WASHAKIE WILDERNESS--Mother’s Day. How appropriate. Neala and I are following a grizzly and her two cubs. We're a few hours behind them.
The day began with a heavy heart.
I miss my mom.
I miss my dad.
I miss the son I love, lost and never had. I wish the little man was here walking alongside us. We'd discuss the significance of his mother and the values of kindness and love, of loyalty and helpfulness, and, naturally, about the need to protect her fiercely. This kind of place is pregnant with cues about these kinds of lessons.
I miss the family that lives within my dream. I love them as if they are waiting for my return. Even though it is just a dream, all of them are with me, all the potentialities of love and togetherness are there; all of the possibilities of a comforting home are there. I walk with a home abiding in my heart. The heft of a family dream rests on my shoulders.
How appropriate to be here and now. We are celebrating the birthing goddesses that we are compelled biologically and emotionally to love beyond words for their generosity and sacrifice. Some mothers—human and bear—defend their little ones with admirable ferocity. Some do not. The mother we're following was and still remains an exemplary maternal expression among mammals. For those who forget, this includes the human mammal. It's no coincidence that a bear with cubs manifests itself in the stories of countless cultures. She represents something human mothers seek to realize about themselves. All can. Some do. Most don't.
Maybe Neala and I will learn a few things today.
We tread slowly through muck along the south-facing slope. The sun is already above the Mountain. It's just above freezing with a thin layer of ice sheeting the mud. The sunlight makes it feel warmer than it is. By midday the mercury should climb halfway up the thermometer. But it won't stay at that peak long. Bluish-grey clouds are fighting their way over the southwestern ranges. Weather funnels predictably in a northeasterly direction because of the Gros Ventre Range to the southeast and the Teton Range to the west. We are in the tunnel and damp wind gusts indicate a change coming.
These are ideal tracking conditions. Old tracks are easily identified even if less than a day old. This time of year, indicators for distinguishing among fresh, recent and old tracks are more numerous than any other time of year.
Consider pine needles. When there’s a canopy, older tracks often have fallen needles laying softly within their contours. With newer tracks, needles are pressed into the mud or conspicuously non-existent in the track.
In shaded areas where thawing ground still holds water, tracks only a few hours old may appear shinny and damp to the touch. Fresher tracks will be wet and may contain small puddles in the toe and foot pads. As a bear steps, his or her weight compresses the soggy ground. The ground, which acts like a soaked sponge, releases water upon the surface.
Snow, too, can unveil track age. In sporadic drifts of early May's crusty snowpack, prints made last sundown have a definitive look and feel about them. Toe pads often have edges and claw impressions are visible. Older tracks will be rounded out or will melt into nearly unrecognizable impressions. But snow is a tricky indicator because it depends on the tracker’s knowledge. To assess sign in snow, we must be familiar with the animal’s behavior. But track age also depends on knowing recent temperature fluctuations, sun exposure and the times in which they occurred.
We follow "fresh" tracks through mud and snow. We've been tracking this family since we left the campground yesterday afternoon, and we seem to be getting closer.
We push through a grove of aspens with leaves about to burst and then back into a stand of mixed conifers. A few miles upward, the trail winds along a steep, east-facing slope and opens up into sunlight. It’s sloppy at first but dries out as we move further upward. The sun exposure and the steepness of the slope already make surface conditions like that of late summer.
About fifty yards down slope, a third-order stream rushes. The water echoes against the trees and rises. While the current sounds strong, snow melt hasn't begun much further upstream. From this angle, sunlight casts itself upon the stream like tiny camera flashes of silvery glitter. We cannot see much of the stream because of lush firs along the bank, but the glittering sparks penetrate the tree line here and there.
We stop to take in the sun’s warmth and Neala has found a few shrubs lining the trail that are worth sniffing. She locks her nose onto one particular branch. Upon closer examination of her interest, I find a few strands of grizzly bear hair, light blonde and curvy, about four inches long, with a translucent tip the consistency of silk. At 12 years old, Neala still has the gift.
My focus on hair shifts towards the creek below and a rising raucous of honking Canada geese. It’s the same kind of response to humans approaching them. But we are not the cause. The geese are too far away and out of sight. They are not typically alarmed unless provoked. Their warning calls begin to shift direction and five geese appear in flight above the firs heading down stream to the south.
Fainter the geese become until all is quiet again. I instruct Neala to stand still. I stand still. Neala has her ears bent forward. She’s got the predator stare upon the going-on down there. So we listen.
A mountain stream emits a rhythmic, mesmerizing sound. There’s a pattern to water flowing over rocks. When a splash seems out of sync, it’s probably something other than water making it. We concentrate on the pattern and I count seconds between conspicuous splashes. It goes on like this for a few minutes. If we listen long enough, even from this distance, we might hear the rhythm break due to a large animal crossing the stream. But, if we listen too long, the mind begins to convince us that every splash is an animal step.
Enough time passes. Imagination starts to overwhelm. We give up attending to the stream and begin moving again.
