I was raised with no concept of large animals you needed to fear. I never really considered the bear; they only seemed to exist in movies, zoos, and fairy tales. But lately, I’ve been drawn to cycles of renewal and hibernation, and as I enter this new season in my life, the bear seems to have found me, bringing with him bear medicine and bear folklore.
Was it moving north to Michigan — where the seasons are more visible and observance of them is more critical — or just the need to understand my own personal hibernation that called my attention to the bear? I can’t really say, but I’ve been following in the bear’s footsteps as I slow down, dig deep for nourishment, and allow time for rest and renewal.
Although I’ve been learning these lessons implicitly for years, I had an experience this past week that explicitly brought them to the forefront of my mind.
Following in the Footsteps of the Bear
I was walking in my favorite part of the woods, singing as I do, feeling like my own version of Snow-White communing with the birds and squirrels. I climbed off of the path towards the mother tree, carefully watching the ground so as not to disturb any fruiting mushrooms that might be starting to poke out from under the dense decomposition of years of undisturbed leaves.
There are few places I feel more at home than this little spot in the woods. It isn’t very far from the road, but it feels like another world, some small portion of a different time that still exists. Whenever I go for a walk, this is where my feet lead me, and when my grandpa died last year, it was under these branches that I stood singing as I watched a lone star fall and bring me peace.
I never travel too far from the mother tree. It’s a short walk there, and sometimes I turn right around and come back. But when I feel like exploring, I crisscross through the woods that surround her, getting to know her mycorrhizal network and exploring her forest family.
As I climbed the hill and made my way a few steps into the tree line surrounding the mother tree, I ran into one of the many deer paths that cut through these woods. I looked around to see where it led and to decide whether or not I wanted to follow it or cut across it.
Suddenly, I felt almost stuck in place, transfixed and mesmerized though I didn’t yet understand why. It was as though my body knew to fear before my eyes even registered the signs that gave me reason to — certainly before my mind had time to process them. Something in my primal gut immediately gripped with fear, tinged with sacred wonder.
While I tried to wrap my mind around what I was feeling, I noticed just how wide the path was. I looked down for the tracks and saw a print that was almost the size of my (admittedly, very small) hand.
Right next to that was a deep hole in the ground that looked like a mushroom, plant, or clump of ghost pipe had been dug up root and all.
I looked up and noticed the freshly shredded trees several feet away.
I remembered the strange sound my husband and I had heard several weeks before when we’d been standing in almost the same spot.
And finally, my brain caught up to my gut.
Part of me wanted to run, knew I should leave, but I felt frozen in place — transfixed by a powerful sense of wonder that for a moment overpowered the fear and the sense that I didn’t belong. I allowed myself a few moments to take it in and snapped a few pictures to document the experience, but I just couldn’t bring myself to linger long enough to search for a better print to photograph. It felt wrong to seek after more than what I’d already found.
Bear Populations are Growing in Michigan
I was immediately convinced that this was a bear track, and when I got home, a quick Google search proved that black bear populations are indeed growing rapidly throughout Michigan, particularly in our region.
I determined that yes, bears are in my area, and yes, the signs I intuitively assumed to be bear signs can indicate their presence. I looked up bear tracks, and although the picture I got wasn’t particularly clear, I was further convinced.
I still don’t know for sure that this was a bear track. I suppose the intensity of the moment could have been made up in my own mind. But the physical gut-based response I experienced was almost overwhelming and unlike anything I have ever experienced. It was so much faster than the intellectual realization of what I was seeing that I really do trust my primal instinct that this was a bear’s handiwork.
Even if I’m wrong, the moment led me down a journey of bear research that has been pleasurable and enlightening.
Bear Folklore, Folktales, and Fairytales
This experience left me with a sense of sacred awe. It all seemed so fresh, so crisp, so clear — so important. As I considered the intensity of my feelings, I remembered the fairytales from my childhood about bears that transformed into princes. I remembered associations with fertility and transformation and wondered at the symbolism. I couldn’t help wondering what I could learn about and from the bear as a biological creature and a cultural totem.
