There is a subset of gay men, called “bears”.
Now, nobody can agree what bears are.
- Are they fat guys?
- Are they hairy guys?
- Are they bearded guys?
- Or is it all in the attitude? Laid-back, jeans-and-flannel, watching TV?
Are bears defined by what they’re not?
- Non screaming-queen?
- Non swishy/campy?
- Non slim-young-and-blond?
Still, somehow, the “bear community” hangs together.
I think, if I belong anywhere, that’s where.
After working in the woods, it took me a long time to warm up to the idea of guys calling themselves “bears”. It was supposed to be cuddly, like Teddy bears.
Terms crept into the vernacular:
To “hibernate with” was to be together, presumably in bed, and with a hint at sex. Maybe more than a hint.
To “maul” had playful connotations of rambunctious sex play.
Young bearish men were “cubs”.
Sometime “paw” would slip out in reference to a hand or foot.
I stopped being surprised when a guy, otherwise sensible and mature, would have little stuffed toy bears scattered around his place. The bears would be dressed in anything from black leather jackets to tutus.
I have no problem with heft on a guy, if he carries it well. And I could hardly object to body hair, having so much myself. And I love beards.
In my work, real bears were one of the hazards of the woods. Not something to be sought out.
Backcountry connections of my experience, like the Forest Service, were rife with bear stories. These were seldom happy tales.
I saw few bears, and was glad of it. But I learned to watch for their sign.
- Clawed trees.
- Footprints in mud ( those claws again).
- And their scat. Their shit.
One place in northern California, we were horse-packed into a remote meadow to camp. Scouting around for a tent spot, we came across some bear shit.
From the diameter of a turd, you mentally estimate the size of the beast who laid it.
This poop was half again the width, at least, of the sturdiest you’d ever see in a toilet. Even in the High School gym, after the big jocks, the football players, has been there.
That bear must have been huge. I’m glad he didn’t come back that night.
And what was in the scat? Disgusting things.
Bears must be willing to eat most anything.
One fall in Lassen National Forest, there was a bumper crop of seeds from the Jeffrey pines. Probably there was one seed on every square inch of forest floor.
I gave them a try, for they were indeed pine nuts.
I would gather a handful. While walking along, I’d crack them one at a time between my teeth and eat the meat. But the stuff inside was meager, the size of a rice grain. It was amusement, nothing more.
But I found bear scat full of pine seed shells.
How did the bear get a mouthful? Lick them from the gravelly ground?
Of course the bear was not so finicky as me, to make some distinction between meat and shell. Rather, chewed them all up together.
Bears stink. They smell like an old wet mop. They are not cuddly.
We’ve all heard about a mother bear and her cubs, how fiercely she’ll defend them.
She has to.
A male bear will try to kill any cub not his own.
So much for “hibernating” together.
I’m glad to say most of the bears I have ever seen in the wild were running away from me as fast as they could go.
Driving around a curve on a logging road in the Entiat Mountains, a small black bear would be hurtling up the ridge.
Surprising a few in a meadow while hiking along the Dosewallips trail, they would turn and lope away as soon as they caught our scent.
Bears probably have stories they tell about us, the same as our compendium of “bear stories”. The telling probably runs much the same:
- Those creatures are fascinating.
- They can show surprising intelligence, even compassion.
- They do disgusting things, wanton destruction.
Then the teller sums it up with a shake of the head that admonishes, it’s best to steer clear.
- They’re completely unpredictable.
The gestalt of bear personality I had gleaned, then, was a contradictory mixture of gluttony and thrift, violence and savvy, bumbling and streets-smarts, aggression and cowardice.
All too much like humans. And nothing much I’d care to salute in a totem animal.
Well, I finally got it that gay bear men, and real animal bears were two different thing. I’m easy with using the word.
Just don’t take it too far.