Living or Livid with Nature?

Black bear chew marks
Black bear chews the shed (again)

We weren’t always doggedly efficient extirpators—of insects for eating crops and stinging, of moles for spoiling perfect lawns, of predators for preying on livestock, and so on and on …

Not so long ago, humans tolerated annoying wildlife with a shrug. Further back, I expect we thought ourselves part of nature instead of dominating it. It has taken the toll of recent and projected extinctions to value biodiversity, and let’s be honest, more out of self-interest than awe. We want all kinds of bees to pollinate our crops and deer to satisfy our hunter instinct. It takes a leap to appreciate mosquitoes, although they are important in the diet of birds and amphibians we love. As they say, no gain without pain.

Do you remember my post on June 4 about an encounter with a bear ‘treed’ by hounds? I don’t condemn hunting per se (only the methods), but I took the victim’s point of view that day.

It’s likely to be the individual caught on internet video when it later stepped on our front deck. The camera died soon afterwards. I suspected flat batteries or power outage from a storm. But next time I came home I found the visitor had ripped out the cable connecting our satellite dish. This was the third such ‘attack’.

Rural living introduces us to more wildlife conflict. I have stories of woodrats chewing plastic water pipes, deer treating flower borders as salad bars, mice nesting behind the car radio, and woodpeckers hammering roof flashing. None were one-off. You have your own stories, and funnier when they happen to others!

Bears are like naughty boys. Not satisfied with disconnecting us from the digital world, our visitor overturned flowerpots, tore a game camera off a tree, and left a calling card on the shed. We might understand getting its own back after an ordeal with dogs but this time it alienated an ally. I consoled myself it didn’t break into the house, like bears raiding a fridge. There’s no ice cream to tempt in our home, but I worry about chocolate!

News of a rascal in the district tests even the poise of an ardent nature lover, much less others. Bruins on our mountain have broken into chicken coops, knocked over beehives and trashed apple trees. “Too many ‘barrs’ around here,” folk say in West Virginia, happy if bear hunters sweep across their land.

Policies that try to reverse the retreating tide of wildlife populations generate grumbling about government and conservationists bulldozing personal interests and rights. There is no better example than the row over gray wolves after the withdrawal of federal protection. It’s easy to take the side of charismatic creatures when viewed on a screen, but building a more tolerant relationship with nature starts at the porch door, and bears.

Next Post: Great-crested Flycatcher

Bear Facts About Hunting

Black bear in Pocahontas County, West Virginia
A ‘treed’ Black Bear

Deer came in the night to crunch the corn, a wild turkey arrived at breakfast to nibble wheat berries, and a raucous family of ravens cleared the rest. I rarely wait long for something interesting to turn up in a stone’s throw from my front step.

But I hadn’t heard baying for a long time and felt irritated at the breach of peace on Memorial weekend. I grabbed my camera and binoculars, leaving coffee to go cold on the deck, and ran into the trackless forest strewn with boulders under Middle Mountain that lately wore a green mantle.

After nearly a mile of making a beeline I slowed to approach the hullabaloo. All the while I thought about the mama bear and cubs caught in my game camera a couple of nights earlier. Did they hang around?  If so, had they become quarry for West Virginia hunters?

Bear hunting hounds
Bear hounds go crazy having ‘treed’ the bear

Closing in, I spotted a pack of nine hounds jumping and howling around the base of a tall maple tree, their eyes fixed on the canopy. Each dog weighing about 40-50 pounds was colored a mixture of brown, black or white. Most too intent on their goal, a chestnut one with its tail wagging attached itself to me, jumping up to lick with a lolling tongue. It might have made a fine pet, though none of mine ever had ribs I could count when its chest expanded with deep breaths. The others were equally lean. Each had three collars, one strapping a small black box with a 9” aerial.

I leaned back to gaze fifty feet up to the first fork where a black form moved. I tried to shoo the dogs but nothing distracted their obsession. I even pushed them aside to stand with my back to the bole but they treated me as part of the tree, landing muddy paws all over me. I never saw a more frenetic scene in the woods, and clambered up a bank, sapling by sapling, to avoid the maddening noise I feared could aggravate my tinnitus. 

At the top I had a clear view of the bear. It looked down, often shifting its position. I decided to wait until the hunters arrived, guided there by sound and radio transmitters. This is not the hunting season but I’ve heard that armed men are occasionally tempted to shoot. The nearest dwelling is 2-3 miles away (except ours), and only a couple of wildlife law enforcers in a vast county.

An hour later, two men arrived carrying orange dog leashes and a heavy bag. No firearms. They startled me as I didn’t hear movement through the understory. If I surprised them, it didn’t show when they found me petting the dog and watching the melee below. I wonder if they assumed I came out of curiosity to see a ‘treed’ bear and approved of hunting with dogs. Only half true. The second half I kept to myself to avoid confrontation, as in politics when I know neither I nor my opponent will concede, instead reserving expression for the ballot box or in writing to try to influence policy. Even more important when meeting rifles and crossbows in the woods. A number of states have banned hunting with dogs but the tradition persists as a fiercely defended right in parts of Appalachia.

We watched the bear for several minutes, photographing it from different angles. It had a long pale nose and glossy black coat; at around 300 pounds one of the largest I’ve seen in those woods. I thought it looked more handsome and noble than any of us standing there on two legs or four.

Black bear descending maple tree

The men rounded up the dogs, tying them to branches. One tapped the base of the tree with a heavy branch and when broken he bashed vigorously with a rock. I asked the other what he was doing.

“It’ll bring the ‘baar’ down. Dunno why but perhaps vibrations make ‘im think the tree’s unsafe.”

After several minutes the bear slid under the bough. The man moved away. I pointed my camera half way down the long trunk, my finger ready on the trigger.

I’ve seen bears clamber down in panic when I stumble on one feeding in the canopy. It reminds me of a fireman sliding on a pole to an emergency. I only had time for two clicks before he was on the ground, galloping along the stream bed.

Relieved to see him get away safely, I asked the men how far they had to walk the dogs back. I knew they must have driven to the nearest point in a truck with a kennel in the bed, an odd vehicle on first encountering one.

“Not yet. Dogs need more training.’

That was the hardest moment to suppress an objection. The poor creature was already terrified. It had run ahead of dogs without inflicting a terrible injury on any of them, easily done by one swipe. Each dog released in turn dashed after the bear.

The woods around me fell silent again. My return journey started by losing grip on a branch to slide on my buns down the bank muddied by recent rain until stopping in the stream bed. I felt angry for being clumsy and frustrated at powerless to protect the old man of the woods. I wished him well.

Half-an hour later at the house I heard distant baying again.

Next post: Common Tern

Appalachian Poet – Bertie Jane Cutlip

Outside a country store in the Allegheny Mountains, she stood behind a table covered in mason jars of home-made apple jelly and pickles. It was one of those glorious fall days in

Pocahontas County, West Virginia
Sharp’s Country Store, Slaty Fork, WV

West Virginia, so I lingered to buy some of Bertie’s homemade apple jelly and a stapled booklet of poems. Seeing my interest, she recited a couple from memory. I recall one was an ode to her home state and the other a tragic-cum-humorous story about a mouse. I was told she memorized over 100 of her poems, most of them end rhymes or couplets that celebrated country life, family, friends and animals over a long and often hard life. I listened to more over the years whenever I visited her mobile home in a quiet hollow (‘holler’) of Webster County.

Eventually, I offered to help her reach a wider audience. I recorded videos in her home and have now compiled her best poems in a published anthology for her 96th birthday in June 2020.

My favorite poem is ME, A MURDERER: