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  • Patrick Stoll

Bearly There

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

It all started with a bear. And an old cottonwood that had clearly seen much better days. On this particular day I was walking west along the Bethine Church Nature Trail, following the trail downstream as it meandered along the south side of the Boise River. Birdsong, the buzzing of insects, and the sweet smell of springtime filled the woods. As I came around a bend in the trail, I was surprised to see what looked like a bear. As I got closer, I saw it was indeed a bear, a smallish bear, watching me from inside its lair in an old hollow tree.

I could see the bear’s nose wrinkle and its head tilt to the side as he (or she) sniffed the air. I knew I had to get a picture if anyone was going to believe me. When I paused, the bear seemed to grow tense. When I got out my camera, the bear popped back into the tree but not before I was able to make a quick photograph. I decided not to stress the animal any further. As I walked on past the tree, I was sure I could feel a pair of bear eyes following me.

That night I woke up to a powerful burst of lightening followed by a peal of thunder that shook the windows. Heavy rain started pounding on the roof. The wind chimes dangling above the outside deck sounded like someone on crack cocaine hammering away at a glockenspiel. I couldn’t help thinking about the bear, wondering how it fared in its hollowed tree.

The next morning, I decided to investigate. As I walked around the bend on the Bethine Church Nature Trail, the first thing I noticed was that the old cottonwood had been ripped apart by the storm, separating the main part of the trunk from a short section still standing. And then I saw the bear. It was lying on its back inside part the tree trunk that had broken off. Sadly, there was no sign of life. I decided the best thing to do was to leave it in its resting place inside the old cottonwood where nature would take its course.

After spending a lot of time thinking about the bear, I decided one morning to hike up to Table Rock, one of the prominent features in the east end of town. I was planning to make photographs of the graffiti that increasingly adorns the sandstone formation. One bit of graffiti caught my eye. Standing apart from the inspired artwork on the face of the stone rampart was a sandstone block with the letters “BLM” spray painted in black on the stone’s surface. My first thought was that it probably referred to “Black Lives Matter”. It then occurred to me that a government official could have been responsible since most of the land in the immediate vicinity was managed by the Bureau of Land Management. And then a new thought came to mind; it was only a little over a mile from where I was standing to the old cottonwood where the young bear had met its end. Maybe the letters “BLM” were intended to mean “Bear Lives Matter”. I decided to return to the site of the old cottonwood tree to see if it might provide some clues.

The next day found me back at the remains of the old cottonwood. The storm that had destroyed the tree broke it apart at a section where a large diameter limb had grown out from the trunk. The branch collar that had formed at the crotch where the branch met the trunk was now leaning against the lower part of the trunk. The hollow section of the branch collar provided the horizontal section where I had found the dead bear the day after the storm. Instead of finding the remains of the bear, I now found a touching memorial to the young bruin. I was moved by the work that had obviously gone into creating it. Clearly, I was not the only one to have been aware of the bear. It made me glad but a little sad at the same time. I added a feather to the memorial before walking on down the trail.

As time marched on and spring turned into summer, I often found myself thinking about the bear. I decided to revisit the old cottonwood to see if anything had changed since my last visit. As I rounded the bend in the trail, I realized that something was clearly different. From a distance, I could see a bright pink color I was sure had not been there before.

As I drew closer, I suddenly realized what had caught my attention. Trolls! A pair of trolls had moved into the hollowed section of the old tree. The youngest was stark naked. The older troll wore a short top that left little to the imagination. And by the look of things, they had been there awhile. It was hard for me to imagine that the other woodland denizens were pleased with this newest development since trolls are known to be serious mischief makers. I hurried on, giving the latest residents a wide berth as I headed for home.

In the weeks and months that followed, I didn't give a lot thought to the trolls or the way they seem to have capitalized on the death of the bear. Then, as Christmas drew near, I decided to revisit the old cottonwood to see how or if the trolls celebrated the holidays.

Rounding the familiar bend in the trail, I saw no sign of the pink-haired mischief makers. To my surprise, I discovered a nativity group instead. As I got closer, the group suddenly started singing a Christmas carol. I would have expected one of the more traditional religious songs but that was not the case. Instead, they were singing what I initially thought was “Jingle Bells”. It took me a stanza or two to realize it was not “Jingle Bells” but “Jingle Bears” by Karen Courliss. The group's singing voices were very high pitched, reminding me somewhat of Alvin and the chipmunks. And if that wasn’t weird enough, each singer maintained a wooden facial expression the entire time – there was no outward sign of joy! This was indeed one more unexpected development.

A few months later I found myself walking toward the old cottonwood once again. After the trolls and the nativity scene, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Nevertheless, I was surprised when I discovered a mixed group of animals seemingly living together in apparent harmony. The group included dogs, rabbits and what appeared to be a female duck. Despite the appearance of domestic bliss, I felt a little uncomfortable watching a tableau that seemed to exhibit some overtones of voyeurism. I wondered what some of our more conservative state legislatures might think if they saw it.

It was a few days before Christmas before I had an opportunity to visit the old cottonwood once again. By that time it had been a year, almost to the day, since I had come across the nativity group. As with previous visits, the only thing I had come to expect was the unexpected. On this occasion, I was delighted to find the space was now given over to a very tasteful art piece. Someone went to a lot of trouble to create a sculpture made from seasonal and natural materials. It certainly would not have been out of place as the centerpiece on a Christmas dinner table.

Three more months passed before I decided to visit the old cottonwood again. As I rounded the bend in the trail, I thought at first I must have made a mistake. Perhaps I had just gone too far. I walked back to a well-known location and then turned around to retrace my steps. It turned out that I was right the first time – I’d gone to the correct location but the tree was no longer there. I could only assume that someone from the Parks Department had cut up the remains and hauled them off. I was surprised by the sadness I felt at the time. For more than two years, I had been visiting the tree where I had first met the bear on a fairly regular basis. It almost seemed like an important part of my life was now gone. I decided that "BLM" really did mean that bear lives matter.



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