Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

If It's Really Tourist Season, Why Can't We Shoot Them?

Yesterday I watched a man talking with a telephone pole. He didn’t look crazy, other than the fact that he was in deep conversation with an inanimate object. Instead he looked like he could have been anyone’s neighbor. He appeared to be in his early 60s, a clean shaven, well enough groomed blue collar worker wearing a shirt with a name tag sewn on it. If I’d only seen him, and not the pole, I would have thought he was talking with someone else – perhaps using a blue tooth phone; except he didn’t look like the type who’d use a blue tooth.

We’d just finished up an appointment at Angell Animal Medical Center. It was 5:00 p.m. traffic along Boston’s Huntington Avenue was at a standstill. So I watched.

He was polite, didn’t talk over the pole, even took a moment here and there to allow for rebuttal. Not once did he raise his voice. It was a mellow conversation just like you and I would have. (This stands in stark contrast to a Newburyport City Councilor I once saw having a late night heated debate with a half gallon of milk in the Richdale on the corner of State and Pleasant Streets.)

People walked by and didn’t give it another thought. They didn’t even bother to look at the man. Imagine that. Imagine being so numb or too afraid to get involved that when you’re walking along the sidewalk in the middle of the city and you see crazy being played out in front of your eyes you just keep going as if the man doesn’t exist?

I watched the fellow with curiosity for quite some time and when three teenaged toughs approached something changed. They strutted, trying hard to look as though they weren’t trying hard to look tough. When they neared the crazy fellow he didn’t look up, but once they were within 10 yards or so he stopped talking. He looked relaxed and nonplussed – like he didn’t have a care in the world. But there was definitely a change.

It was a stultifyingly hot day in the city. The concrete, black top, steel and glass held the day’s 100 degree heat in the manmade canyon. In the middle of this sterile, oppressed setting nature took hold. The crazy fellow somehow knew he shouldn’t show he was crazy, not around those three. He reeled himself in and looked as dignified as a grandfather. As soon as the three toughs passed he started talking to the pole again.

Nature rules, even in a place where you can’t see much of it. We somehow know what we need and know how to protect ourselves.

The other day, another sweltering one, Atticus and I were here in Jackson. We kept our walks short and to the point but by early afternoon we both wanted to get out so we walked down through the short span of woods in the backyard to the Ellis River. When it’s hot and there’s not been much rain the water level is low and there’s no use trying to swim. Instead I sat in the water. It felt great – an initial shock that ebbed into a cool pool of water. Atticus, who’s never been a fan of getting wet, sat in the shade on the shore and kept an eye on me. We needed to be outside but he needed the shade while I sought the refreshing river. We were sitting there for several minutes not paying attention to much of anything when just 30 feet away I saw something stirring in the woods. It emerged from the darkness on the far side of Ellis River. It was a bear. I’d guess it was a 300 pounder. It wasn’t Butkus. It might have been State of Maine but I wasn’t sure. He stopped for a moment, glanced at us, took a drink while keeping an eye on us, then slowly waded across to Atticus’ side. I kept an eye on them both and they watched each other but neither said a thing. The bear entered the woods and made his way up towards the house. After he left Atticus walked over to where he crossed and sniffed around for a minute or two before returning to his seat in the shade.

I was not the only one to see a bear this weekend. Lots of people did. It was the Fourth of July and people were up from places where there aren’t a lot of bears and most were frightened whenever they saw them. Numerous calls went into the police and the Forest Service. This seems unfortunate to me, since the bears live up here and the tourists don’t. And yet when the tourists flip out and call the authorities. If the bear is still around its ear gets tagged. After it is tagged if it is reported again it is killed.

I watched a scene play out at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday. Atticus and I were walking back from the post office, the library and the farmer’s market and the street was relatively busy with weekenders walking the Jackson loop. When in broad daylight a bear crossed the street about halfway between the Thompson House Eatery and the JTown Deli. People screamed. Some oohed and aahed. Others were speechless. Funniest of all were the two upscale, well-scrubbed women in the middle of a power talk in the middle of a power walk who were closest to the bear. However, you wouldn’t know it. Nothing was about to deter them from their conversation about interior design.

Later that afternoon, around the same spot but a little closer to the Shannon Door Pub, another bear crossed the road. More excited talk, squeals of delight, some fear from the people walking in the area.

The skeptical person would suggest that the local chamber of commerce had asked the bears to make appearances for the tourists to give them something to talk about. But the truth is the bears are in a tough period right now. The shoots and other food stuffs that keep them going in the spring are gone and the berries are not here yet. So they’re out looking for food and in the process crossing paths with people. Most folks have nothing to worry about, especially if they are aware that bears live here, too. Bears cross paths with people and hurry on their way. They really don’t want much to do with us. (Can you blame them?)

Unfortunately for one bear this weekend, things didn’t turn out too well. It was up in Randolph, where Atticus and I hiked Mount Crescent last week. A couple walked out into their backyard and left the door open. A bear ran into the house and decided to help himself to the kitchen. When they couldn’t get the bear out they called the authorities and the bear was killed. Sad.

I now only keep our backdoor open when I’m sitting next to it at my writing table. Otherwise it is locked. Bears are smart. Many can open a door. When we go outside, even just down to the river, I close the door behind us. I don’t tempt State of Maine, Butkus or any of their brethren. It’s kind of like living with some of the dogs I used to have. You wouldn’t put food out where a dog could get it unless it was food meant for the dog. Why tempt the poor animal? Why put it in a position to fail? With Atticus I don’t have to worry about such things as he’s respectful of what is mine and what is his. But with most dogs you wouldn’t leave things where they could be tempted by them. Living in close proximity to the bears is a lot like that.

Unfortunately, most people don’t think of it that way. They see the world as theirs and theirs alone and if nature gets in the way they’d just as soon file a complaint. It doesn’t matter that survival of the fittest kicks in and nearly every bear will run away from people.

I suppose that’s the biggest complaint I have with tourists. I don’t mind Bike Week where grown men and women pollute the mountains with noise and live out some strange fantasy, or the weekend when Corvettes show up, or the silliest weekend of all – when Mini Coopers are as numerous as black flies in June. What I do care about are those folks who make life harder for the animals who live here year round.

A bear is not unlike that crazy fellow I saw on Huntington Avenue. It knows to take care of itself, to avoid conflict. If only tourists were just as sane.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tom, I'm glad there are people out there like us. I feel the same way about our camp in Barnstead. People want Mister Beaver in the cove and the family of ducks gone and yet, we're the ones invading their home. I'm so sad for that bear getting himself a snack. Thanks for sharing.