Crofting: In Due Season

We are under a mist of freezing rain. While our goats are in the barn and eating hay, and the chickens snuggly in their pens, out of the weather, it is a difficult condition for wild things to face. Once the layer of rain freezes over the veil of snow, deer and other animals that paw to find grass, lichen and barks will not be able to get to that source. Small wild birds become saturated and freeze if they can’t find shelter. There isn’t much snow cover, so burrowing animals will feel the freezing cold. Weather like this is a killer for wildlife.

A warm spell in winter also may force the swelling of tree buds, which then freeze in the next cold snap. New growth for setting flower and seed is lost.

Uist croft

Some of this cycle may be the vagaries of nature, culling the weakest in the harsh winters, but some of it is most definitely the result of the unnatural patterns of modern life, warming the atmosphere, dumping high levels of carbon and other elements into the air and the water. Tree cover is gone in parts of the world that for millenia have been the lungs of the earth. Polar ice is melting, old glaciers that predated the last ice ages and the appearance of humanity on the earth are gone. The reindeer may leave the tundra, which will dramatically alter its life cycle. The great bears and marine mammals of the north are disappearing or shifting their territory. The bio-mass of great shoals of fish in the oceans are dwindling. The loss of movement and interaction of these creatures will, in a short time – less than centuries – adversely affect the weather and the flora of the north. If the equatorial rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the polar regions are the brains. Once their delicate functioning starts to shut down, the whole bio-system will fail.

In our small way, we are finding it easier to live the life of boreal herdsmen. Consciously and unconsciously we are reducing our need for the worldly system in which we have swam as little fishes for  a long time. It has meant giving up some of the trappings of civilized life such as fashionable clothes, social expectations, luxuries of food. We are tied to the small house because we heat with wood and cannot be gone for 24 hours without risking a complete freezing of our water supply. We have animals under shelter, so we need to make sure they have adequate supplies of food and water.

It is winter. We are sheltering, rarely journeying far. I have to go out about once a week now, but in the next month we plan to be snugged in for most of the rest of the season. We can’t afford to keep the truck in legal registration with the province. Repairs, taxes and fees are beyond our income right now. I will need the money we put into truck expenses for more vital expenditures such as medical care and my immigration fees. So I have to make sure we have food, firewood, medicines, grain and hay to last three months or more. I do hope we will be able to get some alternative transportation this summer, or we will gain enough extra income to license a vehicle again.

This is how poverty affects many here. Gradually, they lose the accoutrements of civilization – vehicle, appliances, even electrical and phone service. Some cope well. I think we do. Some fail to find a way to make up the difference. They run cars illegally, often dangerously decrepit vehicles with bad brakes and no headlights. If they get caught, they ignore the fine and even the court dates until they are picked up by the law for another violation, and then they spend a little time in jail. Some turn to petty crime to get by – a spot of shoplifting, stealing items from barns and garages to resell, cutting their firewood on a neighbour’s woodlot. I would rather starve than steal.

So this coming year we will have another go at small scale crops, get more chickens, perhaps get a few sheep. We are getting farther away from the demands of civilized life that drive people to keep an eye on the clock and calendar.  I hope to do more reading in how to manage a small isolated croft. Oddly, we have neighbours – near neighbours, too – who live a life no different from what we lived in the suburbs of a large city. The commute to scheduled jobs, have two cars, go away on vacation, decorate seasonally. They could in Richmond Hill, outside Toronto, or Silver Spring, Maryland. We are not isolated in being cut off from all human contact, but it is still rare, as they live the artificial day of electric lights and shift work. This is not to say that they are wrong, but to say that I expect that the nearly neolithic life of herders and shepherds will have to find a co-existence with the dominant American culture of supermarkets and malls. There will have to be a heightened and mutual accommodation and tolerance.

