For example, there are bears. I’ve never seen a fully-grown bear in the wild, here in California – but I know plenty of people who have. Growing up, I always wondered if I might encounter a bear. After all, California’s state symbol is the grizzly bear, and it’s on our state flag and everything. My friend Tom even states that he’s seen a bear three times, up near his mom’s property, and was in his car all three times.

When I was in second grade, I was a good student, and one of our rewards for good behavior, was picking a prize out of a random prize box. There was some really good stuff in there, like this little wooden crate I pulled out, with a plastic flocked bear with blue faux gem eyes – a souvenir from Yosemite, and stamped on it were the words, “I caught you a bear!” I adored it.

Years later, it was at Yosemite National Park, where I did actually get to see a bear in the wild – a cub. People were standing all around, taking photos of this adorable fuzzy creature. I’d always been told to watch out for the mother bear, if you saw a cub in the wild. But in this instance, the mother was nowhere to be seen. Were we all about to be eaten? I wondered for years afterwards, if we all had been close to a bear mauling or something.

At any rate, on Saturday, Tom and I drove to his mother’s house in Placerville, where she lived on essentially a mini-farm type area of land, large enough that she kept two horses. The place was remote enough that there was no cell phone service. I met Tom’s mother, Claudia, and she showed me around her rose garden, which she had to plant with wire baskets around the roses, since up here, you had gophers to worry about. Claudia began showing me around the rose garden and telling me about the names and origins of her roses. Tom reminded me that he’d given me the idea to write about bears.

“That’s scary, that you’ve got bears up here,” I said. Although I had family up in Crescent City, California – in redwood country, where bears were much more common, all I’d heard about them were myths. I told Tom and Claudia about a story I’d heard. My uncle had a big black dog named Oso. The story was that he’d gotten high, and started petting what he thought was Oso – until he saw Oso far off on the other side of the yard – and realized that he’d been petting a black bear!

Then of course, there was the story about the bears wandering into my uncle’s yard to eat and get drunk on the rotting fruit they’d find. At any rate, I followed Tom’s lead and started pulling weeds in the garden. Off in the distance, Claudia’s dog Lucy barked for a while, terrorizing one of the horses. The sun was out and shining, and though I was a bit annoyed at not having cell phone service – and thus not having my “life line” to the outside world – I couldn’t deny the peacefulness of this place, away from city life.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about the bears,” said Claudia. “I see black bears come through my yard all the time. It’s the grizzly bears that you have to worry about.”

“They’re all the same to me,” I said. I’m sure that non-snake-lovers must feel the same way about snakes. At any rate, the Golden State of California has a California Grizzly Bear on its flag, but these bears are extinct in the state, the last one having been killed back in 1922. What did she mean, that I didn’t have to worry about bears? What if I was in the wild, or camping or something, and had to face one by myself? I wondered if I could be the only one who lay awake at night sometimes, imagining what might happen if I were transported magically back to caveman days and had only my wits for weapons.

“Well, I have black bears come through here sometimes,” said Claudia, “and all I have to do is stand over there on the porch with a couple of pans and bang ‘em together and they get going.” She looked up at me and smiled, sitting there in her lawn chair, watering her favorite roses. Surely, I reflected, if this seventy-year-old woman knew how to fend off bears, then I could as well.

And so perhaps the mind creates more difficulties than are really there. Eventually, Tom and I left his mom’s house and we talked about the difficulties he’d faced thus far, in attempting to help her with the tasks of daily life.

We pulled up to my place and Tom said to me, “I just wish she’d live somewhere, you know, in civilization.” But at least Claudia didn’t have to worry about bears – and I could go on, to worrying about my “to do” list, and how to handle all those mental snakes.

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