Teton TotemPhoto by: Earthfire

— by Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —

It seems elderly bears are the same as elderly humans. They want their naps. They like to sleep in. And now, way early, Teton Totem has asked to go to bed for the winter. All the other bears, relatively young whippersnappers, are still in massive eating mode, preparing for hibernation. (Well – maybe not Huckleberry; I can’t imagine where he could fit another pound). But Teton has slowed down noticeably for weeks now, and the day before yesterday barely touched his favorite treat, plump juicy grapes.

It’s pretty easy to see when A Bear Wants to Go to Bed. He looks just like a very sleepy child, so pitiful and vulnerable in his need that you want to carry him up to his bed and tuck him in. If that weren’t enough of a sign, Teton begins to look for every possible fallen leaf in his enclosure and beings to gather them together. Suddenly, dead leaves, usually just something to ignore or walk through, take on a huge significance. They can actually be the difference between life and death; between surviving the winter or not. It’s so interesting how things take on critical meaning at certain times and at others are ignored or taken for granted. We should probably treat nothing of the natural world with disdain. It’s all going to be used and important for something.

I wonder – just how does instinct work? How do we know to gather leaves? Ok, so the day length changes and that starts a chemical change in our brain which makes us sleepy. But…how do we know to gather leaves? This whole intelligence and instinct thing is profoundly mysterious. From whence does it arise? How do we know what to do?

If we question almost anything in nature, it leads to deeper and more mysterious questions. We can question and explore – excellent things to do as we exercise our natural creative curiosity to discover things about the world we were born into. But I don’t know if we will ever get fully there. We basically live within a magical mystery.

In the paragraph above, I realize I instinctively used the phrase, “How do ‘we’ know how to gather leaves,” rather than, “How does ‘he’ know,” because that seems to be what happens as we spend time with another being. We intertwine and connect. As we “join with” the other, it seems to open a channel through which information flows across species. So I was emotionally there with him as he carefully pulled leaves into his den, slowly, deliberately, with great intensity. Without thinking, I used the word “we.”

Another question: just how does “join with” work? How do we connect with the other? People may say, “subtle energy.” But how does that work? How does that change our understanding of how nature works?

Back to a very specific bear life-form of the magical mystery, Teton Totem. He has his own way of letting us know he is ready for bed. He stares at us intently and with a sweeping motion of one giant paw, reaches out and pulls it back in what looks like a “come hither” motion. It is his own bear sign language for “I need,” or “Give me.” It is a general communication he uses when he wants water, food or companionship. But somehow, he manages to communicate the specific thing he wants by other means. For example, when he wants his leaves and hay for bed-making, he’ll make that sweeping motion with his paw as he backs slowly towards his den.

When he wants food he will do something profoundly intelligent. His usual method of eating his apples is to spear them with his middle claw to break them in neat halves. Then he pierces a half, again with his middle claw, and using is as a fork, brings it to his mouth to savor. Earlier this year, as he was in the midst of his eating frenzy to put on weight for hibernation, he looked directly at Jean and made that same motion. But there were no apples. He was pantomiming eating an apple, communicating to Jean that he wanted some.

This is stunning when you think about it. This type of communication would not make sense in the wild.

Somehow Teton has figured out, on his own, how to communicate across species to humans.

Original thinking. Problem solving. Just brilliant.

Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.

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