It could all fall apart quickly. Or it could all improve quite a bit. If we can discover the root of my health problems (possibly thyroid) then I will be able to put more time and energy into the croft work. If I can increase our income a bit we will be able to make other improvements. We are exploring, via internet, the 21st century’s equivalent of a monastic library, how to live closer to the old ways.

Crofting: The Natural Day in Winter

It is snowing here. It is winter, and we have weeks yet, months even, of this weather. The wind is sharp out of the southwest, bringing cloud cover and precipitation. The ground is frozen, probably until March or April. We had meant to pull some fence posts that had been left along the east field, where our landlord had started a fence, but we did not get that done, so the few in the ground and the pile of cedar will remain another season.

I am hoping for a complete recovery from the mysterious auto-immune condition that has made life miserable for most of the past year. I took my earnings and went to the doctor, and talked him into a new course of medication, beginning with prednisone. The problem with the steroid is that it keeps me awake, even if I take it early in the day. This round left me fidgety and high-strung rather than energetic and ambitious. It takes a few days for the drug to work out of one’s system. Perhaps tonight I will fall asleep in a reasonable way.

We are keeping the natural day cycle as much as we can. We are not up late past sundown, and we switch to low light shortly after dark. I may have artificial light on for a while to finish washing dishes, but then it is multiple candles, gradually extinguished. My husband is ready for bed by 6:30 or 7 pm; I follow within a half hour. Both of us are sleepy and ready to extinguish lights (bedside electric lamps – no candles in bedrooms) by 8 pm. Dreadfully early!

But what are we missing? Some chat online, maybe a phone call, although those are rare these days. We have no television. I was finding make-work to stay awake until 10 pm some nights, although I too was heading for the quilt and pillow earlier if I could.

Nicholas is happy with this. He has suffered from SAD (seasonal affective depression) for years. Partly this is because he worked in businesses that were straight-out busy all through December, and he was forced up late at night, with few periods of rest. It did not suit him. I wonder why we do this to ourselves, why we not only keep an artificial day but an artificial summer? Most mammals settle in to sleep more in the winter, conversing energy. It is a mistaken notion to think that hibernation and the dormancy of trees are for rest. It is because the organism does not have the resources to keep moving, to keep growing, to put out leaves and keep them from freezing. Dormancy and reduced activity are normal in the natural winter cycle.

Sleep, deep REM sleep, is necessary for collagen to be produced. I have not been getting good sleep because of pain and by trying to stay on a worldly day schedule. I am hoping that more deep sleep will heal my damaged skin and immune system.

So we have pulled back from the worldly rush of the holiday season, because it makes no sense to us. Christmas activities for most of the Christian world are about creating a false environment – one that has never existed, a winter wonderland of nostalgia and a fantasy North Pole where Santa and the elves live all year on ice cream and fruit cake. We live in the real North, a harsh environment through the cold months. It is too real at times. We have moved away from the artificial day, the artificial summer, the artificial candy-coated Christian fantasyland.

Mt. Katahdin by Sisley

 

Living the Natural Cycle: Light One Candle

Last night I began moving toward our mutual goal of living a more natural day and night cycle. Instead of turning on the bright artificial lights in the house, I lit candles at the table after supper was over. It simulated a more natural dusk inside while I finished some work and communication. We had supper earlier than we usually did, and that really wasn’t a problem. The work was done by natural dusk. My husband finished a cup of after-dinner tea and the applesauce cake I had baked for him, then went to bed. I wrote a bit, got my email and other digital news, and by 7:30 pm, in the reduced light, my eyes were tired and my mind beginning to relax, despite the family issues that were ongoing and unresolved.

I could see that I would not get them resolved by staying up late. Others would work on them overnight, who had that sort of schedule. I could do nothing more. I went to bed, read a short while by the bedside light, turned off the light, and settled in to pray and meditate. I fell asleep despite my anxieties.

