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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bears and Berries

Air Date: Week of

The competition for autumn berries is another example of how loss of habitat has created conflict between bears and people. Bears both intrigue and frighten humans in Alaska, according to commentator Geo Beach. Poet and author Geo Beach is at work on a book about Alaska called: "Light at the End of America." He comes to us from K-B-B-I in Homer, Alaska."


KNOY: Bison aren't the only animals coming into contact with humans in the waning days of fall. Bears and humans are also in competition for the last ripe berries. The race for berries is just one example of how loss of habitat has sparked conflict between bears and people. For most of recorded history, bears have both intrigued and frightened humans. That's still true in Alaska, according to commentator Geo Beach, who's trying to learn from his bruinly neighbors.

BEACH: There's a bear outside my house. It doesn't take much to figure it out. Shrouded in spruce, the ravens are spelling out a black curse, hurling slanders into the sun-dappled glen. The ground squirrels have set off a chatter like a persistent alarm clock. And there is the sound, every minute or so, of brush crashing.

During the intervening silence you can imagine the munching of berries. Yesterday morning Joanie told me she could see yellowing stalks of spiny Devil's Club felled in the field of tall grass. She is sure the bear has tackled them to get at the red pom poms of berries at the top. I am sure I don't want to scrimmage against anything that eats Devil's Club for a pre-game snack.

There are bears everywhere this year. There are people everywhere this year. This bear comes here in the spring and about this time in autumn. I think it's the bear that lives on the hill behind the hospital, and I think he comes down along the creek that runs by the house. In the spring, he is sleepy and looking for new greens.

In the fall he has a lot more energy. I don't know if he has found a place to catch fish, but he knows where there are salmon berries and watermelon berries, and the raspberries we tried to get to first. At night when you hear the dogs howling down the road and you hear the bear sounds in the woods, you are reminded to clean up your mess and pack your trash out every day. That's not a bad lesson.

And late in the afternoon when I take the shortcut home through the woods from the playing fields at the high school, I remember to be on my best bear behavior and sing out loud, so we don't have any improvisational meetings. Some of those songs come from deep inside. (Sings) The bear went over the mountain...

But more often it's spontaneous compositions that are sparked on the shortcut. Mr. Bear's Blues berries, and What'cha Doin' Bruin? and other ad-libbed tunes. This is also a good lesson. The bear reminds me we are on the edge of wildness. I keep a close inventory of the people and animals who reside here. I try to stay aware of the territories and domains, and where there is a seamless boundary line between our civilized selves and our grunting, carnivorous histories.

I'm scared of the bear because in some way I'm scared of the primal parts inside of me. But I'm also proud of myself in animal ways, and I'm proud of the bear outside my house. I think this is why sometimes bears get shot, and sometimes they don't.

Last night, northern lights. It's turning cold. The bear will not be here for long. Two weeks of relearning those lessons, basic and essential. That's some good adult education. I'll be doing my homework, singing and trying to clean up my human mess. And when he wakes up next spring, this bear will walk back right outside my house.

KNOY: Poet and author Geo Beach is at work on a book about Alaska, called Light at the End of America. He comes to us from KBBI in Homer, Alaska.



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