Learnings
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on the ursidae

I’m obsessed, of late, by bears. It started with a piece I wrote on constellations, an inquiry into Ursa Major, great she-bear of the skies. With anthropomorphic enthusiasm, I find bears purposeful, grounded, confident, cautious, and wise. They make no apologies for their presence or for their weight upon the earth. They are at once spiritual, cosmic, and overwhelmingly physical.

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Bears are the most asocial of the carnivora, assembling to capitalize on opportunities for feeding, procreation, and the occasional enduring friendship. Intimidated by little and few, including one another, older bears are often scarred from a lifetime of standing their ground. The closest ancestor to the short-nosed brown bear made his way southward from North America, freed by the formation of the isthmus of Panama during the Miocene epoch, in what I imagine was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s own deft, creative hand at spinning magic from evolutionary realism, carving homo sapiens from chimpanzees, painting grassy plains over forest, forging ambitious mountains ranges as an impatient toddler might: forcing tectonic plates together until they capitulate, crack, flake, and fold upwards towards the sky like majestic saltine crackers. At some point in this fruitful chaos, an exponentially-great-grandfather of the brown bear, Ursus arctos, made his way across the plains, step by muted step, traversing continents just before Pangaea divorced itself and scattered in large pieces across oceans.

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They say the brown bear has the strength of nine men and I say, in that case, he’s more like a woman. Consider the arrogant blood lust of the 11th century Norse Berserkers, whose bear skin jackets enhanced their confidence and emboldened their naked fury. In the right moment, endowed with ursine brute force, I too resign myself to uncontrolled aggression, unhindered by social restraints, unknowing of pain (or so, regrettably, it feels in the moment). But the other of this double-edged sword tells us that, in the euphoria of the fight, in the frenzied climax, Berserkers would turn on themselves, chipping their teeth by biting down on their own iron shields, hurling themselves at threatening boulders, and committing indiscriminate violence against their own. Who hasn’t found herself in a moment of rabid, self-destructive hamask, on a path of internal conflict, cutting deep into the wrong flesh? Like you and me, the Berserkers were fallible, champion warriors of mythical reputation.

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Among the aboriginal Ainu of northern Japan, baby bears were captured and suckled by human wet nurses convinced of their godliness. The bear was an earthly costume of the most prominent mountain god who alit from the altitudes to mingle among humans, giving of its flesh and fur in exchange for offerings that multiplied in the skies, upon which deities feasted. At Iyomante, the great send-off, a well-nourished cub was the fixation of three days of ritual and, ultimately, of sacrifice. Just as the Ainu emptied the bear skull of eyeballs, tongue, and brain, so I stuff the rickety skeletons of life’s traumas with fresh flowers, succulent berries, the stuff of renewal and rebirth, in the hopes of a revitalized incarnation, in a show of divine acknowledgement.

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During my internal winters, those listless weeks when my body melds to the mattress and the thought of engaging the world, of feeling air pass over my skin, of the tremendous mental burden of being, overwhelms like 400 pounds of lethargic bear fat taken on against the cold, I keep faith in the healing power of hibernation: low and slow in body temperature and heart rate, I rouse for no one, not even for myself. At the conclusion of those episodes I regurgitate the half-million moths my ursidae brethren swallowed before sleeping, calories aflutter, that keep our organs aloft and keep the blood pumping during these Great and Cyclical Slumbers.

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Thick boned and omnivorous, the bear relies on the ambush rather than the chase, preferring herbivorous nourishment, the healthy fats of wild fish, and lastly the flesh of land animals. I concur on all accounts. Among ancient Finns, the bear was the most sacred of animals, a forefather or brother of man, closer to humans than to the gods and known by many other names: mesikämmen, honey-paw; kontio, dweller of the land; metsän kultaomena, golden apple of the forest; otso, wide-brow. Otso was born when a daughter of creation threw hair upon the rivers and wool upon the oceans, and Mielikki, Mother of the Woodland, sewed them together and bundled them in a basket of woven gold, hung in the heavens from the highest pine tree tops, and rocked it until Otso came to life. He was reared on the shoulders of Otava, known elsewhere as Ursa Major. I dream of a reinvention as sweet, as charmed, as fortuitous, amidst the stark environs of a Nordic winter.

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The myth of the Cosmic Hunt, reiterated in various cultures with astonishing similarities for 15,000 years, recounts a bear who, scarcely escaping its end, is launched into the stratosphere for safe-keeping. One version coincides with the Greek myth of Callisto, nymph transformed to bear and banished to the forest after an affair with Zeus resulted in a child. Years later, moments before her grown son would have unknowingly speared her, Zeus placed bear-mother and child-cub among the stars, permanently out of harm’s way. From our pedestrian orientation we observe them, Ursa Major and Minor, ever-present in the northern night sky. According to Iroquois mythology, the dripping blood of a wounded bear, transformed into constellation, heels nipped by a celestial hunting dog, colors the autumn leaves.

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Before the discovery of celestial navigation, explorers relied on dead reckoning to approximate their way through the unknown, plotting their assumed position based solely on their conviction in the previous location, or fix. But a life of dead reckoning is a life of cumulative error; if your fix was mistaken, you’re destined to lose yourself in solitude, inch by inch, mile after mile. Like Odysseus I sail onward, Ursa Major my constant cynosure.

As I work to manifest the spirit of the bear–feet on the ground, celestially attuned–I take inspiration from arcolatrists of times past and I steady my gait, seeking to embody a measured power and, in kindness, preserve my boundaries. I hold fast to my ursine companions in this grand dome, both above and below, and tread softly on a solitary path.

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*Without original photos of bears (how unadventurous, I know), I’ve included here drawings from various sources, each image a link to its origin. The header image, by Andreas Lie, can be found here.

 

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