A biologist once told me, “If you want to teach your children how to respect nature, first teach them how to see it.” That was twelve years ago, when my husband and I first moved off the grid. He dreamed of building furniture from his own trees, and I always wanted to be a writer, so we came, wearing our city shoes and bug spray, filled with romantic notions.
We are not connected to public utilities, which means we generate our own electricity, burn firewood for heat, and pump our water from a well. Our little house in the big woods sits out beyond where the power lines end; when the sun goes down and we turn on the lights, our cabin glows, the only electrical bright spot for two miles in any direction. We have raised two babies out here, with no clothes dryer, microwave, or toaster; we’ve endured winter months without hot water, summers with no air conditioning. Yet I grapple less with what we live without, and more with who we live with: the snakes, the muskrats, the deer—they live here, our backyard is their home. Much as I want to tell them where to go and when—the spiders, the ants, the mice—they got here first.
One day, soon after we moved into our cabin, my two-year old daughter handed me a snake, wiggling and bright in the morning sun.
“Look, mommy, a snake!” She put it in my hands, and I accepted because it was from her. We had been reading about snakes, learning how they flicked their tongues so they could smell. I oo-ed and ah-ed over the pictures in our books, telling my daughter how much I liked snakes, which I did, the way I liked all creatures exotic and interesting: confined to the sterile pages of a glossy picture book. Holding a snake was another thing entirely, even though I knew this one was a garter and non-poisonous. It was cool, heavy, and thick around as a C battery.
“How lovely!” I shrieked, and flung the snake into the air, away from my body.
My daughter watched the snake fly. It landed a few feet away, on top of the baby stroller, where it thrashed on the accordion hood and coiled into the fleece of her yellow blanket.
I reached out and gave the stroller a shove. The snake lifted its head from behind the blanket. I pushed the bar, then let go, as if it were contaminated. I wanted the snake to jump, though how a snake would jump without legs I hadn’t quite worked out.
My daughter watched, trying to figure me out. I was a vegetarian who loved all creatures, yet I became more aggressive, manically pushing and letting go, then trotting behind the stroller, push-let-go-push-let-go. I wove in and out among the trees, circling my daughter, driving the stroller. It bumped and careened.
“I want to ride!” she shouted with glee.
With one last shove, I sent the stroller crashing through the woods. It fell sideways, spilling out blanket, sippy cup, and snake.
Before this, I had always considered myself a nature lover. I wanted my daughter to see snakes—to know them, study them, even understand them—but I didn’t want them nesting in her blankets. And so it was a surprise to realize that the nature I loved was the nature that behaved the way I wanted. I was raised in urban dwellings, with the belief that there is a hierarchy to life, and that as a human being, I got to be at the top. The order went something like this: people, pets, ducks, plants, and bugs. I didn’t question my right to squash or relocate what was in my way, especially if it could bite. But by our second summer here, this hierarchy was giving me problems. The garter snake between our house and the generator shed had a baby of her own; the skunk living by our woodpile insisted we go around him, and no matter how thoroughly I scrubbed my kitchen, I lay in bed at night, listening to the scamper of little mice feet.
I didn’t know how to balance my desire to live in nature with my disgust at the droppings on my computer keyboard. “Everyone’s a critic,” my husband said when I complained. But I felt I had to draw the line somewhere. None of these issues were life-threatening, but these creatures were too big to squash, or too slimy to move, and because I was faced with their presence every day, I was forced to question my impulse to kill them. This was my home, and my children were watching. I had to come up with a new life hierarchy.
I applied the biologist’s advice to myself, but it took a long time to adjust the focus on my city eyes. Wild blueberries grow alongside our wooded paths, yet it was three years before I spotted them. I had to slow down when looking at creatures I thought I knew. When I did, I saw webs that defied the laws of gravity, and beetles sporting million-dollar art on their backs. One spring, our dog chased off a mother deer minutes after she had given birth. For two days, we kept our dog tied up and listened to the fawn crying out in a voice that sounded human, “Mama! Mama!” Finally, the mother came back and the woods quieted. I started to wonder, how much damage could one family do?
During our third spring in the woods, a family of bears plundered our bird feeders. At first it was magical, watching the cubs play under the scotch pines on our front lawn, scrambling up and down the trees. One night at dusk when rocking my newborn son, I looked out our big picture window and saw the father bear drinking from our rain barrel. He was enormous, larger than my front door, and he was standing on my porch. The next morning, I called the Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR agent recommended we take down the bird feeders. “Black bears are of little danger,” he reassured me, “unless you get yourself between a mama and her cubs.”
