Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Bear that Wasn't There

The naturalist is a landscape painter in reverse. We strip successive layers of meaning away from the world around us--sometimes in great flowing sheets; more often in ragged, irregular fragments--until, what remains?

During the last great mast Jeremy and I wandered through the back door of the Salinas reservoir. Across the way a great black figure foraged in the golden oats beneath a tremendous valley oak. Stupidly, I thought it was a bull--until the creature raised his head, sniffed the air and broke into a lazy lope. In half-a-dozen strides, maybe less, it was over the ridge, and gone. I haven't seen a wild bear since.

Three times, maybe more, I've come close: stumbling across fresh prints and stale feces. These semiotic stand-ins are exhilarating and boring. They sit there frozen while I'll fumble for the camera and snap away. They permit my prying gaze without protest. They suffer my boastful posing--like a trophy hunter with a twisted carcass I try to measure up against the lifeless form.

A real bear has far more dignity than that.

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