We continue a few hundred yards further along the slope until the trail winds downward towards the stream. Neala stops at the sight of a pile of animal shit on the sun-dried ground. Right away I know it’s bear scat. It already appears fresh because the ground is wet from its moisture content. It fits the expectation of grizzly crap this time of year. It's dark, blackish-green, filled with carrion and grass. Curious about its age, I bend down and run a shrub branch through the mush to break it apart. Steam rises from the inside and dissipates into the cool morning air. We are closer to them than we thought.
They are less than a half-hour away. Maybe less than that.
And, it’s Mother’s Day.
Something feels wrong about this. It's not fear. While I always feel fear--and embrace it--during these kinds of situations, it's not what has me questioning. There's just something inappropriate about what we are doing today.
My thoughts turn from fresh bear shit to the grizzly mother who made it and then onto the human mothers that have been in my life.
All mothers, on this day, deserve commemoration. They sacrifice, they give, they love, they defend. When I was growing up, Mother's Day was the one day each year when our family made sacrifices for her, when we were the giving ones, when we did the cooking, cleaning and errand running. We--meaning my dad and ten siblings--all attended to mom. It was her day of rest. God got one day out of seven. That's 52 days a year. Mom got one out of 365.
I'd like to think that our mothers are the embodiment of Earth. Perhaps we might think of Mother's Day as our own individual, subconscious effort to personify Earth Day, to remind ourselves of the divine, creative source that resides within the female and to acknowledge the fundamentally minimal role that the male has in this unfolding creative flourishing of creation. This I know: men are, in the grand scheme of things, less significant to the business (and busyness) of life. We make ourselves busy--we chase power, fame, wealth, status--to feel as important, if not more important, than women. We are no different than what behavioral studies reveal about male primates. It was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be the woman, the female, who embodies the most essential aspects of life. After all, what else can be more important for us or gorillas or bears than the continuance of life? We need not argue this point, we need only look to how much we would give up once our own life becomes in doubt.
Traditional Navajo know this. The Kinaalda, one of the most significant ceremonies, is a celebration of a girl becoming woman. In this ceremony, which is held after the first menses, the girl quite literally transitions from girl to the embodiment of Changing Woman then to woman. In this way, the Navajo emphasize the sacrifice, generosity, and creative power of the female. The men have a ceremony, too, but it is not given as much widespread significance and the boy does not transition into manhood by way of becoming the temporary incarnation of a holy person.
The Ojibway know this, too. Traditionally, the vision quest was a significant event for men on their way to self-actualization, and women were not required to seek a vision although they could if desired. First impression might be an exaltation of the male. But closer understanding as to why this exalts the female can be found in the stories that suggest women were already created with the power to give life and, therefore, with the gift of participating in the realization of the Creator's vision. The man, on the contrary, were given the strength and capacity to take life away. As such, it became necessary for men to seek a vision in order to learn how to align their lives with the Creator's vision. Women did not require such a ritual. They only needed to become what they were born to be.
As for grizzly mothers, biologists also know the essential nature of the female. The female-with-cubs cohort is the most important indicator of a bear population's health and longevity. Given such a low reproductive rate compared to other terrestrial mammals, a bear population's status is assessed based on how many mortalities that population can withstand before declining. Adult males and young males are the lesser significant cohorts. The reason is that if an adult female dies so do her cubs and all the potential yet-to-be born cubs that would have contributed to the growth and health of the population.
Indeed, it seems clear that women are more aligned with creation than men. And we acknowledge this through archetypical language without even thinking--Father Sky, Mother Earth. The challenge today is that women, not just men, are forgetting this. Mother's Day should be a celebration of the true gift of womanhood. Naturally, it should also be aligned with the celebration of Earth's flourishing power in them and through them. But, we seem to be trivializing, diminishing and demoralizing what has been so significant about the female since our beginning. The woman, the mother, the female, the girl---all of humanity depends upon them. Yet, we do not fully celebrate this aspect of womanhood. And many women do not celebrate it themselves. But the love a mother has for a child is undeniable, essential and irreplaceable by men.
The mood has changed. Neala and I are closing in on her trail. And if we press on, we may encounter her and cubs by sundown.
But it's Mother's Day. It's a time for honoring those who love, give and sacrifice and do so fiercely. What we are doing here seems to be misaligned with the meaning of the occasion. Even the most giving of mothers needs a day of rest.
So I stop.
Neala stops and looks at me with curiosity about the next step. She orients her stance back down from whence we came. She knows I am compelled to turn back.
The trek is over. She will not be disturbed by us. Not today. Maybe some other day. Maybe. Things have a way of changing a man's perspectives out here.
We leave her to those Pleistocene-borne maternal ways of nurturing and teaching and gently batting down her cubs when they bite too hard or cross a line.
May that mother bear have a long, lazy afternoon nap in the spring grasses while the two furballs cling to her for warmth and comfort and nurse upon her to receive the gift that only she can give them. I doubt she'll rest long. Her business doesn't come with the luxury of long naps. She is a mother. She gives. The two are inseparable.
Moments like this remind me of one distinct lesson: it is essential to live in a way worthy of the love our mothers gave us.