Thursday, December 1, 2022

Two Wildness Adventures

The florescent orange, highly venomous Araneus marmoreus  
orb-weaver trekking across the Blue Ridge Parkway 
on High Swan, late November, 2022. 
Humans are most alive and joyful, truly joyful, when at home in their natural state of wildness.  Why is that?  Wildness sparks with us a deep survival instinct that heightens our senses, increases our strength and pain tolerance, and gives us an immediate sense of purpose.  Beyond that, it compels us to experience our connection with the wide universe.

We are, however, separated from wildness by the protections and aids of what we call civilization.  Civilization is valuable and now even essential for our survival, but it also is a hindrance to experiencing the most direct connection to the natural world.  Civilization has helped us, but also made us dependent, and thus not fully what we are meant to be. 

When wild, non-human creatures, especially those considered endangered, are injured or as young ones, orphaned, caring people sometimes take over, providing for the needs of the creature, with the goal of reintroducing them into the wild, of possible.  If not possible, then the creature remains in the care of humans, often serving to educate and inform about the needs of the species, and even to install awe and wonder in seeing that creature up close.  Zoos, for example, still serve these purposes.

Humans dwelling within civilization are like the inhabitants of a zoo.  We are dependant.  Different organizations like National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Outward Bound serve to initiate the reintroduction of humans into the wild, their original environment.  These days, we can only visit the wilderness for short or for some people, longer periods.  We are visitors, no longer natives—perhaps we are exiles.  We carry civilization on our backs in the form of dried food, fuel and stoves, and high tech clothing, shelter and other gear—maybe even a satellite telephone and solar charger. Perhaps a weapon.   In some ways, like an astronaut, but lower tech.

This craving for our original natural state may be behind our, or I should say, my fascination with observing wild creatures.  I watch, listen, and even smell them living their lives and I see how it’s done.  I enjoy wildness vicariously by contemplating those who are still native.  I appreciate their beauty and deceptively complex simplicity.

Today I was outside the Brown House, a place we built on five acres, taking a short break from cleaning for the next guests. Long ago I developed a habit of what I will call, outdoor situational awareness.  It involves an almost unconscious perception of wind and weather, and changes in them.  Anything new or in motion catches my attention.  I am aware of the topography and flora.  Same as a wild animal, I often look up and around and survey my surroundings.

So, during my break from cleaning as I stared out through the leafless trees and brush to the east, I caught the motion of something big, almost frightening, moving at a fast pace, bounding across the front yard of the white modular home up the hill.  My first thought—that it was a large dog—quickly morphed into “deer,” and the way it moved, head erect like it carried a heavy crown, a male deer with tall antlers.  It sprinted down the hill into the field before me. Then it ran frantically back and forth, fervently sniffing the air.  My instincts tuned me into the breeze touching me on my left, so I knew the animal could not smell me, so I watched it run back and forth, up and down, following a scent, until it vanished straight back up the hill.  I was in awe, and blessed to have witnessed this brief demonstration of abundant, passionate wildness.

Later in the day, in the afternoon, I was staining the side of the new woodshed of the Brown House.  As usual and without thinking, I glanced up to survey the long view, in this case north on our property.  You never know what you will see.  And I saw something.  Tall, dark, and moving back and forth side to side into a bush like it was dancing. It was a bear doing something I had seen more evidence of than I wished, but had never observed in person:  Rubbing and reveling in the fragrant foliage of a Carolina Sapphire Cypress tree up in our fruit orchard.

The Carolina Sapphire Cypress was developed by Clemson University as a potential commercial Christmas tree.  They started with the Arizona Cypress and did some tweaking—I’m not sure what this was.  Anyway, the AC and its offspring, the CSC was supposed be drought resistant.  I bought five of these trees at Lowes about 17 years ago and planted them as a screen between our property and the house to the Southeast, a house that had once been part of a whole parcel, but was divided from the land to make it easier to sell.  So, the green screen was in the required terms of the sale.  Problem was the CSC does not like shade, and the trees, then about 4 feet high, were not happy.  I dug them all up and moved them to the top of our land as a screen between the fruit orchard and the road. 

As the years passed, the CSC trees thrived and grew, but so did the bear population, and I began to see damage to the lower limbs.  Chewed, broken, twisted off, piled up.  It was strange.  Then when two of the trees died from unrelated causes, I replaced them with new CSC trees, and smaller.  Those trees got special bear treatment and were continually abused, and it was clear they would never grow tall like their older brothers, who now stand at 30 feet or more.  I didn’t know for sure bears were the varmints, but what else could it be?

An old friend and former colleague of mine was a plant buyer and customer guide at BB Barns Nursery in south Asheville, and somehow the subject came up. She happens to be the only person ever I’ve ever spoken with who also knows about the love obsession bears have with the CSC.  She’d even see them in action at her house.  Her belief was the bears ate the plants seed cones, but I was dubious—still am. 

So, today for the first time I saw a bear bathing himself in the foliage, as much as a bear, or anyone for that matter, can take a bath in a plant.  He was standing up on his hind legs, walking in and out of the poor shrub (only about 5 feet tall—and it would be much taller if not for the abuse) and generally rolling, snuggling, adoring. 

We can only guess why the bears have such an attraction.  Their powers of smell are about 100 times stronger than ours.  Maybe the aromatic volatile organic compounds have some insecticidal properties.  Maybe the transferred scent is an attraction to the opposite sex. Cologne or perfume. Maybe the bears just revel in the smell for pure pleasure.  Imagine that with their extraordinary olfactory senses, the pungent, crisp essential oils provide them a mind numbing feeling of well being.   Bear aromatherapy.

As I stalked closer and closer to the bear, keeping the blueberry fence between me and him to conceal my form, I was aware that the breeze was to my back and it was only a matter of time before he would smell me.  I moved when he moved as he was distracted, not looking around.  Then he froze for a minute.  He couldn’t see me, but he knew I was close-by, and slowly, stiffly he strutted away—that’s what male bears do when they are scared and about to run.  They are trying to scare you, but it’s a bluff.  Suddenly he bolted and was gone, just as I saw one of our elderly neighbors walking down the road to the right.

If you are staying at the Brown House, and if you visually survey the horizon now and then, you might catch a glimpse of wildness.  It might be anything.  Hawks, woodpeckers, the grand vista of the skyscape rolling by in the south, a cloud of nearly invisible insects overhead.  It might be deer and bears.  Or, if you are even mildly brave, you can walk up to the orchard and breathe in the scent of Carolina Sapphire Cypress and imagine for a moment you yourself are again a wild uncivilized native of the forests.


  1. Read my related short story, "The Tragedy of Bernie the Homeless", which was published by Dark Mountain, an artistic network community based in the UK that tells stories about "uncivilization."

  2. When I first saw the bear, my first impulse was to run up and yell to scare it off. Then, I thought, I want to see this happening. Next, I thought, run and get my phone and catch a video. Then, I thought, if I go back for the sake of showing this off to others, I might miss it. So, I went on forward, steathily