Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 14, 2007

A Drop of Bear’s Blood

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:03 pm

  The end of the long hunt is nearing completion.  Over the course of the year three intrepid hunters have relentlessly pursued their elusive quarry. The object of their pursuit is a legendary bear of unimaginable power, size, and ability.  Now, it appears that the fatal arrow has been launched from the lead hunter’s bow and driven hard into its mark. The Great Bear is fatally wounded and rich red blood streams from his side.  Drops of crimson fluid mark his route and they will soon lead to the spot where he will fall for the final time.

   We were not witness to the arrow’s path, but the drops of dried blood on the Virginia Creeper leaves are proof enough that the act has occurred (see here).  They tell us that now the time is ripe to re-tell the ancient tale and explain the reenactment of a ritual killing older than time itself. 

  Our story begins back in the misty era before people roamed the earth. Back then animals could talk just like you and I.  They also lived in wigwams and were masters of fire.  Why they have since lost all these skills is a true mystery, but of no importance to our tale.  It so happens that in a village, not so far from here, lived three great hunters: Robin, Chickadee and Gray Jay. Although all were exceptional, Robin stood out as the greatest hunter of bunch.

  Perhaps it was Chickadee who suggested it, but in time they came to a mutual agreement that they would attempt to slay the Great Bear.  Everyone who had attempted this ended up abandoning the effort in frustration or becoming prey themselves. Since our trio represented the greatest of all hunters, after all, this was their destiny.  So it came to be that in the very early spring of the year the three started out on their quest and entered the forest. Robin was to perform the kill, Chickadee was charged with carrying the large kettle in which they would cook their prize, and Gray Jay was to clean up after them both.

  The Great Bear, having just emerged from his winter sleep, was still groggy and did not detect the arrival of the hunters.  He was in the process of tearing open a termite infested log when their scent greeted his nostrils.  Not ready for the challenge, he turned and galloped back into the thicket where he was usually able to vanish from all pursuers.  He doubled back and prepared for ambush, but our hunters sensed the ploy and waited him out. 

  After several such roundabouts, the bear decided to head beyond the hills and lose his would be assassins.  He broke into a tireless gallop and soon left them miles behind.  Robin, Chickadee and Gray Jay dogged his trail, however, and always shortened the gap whenever the bear paused. At some point well into spring, the bear decided to do what he always did in such cases and he ran up into the skyworld.

  Now Robin, Chickadee and Gray Jay, being birds, launched into the sky right behind him and kept on his tail.  Throughout the balance of spring and into mid summer the beast was unable to trick or otherwise shake his chasers.  It was in very very late summer that Robin, the best hunter of the group, was able to get close enough to launch an arrow with his bow.  The shot was long and cursed by wind and cloud, but it flew true and dove deeply into the bear’s chest.

  Being a very great bear, he did not show any effect at first.  He kept running at a steady pace. The blood flow from the wound was just a mere trickle at first, but soon increased to a torrent.  Blood sprinkled down upon the green tree leaves below and marked his path.  Even the greatest of beasts will eventually run out of blood and our bear, drained of his last ounce of life, crashed to the ground and died.

  Robin was the first on the scene and he jumped upon the dead quarry and pulled the arrow out without thought.  Now, normally robin was always proud of the purity of his white breast and never allowed anything to soil its immaculate beauty.  In his exuberance he accidently sprayed blood upon his chest and stained it red – a stain that has remained to this day.

  Chickadee arrived on the scene, set down the kettle and danced with robin in celebration of their success.  When gray jay arrived it was his task to remind the two that there was much work to be done. The bear, he chirped, must be butchered and rendered and they must return to the village before winter.  They set about building a fire under the kettle and went to work.

  First, the great shag of fur was removed and the body cut up into pieces.  Each piece of the great bear was as sizable as the whole body of any regular bear, so the pot began to overflow. Bubbling yellow fat began to spill over the edge and drip down onto the green and red-speckled leaves of the trees below. Though it took some time, the bear was finally reduced to cooked meat, rendered fat and a hide large enough to cover a council lodge. Our hunters returned home with their catch and thus entered the world of legend.

  A few days after the hunters left the scene, all the dried blood and dried fat remaining on the forest leaves mellowed into a shade of even brown. 

  In honor of the passing of the Great Bear, nature re-enacts the story of the hunt every year.  Tree leaves bear the color of red blood and yellow fat before turning brown and falling to the ground. 

  Such is the gist of an ancient legend told by northern tribes in order to explain some of the mysteries of autumn.  You can now track the sequence and see the fresh blood and fat along with the dried browns of late autumn.  Knowing that some among you would be doubtful of the veracity of this tale, I here present some form of proof.  Peer into the night sky and find the constellation called the Big Dipper – a major part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear (see here for more than you need to know about this constellation).

  This grouping of stars has been associated with the form of a bear since, well, before animals could talk, I guess.  The Ancient Greeks, Hebrews and Arabics all share some sort of a “bear tale” revolving around this celestial pattern. In the Grecian story, the bear is part of the greater story of Callisto, and the beast sports a long tail (see here). 

  American Indians also point to this constellation as the outline of the Great Bear. Their story rightly acknowledges that bears do not in fact have long tails. The three stars forming the handle of the “dipper” or the tail, they will point out, are actually Robin, Chickadee and Gray Jay pursuing the bear. (In some Native lore, there were actually seven hunter birds that started out, but owl, saw-whet, blue jay and pigeon all dropped out and left the three finishers to complete the task. The four stars forming the hand and sickle of the Grecian Bootes constellation are considered part of the great bear in Mic-Mac country.)  The proof that I promised is to be found in the form of the second star – that denoting Chickadee. This is actually a double star, or to put it more clearly, the succinct evidence of Chickadee carrying his kettle.

  Go ahead, use a telescope and look for yourself. The astronomy books will call these hunter stars Alioth, Mizar & Alcor, and Alkaid and inform you of their position in the tail of the bear.  To some among us, however, we know them better as the three great hunters. Their position is part of the tale – not the tail.

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