Written Wednesday: Sarah Perkins

My dear friend, Sarah Perkins, has shared one of her essays on the blog today! She’s such a talented writer. Enjoy!

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“Bears”

To Big Bear, the most domesticated grizzly I ever knew. Merry Christmas, Daddy.


Old Ephraim is supposed to be the biggest grizzly bear that ever lived. He stood at nine feet, eleven inches, and weighed about 1,100 pounds (which is approximately equivalent to 4.6 NFL linebackers sitting together on a scale). Though he had a big heart and no natural enemies, he had but few friends. This may have been due to his tendency to devour the local sheep. They were conveniently scattered around his mountain home, and after a long day of foraging for nuts and tubers, he would often climb into his neighbors’ pasture for a late night snack. Lamb is widely acknowledged to be tastier than tuber.

The shepherds did not understand. Although Old Ephraim was capable of living on huckleberries and wheat grass, his body was made for meat. Grizzly bears have 42 sharp teeth for tearing meat, strong noses for smelling meat, rounded ears for hearing future meat, and a carnivore’s stomach for digesting meat. The berries are their salad—the promise that another, better course is about to come. Why then do we deny them their caribou? Their delicious hoary marmots? Why do we wish to confine them to cutworm moths and hide away the bison?

I imagine a few shepherds may have tried to suggest a compromise.

“Look here, Ephraim,” they may have said, “You can’t go about eating all the sheep. But you may eat the ground squirrels. Please, eat all the squirrels you like. And the raccoons, as well. There are more than enough of them for you.”

But Ephraim swings his big, furry head and walks back up into the mountain. He is a big bear, and ground squirrels are toothpicks, not meals. He will return later that night and borrow another cup of lamb.

Old Ephraim was a smart bear. Many shepherds would lay traps for him, only to return and find them sprung and empty except for a rock. We can only infer that grizzly bears, as notable sports enthusiasts, have a strong arm and superior aim.

An outdoorsman, too, Old Ephraim was. Most bears are, for that matter, always hiking, and fishing, and spelunking. In the spring and summer, they sleep outside, limbs reaching out across the grass or curling loosely about a serviceable log. A log is really all they need. They are solitary sportsmen. Having stayed up through the night, they are likely to sleep most of the morning and early afternoon. When they do arise, perhaps they will wish for something to do. Most bears can climb trees, but not the adult grizzly. Old Ephraim would have been too big, and his claws too long. He could not have even grasped the trunk. This should not be seen as a significant loss, however, as few sheep live in those branches, and even fewer caribou.

So instead, Ephraim must have gone on a swim. Bear Lake, nestled in the heart of Cache National Forest, is big and lonely and old. Old Ephraim identified with it. He would lumber into its depths and allow the current to fish ticks and thorns out of his coat, then paddle his way through his geographical namesake. The trout would avoid him, the minnows would speed away, but he was not forlorn. Old Ephraim was a reclusive fellow and did not protest against the squelchy peace.

Afterwards he would crawl beneath a willow tree, lie on his back, and let the branches filter the sun upon his grizzled snout. (Grizzly, the piebald mix of grey and brown and gold upon a single hair, should never be confused with grisly, which is a synonym for behemoth mosquitoes and dental appointments.) Under the tree, he would ponder the solitary delights of honey-fresh beehives and fleshy lamb chops served exclusively to him. It would be a simple, sleepy afternoon.

I read in a book about Berserks: (Bear-surks) Norse warriors who wore bear skins into battle. They believed this gave them the same ferocious aggression as their furred counterparts. Some scholars believed they achieved this by working themselves into a frenzy before a fight. Their faces would swell, their teeth would chatter, and they would begin beating their chests and clawing their hair and running about the woods on all fours. Others claim they would eat a hallucinogenic mushroom or drink a whole cask of beer. On one point, however, all scholars are generally agreed: they must have been very warm under all that fur.

We may assume from their assumptions that these Bear-people were at one time shepherds, who are prone to think of bears only as the shadowy cause behind missing sheep. They clearly did not see Old Ephraim lounging beneath a tree while the honeybees hummed lazy warbles in drippy yellow sun light. If they had, perhaps they would have chosen to be a Great White Shark-serk, or an Angry Rhinoceros-serk. But shepherds do not keep much company with grizzly bears, and cannot be expected to notice anything but the stained wool their carnivorous neighbors leave behind.

Frank Clark was a shepherd. The details are hazy, but we do know that he shot Old Ephraim on August 22, 1923. He shot him seven times until he died. Though Frank Clark felt sorrow, his sheep bleated relief.

I have seen Old Ephraim’s grave; my dad took our family to see it once. It is situated at the end of a 12 mile road up a mountain. It was a long path, but we had a car, so the journey would be short. On the way, Dad told us about the bear.

“Eleven feet tall,” Dad said, “With an appetite big as the mountains he roved. And nothing but fated sheep, and baby orphan deerlings, and pulpy human flesh could satisfy.”

The stories lasted for thirty minutes, by which time we were, in our innocence, expecting a gold encrusted statue of Bearzilla, preserved DNA samples for cloning purposes, and a themed ice cream shop serving cones the size of his actual fangs. We were young, and our imagination of fang ice cream was vivid.

However we could not anticipate the road that remained before us. Twelve miles up a graveled, zigzagged, mountained road is different than twelve miles in Texas. The park guide book states that The Old Ephraim Trail should be considered by solid intermediate bike riders only, but gives no instructions for the tenuous suburban rider. The path was steep, and our suburban was scratched up by the low living trees that it was too big to climb.

