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

Fall Colors in Appalachia

Most people in this region look forward to the fall more than any other season, despite this being the prologue to winter. Starting in September at the atlas or far end of Appalachia, color changes ripple down the spine to the coccyx at the southern extremity a month later, but the finest sights are in the north and at high elevations. Colorful sugar maples like it cool.

Fall colors in Appalachia

People have probably marveled at the spectacle ever since they first set eyes on it eons ago, and long before they wrote about it. I find it perfectly understandable if Native Americans believed fall beauty was the deliberate artistry of a Great Spirit who painted the trees, flowers and creatures for human pleasure, like the Huron story of a great bear’s blood dripping on the forest from heaven and other stories passed down in tradition and lore. More than anyone else, Charles Darwin deposed humans from the center and purpose of creation, but accommodated his feelings for natural beauty in an evolutionary perspective (‘There is grandeur in this view of life …’), which is surely true though we have paid a price by losing a naïve and supremely arresting joy out of mystery.

When the first people saw the Appalachian Mountains there were no trees because the land had been scraped by glaciers and it took centuries for forestland to replace retreating plants that were the first colonizers after the last Ice Age. We are lucky to live in an era when conditions favor trees with fall splendor, though probably one of the last generations to witness them as climate warming pushes back the season and trees struggle with summer heat. The change is not so much a loss to the tourist industry as to the human spirit.

This year’s weather has muted fall colors in Central Appalachia. The maples were almost denuded a month ago, although the oaks are still green and beeches golden-yellow.

Leaf color chemistry is molded by weather. For the most brilliant display, summers should have plenty of rain because drought triggers leaf abscission. Then, late summer should have warm, dry days and cool nights with little wind. Those conditions prevailed this year, save one—the nights stayed mild. We had our first frost on October 17, but it was slight and night temperatures were mostly above average. An Indian summer spoiled a painted fall.

The closer you look at leaf chemistry the more complicated it seems. This is surely a principle in science as, for example, whether physicists study elementary particles or the cosmos the closer their examination the deeper and further they are borne. Science mines nature, but we never get to the end of the seam. We celebrate this richness, but it must be frustrating for politicians who commission research because they hope complexity will turn into neat answers, yet at the end of a study the conclusions are often provisional and there are plenty of new questions.

Once upon a time, fall colors were regarded as consequences of healthy biochemistry yielding to organic decay. The fact of the matter is half opposite because they involve a rather active process. Some genes switch off while others turn on. Each leaf is more in command of its fate than left to the consideration of entropy. Of course, photosynthesis does shut down in the absence of enough sunshine or moisture, and, to add complexity, deciduous leaves are more responsive than evergreens. It’s a familiar story because a sun-loving pot plant left in a shady place when we go on vacation will be a pile of dry leaves and bare stems when we return. It is a protective mechanism for plants and deciduous trees in autumn to withdraw vital nutrients and minerals from leaves into their ‘body’ for storage until needed at the start of the new growing season when the sun breaks out.

When the green pigment disappears, the yellows and oranges that were present all along are revealed. Beech leaves go a step further when the pigments turn into brown tannins that we notice dangling on stems all winter. But the red and purple pigments of maples and gums are synthesized de novo shortly before their leaves fall.

These are anthocyanins, which are molecules that are abundant in ripe berries and grapes and lend red wine its virtuous reputation. They are beneficial for leaves too where they serve as sunscreens and antioxidants to protect valuable molecules synthesized in the summer from solar rays shortly before the fall. There is another theory that bright colors warn away pests, as if rouge leaves can tell insects they ought to buzz off to find a less vigorous tree. It doesn’t square with the widespread lack of receptors needed for seeing red.

Despite its brisk pace, I believe science will never end and its ambition will never find a final goal. That’s worth celebrating. Life would be boring, almost pointless, if everything was predictable and nothing was mysterious. Mystery is sacred.

Fortunately, there are still countless enigmas in nature to stimulate our curiosity, and keep scientists employed. In this post I can mention only one, though it is relevant here. I wonder why evolution hasn’t given all deciduous trees the same glorious reds and purples in the fall if those pigments are so beneficial. Isn’t natural selection supposed to steer genetics to an optimum fit for the environment? Europeans must be satisfied with their yellow fall leaves and no native reds at this season compared with the hot colors we enjoy most years in eastern North America and Asia. Are there any bright theories out there?

