There was still plenty of snow on the ground on Monday (there still is), but it was blindingly sunny and in the upper 30s. I noticed a chipmunk, fresh from his winter’s sleep, scampering around my woodpile for leftover birdseed. Then I noticed that the shape of the flat rock in front of the goat shed, only recently emerged from the deep snow, had changed. A large woodchuck was sitting on it, right where he had sat before retiring. He didn’t look noticeably leaner, but no doubt he was hungry.
By coincidence, my order of vegetable seeds from Johnny’s had just arrived.
I immediately made plans to kill the woodchuck. I would give my .22 a good cleaning. It had last been fired, mortally, 25 years ago, at a woodchuck from the steps of the cabin. I remember my little daughter Phoebe looking out the doorway and cheering. I would pick this one off while he was perching on that rock, before he could beget – or she could bear – another generation. The thought of woodchucks reproducing like rabbits under the goat shed was frankly appalling. I am a pretty good shot. I drew a bead on this would-be varmint progenitor in my mind’s eye and imagined shooting out the kitchen window, pioneer-style.
The snow was firm enough, after a series of meltings and freezings, for a walk in the woods up the mountainside. I hadn’t been out all winter – the snow had been too deep. I put on my down vest and a pair of tall boots and headed up the trail. I figured I would take a look at Dailey’s camp over the shoulder of the mountain, which had been built at some time during my 20-year absence from Vermont. Up I hiked, in my sunglasses and buffalo-plaid wool cap with visor and earflaps, which I deployed against the fresh, cold breeze.
There were plenty of deer trails through the snow along and across the woods road I was following. As I approached the ridge, where the land rises more steeply and there are caves in the rocks – about which more later – I thought of bears. Black bears live on this mountain. I have seen them myself once or twice, loping across the driveway up into the woods. I suppose they live somewhere up in the rocks. A neighbor once told me he had found their den. I became aware that I was in fact entering their territory. I vaguely started looking for bear sign. I remember seeing the claw marks on a huge yellow birch on top of the mountain years ago. As my mind was reimagining the past, my eyes suddenly lit on those same marks freshly gashed into a beech ahead of me. No doubt about it: the bears too had awoken. All of us creatures had emerged from our winter homes, perhaps on this same day. As I tramped on and up, I saw another tree that the bear had raked with its claws. Gash, rake, and of course maul: verbs of the bear.
I became a little anxious. A bear’s territory is extensive – several square miles, I believe. The odds against an encounter were high. I thought back to my murderous, predatory gloating at the sight of the woodchuck. Now I was the woodchuck. No. The bear would run from me (and I from the bear). That is what happened when I surprised a bear while hiking through the Olympic National Forest in Washington state years ago. I replayed our meeting in my head. True, that was in July. This bear (these bears?) would be hungry.
I paused to pee in the snow. The sun was warm on my face, I was heated from my climb, and peeing in the snow (well away from one’s back door) is one of life’s little pleasures. Then I began to wonder. What if the bear passes by? Or catches wind (literally) of my man sign? I had once read that a bear’s sense of smell is seven times more sensitive than a dog’s. Will he think that I am marking up this corner of the woods for myself? Will he smell the potential of a good meal in my urine? He was lean from winter; I, on the other hand, was fat. The bacon I had had for breakfast – he could probably tell I had been eating pigs. Any leftover lipids in my urine would make it particularly savory (to bears) – appetizing, so to speak. I suddenly realized that this was a contest to see who would be at the top of the food chain. Two alpha predators were simultaneously roaming the same woods. I have faced off against a woodchuck before (carrying a small cudgel), but I was totally unarmed and up against a larger opponent known to be (on occasion) a random, impulsive killer on the paleo diet.
My walk in the sun took on the cast of nightmare. What would happen if we met? I have never seen the movie “Grizzly” but I know Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” which contains the famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Phrases from the ensuing passage, from an eye-witness to the off-stage attack, floated into my mind. “And then to see how the bear tore out his shoulder bone…and how the poor gentleman roared and the bear mocked him…half-dined on the gentleman… he’s at it now.” I had reached the ridge top. I stopped in my tracks and scanned the snowy, sunny landscape in every direction. No one would be witnessing anything up here, I reasoned. What the bear didn’t dine on would be cleaned up by the coyotes, the Vermont version of hyenas. Someone might come across my iPhone and part of leg in the spring. My phone! I could always call for help. It wouldn’t save me, but I might get the call reported in a grisly story on the Huffington Post. I could be my own witness, at least for a while. “Vermont man quotes Shakespeare to 911 as bear attacks.”
The thought of minor posthumous celebrity somehow buoyed my spirits. I decided I might as well forge ahead, vigilantly. But I soon found myself daydreaming again. I was thinking back to the time I had stuck my head in the coyotes’ mountainside den one summer in the presence of my family. (I say coyotes. They could have been bobcats. In any case, the scat at the mouth of the cave was fresh). I didn’t really insert my head into the opening, merely bent over and placed it at the hole and peered in. I immediately heard a loud snarl coming (as it seemed to me) from the depths of the den. I bolted. This is the so-called flight reaction hard-wired into our genes by ancient encounters with wildlife on the African savannah and in the caves of Europe. I sprang away from that den with a tremendous bound. Then I looked back at my family to try to save them. They, however, were all laughing uncontrollably, like jackals. My four-year old son Freedom seemed particularly jubilant. He had been the source of the snarl. Very life-like, too, at least to my vivid imagination.
It was not the first time I had run from a supposed predator. That would have been the time I was carrying a piece of plywood up the driveway with my wife in mud season many years ago, the mud having briefly rendered the road impassable. It was after dark. (This does not sound like good planning on our part, but we were young and it didn’t matter). We had a flashlight, an ordinary household flashlight. The beam must have swept up the driveway at one point, because it caught a flash of something ahead of us. Holly steadied the beam. It was reflected by two large yellow eyes. By coincidence, we had just been reading about the catamounts of old Vermont (now known as the Eastern Mountain Lion). I had dreamed of seeing one in our woods, which we had scarcely explored in our rush to build our cabin. (The last confirmed catamount in Vermont was the so-called Barnard Painter, shot in 1881, but there had been numerous reports of sightings since, some of them relatively recent). Holly kept shining our weak beam at the animal. It was too dark to make out the body, but the shoulder seemed quite high off the ground. It took a step towards us. We put the plywood down. Then the animal charged. I can still see those large yellow eyes coming at me – at least for the time it took me to turn tail down the driveway, slowly at first, then (looking over my shoulder) with alacrity. My wife leveled the beam long enough to recognize Artemis, our cabin housecat, who had come down to greet us. The rise in the ground ahead of us had somehow elevated her stature. I was somewhat embarrassed. Holly was highly amused.
I brake for animals, and it seems that I also run from them. If saw a bear and survived, whether by holding my ground or being pursued and escaping, I reasoned that I would have another story to tell. And if the bear won one for the quadrupeds, perhaps that was only fair. The woodchuck would be fruitful and multiply, as the Lord intended. But if I lived, he would surely die.
I saw no bears in the woods, nor more bear sign. Nothing more than a squirrel, and I did not take him for a cougar.