First posted in the winter of 2014:
I've long used the term "embracing the bear" for those moments when I'm moving forward into something I fear, but don't want fear to stop me; thus I was intrigued to encounter the same phrase in Terry Tempest William's An Unspoken Hunger, where it has a slightly different, but related, meaning. In a gorgeous little essay on women and bears, Williams includes a description of Marian Engle 's Bear, a highly unsual, memorable novel which portrays a woman and a bear "in an erotics of place":
"It doesn't matter whether the bear is seen as male or female," says Williams. "The relationship between the two is sensual, wild.
"The woman says, 'Bear, take me to the bottom of the ocean with you, Bear, swim with me, Bear, put your arms around me, enclose me, swim, down, down, down, with me.'
" 'Bear,' she says suddenly, 'come dance with me.'
"They make love. Afterwards, 'She felt pain, but it was a dear sweet pain that belonged not to mental suffering, but to the earth.'
William writes that she, too, "has felt the pain that arises from a recognition of beauty, pain we hold when we remember what we are connected to and the delicacy of our relations. It is this tenderness born out of connection to place that fuels my writing. Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.
"By undressing, exposing, and embracing the bear, we undress, expose, and embrace our authentic selves. Stripped free from society's oughts and shoulds, we emerge as emancipated beings. The bear is free to roam."
"We are creatures of paradox, women and bears, two animals that are enormously unpredictable, hence our mystery," Williams continues. "Perhaps the fear of bears and the fear of women lies in our refusal to be tamed, the impulses we arouse and the forces we represent....As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are the mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems."
Credits: The sublime images above are by the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, based in Moscow; all rights reserved by the artist. The pen-and-ink drawings are Victorian illustrations, artists unknown. The text above is from An Unspoken Spoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Willians (Pantheon, 1994); all rights reserved by the author.
Other recommended bear fiction: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman (the woman-bear relationship in this book completely slays me), The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, Tender Morsals by Margo Lanagan, East by Edith Pattou, Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, and Her Frozen Wild by Kim Antieau. Short fiction: "The Bear Outside" by Tom Hirons, "Sleeping With Bears" by Theodora Goss, "Else This, Nothing Ever Grows" by Sylvia V. Linsteadt, "Bear's Bride" by Johanna Sinisalo (in The Beastly Bride), "The Woman Who Loved a Bear" by Jane Yolen (in Once Upon a Time), "Brother Bear" by Lisa Goldstein (in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears), and "The Brown Bear of Norway" by Isobel Cole (in Black Thorn White Rose). For magical poetry, I particularly love "The Bear's Daughter" by Theodora Goss and "An Embroidery" by Denise Levertov. Jackie Morris' picture book The Ice Bear is a thing of beauty; and Michel Pastoureau's is fascinating. Other recommendations welcome.
More ursine symbology, folklore, and art can be found in "Following the Bear" (winter 2014).