Learning stoicism from the bears


Michael uses the opportunity for a close up. A minute later, the cub advanced toward him, so he tapped it on the nose with his foot. The bear shook his head and moved back a half step, but didn’t turn and head down the creek to cover as older bears usually do. He was neither aggressive nor cautious. Mainly, he seemed hungry.

The cub was apparently an orphan. He didn’t know how to find food—or even what was food and what wasn’t. In recent days he had dragged out of my garage a 20-pound bag of millet wild bird seed, several bags of potting soil, a bag of peat moss, and a bag of fertilizer. He ripped them apart and spread the contents around the yard, but none of it was edible. I’ve had bears around for years, but mostly they stuck to edible garbage and other treasures, such as dog food. This little guy didn’t know what he was doing.

2014-0525-bear_0854He came out in broad daylight and couldn’t be scared away. He just kept ambling around, sorting through things, trying to get food. Not the sort of guest one can trust in a big yard frequented by dozens of children. Most of our bears are rarely seen in day light, and amble toward the creek when they encounter a person. They aren’t exactly afraid, but they are not aggressive and they prefer to keep some distance from people. Michael and I tried yelling at him (after kicking him in the nose) and rushing toward him swinging arms and making noise. He just moved around us and stayed up in the yard, still looking for something. He even started down the open door into my basement, but Michael chased him away. We were expecting fifteen or so grandchildren for lunch, some of them preschoolers. We couldn’t predict how the bear would interact with tiny people. We couldn’t, to be precise, predict how he was going to interact with us from moment to moment.

I’ve been trying to learn better how to live with bears. That seems better than simply removing them. But sometimes I don’t like the cost. I have eleven young fruit trees I need to replace, after bears broke them late last fall, a couple near ground level, and this was followed by the coldest winter in years–minus 35 degrees at one point. They’re quite dead. Also, I needed to either give up beekeeping or work on a more ambitious fencing system than suited by intents and purposes. Locking up garbage faithfully was simple until bears figured out they could rip off siding and tear down doors. I suppose I’m not through learning.

I couldn’t see what passed for a solution. I wanted to just solve the immediate problem—give him some food. Generally, we don’t need to solve the world’s problems to provide immediate comfort. The trouble was that a full belly doesn’t last long. What happens tomorrow and day after, when he learns that the way to get food is to hang around my place in daylight? There’s no real future for bears accustomed to getting food from people’s houses. They start scratching on doors and crawling through windows, or worse. Bears conditioned to forage in people’s garbage eventually get shot.

The tribal game wardens use a live trap with troublesome bears that haven’t harmed anyone, relocating them farther from town. But I doubted this little guy would fare much better in the world. His mama hadn’t taught him how to find. Bears are high enough in the hierarchy of being that they develop cultures and traditions. Cubs hang out with their mothers for a long time, learning about predators, food choices, and foraging sites. This guy apparently hadn’t learned any of that. We called the warden, and not much longer, he showed up, ready to shoot the bear. While we were walking down the creek attempting to locate him, we heard the unmistakeable banging of a bear in a trap. The trap had been set for several days, just across the creek. Finally, he had overcome his skepticism and walked into it.

I don’t know what the tribe did with him. So I am free to think they probably relocated him to a wilder place, and in that place he figured out how to forage in the wild. Happily ever after.

But I don’t believe it. So I find myself descending into stoicism, imitating those ancients who tried to see things as they are rather than hurling themselves against the cosmos to change what would not change. ‘”Seek not to have things happen as you choose them,” said the slave Epictetus. “Rather choose that they should happen as they do.”

The Stoics sometimes had considerable wisdom, but they tended not to accomplish much, having lost some essential vigor.