“I do not think I would like to hike today” the suburban said. “My axles are hurting. And my undercarriage is abraised. I would like to take a rest here, and then roll and roll my way, zip, back down the mountain and home to Texas where the roads are flat and the trees grow beside the path, not upon it.”

We did not reply, for car-speaking is generally a frowned upon endeavor. Dad accelerated up another switchback.

Traveling at a rate of 184 acorns per minute, we reached the grave after two hours. Here we were surprised to find not an ice cream shop, not a statue, but a rock. A nine foot, eleven inch tall rock. It was large, and creviced, and tan, and decidedly not the same thing as a bear. We took a picture by this rock. In it my sister is frowning. I asked if she was mourning Old Ephraim.

“No,” she said, “I am mourning the journey back.”

Hers was a discerning statement, for there was little here to mourn. In truth, this was not even where Old Ephraim died. Shepherds and boy scouts placed the rock here because the trees looked nice, so the rock was more of a so-once-there-was-this-bear than a here-lies-Old-Ephraim kind of rock. In fact, Old Ephraim was not here at all. His bones are not blanketed in layers of earth and tubers, left to chatter convivially with centipedes or other soil-friendly creatures. Rather they are resting on a windowsill, or maybe serving as a paperweight on a stack of legal documents. An old man from Paris, Texas subconsciously picks up the bleached phalange and turns it around in his fingers before setting it back down and making another note in his book.

After Frank Clark shot Old Ephraim, he removed his skin, buried his remains, and marked the spot with a pile of stones, the tallest of which was approximately eight inches tall, which is 94% less tall than the no-bear-here rock. These stones Boy Scout Troop 43 found, and with them Old Ephraim.

“Scouts, we shall dig up the bones and sell them to tourists,” they say. “It will be easy and brilliant and thrifty.” So the scouts take shovels and rediscover the departed bear. He is 86% lighter than before, and they sell his bones until he is 100% dismembered and dispersed across the continental United States, his skull being in the Smithsonian, and his third vertebrae being in Grandma Opal’s basement.

This of course is a highly efficient method of diffusing your genetic coding, especially if you, like most male grizzly bears, are estranged from your offspring and cannot otherwise know the fate of your biological legacy. Grizzly bears do not make ideal fathers. Before his death, Old Ephraim’s wife had finalized the divorce and taken full custody of their children. She called them Little Ephraim and Manasseh, and together they wandered through Cache National Forest where she taught them to stand in the stream with their mouths wide open and let the swimming, leaping salmon hop into their fruitious jaws.

“Free!” cried the salmon, “I am flying and free!”

Chomp chomp chomp.

These salmon travel over 900 miles every year, swimming upstream, bounding over waterfalls like a mad, sodden kangaroo, all so they may spawn in the riverbed. Laying eggs for the salmon is not an easy task, for upon completing their journey and anchoring their embryonic posterity in a mossy nest, the salmon die. They hold on as long as they can, the female adding more algae to her offspring’s bedding, the male butting and biting intruders with the hump and teeth he grew just for this occasion. But the salmon get homesick. They were not meant for this tiny, lichen-y, insignificant-y biome. Though their hearts and eggs are in a pond, their bodies long for the ocean. The fresh water disagrees with them, and eventually they die, 942.7 miles inland from the Pacific coast. Their bodies decay, depositing nutrients in the waters their children will be born in. When they awake shrouded by particles of their parents, the next generation will slip away, down, down into the ocean where they will see the humpback whale clear his spout, and feed on arctic squid and herring, and learn to speak Russian.

And when they are grown, these salmon will return to these rivers, hurdling to their death, swimming, swimming, swimming back to the same nesting waters they were born in. And if they are not eaten by Little Ephraim or Manasseh, here they will gurgle “Thank you Mother. Thank you Father. I will now be a parent like you. I will grow teeth and a hump and let my body dissolve into nutritious molecules for my children, and they will grow happy and strong as I have done.”

Old Ephraim did no such thing. He was not interested in children. He left his family before they were born, moving on to greener pastures full of sheep. And he was a free bear, forever unencumbered by hunting education, or first claws, or escorted trips to the bathroom during hibernation. If he did stay, as grizzly bear fathers sometimes do, he may have eaten his cubs—blind, bald, less than a pound—confusing them with a mole or maybe a delicious hoary marmot that snuck into his cave to escape the cold.

So Ephraim cartwheeled himself away from domestic responsibility to swim and eat sheep and nap by the lake as the day is long. And when he was shot, he did not know the names of Little Ephraim or Manasseh, and they did not know that he never climbed a tree, or that his skeleton reaches from San Francisco to Connecticut, or that the big rock stuck half way up the mountain was a monument to their father, the hermit patriarch of the forest.

But there are many taxonomies of father-figures, and not all of them are separated by species. Some salmon live out their days cradled in the infinite expanse of murky, waterlogged possibility. Some grizzly bears stay.

My dad stands in front of Old Ephraim’s rock. He is big and muscular and furry. I imagine him slouching towards us, imposing and hungry, with barred teeth and a wrinkled grizzly snout. His growls are similar to his snores—congested and impossible to ignore. Victoria would be the first to go: she is younger and slower and her scream is shriller than the rest of ours. He swallows her feet whole, gulp, then takes the rest of her behind the suburban to munch on. The rest of us he leaves father-less, sister-less, and bereft.

I try to imagine these things, but I can’t, because my father is not a bear. But if he was, he would be the kind that lies on his back beneath the willow tree and lets me lie beside him, and together we count the branches and yawn at the sun and lick the honey drips that slide down our too-long grizzly bear claws.

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