Oh For The Fear of a Bear!

I’ve been thinking a lot about bears, lately. I think that’s because they’re — you know — actual monsters, with sharp claws and bite teeth and all that, which belies the common claim that monsters aren’t real. Nonsense, of course. Demonstrably false. Monsters are real, they are called bears, and why is everyone pretending this isn’t the case?

10 March 2021 | 10 Minutes

Anyway, over the past two weeks I moved my family up to a remote corner of Maine, the most northeastern state within the United States. We’re in a farmhouse about twenty minute’s drive from a town called Bangor. Imagine rolling hills and trees, and a foot of snow on the ground, and little girls sledding down hills. That’s my life these days.

I spent much of my childhood outdoors. And an inordinate amount of time in the upper branches of camphor laurel trees. By seven, I was the leader of a bicycle gang of like-minded ruffians in a small town called Nana Glen. We ran across railway bridges to scare ourselves. We hunted lizards and yowies and tried to catch and eat snakes. And we went swimming unaccompanied by adults in a river that was guarded (I vividly remember) by a herd of ill-tempered cows. It was a different world from what my daughters know.

They are now ages five and seven, and they spent this past year in a small house in a dense urban community just across the river from Boston. I couldn’t even take them to the park because it was so often so crowded with unmasked (and occasionally coughing!) adults and children.

Each day, I took them for hour-long walks, and often over to the MIT quad, which was about ten minutes’ walk from our house. But those walks were stressful. We had to dodge a large numbers of unmasked pedestrians and joggers. So many people were far too cool and relaxed to take a global pandemic seriously.

The bloke living over my back fence teaches ethics at one of the universities in Boston and even he stopped wearing a mask over the summer as soon as Cambridge relaxed its mask guidelines. He explained to me (from four feet away) that he didn’t need to wear a mask because his university tested for Covid-19 once per week. I told him that on average Covid-19 becomes contagious 3-4 days after it infects one; he smiled smugly and informed me he’d done his own research on that and that I was mistaken.

Everything my neighbour knew about viruses came to him via social media. Which is fine; if he wanted to get sick, good luck to him. But unfortunately, his witless decision-making affected everybody with whom he came into contact. He could have contracted the virus and passed it on to, say, his elderly downstairs neighbour in between his weekly Covid-19 tests. Which is profoundly ironic when you consider that ethics professors are generally paid to sit about idly imagining such scenarios.

I suspect he was befuddled by the fact the pandemic hadn’t occurred on a deserted island — which I understand is where ethical dilemmas are supposed to happen.

Now, I am decidedly not an ethics professor, but delivering a potentially deadly disease to an elderly neighbour is something that I would prefer to avoid. That’s why I quarantined my family, after all.

On the upside, it turns out that camping out by the rear windows of my house with a BB gun and taking potshots at, say, passing ethics professors, can be quite the relaxing pass time. It is possibly not entirely ethical but, as I told my neighbour when he came to complain at me: when it comes to ethics, I like to do my own research.

Today is actually the one-year anniversary of the start of my family’s pandemic lockdown. We haven’t contracted Covid-19 so far and we also haven’t spread the virus to anybody, which was the point to the lockdown, really.

So now we’re in a farmhouse in Maine, on about eleven acres of woods. It’s been weeks since I’ve tried to shoot an ethics professor with a BB gun, so I’m a bit sad about that, but I suppose I’ll manage. How long will we stay here? A few months, at least. Then we’ll go to their grandparent’s house once they’re vaccinated.

In the meantime, my daughters get to go out sledding every day. I can see them through the window now, trudging about in the snow, the wind in their hair. To my right, from where I’m sitting, I can see a tree festooned with bluejays. And giant crows are swooping about out there, going caw, caw, which is a little incongruous because Australian crows go ark! ark!

It’s safer up here than Cambridge. On the other hand, now I have to think about bears.

It’s funny that people go ‘oh look, he’s afraid of bears!’ like it’s a personality defect instead of a practical and prudent response to the reality of monsters roaming the countryside.

We’ve found moose prints in the snow near the house, but have seen none of those yet. No bears either, but you already know that because I’ve been able to compose this letter.

People keep telling me that bears are hibernating at this time of year but I don’t care what they say; I get insomnia sometimes, so why shouldn’t a bear? And besides, who can trust the ability of the public to assess risk these days? Not me, not after Covid-19.

The other thing is that people say is that bears are more afraid of me than I am of them. But I strenuously doubt this. I know precisely how afraid I am of bears and frankly; I don’t think your average bear can sustain these levels of discomfort and unease.

And since when did it stop being logical to be wary of bears? The fact is that humans – regardless of how we like to see ourselves – are also animals that exist within a food chain. So, just like rabbits and foxes and all good woodland creatures, humans have always been the food of other animals.