I woke fairly early, about 6:30 am, I think, but that is not yet dawn here. I waited until there was clear light in the window, and soon realized we would not have bright light today, as a storm had moved in. I lit a candle in the kitchen for about half an hour as I built up the fire in the wood stove, let the dog out, and made coffee. I feel today as if I have more “time.” Tasks have been done as they have been needed; I do not feel driven toward anything.

Crofting: The Rhythm of the Day

I am concerned about a couple of things here. One is my health. I have spent the last year battling a terrible reaction to a flu virus which left me sensitized to many chemicals. I have had to alter many things about our daily life in terms of food, cleaning products and even where I can shop. I cannot tolerate -at all – scents and chemical cleaners. Plastics are gone from our life, as I am concerned about their esters leaching into food. I am very cautious about buying prepared foods. I have been back to the doctor, and asked for a change in medications. I am hoping that finally we will see some advance and improvement.

The other is that we too can get caught up in a way of living which is not a way of life. Our energy costs hold steady from month to month, but I don’t seem to be able to drive them down any. Some of this is unavoidable, as we have a refrigerator and a hot water heater. The two surviving silkie chickens are living in a crate in the heated shed for now, as both have had some spells of ill health and injury. They have become pets, and as it is very inexpensive to feed them, I don’t mind. They are happy and melodious these days. One had a setback and spent an hour in the kitchen, on my lap, next to the wood stove. The dear little thing got so comfortable it put its head down on my arm and went to sleep for a few minutes. So cutting off the silkies’ comfort isn’t viable – the shed stays heated.

I keep a big pot of hot water on the wood stove, but often I forget to use it when I am washing dishes. It is easier to run hot water quickly over the dirty plates, and scrub them down with a soapy dish brush. I’ve also had to use the dryer this month because of my ill health and bad weather. Today is the last day for that, though!

I have been reading much on the Sami – the reindeer people of northern Scandinavia. While they have had to change their traditional ways to some extent, they are anxious to lose no more ground. They have been people who were not tied to clocks and calendars; they do not even define dates for the change of seasons, but call the changes according to what the natural world is doing. They once followed the reindeer, almost as wild as the animals themselves, but taxation and government accountability changed them. Still, there has come a time when the herding Sami, as well as those who fish and farm, are saying “no more.” They believe that the eco-culture of the North will be changed drastically if they must become reindeer-farmers rather than reindeer-pastoralists. Many of them would like to go back to smaller herds and more family groups in the far north, using the snowmobiles, ATVs and helicopters much less often. The governments made the mistake of seeing the reindeer as a commodity with a monetary value, which the Sami did not. The reindeer were valuable in themselves; sometimes animals were used as a currency. The parallels to the pastoralist patriarch Abraham in the Biblical book of Genesis are obvious.

Like the Sami, I see no reason to be bound to a clock or calendar, although one friend has pointed out that the government does expect the tax forms to be filed on time. We have occasional appointments to make, and we do try to be prompt for them. It is good to remember family birthdays, too.

Circle of the Year, from "Sami Culture"

But I’m wondering if we regulate our spiritual weeks, months, seasons, years, too much. What would it be like to have “church service” or “meeting” when we felt so moved? When we needed to pray, or we needed to praise? What if we celebrated the Pascha (Easter) or the Nativity (Christmas) not according to new moons or artificial dates, but when the time was right? Would we call upon the histories and examples of certain saints when we thought we needed them? Would we remember Herman of Alaska when the salmon spawned? Would you read the passages about Mary of Nazareth when we were anticipating the birth of a child in the family? Would we talk about the poetry of John of the Cross in the dark long nights of the winter? And if that was the way of the saints in our natural ecclesia (church) who would be our saints? Perhaps there would rise histories and remembrances and writings of people who were not noticed in Rome, Antioch, Moscow or Canterbury.

