A bear has been messing with the beehive across from my house. The first night it tipped over the hive and carried off a couple of frames. In the morning, the beekeepers replaced the frames, secured the hive with metal straps, and set it back on its base. The second night the bear, getting into the swing of things, scattered frames and supers and gobbled a bunch of honey. Miraculously, in the morning the bees were still there and in a remarkably calm state of mind. This meant that the queen was still in residence, so the beekeepers reassembled the hive, surrounded it with four sturdy metal stakes, and added more straps. On the third night the bear returned but gave up after doing only minor damage. Now the hive is clamped onto its base and festooned with soda cans filled with stones.
Whether thanks to the stakes, the straps, the clamps, or the soda cans, the bear hasn’t been back. And I must confess that I am disappointed.
It’s not that I don’t love bees. I own a full set of beekeeper’s regalia—broad-brimmed hat with veil, long-sleeved insufferably hot jacket with four zippered pockets, and long gloves that reach to my armpits. When the master beekeepers are at work I am sometimes allowed to operate the smoker, and every evening during the summer, at the hour when the thrush sings, I refill the bees’ water dish. I read that bees prefer blue flowers, so I planted hyssop and lavender in front of our house. And I do my best to look upon bees as charismatic fauna, despite the difficulties of bonding with something so tiny, so numerous, and so anonymous.
But a bear! Now that’s something I can relate to. For one thing, he’s big, human scale as it were, and I wouldn’t have to put my glasses on to see his face. He’s furry, has arms and legs not unlike mine, and his large head and relatively short snout make him look much cuddlier than a bee, with her six legs and compound eyes. (I do realize that I would suffer much greater damage from a cuddly bear’s swat than from a bee sting.) What a thrill it would be to catch sight of our bear shambling in the vicinity of the hive, to be near enough to hear his snuffling, maybe even to smell his smell, a smell I’ve never come close to smelling before.
What’s with me and this longing for visitations from wildlife? I’ve written before about my dream of befriending a fox, and the halcyon afternoon when a baby bobcat wandered into our yard. My fondness is limited to warm-blooded critters, however. I am not captivated by the prospect of having a personal relationship with a turtle or a frog, much though I enjoy their presence, but a bird or a fox or a bear is a different story. Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing, fantasizing that the animal will recognize me as a fellow creature and will somehow reciprocate. Maybe I’m a frustrated lion tamer at heart, and should have worked in the circus.
But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t really want to tame the bear or the fox or the bird. I think that what I’m after is the glimpse, the fleeting contact with a creature that is like me—has hair, warm blood, cares for its young, and likes to play—and yet is also utterly alien, a creature who (to paraphrase Wittgenstein) if he could speak, I wouldn’t understand him.
“We need the tonic of wildness,” Thoreau said. I can’t put my finger on what I’m looking for in a possible encounter with the bear that visits our hive. But I find the idea of his or her hidden presence in the woods invigorating in a strange and wordless way. And that very wordlessness, the obligatory silence imposed on us by any encounter with wild creatures (after all, if we speak they won’t understand us) is one of their main attractions, a reminder that we have our animal nature in common with them, a nature that is wholly embodied, more powerful than language, and deeply attuned to the secret rhythms of the universe.