Bears and Berries

Often, I am drawn into wild spaces despite the elements and sometimes, because of the elements.

One of my most recent nature experiences brought about a few charming surprises which have inspired a deepening of our connection to a very special gift of a very special tree. 

In an awakened peacefulness I gazed out my window for some time to a forest being bathed by a deeply penetrating rain. I was swept by a deep need to be out there in it… I wanted to be a part of that bathing.

My spirit danced as I called out to my dog, Dharma, to join me. At first she looked perplexed as most of the last few days of non-stop rain have lead her to rather stay indoors, but quickly, she tuned into my excitement and happily joined my side. 

I had a plan, and was looking for just the right tree. 

As we walked I noticed waves of relaxation wash over me. Low hanging clouds enveloped the trees from all around and there was a kind of spacious quiet between the softly accumulated drops of moisture gathered on branches, leaves and pine needles. They dropped to an already moistened earth hushed, yet still heard. They dropped too, on my head, shoulders, feet, and on Dharma’s body.

I looked to her and noticed that mostly, she did not mind that her fur was becoming drenched. As I continued to look for the tree, invisible trails of scents captured her own spirit keeping her mind off of the dampening chill. At times I had to urge her along to keep up with me when she’d become overly captivated with a particularly interesting spot. 

My eyes wandered about the landscape as we walked. Scanning several potential sites, I paid special attention to the various natural dips and swales of the earth. My eyes traced places where I perceived water might flow and gather in the heaviest of rains. 

Then, I found it

A large alligator juniper with a widespread canopy. The tree needed to be positioned more or less on level ground, away from any potential flood zones, and have the right notch in it at a good height. Check, check and check. The tree was also positioned right near a path where I often see roaming coyote packs. Being right on a coyote route it was especially important Dharma stayed close. 

Right away I began searching for a long downed tree limb with just the right shape and thickness. With my find in hand, we walked back to our tree and tested the positioning for what will be the start of a small temporary debris hut. The tree limb had just the right fit creating a sense of satisfaction that followed me onto my next search for additional pieces. 

Again, I feel a relaxation wash over me. This time the sensation is paired with a slight chill and unexpected nostalgia. I can now feel the moisture against my skin which has bled through my clothes. I am feeling balmy, but not cold. My exhalations mist the air with swirling clouds of my own body’s warmth and suddenly, I am brought back to my eight year old self playing in the snow, building a fort. The unexpected sweet sense of free-spiritedness swept me far away. The sweet sense was something I hadn’t experience in a very long time. 

The crisp nostalgia warms my spirit as I continue piecing together the beginnings of my small debris hut. I looked to Dharma and this time she is beginning to shiver slightly but remained as interested in the natural world around her as I was. 

After some time gathering and placing pieces of downfall, we happily began making our way back home. She did well hiding it, staying interested in what I was doing, but by this point, I knew she’d appreciate the break as she was began shivering more consistently. I, on the other hand, felt right where I needed to be. A deep sense of satisfaction filled my spirit and I couldn’t wait to return to finish my long thought of project. 

~ ~ ~

The first thing that came to mind when we returned home was my wildlife cam. I had just bought it and hadn’t yet set it up, but now I knew where I wanted to place it. I was surprised at myself that I hadn’t grabbed it before. 

After a snack or two we returned to the juniper with camera in hand. I placed it just outside the beginnings of my debris shelter, towards where I knew the coyote liked to travel. Then, we slowly meandered our way back home through the forest, Dharma still captured by varying scents along the way. 

The next day, on our way back to the site I noticed what looked like new scat. Since we hadn’t been walking the exact same route back each time, I wasn’t sure if it was merely reconstituted scat from the large amount of moisture we’d been receiving. But I had been this way plenty of times before and at closer inspection it definitely looked new. I mind began to wander as I continued to look for additional debris and signs along the way. 

Back at the shelter, I added and rearranged the various posts I had collected. Then I crawled into the not-yet-completed structure to clear small debris and level the ground. I used he scapula bone of a deer which made for a perfect hand shovel. It was my goal for this small hut to not use any modern tools, only natural debris… The deer scapula was a find Dharma had made a while ago. She usually kept the scapula close to home and periodically walked about with it in her mouth. I knew it would come in handy some day. 

