What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Bears, Bears, Bears

Illustration from John McPhee's "A Textbook Place for Bears"

Edward Hoagland, John McPhee, and Ian Frazier are three of my favorite writers. Each has written at least one bear piece: Hoagland’s “Bears, Bears, Bears” (Sports Illustrated, March 26, 1973; included in his Red Wolves and Black Bears, 1976); McPhee’s “A Textbook Place for Bears” (The New Yorker, December 27, 1982; included in his Table of Contents, 1985); and Frazier’s “Bear News” (The New Yorker, September 9, 1985; included in his Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody, 1987). It’s interesting to compare them.

Hoagland’s “Bears, Bears, Bears” profiles Lynn Rogers, a graduate student in wildlife biology at the University of Minnesota, who is, in Hoagland’s words, “probably the most ardent investigator of black bears right now.” Rogers works in Isabella, a logging village in the Arrowhead region of northern Minnesota, now the Superior National Forest. Hoagland says of Rogers, “In the woods he moves at a silent trot, as only the rarest woodsmen do. His thoughts, insofar as they could be elicited in the week I lived with him, seemed almost exclusively concerned with bears – catching them, amassing more data on them.”

Hoagland tells about going on bear searches with Rogers:

On September twenty-second we spent a red-letter day together, starting at a dump where gulls and ravens whirled above us and Rogers scanned the line of trees for any fat rear end that might be beating a retreat. He flew for four hours, locating all the bears whose radios were functioning; then back on the ground, as a check on his methods he went to three of the fixes to confirm that the bears were where he’d marked them. He inspected seven denning places, showing me how he discovers the hole itself by the raking that bears do as they collect insulation. This is while the ground is clear of snow, so he memorizes how to find it later by lining up the nearby trees. Number 414’s chamber last winter was under a clump of boulders, fifteen feet back through a passage. Number 320’s was under a bulldozed pile of birch that the loggers had left. A few miles away we watched a female preparing a small basket-shaped sanctum under the upturned roots of a white pine, from which she sneaked, like a hurrying, portly child, circling downwind to identify us before clearing out. Another bear, a hundred-pound male, was hollowing a den under a crosshatch of windfalls just above a patch of swamp. He too scrambled silently away downward ahead of us like a gentleman disturbed in a spot where he’s afraid perhaps he shouldn’t be.

McPhee’s “A Textbook Place for Bears” profiles Patricia McConnell, a biologist who works for the State of New Jersey trapping bears. “She is scarcely five feet tall,” McPhee writes. “Her jeans were too long and were rolled at the tops of her shoes. Her hair is dark, rich brown with strands of gray. She has a quick, infectious smile that somehow seems to break inward, concentrating its brightness.”

The piece is set in the Kittatinny Mountain region of northwestern New Jersey where McConnell has a trap line. McPhee reports his experience accompanying McConnell as she checks the traps for bears:

She had set snares – a pair of them, about thirty feet apart. And now, making rounds, at a few minutes to six in the morning, June 19, we went down into the woods to see what sort of mischief might have happened near the snares. The site was some distance from the road, and the mountainside fell steeply away. The only sound we heard was the tread of our feet. “There’s no bear here or we’d have heard it by now,” she was saying, but then she drew in her breath and stopped. She stared through the trees in excited disbelief. “This could only happen once,” she said. “We have hit the daily double. A bear in each snare.”

Frazier’s “Bear News” is about bears and newspaper stories about them, principally in the Glacier National Park region of western Montana where, at the time Frazier wrote it, he lived:

The road I lived on is called Bear Creek Road. Not far from my house I have found pyramidal piles of bear scat filled with chokecherry pits, and honeysuckle vines torn down like old prom decorations and trodden into bear tracks in the mud of spring seeps, and rocks the size of truck tires rolled out of the ground, and rotten deadfalls torn to powder.

In the piece, Frazier tells about tracking bears and about his encounters with them:

The day after I saw my first bear in the wild, I saw my second, third, and fourth bears. I was out fishing again, trying to get to an oxbow lake near my house. I was mostly surrounded by fences and “Posted” signs. On the one unfenced side of the lake, a pine and fir forest descended to a marsh, with little trickling creeks, and hip-deep black muck holes with oily films on top, and stands of yellow skunk cabbage, and downed trees with their roots full of dried mud sticking high in the air. I was coming through a thick willow grove when I heard a single woof, as distinct as a word. I thought it might be a deer snorting, but then through the leaves I saw two brown shapes climbing a cottonwood tree. I pushed the willows aside just in time to see a big black bear go right up the trunk. The bear did not climb putting one foot here and one foot there; she shot up with her belly flat to the trunk, her four legs rowing in a blur and throwing of bark chips. She went up in a second, as if on rails. When she reached a fork in the tree, she leaned her back against one branch and put her feet on the other branch. I took a step closer, and she woofed again, at the cubs invisible above her, and I could hear them climb some more. She was by far the biggest thing I’d ever seen in a tree. I looked and blinked and looked and blinked. Her fur had whorls, and tufts, and smooth places, and it seemed to be wrist-deep. Mule deer are the color of pine trunks in winter light; elk have on their necks the dark brown of wet bark and on their sides the golden tint of sun on a bare hill. This bear’s fur was the smoky blue-black of night when it starts to fill a pine forest. Her snout moved back and forth in short arcs, and she watched me out of the corner of her eye.

