I love writing in the solitude of our retreat in the Allegheny Mountains. If you asked for directions from local folk in West Virginia you might be told to hike, “into the forest through the holler to the mountain,” but they couldn’t give you a physical address. We never had one (except of course GPS).
The only time we ever saw anyone there, apart from invited guests, was a couple of years ago when I was amazed to see an old man in a long white beard struggling up the snowy track with a sack slung over his back. “Bet you niver spected to see me, Boy?” he said, before handing me something. No, it wasn’t him, just someone delivering papers to register for the U.S. census. At least the Secret Service knows where to find us.
An Appalachian mountain man conjures up images of beards, banjoes, and guns, but we never met a more welcoming community, scattered across those mountains. Nor have we ever contracted better craftsmen and workers, as you’d quickly realize if you saw our home. But all that’s by way of introduction because I want to tell about hairier inhabitants. I mean really hairy.
My first encounter was with a Mama accompanied by two dark cubs and a large, blonde one that was probably born the previous year. I was careful to keep a distance, but walking the forest trails you can bump into a bear shambling in the opposite direction, almost snout-to-snout where the paths are overgrown. We always pause to take a good look at the other before one of us scampers off.
Lucinda had never seen a bear in the wild until one turned up just a couple of hundred feet from our home. Standing at half the distance, we were in awe of a mid-sized female, black and glossy, sitting with her head inside an upturned wild turkey feeder, sucking out the last grains of chicken scratch. Knowing how excited she must be, I urged Lucinda to stay watching and keep absolutely still while I crept back to the house for my camera.
After rummaging for batteries and a memory card for what seemed ages, I returned as carefully as I had left, but by then she was gone …. I mean the bear. That’s the only time we’ve ever seen one so close to home, although when we are away they often leave signs around (you know what I mean). Sitting on the deck, I sometimes feel their eyes boring
into me from close cover in the forest. I’m sure they are smarter and less aggressive than a lot of dogs, and provided I don’t mess with Mama I feel safe and they are out of harm’s way on our property, but not everywhere. You know when it is hunting season because there are more trucks with built-on kennels parked along the country roads, but hunters can easily get licenses out-of-season to kill animals reported for causing a rumpus in backyards.
It’s not that I’m against hunting in principle. I can make a hot venison sausage, and turkeys wearing pounds of delicious escalopes under their wings are tempting. But there’s sport and there’s chasing bears with dogs.
Before the animals retreated to the safety of their dens for hibernation, we were roused one night by sounds of baying breaking silence across the valley. I went outside in the blackness to listen, wondering if it was coyotes. After a while I heard a shot, followed by a second one. Then the barking stopped.
It was all too clear what had happened. After catching its scent, a bear had been tracked by hounds wearing radio-transmitters for the hunters to follow on foot even if they got out of earshot. Finally, the beast – cornered, exhausted and terrified – climbed a tree thinking it was safe from the dogs circling below. As a dog-lover, I’m sympathetic to them too because they are all too easily maimed when tangling with their quarry.
Even some old-timers who hunted alone think that to shoot a scared animal out of a tree can never be sporting. I’m told there are too many bears around, that carcasses are never wasted because the meat is eaten and hides are tanned. But the only compensation I ever heard was from a local friend who knows about these things. He said bear hunting with dogs will be banned in the state by the end of our lives. I can’t say bring on the time, but you know what I mean.
On January 1 this year, California became the fifteenth state to introduce a ban on hunting bears and bobcats with dogs. Many other states never permitted it.
Next time: What’s wrong with being a professor today?