Part of getting back to what it means to be human is remembering our connection to other life forms. Modern living makes it easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago that people genuinely had to fear their children being eaten by large predators.
Our walls, cars, and large cities keep us from roaming about on foot, chancing encounters with beasts who would rightfully terrify us. Not to mention the fact that we have slaughtered the vast majority of animals who pose any actual threat to us, controlling their populations with advanced weaponry to the point that the average individual never sees, and certainly never fears, beasts of the wild.
There was a time when animals were more abundant, and we interacted with them daily. We were taught how to live in harmony with wildlife primarily through experience and example, but we were also taught both explicitly and implicitly through folk tales and fairy tales. These stories, including bear folklore, contain coded messages and meanings in them that taught us how to exist in the world. They often included lessons on how to interact with the land, plants, animals, and otherworldly creatures in addition to more obvious lessons about how to be a good person.
Snow-White and Rose-Red, My Favorite Bear Folklore
The first fairy tale I thought of when I started considering bear folklore was Snow-White and Rose-Red which was my favorite fairy tale as a child. It was the one I had Grandma read me every night she let me choose, and I loved it more than any other story.
In the story, two sisters encounter a bear when he knocks on their cabin door in the dead of winter. Their kind widow mother gives him refuge from the cold. He stays with them every evening thereafter. In the spring, they learn he has great treasures that he must guard from the dwarves who come out when the weather thaws. He leaves them to protect his treasure in the spring. After he leaves, the girls stumble onto a dwarf several times, always helping him out of precarious positions and saving his life for which he rewards them with only meanspiritedness.
I won’t tell you how it ends because I hope you’ll listen to my reading of it, but the obvious lesson of the story is that the dwarf is punished for being ungrateful while the sisters are rewarded for being helpful and kind. If I’m being honest, when I reread it several years ago, I didn’t quite think the moral of the story lived up to the adoration I held for it as a child.
But this time, I reread the story through the lens of the bear. I read it with an ecological perspective, wondering what lessons about nature and bears might be coded in its language and narrative.
And I can’t believe it, but I actually think I discovered something profound!
When the bear goes away in the spring, he tells Snow-White that he won’t be able to return until the winter.
‘I must go into the forest and guard my treasures from the wicked dwarfs. In the winter, when the earth is frozen hard, they are obliged to stay below and cannot work their way through; but now, when the sun has thawed and warmed the earth, they break through it, and come out to pry and steal; and what once gets into their hands, and in their caves, does not easily see daylight again.’
After a more careful reading of the story, I think the dwarf represents greed in foraging and harvesting the earth’s abundance. I believe the girls are rewarded because they are judicious and only take what they need, coexisting with the animals in harmony, while the dwarf robs the forest and the bear. This story is particularly rife with obvious overt morality lessons about kindness, helpfulness, and gratitude. But I think a careful reading focused on exactly what riches the dwarf has stolen from the bear uncovers an ecological lesson fitting for our times, even if it is a bit subtle.
In the same way that I can’t be certain my bear signs were signs of an actual bear, it’s impossible to know whether this lesson against ecological greed was intended. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. In many matters, truth and reality are most important, but meaning really is what you make it.
Since I know even grown-ups sometimes enjoy a good fairytale, I recorded a reading of Snow-White and Rose-Red that is up on Patreon. Members at the $5/month level will have access to the full recording. Even if you don’t want to pay to be a patron, I hope you’ll consider joining my Patreon. They have added a lot of new options that allow me to connect with free and paid subscribers so I will be using it a lot moving forward. I intend to move all of my printables and multimedia content offerings there and have already started by moving my most popular ones there.
You might also enjoy:
Digital Version of Snow-White and Rose-Red (Sur La Lune)
A Letter to Grandma on the Second Birth (Grief and Dying)
Refining Ruby (a poem for Grandma)
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