On polar bears and Barry Lopez.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 8.50.19 PMI dream about bears.

I am not sure when bears entered my subconscious in such a strange and vivid way, but they did, and I think they may be here to stay. I dream about ferocious grizzlies and playful fat black bears. I dream about big white bears with paws the size of dinner plates and hollow hair that gleams creamy-yellow in the northern sun. In my dreams, I see cubs climbing trees and sliding over the ice. I sometimes think I can smell them in my sleep; I’ve been told they smell of pinesap and animal musk. Sweet, sticky, fresh, brutal.

Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I think I see a bear. I never see these phantom bears in the woods or in any landscape when I might meet an actual bear. Once, when I was very tired and working late at Maine magazine, I thought I saw a bear descending the stairs on all fours. Of course, it was just my co-worker, bending over to pick up something he had dropped. I shook my head clear of fuzz and fur, and went back to my computer screen.

I don’t know where this fixation comes from. I never liked bears, not particularly. I always felt kinship with hares and foxes, smaller animals that leap and scurry, not big lumbering things. I was never afraid of bears, either. Not like I’m afraid of heights (that terror is illogical and visceral, something that breaks my composure entirely, turning me into a quivering puddle of metallic fear and foul-smelling sweat).

I saw a video today of a polar bear cub dreaming. I wonder if it dreams of people. I hope not. I hope it dreams of calving glaciers and frigid ice floes, of the epic sounds of its northern homescape. I hope it dreams in a palette of blue and turquoise, deep rich indigo and startling mint green—the colors of frozen water and star-lit midnight.

I am reading a most excellent book right now: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. Never have I found an author whose career I desire as much as I want his. He makes nonfiction feel as pleasurable as fiction (and that is NOT an easy task). Someday, when I’m old and grey and going over my body of work, I want it to feel like his—varied, complex, focused on nature and the natural world, brave, smart, poetic. Here’s just a tiny sample of the wisdom and beauty that flows throughout Arctic Dreams:

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

Dreaming of bears and leaning into the light—one is my reality, the other, my goal. Not a bad place to be, for now.

Image: Sculpture by artist Ellen Jewett who makes “natural history surrealist sculpture.” See more here. 

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3 thoughts on “On polar bears and Barry Lopez.

  1. Arctic Dreams….I read it many years ago ( twenty years?), it’s still here on the shelf. An excellent writer, Barry Lopez, and because I have always had a fascination for northern environments , the landscape and its indigenous peoples, it spoke to me as well. I remember being at the dentist one time, in the waiting room…again twenty years ago maybe…..and reading a great article about reindeer herders in Siberia. It was fascinating. I so wanted to travel to Siberia….the barren landscape, the cold, and the isolation a draw for me. The dentist let me take home the magazine. Perhaps this is why I wish winter would come along and get here….snow, cold, ice……that’s for me. Always enjoy your writing……have a Happy Holiday, denise

  2. For the last year or so, I have been seeing bunnies everywhere (like, literally, I see physical rabbits). Of course, my mother thinks this is a sign but I think it’s just my spirit animal revealing itself to me. Do you think bears are your spirit animal?

    1. What does your mother think it’s a sign for? (Time to have babies?) I don’t think bears are my spirit guide or anything necessarily, but maybe they’re symbolic of something I’m afraid of, or something I’m trying to understand. But when it comes to animals I see a lot in the wild, I’ve been seeing a lot of skunks lately… Here’s hoping that the skunk is NOT my spirit anything. Dumb skunks.

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