Of course, I thought. What kind of moron gets herself between a mama and her cubs?
Two weeks later, that moron was me.
Because the United States Post Office won’t deliver letters past public utility lines, our mailbox sits out by the last phone pole, a four-mile trek from our front door. In the afternoons, I would bundle up my children and walk those four miles; I retrieved the mail, and they got their nap. Our arrangement depended on good weather, and that afternoon we were rewarded with a clear spring sky. I pushed my double-jogger stroller past budding maples, my five-week-old son buckled and wrapped burrito-style in a blanket, my three-year-old daughter outfitted with her snacks. By the time I was on my way back with the mail, both my beauties had fallen asleep to the sounds of bird song and my feet pattering the pavement. About 200 yards from my driveway, the bears lumbered into view.
First came the mother, her immense shoulders jutting like mountain peaks under a drape of fur, her padded feet the size of dinner plates. She came out from the woods on my right, and bounded soundless across the road. I’m no great ball player, but I could have hit her with a sippy cup.
Her two cubs followed, tumbling pell-mell out behind her. They sensed my presence, stopped, fixed me with their eyes—wet, brown, luminous—and plunged back into the foliage on the right.
From the bushes on the left side of the road, the mother bear turned. She looked for her cubs, grunted, and rose on hind legs to her full height. Her magnificence, sun-glossed and taller than my roofline, temporarily trumped my fear. Then she snorted, and fixed her gaze on me. I froze with holy terror.
Because I had stopped with my stroller in the middle of the road, I had inadvertently put myself between a mama and her cubs. We were all in a fairly straight line: the mother bear to the left, the cubs to the right, and me with my sleeping children in the middle. They were oblivious under their blankets, but the bear and I knew they were there. Of that I am certain. That mother bear knew I had my young with me, just as I knew about hers, and she didn’t like the situation one bit more than I did.
She rustled and growled in the brambles to my left; the cubs rooted and cried out from the bushes to my right. The mother bear remained standing on her back legs, her piercing eyes visible through the branches. I sank into a crouch with my hands up, like a robber caught in the act, and hid behind the stroller. Time drew out tight and thin like an elastic band. Movement of any kind would cause something to snap, I felt, so I remained still. Again, the two cubs tried to cross the road, and again my presence sent them scampering back. The tension from the mother bear in the bushes swelled, the great capsule of her body like an explosive waiting to burst. The air between us crackled. Fear would be the igniter. Yet fear was also what bound us together. That mother bear and I depended on each other’s ability to remain calm, not to overreact or do anything rash. Stillness was our only way of communicating.
For what felt like ten minutes, I remained crouched behind the stroller. The mother bear stood watch from behind the bushes and didn’t move. The wind blew in the trees, sunlight crossed in and out of shadow. The cubs made another attempt to cross the road and failed again. After another five minutes, I crept backwards slowly with my stroller, trying to put distance between myself and the cubs. Behind the scree of bracken they rustled and squeaked. The mother bear stayed hidden but I could see her eyes watching me, wet and blinking. More time passed. I was now about 20 feet from where I had first seen the bears, but still the cubs wouldn’t cross. At last, I heard a car approaching from behind, and the sound of its engine sent the mother bear ducking away into the trees. Her attention diverted, this was my chance.
I don’t know what the passengers in that vehicle thought of me, crouched in the road, hiding behind a baby stroller, but they drove past, slowing and swerving into the opposite lane to avoid hitting me, their eyes wide behind the glass. I stood and launched into a full-out run, pushing my stroller and using the car as a shield. I sprinted alongside it, matching its speed, until I got to my driveway, where I let the car slide past, and finally, breathless, I turned my stroller toward home.
The quiet walk up the driveway was strangely anticlimactic. I never saw those bears again.
This spring my son will turn ten, and I still think about that mother bear and what occurred between us. I revisit the event: what she did, what I did, and how it happened that we came to interact with one another at all. Her presence feels like a living stamp on some message from Mother Earth, one I am still trying to decipher. What is it I am supposed to learn?
More than anything that day, I sensed that the mother bear and I were of the same mind. We were both parents, charged with protecting our young and possessed of intelligence enough to understand the stakes. Our encounter could have ended any number of ways, but I believe we struck a kind of agreement that day, one that, for my part, I am still trying to uphold. It was a recognition of our mutual right to build our homes, raise our young, and go about our daily lives. That agreement upended my old hierarchy of life, the one I brought with me here to the woods, with myself at the top. Now, I no longer assume that the snake, the spider, or even the mouse is less important than I. And with that recognition, I am finally at home.