We are moving in a few days to a different schedule while keeping the same house. I think it will make the croft more useful to us, and ourselves more integrated in the life of the croft which now may seem a little bit peripheral. We will go to bed as the night falls, and rise, as much as possible, at dawn. In this latitude, just before the winter solstice, the corresponding hours would be about 7-8 am for sunrise, and 5-6 pm for sunset. We anticipate being in bed by 7 pm, asleep before 8 pm, and according to research on people put on natural nordic winter day/night cycles, we can expect to have a couple of hours of near waking in the night. This used to be a special time, according to anthropologists and sociologists. It was a time to share dreams, nurse infants, pray, make love, meditate and remember, without resorting to artificial light. Then naturally, the body eases back into deep sleep for another four or five hours.

I suspect that some of what we call insomnia is the body asserting its natural rhythm, but our commodified and regulated culture calls it a medical condition, and prescribes drugs to keep us in a state of suspended thought for seven or eight hours.

When spring and summer come around we will have more hours of activity, and rather than being lulled into the cultural pattern of stopping work between 5 and 6 pm, eating, and taking leisure, we may use those later hours of sunlight for work, and reserving the hours of high sun and UV exposure for rest and recreation.

Another change we want to make is to do more of our activities together. I want to spend more time with the animals, and I have asked Nicholas to be more involved in food preparation. We are not going off to separate jobs, so we think we would like to have our work more intertwined.

We can’t ignore the tick-tock time nor the weekly regimen completely, but I am hoping that a more natural rhythm to our lives will improve our health and lower our overall anxiety and stress.

 

Living Off the Clock

I read a beautiful National Geographic story online about the Sami (or Suomi, or Lapps as we called them years ago.) These are the reindeer people, many of them still living their semi-nomadic life above the Arctic Circle. They are very much in tune with the environment around them, with the signs of weather and the ways of the reindeer. Although they once followed the reindeer according to where the reindeer thought to go, they are now confined to certain pasturing grounds. This has affected how they live by forcing them to herd the reindeer more, using snowmobiles rather than their traditional skis and sledges, and it has changed the reindeer, often causing stress and lower birth rates. The Sami believe, and are most likely right, that the reindeer know by instinct and herd decision where they should be, but the government thinks differently.

A friend recently wrote me with a question about forming Christian community, and I posted to him the article about the reindeer people. This is what I want to do; I almost feel compelled to it. I don’t mean move to northern Norway, but live a life according to the seasons. Christians should be good at keeping the seasons, as our church year is seasonal. Yet we are so often driven by the clock and calendar. We are driven by expectations which, when we examine them, are worldly and not other-worldly. This earth is God’s creation for us. He placed us here. And when Eden was brought up from the mist and mud, there were no roofs or clocks or shops. It was just the animals, God, and then the adama – the people of the earth.

So this earth should be our world, not the world of buying and selling, of status and prestige, of power and money. We speak of the two kingdoms because we humans built the second one; that tower of Babel is not finished, nor abandoned in our desires. There is but one true kingdom, and that is the Kingdom of God. Jesus told His followers that it is at hand – meaning imminent, and at His resurrection, that Kingdom was founded.  But in sin and blind ambition, we refuse to fulfill the promise of the Kingdom, and live on in our fantasy world, regulated by clocks, driven by desire, harassed by human, not divine, expectation.

My recent round of  illness was aggravated by worry and the feeling that I needed to get a job, get better medical care, get it all done so that I could rest and maybe recuperate. I can hear my mother’s voice yet in my head criticizing the pile of laundry and the dusty floors. Dear mother, you left this world more than decade ago, with not a dirty dish in the sink and the laundry folded. I most certainly would put up with mountains of dirty clothes and floors that yet needed washing to have you back.

When we work closely with animals, a lot of other things hang fire. Sometimes the herder or shepherd leaves everything – dirty dishes, phone calls to return, sermons to write, checkbooks to balance – because the herd needs their human companion. One animal down can cascade into illness through the whole flock. Things must be done when the time is right, usually not a moment sooner nor a moment or two later. The flock becomes the focus. And I believe this is as it should be.