That “I was coming through a thick willow grove when I heard a single woof, as distinct as a word” is terrific. The whole passage is inspired!

All three pieces are written in the first person, a point of view I relish immensely. All three are accounts of the writers’ personal experiences with bears. But Hoagland’s and McPhee’s pieces have a dimension that Frazier’s doesn’t; they each vividly portray a protagonist – Lynn Rogers in “Bears, Bears, Bears,” and Patricia McConnell in “A Text Book Place for Bears.” Many of Hoagland’s best paragraphs are descriptions of Rogers. For example:

As he sits in a brooding posture at the kitchen table, his body doesn’t move for long periods and he thinks aloud, not so much in actual words as with a slow series of ums and ahs that seem to convey the pacing of his thoughts. But he lectures nicely, full of his subject, and in the woods whatever is lummoxy drops away in that quickness, the dozen errands he’s running at once – searching for a plant whose leaves will match the unknown leaves he has been finding in a given bear’s scats, examining a local bear-rubbing tree for hairs left on the bark since his last check. If he’s lost in his jeep in the tangle of old logging roads, he gets a fix on the closest radio-collared bear and from that figures out where he is. If he’s near one of them and wants a glimpse, he lifts a handful of duff from the ground and lets it stream lightly down to test the wind before beginning his stalk. When he’s radio-tracking from the plane he rents, he watches his bears hunt frogs, or sees one surprise a wolf and pounce at it. If a bear in a thicket hasn’t moved since his previous fix and is close to a road or a house, he may ask the pilot to land, if they can, to see whether it has been shot. Then, on the ground again, suddenly he’ll climb an oak tree to taste the acorns on top, spurting up the branchless trunk without any spikes, his hands on one side pulling against his feet on the other. Lost in the yellow fall colors, munching bear food, he shouts happily from the tree, “What a job this is, huh?”


At first, in my time with him, it had seemed sadly chancy to me that he had been afforded so little official support for a project I knew to be first-rate. But soon such a sense evaporated; rather, how lucky it was that this late-blooming man, who creeps through the brush so consummately that he can eavesdrop on the grunting of bears as they breed, had discovered at last, after seven long years as a letter carrier in his hometown, what it was that he wanted to do! In his blue wool cap, with Santa Claus wrinkles around his eyes because of the polar weather he’s known, shambling, blundering, abstracted at times, he is an affecting figure, a big Viking first mate proud of the fact that the can heft a 240-pound bear alone. He kisses his wife as he starts out, one pocket full of his luncheon sandwiches, the other with hay-scented packets of scat he forgot to remove after yesterday’s trip (they smell pleasant enough, and he likes carrying them as boys like carrying snakes).

Of the many wonderful details in these three great pieces, that pocketful of “hay-scented packets of scat” is one of my favorites.

Which of these pieces has the most compelling storyline? That’s easy – McPhee’s “A Textbook Place for Bears.” Basically, it’s the story of a morning in the life of bear biologist Patricia McConnell. And what a morning! It begins at dawn, in the Great Valley of the Appalachians, when McConnell picks up McPhee in her truck and drives up Kittatinny Mountain to check on two bear snares she’d set. They find two black bears in them, one of them, as it turns out, is female – “the first female bear ever caught by the State of New Jersey.” McConnell decides she needs help. They head back down the mountain to the nearest telephone. At this point, McPhee introduces an additional narrative thread: “She mentioned en route that her eleven-year-old daughter was to appear in a gymnastics show later that morning and she was meant to be there.” Suddenly, time is of the essence. McConnell makes a number of calls, recruits some assistants, including her boss, Robert Lund. Then she and McPhee head back up the mountain. With Lund’s help, she anesthetizes the bears (“Within sixty seconds, the bear sat down. It breathed heavily, began to nod like a dinner guest, and in five or ten minutes was stretched out on its side in slumber”). The bears’ statistics are taken. They’re tagged, tattooed, and weighed. She wants to put a radio collar on the female bear, but she doesn’t have one with her. She departs the site to see if she can find one, leaving the bears in the care of Lund and several others. McPhee stays with the bears (“We sat quietly watching the two before us while the gentle patter of gypsy-moth caterpillars sounded like rain in the leaves above”). The female bear stirs, lifts her head, and sets it down again. Then she lifts her head again, and is suddenly up on her feet, moving away. McPhee writes,

The cuffs were still around her legs, and they hobbled her. She had them off before she had travelled thirty feet. She was wobbly, unsteady, clumsy, and fast. Fear had burned through the drug. She had got up and gone before Lund had time to inject her. She crashed down the mountain through the woods, he running after her with his hypodermic needle held forward like a baton.

