I am stopping more than my legs and lungs demand to look around and see where I am. I am tasting the air and I am listening to the way the wind moves around me. I can hear things sometimes, prophesies, warnings of cold nights or rain or the kind of wind that grabs fire from lighters and tent stakes from loose soil. There are stories in the sky too, clouds that speak of future storms and of snow and of days so bright and wide-open that you hunger for shade and shaded things to look at with sun-tired eyes.
I am just learning how to use my eyes and my ears, my tongue and my fingertips, my legs and my lungs and my slow human brain. I am looking at things and I am seeing a part of their story. I might watch the way that snow bends a pine tree and I might begin to understand something about snow and something about pine trees. I might see bear scat next to the trail and not know the red berries in it or if the bear was young or old or male or female or sick or happy. I think that if I saw enough bear scat that I might begin to understand something about bears. The woods tell stories with things I have been trained to ignore, and there is magic even in refuse.
I have sat and watched a bear dig up ants in a small meadow. I have wondered at his heavy, cinnamon coat and the muscles bulging beneath it, and I have smiled at the upturned corners of his lips, the wandering mountains of fur above his eyes lending expression to his strange face. I have tried to think bear thoughts and I have tried to dream bear dreams and I have awoken in the night, warm in the down and sheer nylon of my sleeping bag, and I have felt melt away the contours of a fur coat, the musty warmth of a well-dug burrow.
I have imagined these things and I have seen a bear differently than the bears I saw before, on television or while camping, at the zoo and in books I read about the woods. I did not understand then that there are stories happening all around me, and I had not yet imagined the strange, long lives of furred creatures rambling through dense forest and along the rocky banks of creeks, pawing at tree stumps, climbing the branches of tall trees. Thirty years a black bear might live. Thirty writhing springtimes full of green grass and cubs and rushing water. Thirty golden summers spent pulling blackberries from thorny vines with soft, furred lips. Thirty cold winters spent dreaming in the snow-covered dirt. Thirty years is less time than was needed to make heroes out of Kurt Cobain and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, to make legends out of Jeanne D’arc and Caligula. It is all the time I have lived and it has felt like many lifetimes.
This is a beautiful thing to hold inside your head - the life of a bear. I have held his three decades in my mind and imagined his life: hot, roaming summers, pawfuls of larvae, buzzing insects and sunsets. These are the things you can see when you see a bear in the woods, and this is the way that a bear can look - like a thing with a life, a creature made up of habits and desires and memories.
The world is big, and strange, and filled with stories unlike my own, and to know something of the lives happening around and without me is to know something bigger than myself. I would live an eternity in the paw prints of a black bear. I would drink deeply of his rivers and I would hold his bleached bones in my hands and imagine his whole life unfolding around me. I would chase him in the night, and I would wish him gone, but I would know also the magic of his fur in the light of my headlamp, his panting breath, his musky smell, his strange life - rich and foreign, unlike mine, and precious.