Shetland sheep via wikimedia

We will not regain Eden before the return of Christ, but we can work at living in God’s Kingdom now. That may seem like an impossibility to many people, who are tied to work hours, with debt to be paid. Nor should our work be other than in the Kingdom; must we work for unethical companies, at soul-destroying jobs? And even if we are satisfied with our work, is it really what God intends for us? Getting free of debt as quickly as possible, planting even a small garden, spending more leisure time in natural surroundings are good beginnings to living closer to the Kingdom. Sometimes our church home stands in the way as well; there’s an issue for all Christians to consider. Is the church itself too much of this world? I know mine is often too concerned with raising money and finding new parishioners, while employing church leaders concerned with their ambition and advancement rather than with the health and well-being of their flock.

I hope to be closer to the Kingdom myself in seasons to come, really closer to our flocks and herds, spending more time as a herder and shepherd rather than as a household manager and professional worrier. I do desire fields and pasture for the animals where they can be what they are, and I can be with them. But we too are constrained by fences and government; we too, as the Sami, must adapt somewhat, even when we see that it is not the best thing. We can always work for change, though. We can work toward restoring something of Eden, a place in which to wait for the Lord’s return. Best that when He comes to us, He finds us at the work He gave us, not the work of the other world.

by Edward Hicks

National Geographic article:http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/11/sami-reindeer-herders/benko-text

More information about the Sami by the Sami: http://boreale.konto.itv.se/samieng.htm

Things Accomplished

Amish Doll Clothes from Missouri

I am making Amish dolls. I have orders for four and I am now more than half way done. It would go faster if I didn’t have so many other things to do at this time of the year.

The garden is slowly getting put to bed. I still have pumpkins and squash coming, with the hope that they will not rot in all this rain. I have pulled most of the bean plants, feeding them as fodder to the goats, after removing the dried pods. They would eat the pods, but I am trying to save the seed.

Wood is getting stacked and split; the barn has been mucked out. We either have a small leak in the roof or the goats have amused themselves by drinking lots of water. I’m sure bean plants aren’t that diuretic. I usually muck out every couple of days, but when we have four or five rainy days, it is less than a pleasant task – and it is no one’s favourite. There is also the problem of mooring the goats to something while working in the barn on a rainy day.

We are getting one or two eggs a day, but never three. I suspect the girls are taking turns laying, and they all like the same nest box. The chickens had a bit of a scare the other day. They were out scratching around in the garden while I watched from an upper floor window. Suddenly they all ran for cover behind the trash bin, the rooster sounding an alarm. A bald eagle passed above, headed for the river. I had wondered if they had enough instinct about eagles and hawks to get out of the way. They don’t panic over crows, though, although some of our crows are almost eagle sized. they stayed in hiding for several minutes, too.

We lost the last of the little silkies, leaving us with three bantam sized birds who are doing well. She just didn’t grow; Nicholas found her hunkered down and drowsy in the barn, so he put her in the hay box under the lamp. When I went in an hour later to feed them, she was dead. All I can think of is that the little ones that died had some sort of deficiency similar to what calves and lambs have when they develop white muscle disease.

I have discovered that I am reacting to a large number of foods, especially high-histamine foods like tomatoes. So I am on a low-histamine, low salicylate diet, which means a very limited repertoire. It is largely vegetarian, low on fruit (except peeled apples) and fairly bland. I am tapering off coffee and have given up tea. I miss the tea more than anything. Lightly toasted bread and butter are now my favourite snack, as not much else is left!

So I am in the midst of making applesauce, starting by peeling the apples, a tedious job. I bought a huge bag, about 30 pounds, of apples for $10. They are called deer apples here. I buy them, make applesauce or apple butter, feed the cores and peels to the goats and chickens, and feel satisfied that I did not spend $1.30 a pound on apples in the store.

