The power of stories
Embracing the bear

Following the bear

The White Bear King by Theodor Kittelsen

As the old year ends, and a new one begins, and the grey winter months roll on and on, I find myself think of bears -- and of something Terry Tempest Williams once said about bears as symbols of life held in balance.

For Williams, the bear embodies "opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter -- and she emerges with young by her side. I think that's a wonderful model for us, particularly as women. And it's one I've tried to adopt." 

Ice Bear by Jackie Morris

She goes on to explain that she divides her years into halves. From April Fool's Day to The Day of the Dead (November 1st), she lives a public life as a writer and activist, doing any traveling or public speaking or teaching during these months. From The Day of the Dead until April Fool's Day, however, she stays at home -- to spend time with her family; to write; to live within the rhythms of her creativity. The bear, she suggests, "offers us a model of how one lives with that paradox, of public and private life, of a creative life as well as a life of obligation."

The Ice Palace by Angela Barrett

Williams also addresses this theme in her essay "Undressing the Bear," pointing out that the she-bear has two sides her nature: both fierce and maternal, wild and nurturing. In mythic terms, this oppositional duality held in instinctive balance is the point.

Art by Lucy Campbell and Virginia Lee

"If we choose to follow the bear," she writes, "we will be saved from a distracted and domesticated life. The bear becomes our mentor. We must journey out, so that we might journey in. The bear mother enters the earth before snowfall and dreams herself through winter, emerging with young by her side. She not only survives the barren months, she gives birth. She is the caretaker of the unseen world. As a writer and a woman with obligations to both family and community, I have tried to adopt this ritual of balancing public and private life. We are at home in the deserts and mountains, as well as in our dens. Above ground in the abundance of spring and summer, I am available. Below ground in the deepening of autumn and winter, I am not. I need hibernation in order to create."

Dream Basket by Susan Seddon Boulet

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes the age-old connection of women and bears in the mythic traditions of many different lands. "To the ancients," she writes, "bears symbolized resurrection. The creature goes to for a long time, its heartbeat decreases to almost nothing. The male often impregnates the female right before hibernation, but miraculously, egg and sperm do not unite right away. They float separately in her uterine broth until much later. Near the end of hibernation, the egg and sperm unite and cell division begins, so that the cubs will be born in the spring when the mother is awakening, just in time to care for and teach her new offspring. Not only by reason of awakening from hibernation as though from death, but much more so because the she-bear awakens with new young, this creature is a profound metaphor for our lives, for return and increase coming from something that seemed deadened.

Brown bear and cubs

Bear cubs copyright Terri Windling

"The bear is associated with many huntress Goddesses: Artemis and Diana in Greece and Rome, and Muerte and Hecoteptl, mud women deities in the Latina cultures. These Goddesses bestowed upon women the power of tracking, knowing, 'digging out' the psychic aspects of all things. To the Japanese the bear is the symbol of loyalty, wisdom, and strength. In northern Japan where the Ainu tribe lives, the bear is one who can talk to God directly and bring messages back for humans. The cresent moon bear is considered a sacred being, one who was given the white mark on his throat by the Buddhist Goddess Kwan-Yin, whose emblem is the crescent moon. Kwan-Yin is the Goddess of Deep Compassion and the bear is her emissary.

The Snow Maiden by Edmund Dulac

"In the psyche, the bear can be understood as the ability to regulate one's life, especially one's feeling life. Bearish power is the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert, or quiet down into a hibernative sleep that renews one's energy for the next cycle. The bear image teaches that it is possible to maintain a kind of pressure gauge for one's emotional life, and most especially that one can be fierce and generous at the same time. One can be reticent and valuable. One can protect one's territory, make one's boundaries clear, shake the sky if need be, yet be available, accessible, engendering all the same."

Bear Friend by Alexandra Dvornikova

Father Bear Comes Home by Maurice Sendak and Bear Dancer by Susan Seddon Boulet

Bear scuptures by Gene Tobey

Though Williams and Estés are focused on women and women's issues in the passages above, the oppositional nature of bear symbology is useful to all artists, men and women alike, who struggle to balance their public and private selves, and the often-conflicting demands of family life, community engagement, and creative work. To be available to others, while protecting time to be available only to ourselves and our muse...is this not the dilemma that all creative artists (if we're not complete monsters of self-importance or self-effacement) face again and again?

Bearskin by Trina Schart Hyman and East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Liga Klavina

And even when we are alone in the studio, the symbol of the mythic bear and cyclical hibernation is a useful one. As a culture, we tend to prize action, accomplishment, and public expression over stillness, retreat, and quiet reflection -- but creativity needs all parts of the cycle: the taking in, the pause, the putting back out. Art is born in the movement between them, the mythic rhythm at the heartbeat of our lives.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

The winter months have always been a challenge for me. I love sunshine, dry weather and warmth (the hotter the better), and for many years I avoided the cold by wintering in the Arizona desert -- where bears roamed above us on the mountain peaks, but did not venture down to the heat of the valley.

By living full-time on Dartmoor now,  however, I am learning to appreciate winter's stark gifts: it slows me down, turns my thoughts inward, keeps me closer to hearth and home, strengthening the introverted side of my nature, without which I couldn't write or paint. I am learning at last to follow the bear; to trust in the process of hibernation and gestation. I am learning patience. Slowness. Stillness.

All things have their season. And spring always comes.

Sleeping bear by Marc Simont

Bear stories

It's a good time of year to be reading about bears -- in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and myth. The bearish tales above are three of my favourites, along with Tender Morsals by Margo Lanagan, Bear Daughter by Judith Berman, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, East by Edith Pattou, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Once Upon a Winter's Night by Dennis L. McKiernan, Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede, The Ice Bear by Jackie Morris, Bearkskin by Howard Pyle (illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman), "Bear's Bride" by Johanna Sinisalo (published in The Beastly Bride, Datlow-Winding eds.), and Marion Engle's strange but compelling Bear. What are some of yours...?

She Kissed the Bear on the Nose by John Bauer

Pictures: The bear art above is by Theodore Kittelsen, Jackie Morris, Angela Barrett, Lucy Campbell, Virginia Lee, Susan Seddon Boulet, me, Edmund Dulac, Alexandra Dvornikova, Maurice Sendak, Gene Tobey, Līga Kļaviņa, Trina Schart Hyman, John Bauer and Marc Simont. Titles and artist credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.

Words: The passages quoted above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006); "Undressing the Bear," published in An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage, 1994); and Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Ballentine, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors.

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