The bear moves into the swamp, where she lays down, head out of the water. Then the male bear begins to move. In fear, two of the onlookers climb trees. McConnell returns with a radio collar. “What the hell is going on here?” she says. The male bear gets up and “weavingly, drunkenly” runs and falls downhill out of sight. McConnell fills a jab-stick syringe and carries it down the mountainside to Lund. The swamp is dense (“The vegetation seemed less woven than solid. A person six feet away could be invisible, let alone a bear”). McConnell, Lund, and another man, named Joe Garris, close in on the bear (“Lund advanced the jabstick, in the manner of a knitting needle, through the rhododendron”). Lund sticks the needle into the bear. Soon the bear is asleep. McConnell and Garris haul the bear to dry ground. “Garris leaned over, sank his fingers into the fur at the shoulder and the rump, and lifted the bear above his head like pressed weight. He lowered her to his shoulders, fireman’s carry, and walked up the mountain.” He puts the bear in the back of his pickup.

McPhee watches all this unfold. He’s there when the bears wake up and run away. He’s there in the swamp when the female bear is recaptured. He’s in the back of Garris’s truck with McConnell and the female bear as they make their way to the barrel-trap site. He’s there when the sleeping bear is put in the barrel trap, which will serve temporarily as a cage. Again, he’s with McConnell and the bear in the back of Garris’s pickup when it’s returned, with radio collar attached, to the place where it was snared.  And, in one of my favorite passages, he accompanies McConnell to her daughter’s gymnastics show:

From a town parking lot, we ran down the main street of Washington, up a long flight of wooden stairs, and into a loft above a shoe store, where an eleven-year-old girl in a black-and-ivory leotard was performing on a trampoline. Her mother’s jeans were still wet to the thighs and caked with swamp muck. She tried, impossibly, to conceal her appearance and to make herself evident, too. When the girl finished, her mother waved from the doorway and was acknowledged with a shy smile. Seated close to the walls were grandmothers and grandfathers, parents and siblings, under paper butterflies and fluorescent lights. For various gymnastic achievements, Dee Dee McConnell was awarded four stars.

Frazier’s “Bear News” doesn’t have as strong a narrative arc as McPhee’s “A Textbook Place for Bears.” Frazier is more an observer than a dramatist. The action of his piece is in the looking. He’s a superb noticer. Here, for example, is his description of his first bear encounter:

The first time I ever saw a bear in the wild, I was on my way back from fishing in a beaver meadow on state land next to the Flathead National Forest, about ten miles from the town of Bigfork, Montana. I was coming around a bend on an overgrown logging road when I saw up ahead a large black animal see me and duck into some thimbleberry bushes. I knew it was a bear. I didn’t move and he didn’t move for maybe three minutes. There was no likely tree nearby for me to climb. Then the bear hopped out of the bushes, took a look at me over his shoulder, and galloped like crazy down the trail. As he ran, his hind feet seemed to reach higher than his head. He splashed water up and made the rocks clack as he crossed a little creek, and then he went into the brush on the other side with a racket that sounded like a car crashing through there.

That “As he ran, his hind feet seemed to reach higher than his head” is very fine. The whole passage is a model of how prose is made vivid by the use of words that evoke images and sensations.

Hoagland is rougher, blunter, more instinctual than Frazier and McPhee. He’s like a Henry Miller of nature writing. With him, you don’t get the feeling that everything has been pre-planned and structured the way it is in, say, McPhee’s work. He’s also deeper than McPhee and Frazier. He’s the only one of the three that wonders why he’s so infatuated with bears. He writes, “Rooting around on riverbanks and mountain slopes, we may be looking for that missing piece, or love, religion and the rest of it – whatever is missing in us – just as we so often are doing in the digging and rooting of sex.”

All three pieces brim with interesting bear facts. For example:

When a bear goes at a wooden beehive, it places the hive between its legs and cracks it open like a coconut. [“A Textbook Place for Bears”]

Grizzlies have dish-shaped faces, and humps on their shoulders; blacks have longer faces, and no humps. [“Bear News”]

Bears don’t mature sexually until they are four, which, combined with the circumstance that the sows only breed every other year, and plenty of eligible sows not even then, gives them one of the lowest reproductive capabilities of any animal. [“Bears, Bears, Bears”]

A bear track has an ovoid, palm-shaped print at the center and, above that, five toe prints, with a pointy hole made by the claw above each toe. [“Bear News”]

When a bear stops eating and its intestines are empty, a seal of licked fur, pine needles and congealed digestive juices forms across the anus, putting a period to the year. [“Bears, Bears, Bears”]

Which of these three magnificent bear pieces is my favorite? Ah, that’s an agonizing question! After long consideration, I confess I can’t choose. Each, in its own way, is a perfect evocation of bearness – real as that “single woof, as distinct as a word.”  

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