Crofting: In Bear Country

I haven’t seen many bears around here. When I lived in northern Maine, ten years ago or so, I saw bears all the time. All the time, as in almost every day of the summer and fall. I sometimes wondered if it was me or we just had a large population of bears.

animal discovery

Since much of northern Maine is becoming fallow, with old fields growing into scrubby woodland again, there is more bear habitat and better food opportunities. Sows are having twin and triplet cubs, probably because of the increased food supply.

Bears are fun to watch from a distance. When I first moved home to Aroostook County, I spotted a black bear in the field across the road, digging up potatoes left in the ground from the previous autumn’s harvest. I watched it through field glasses for about half an hour, until it had found all it wanted and ambled back into the woods. The northern black bear is a fairly small bear compared to western brown bears and grizzlies, but it still outweighs the average petite female human, and I wouldn’t want to be in a position of fending one off.

The next summer, I came close to doing that. I was alone in the early morning, hiking down a trail just a mile or so from home. I wasn’t expecting to see anything larger than a duck. But in some swamp, I encountered a young male moose, blocking the path. I don’t argue with moose.

Algonquin country lodge

I turned back, but stopped before taking another step. There was a bear on the trail behind me. It was about ten yards away, a little too close for comfort. I was caught in one of those situations sometimes described as “being between a rock and hard place,” but the rock could trample me and the hard place could maul me. The ditches on either side of the trail were about six feet deep and full of murky water.  Bear and moose can outswim a human, no context. A bear can run as fast as a moose.

The given wisdom in dealing with black bears is to shout, wave your arms, and clap your hands. I felt like a right fool, performing gymnastic cheerleading on a dirt trail in the Maine woods, for the benefit of a bear and a moose. It did no good. Neither animal even twitched. I kept my eye on the bear. It kept its eye on me.

I suppose the bear was more interested in the moose, and the moose scent confused it. It decided to get a closer look at this strange creature walking on its hind feet. It started to close the distance.

In a bear encounter, never take your eyes off the bear. Even if a large bull moose is behind you, watch the bear. I started walking backward, closer to the moose. The moose decided it didn’t need to find out what the bear wanted, so it jumped into the swamp and waded off.  That left me with the bear.

I was still walking backward, hoping I didn’t trip on a rock or branch. The bear halved the distance between us, stopped, sniffed the air, and ambled off down the trail, in the other direction, until it, too, disappeared into the trees. The scent of Deep Woods Off must have been a clue that I was not something good to eat.

I paused on the path until my heartbeat felt close to normal, then cautiously went back down the trail toward home. Yes, past the bear’s entry point into the woods, praying that it was not just duping me into a closer approach. I didn’t see it again, though, and I made it home at a regular hiking pace, let myself in the door, and thought to make a fresh cup of coffee. I got as far as the dining room when my knees weakened, and I had to lean against the wall for a few moments. Once safe, my body decided it had been brave enough, thank you, and I could very well enjoy that adrenalin it had been saving for a mad dash.

Oh, it doesn’t end there. A couple of days later, my (then) husband and I were on the trail in the other direction from town. We were supposed to be running, but he hadn’t worn the right footwear so it had become a jog, then a hike, and then a stroll. “Oh, how cute!” he exclaimed. (He is the sort of man who says ‘cute.’) “Where? What?” I asked, as the Maine woods is notably devoid of cute. Awesome, beautiful and terrifying are the more accurate descriptions. He pointed to a dead tree near the trail. There were two bear cubs in the tree.

“Nigck!” was my next comment, which is what a choked back scream sounds like.

bears of the world net

When there are bear cubs no more than a few months old up a tree, it means mama bear is not far away.

“Tssst! Start walking back!” I whispered. “Don’t run, don’t go closer, just turn around and leave.”

“They can’t hurt us!” (And as he said this, I wondered if there are no bears at all in New Mexico, where he was raised.)

“No, but their mother can rip our heads clean off our bodies! Just quietly turn back before she knows we are here.”