Carving for the Ages (Petroglyphs)

A slab of yellow sandstone larger than a dinner plate lay at the foot of an old maple tree close to a woodland trail in the Allegheny Mountains. The shadow of an inscription on its flat face made me pause for a closer look. It read:

billymemorial

There are several hundred cemeteries dotted across the county, but few of them are “official.” The county resists zoning laws, so private landowners can bury the dead in their own backyards. Casualties of war, especially the fallen enemy, were not always honored with ceremony or laid in consecrated ground but rolled into a hastily dug grave where they moldered from anonymity to invisibility. But if the memorial stone marked Billy’s grave, he had not been buried carelessly.

Federal troops were known to be stationed there during the Civil War. Probably they were involved in the fierce engagement with the Confederate Army at Droop Mountain in November of that year that swung in their favor. Perhaps Billy was mortally injured in the fight, or maybe he died of measles, which was claiming victims in both armies.

soldiers-gravestoneTo examine the lettering on the hard stone, which was probably made with a knife point, is to realize this was a tenderly made memorial amidst so much suffering and misery. Billy has long gone out of memory, and would have disappeared from notice if his platoon merely tied two sticks to make a wooden cross, but carving a rock gave the young man a greater longevity, at least in name. Had the inscriber chosen a softer rock, like my father’s first headstone, it would not be legible for long, but deep gouges in the stone preserved Billy’s biosketch for 150 years.

On an ancient route across a rocky plain in Anatolia, and near the town of İmamkullu, a Hittite paused to carve a boulder over 3,000 years ago. The images are worn but you can see a princely soldier and a god, as well as incomprehensible hieroglyphs. Petroglyphs are found the world over from prehistoric times, and if you want to leave a memorial to posterity never leave it in ink or paint, but carve it on rock. Hard rock!

I mused about Billy’s gravestone while I chipped away at a boulder on our property, some twenty miles across the county. It’s hard to explain the impulse for my first rock carving, although the boulder offered a flat, vertical surface decorated with several species of lichens with a mossy seat on top. It is beautiful, and it was irresistible even for a virgin of the rocks.rockwoodcarving72dpi

If I was an accomplished rocksmith with time on my hands I might have carved a noble, sphinx-like head of a Shawnee brave, because this was the tribe’s hunting ground. My ambition was far more modest, the mere cutting of eight letters under the eye of James Alexander Thom, a family member who carves wood when taking time out from writing historical novels. I won’t add my signature or even my initials, preferring the carver to remain anonymous and somewhat mysterious like Billy’s inscriber.

When the cerebral effort of design is finished and the repetitive work of execution begins, a different part of the brain seems to kick in. As the rational region relaxes, the imagination can take over for dreaming to the noisy accompaniment of chipping. I wonder if anyone will stop to ponder the inscription in future centuries and millennia? I guess they might need a translator to read the word, “ROCKWOOD.” And I try to imagine what will those people will look like and how much the environment will have changed. The struggle to look forward probably stretches the imagination as much as when they try to look back at me, or I try to picture the Hittite.

When I returned to Billy’s gravestone I met the landowner Tom, whose family has lived on the mountain since they came as pioneers in 1830. He restores old log cabins transplanted on the back of a big flat-bed truck from across the Alleghenies, even as far away as Pennsylvania. Billy may have known one of the cabins because it used to stand on Droop Mountain. They are far more comfortable after renovation with a new tin roof and stone chimney than for the families who built them, and make attractive rental properties for visitors. Few cabins survive on their original sites because wood quickly rots when they are no longer cared for and the roof falls in, whereas castles and cathedrals quarried out of rock in the mother country of Tom’s ancestors will endure for eons. Without conservationists like him there would be fewer testaments to the lives of struggling pioneers.

After chatting about how the logs were cut and chinked, I asked him about the memorial stone on his land. I could tell from his changed demeanor that he had news. “It’s not the original! After lying there so long, someone stole it fifteen years ago.” He found a stone to replace it and carved the tribute to Billy from memory. “It’s a pretty good replica,” he told me.

The memorial says something about the carver again, the second time around, but I blush at the notions expressed sometimes about Appalachian mountain men by ignorant outlanders. As an afterthought Tom said, “It’s a pity it wasn’t too big to be carried away,” which brought my boulder to mind.

Next Post: Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation