From Fear To Respect: How Visiting North Carolina Changed My Attitude About Bears

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By Gwendalyn Gilliam

Maybe it’s because Asheville, North Carolina, is said to sit upon a gigantic quartz deposit, or because of its intense focus on the arts, or the spiritual circle within which I ran, but I was shocked when visiting in October to see how cherished and playful people felt about their bears. And yes, Asheville bears are close relatives to ours.

I’d say that if towns had logos about their attitude toward bears, Tahoe’s would be: “We’re Here to Stay, Now Scram!” whereas Asheville’s would be “Please Excuse Us, We’ll Gladly Step Aside!”

I have never heard any horror stories about bears like I do in Tahoe when I was in Asheville. But how can that be in a city with roughly twice the population of the Basin that doesn’t even know about bear boxes? According to my friend Kari, people keep their trash indoors, refrigerating or freezing perishables until the morning of trash day, when they use little more than a normal trash can. Is this practice limiting the window of opportunity for the bears to get into garbage? Or could it be that because they are loved, their bears feel more at home, relaxed, and so act less destructively?

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Tahoe’s dedicated Bear League volunteers do their best to educate us about the true nature of these animals and try to mitigate emergency confrontations that could end badly for the bear, but they have to do so in a hair-trigger climate of tremendous fear.

The organization Help Asheville Bears is dedicated to “protecting the bears we love from poaching.” A second group, bearwise.org, educates people about proper trash disposal. Their goal is “a respect-based relationship with the bears, whose space we share.” Who among us talks about loving our bears? In Asheville, if a bear comes to your house, that’s bragging rights, not a catastrophe.

Asheville residents study their bears. My friend Gretchen shares: “Learning their language is cool. The bears make certain noises to warn well before they rush or charge. I listened to a mama bear that wanted to move her cubs out of our tree in the front yard. We were enjoying the sight of her and her babies climbing through the giant white oak from a safe distance and she began to click her teeth and move her lips in and out. I looked up the ‘language’ and it was distress, so we moved inside and she moved her cubs. It was a pretty cool conversation.”

Before visiting Asheville, when encountering a bear I felt a mixture of awe at the sheer glory of its magnificence (moving those enormous bodies in complete silence!) combined with tragic distress and panic. All that changed when, ironically, in the days preparing to write this piece, I received a bear visit. I saw a large bear climbing up the neighbor’s four-story, narrow staircase. Of course I yelled at it, but instead of the stern, punishing school master voice I usually adopt, I became something of a cheerleader to encourage it to move along. “You can do it, yes, you can!” was my tone, and instantly it turned and took note. Instead of becoming emboldened by my support, it decided not to break into the house, and descended via a nearby tree because it was too big to turn around.

I’m not saying we should all run out and hug the bears, or, as some Asheville violators do, cook food and put it out to feed them. All I’m saying is that bears are conscious beings, keenly aware of energy. I think it’s possible that if we begin to unwind the spiral of fear, to view them as intelligent co-habitants and feel less threatened by and fonder of them, perhaps the bears, without so much freaked-out stigmatization bristling at them, will respond more calmly.

No matter what they do, we’ll feel better about the way we carry ourselves, as guests, here in wild nature.

~ Gwendalyn Gilliam is a bodyworker in Incline Village who’s lived in the area for 20 years. She skis, plays music, paddles, performs aerials, and dances. She’s starting a new podcast, Sparkles!, about what lights you up. Visit gwendalyngilliam.com.

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