The next day, I went to a sporting goods store. They tried to sell me a gun, but I bought an airhorn instead, the sort that are sold to people who want to repel muggers. I doubt they would work well on a determined mugger, who will just break your arm and take your airhorn along with your wallet, but bears do not like loud, sudden noises, and will, according to many reliable sources, flee.

And a week later, a friend visiting from Germany (where they don’t seem to have bears anymore) came to supper with me. We went for a walk in the cool evening air, looping out the walking trail a short way. We were no more than a quarter-mile from the village, and I hadn’t brought my airhorn.

“Oh, look,” she said. “Is that a dog ahead of us?”

No. “It’s a bear.”

“Oh, great! I have always been wanting to be seeing a bear!”

I picked up a rock. She picked up a rock. “There,” I said, “We are ready.”

“Are they magic rocks?” she asked. “I don’t think we can throw them strong enough to hurt the bear.” This was true, but we still held onto the rocks. I shouted and waved my arms. She gave a piercing, two-fingered whistle, very impressive for a young, seminary educated Lutheran pastor. The bear ran away. We hurried back to the village, still clutching our rocks. At the door of the house where she stayed, we dropped our rocks, looked at each other, and laughed. “Our magic rocks saved us!” she said.

CV Guide

I wasn’t the only one who had close encounters of the third kind with black bears in that area. I had gone to a parishioner’s house on the lake to help her pack in preparation for moving to her daughter’s house in the village. I packed box after box of books and kitchen ware. I stacked boxes on the back step for her son-in-law to load into his truck.  After a few minutes outside with his son, he called in the door, “Do you think you could go upstairs and get the shotgun?”

I went to the screen door. He was watching something next door. “What do you need to shoot?”

“There’s a bear trying to get in next door. I’ll scare it away.”

While Emmaline went upstairs for the gun, I went outside. There was a half-grown bear clawing at the neighbour’s screen door. A tantalizing fragrance of beef stew was in the air, wafting from their kitchen. I stepped up to my truck, opened the driver’s door, and blew the horn. Chris joined in with his truck horn. Little bear took off at a gallop.

“Well, why didn’t I think of that?” Chris said as Emmaline returned with the shotgun. Chris left it on the driver’s seat of his truck, though, until we were all loaded and everyone out of the area, first closing the neighbour’s door until they returned from a brief walk up to the corner store.

Another neighbour’s son had heard that there was a large bear in his father’s area, so he drove out one afternoon to see if he could find any tracks and to warn his father to stay indoors with his dog. As he pulled up to his father’s house, he saw his father asleep in a lawn chair just inside the open door of the garage, with his fat old retriever asleep on the garage floor next to him. Just outside the garage wall, out of sight of the old man and his dog, was a large black bear, also asleep.

Although I raised Shetland sheep up there on the mountains of Stockholm, Maine, I never lost an animal to a bear. One day I was checking my fences to make sure moose hadn’t pulled any down – a common event – and smelled a pungent, musky odour at the back of the pasture. Just outside the fence was a large old pine tree, with branches touching down around the base, forming a living green tent. That was where the odour was coming from. It was obvious as I examined the protected spot that a bear was camping there from time to time, with scat and tufts of shed fur mixed into the pine needles. The sheep seemed to have no fear of it, and it had never attempted the fence. My neighbour a couple of miles away, on the other hillside, had lost two ewes to a bear that had reached over the top of a solid board pen and lifted them out, one by one. Only a lamb survived, probably because it lay down flat, out of the bear’s reach.

The native Americans call black bear “Grandmother.” It is considered a wise animal, a messenger from the other world. I dreamed of bears quite a lot in those days, and I wondered if it was my fear. I tried to run from a huge black bear in my dreams, and always woke just before the bear caught up with me. While at seminary, a friend suggested to me that what I needed to do was not run from the  dream bear, but to turn and face it.  I did that, the next time I dreamed of the bear. And in that dream, the bear stopped, dropped to the ground, and looked up at me. I didn’t need to run from the bear; the bear was me.

Alaska in Pictures