The Bear and the Maple Tree

by Megan Wall

In the spring and autumn stories of this land, a land of dense forest and the rocky remains of a primeval mountain range, the maple trees and the black bears are intertwined. 

In springtime, when the maple sap runs cold and clear from roots to crown, dream-furred bears return from the underworld. They awaken and emerge to go digging for roots to cleanse their bowels and quicken their blood; to get their sap running after a long slumber in the belly of the earth. I imagine they stink of a chthonic mustiness, of rich rotten leaves and a metallic tang of stones that have not seen the sun in years thousandfold. I imagine they dream of sap bubbling and pulsing through roots, and that is what wakes them. 

This crawling into the tomb-womb of the earth at summer’s death, and the power to re-emerge in the springtime with milk-plump cubs at their side, made the bears profoundly sacred in the eyes of animist indigenous peoples. In the Algonquin tradition, a great ceremony was held to celebrate the spring waking of the bears. In their lore, the guardian of the forest was a Great White Bear who could transform into a man. Great White Bear tended to the animals and ushered them from their hunting grounds should they be treated disrespectfully. This figure of the ‘Master’ or ‘Mistress of the Animals’ can be found in proto-European hunting cultures as well, and often takes bear-shape. Artemis, goddess of the forests, whose name means ‘bear sanctuary’, is one prominent example. 

In the country of the sky, when the maple sap runs, and when the bears awaken, high in the dome of the stars, who can be seen but Ursa Major, The Great Bear, who reaches her zenith in the above at this time, before the tree-tops green with bud. 

Now, at autumn-tide, it is said that the splashing of red upon the maple leaves is the blood of the wounded heavenly bear who lies at her lowest over the northwestern horizon around the fall equinox. The great sky bear bleeds over the earth, for the four hunters ever in pursuit of her (the tail stars of Ursa Major) have finally speared their quarry, or so goes one version of what was once many branches of story. 

To the ancients, the setting of stars signified a journey to the underworld, a death. It is a wonder and yet no wonder that the ‘death’ and disappearance of Ursa Major behind the tree line (Ursa Major never sets below the horizon) coincided with bears descending into their root-roofed dens. 

It has been a startling season for bear sightings in these hills, especially yearling cubs. Every friend and neighbour has a story it seems. As the apples grow sweeter with the sharpening nights, the bears venture nearer to us, our hives and fruit trees. A she-bear especially must eat and eat and eat. She must layer her withers and haunches and belly with mother-fat if she is to conceive. She-bears are possessed of a creatrix magic that biologists call delayed implantation. The male seed from a summer tryst may fertilize an egg, but that union will only transform into a cub if mama has had enough to eat by the setting of Ursa Major. 

When I learned about this contraceptive wisdom woven into Bear, the phrase ‘mama bear’ landed more deeply for me. Of course mother bears are known for fiercely protecting and defending their young. But Nature will not make them mothers unless they are utterly nourished and safely denned, deep in the Dreamtime of a winter forest. If the land is not strong enough to support another generation of bears, she-bear listens. 

For me, it is this land-listening that imbues bear with her famous mother-wisdom, along with her ferocity and deep nurturing. A she-bear who has birthed cubs and nursed them through the long dark will have lost a third or more of her body weight by the time she walks out into the bright snow-melt. But, miraculously, her muscles will not have atrophied, she could still paw the head off your shoulders in one swipe. 

As I was walking down the lane under the bright rays of the last full moon that conjoined Jupiter, a black bear cub dropped out of the neighbour’s pear tree right next to me and ran into the woods. The next day I hiked up to the sugar bush where I had not wandered since the ebbing of the sap. There, along the length of a fallen maple tree was a feast of bear’s head mushrooms, as white and shaggy as the Great White Bear, keeper of the forest, who walks here still!