While working on the shelter I noticed hundreds of juniper berries scattered about and popped a few in my mouth as I like to do when they are around, and ripe. As I was leveling the inner space of the soon-to-be shelter with the scapula, I was practically scooping and shoving, several “shovel-ful” amounts of berries around. Looking about I noticed Dharma was interested in something… she was sniffing fresh bear scat. Immediately I noticed several more piles about beneath and around the area. My excitement grew when I noticed some were positioned right in view of the camera! We got a bear! Dharma, we got a bear! I said aloud.

~ ~ ~

Back at home, my heart swooned, when the first photo turned out to be the expected bear, and knowing we were just out there, right on the very spot where apparently, the bear spent nearly two and a half hours foraging in and around the tree. A generous series of photos revealed that the large bear appeared on the camera at just after 3 am and didn’t leave until around 5:22am.

I was of course elated. It warmed my soul knowing wildlife wandered the property; “property” which belongs to truly, no-one. In my eyes, it belongs to them more than it does to us. Still, knowing they freely roamed the space we now called home to sustain themselves made my wild spirit soar beyond belief. I was in love, all over again.

Since moving here, I’ve seen several wandering coyote, some lone wanders and at times a wandering trio, and had expected the first use of the wildlife cam to have surely captured them. Instead, it captured a very hungry black bear right next to my small debris hut. The last couple of photos even show the bear checking out the beginnings of the hut, which made me smile.

That same day, I set the camera in the same spot which resulted in more nighttime photos of bear. This time, two different bears foraged the tree. The bears were busy fattening up on berries before winter, doing so within a quarter mile of from my home. 

I had for obvious reasons expected our first photo be of wandering coyote, but was beyond elated to see instead, wandering bear. I couldn’t believe it. The surprise added a special delight in knowing that to open my front door to step outside, is to step directly into the wild spirit of nature. Knowing that, that wild spirit lived on, despite our presence, was the reassurance I needed. 

I am home.

~ ~ ~

Two nights, three bears… While I knew it was a long shot, I checked the camera after a third night half-expecting to see some wandering coyotes, or nothing at all (which was the case). No more bears… for now.

After working on the debris hut some, the day carried on with the usual wanderings and foresty flirtations. And with charming thoughts of foraging bears still on our minds, my partner became especially intrigued by the delightfully abundant juniper berries. We decided to make the berries the star of the day. This led us to do some foraging and culinary experimentation.

I filled my foraging basket sling with the ripest, ready to fall berries. Much like raspberries, the ripest of juniper berries are those which effortlessly fall to the ground at the slightest of touch. A little shake of a berry-filled branch can easily set you up with a couple of small handfuls. It’s been a while since the basket held any wild delectables… I relished seeing berries nestling in my woven handiwork of cattail and beargrass.

While foraging, I popped a berry here and there into my mouth thinking up ways I could use them for dinner. The berries are sweet and piney, and have around 3 to 4 seeds per berry. The “meat” of the berry is soft, fibrous and pithy. To eat, one could either work around the seeds to spit them out or, you can chew them straight up, although one should take care when chewing them as some seeds can be especially hard. I find that most of the time I can crush them as I chew, but occasionally I will spit them out.

They are unlike any berry one might expect. The exterior of the berries range in soft greens to blue to purple, and the pithy sweet interior is usually a soft lichen-green.

We ended up chopping the berries finely and left them to marinate in some garlicky melted butter. I also added a small handful to a pot full of cooking greens. The garlicky butter and berry mixture was especially tasty over baked sweet potatoes. Though the seeds were a bit of a work-around. To get around this, next time I will definitely crush the berries more thoroughly, seeds and all, into sort of a pithy mash, before using them in a meal. Perhaps an old fashioned coffee/spice grinder will be in our future.  

Delving into culinary creations using native edibles is always fun. Foraging has always been something I’ve done, whether it has been picking and eating wild sorrels, berries and greens in the comfort of a verdant nature-scape; or incorporating them in the kitchen. It is truly something that awakens a part of our most wholesome human spirit, connecting, uniting us to our natural home.

Living in the forest it’s easy to make time to wander, forage and play. For this I am deeply grateful knowing that where I am is where I’m supposed to be. I do this so sporadically these days that I don’t always cease the moment to write about it, but subsisting off the land will always be a part of my life with great hopes of being able to do so in a greater capacity. Someday, as we live to gradually restore the broken ecology of this land we, and the bears, call home, perhaps someday that dream ripen into fruition and become interwoven into our daily lives.

Thank you bears, for your gracing our land with your presence. And thank you, magnificent junipers for your adoring berries of beauty and life. 

We have lots to be grateful for in this great continuum we call life.

Check out my latest book, Wild Kinship:

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