Oh, we pat ourselves on the backs and tell ourselves that we’re the smart primates, the evolutionary winners, the apex predators – didn’t we invent gun powder, offshore banking and tax havens, after all?

But I often wonder just how much our brains have evolved over the past thirty thousand years. My hunch is that even in prehistory we had the same percentage of idiots like my neighbour.

Thirty thousand years ago, we warned them about bears. ‘Listen, man, don’t go down into that valley over there because there are bears down there. Stay up here where it’s safe.’

Then the pre-historic version of my neighbour would have grinned his self-satisfied grin and politely disagreed because ‘he’d done his own research’, and he was far too healthy to be troubled by bears, and it was all fake news anyway. And then off he’d go, down into the valley, and a happy family of bears would have something to eat that day that wasn’t porridge.

I just can’t help but notice that humans seem to think themselves the exclusive beneficiaries of natural selection. Eventually, we imagine, there won’t be any more of these nitwits left. Their genetic line will be eaten by bears. Or viruses.

But I think it’s all more complex than that. My hunch is that we didn’t evolve simply to survive as a species. We also evolved to feed ourselves occasionally to bears (or viruses) because this world has never been exclusively our own. It’s also theirs.

And henceforth, no matter how often someone tells me something like ‘humans are top of the food chain’, I’m going to think about dodging unmasked pedestrians through a global pandemic, despite the being within two kilometers of both Harvard University and MIT.

Our supposed pre-eminence is just another manifestation of this mad, faith-based conception of human mortality that exists in the minds of men like my neighbour. Something in their brain tells them they’re special — too special to become food for bears, or a habitat for viruses.

Every time I stared down the sights of my BB gun at my neighbour as he descended his back stairs (unmasked and mindlessly unready for the perils of this world) I wondered why such men exist. And over time I concluded they exist because baby bears need to eat too.

To be clear, I don’t rejoice in any of this; I don’t want anyone dying of viruses or being eaten by bears; I’m just trying to rationalise why other people are apparently so desperate to die that way.

I understand that nobody likes to feel fearful of bears, or concern themselves with getting sick; but most of us, I hope, know that threats don’t diminish magically from wishful thinking.

And there’s something disingenuous about the sentiment that says, “I choose not to be afraid of this virus.” What they’re really saying here is, “I choose not to be inconvenienced — even by the recommendations of medical experts.”

Henceforth zombie movies will have to change. No more scenes in which everybody runs away from the zombies. We now know that at least 30 percent of people are going to run straight at the zombies, laughing about how zombies are fake news.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. The evidence was always there. Google “tourists get out of car to photo dangerous animals”; it’s an entire genre of photography.

Or better, watch that Werner Herzog documentary about the bloke who became so enamoured with grizzly bears he went out into the wilderness to live with them. It’s an inspiring tale of one man’s fascination with these wonderful, majestic creatures. Of course, the bears eat him, but most of us knew that was inevitable from the outset. The main issue here is that so many people don’t know that, and might even feel like I just spoiled the story. The mystery isn’t that he died horribly so much as that he died with a surprised look on his face. And if you know precisely what I’m talking about here, that just means you too wore an N95 mask during a global pandemic — because you’re nobody’s fool.

Obviously we would all like to live in a world where we could go out and befriend grizzly bears. That would be hilariously cool. And does anybody want climate change to be real? Of course not. Nobody wants deadly viruses to be real either. And most of all, nobody wants a huge chunk of the human population to pathologically unable to accept such realities. But here we are, coping with reality as best we can — which, for some of us, requires the online purchase of a BB gun.

(And by the way, if you consider yourself a Doomsday Prepper yet did not wear an N95 mask when you went out shopping this past year, I submit that you are not terribly good at being a Doomsday Prepper and perhaps it’s time to find a different hobby.)

Still, I wish humans could be better than this. I wish we wouldn’t indulge in faith-based risk assessments, or wander around believing that The Deity In the Sky Will Save Us From Covid-19 and/or Bears. But apparently humans just need to be this way because nature, in her infinite wisdom, also feels that baby bears need to eat as well.

Anyway, that’s it from me this time. I should be less busy nowadays though, now I’ve finished moving my family to Maine. I hope this means I can write these newsletters more frequently.I’ve been so busy lately with the move, that it’s nice just to be able to sit down with you all and tell you what’s been playing on my mind (ie. bears!)

Also, I do enjoy when you folk send me email responses; I like hearing how you’re getting along.

Anyway, must be off: my children are in the woods hunting ‘mooses in the woodses’ and with my luck they’ll probably find one. Hoping you’re staying safe and well and healthy.

With chaste affection,

Kris St.Gabriel

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