I wasn’t pondering the possibility of human extinction when I set out to write my novel, The Bear
. I was witnessing a coming-of-age in my children as they move into their own years of self-discovery, and it made me long for a return to simpler days, like the ones I had spent as a boy in northeastern Pennsylvania where the woods felt to me like a wilderness, and Nature was a character in a book I didn’t want to put down. So, in our lake house on a dirt road in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, a part of the world Thoreau
revered, and where Willa Cather
is buried, I set aside the novel I had been working on and began to carve out a narrative about a simple life in a simpler time. I aimed to write a story in which Nature was the protagonist, the “first actor,” standing against any who would put an obstacle in its way.
In the initial version of the novel, a man and his daughter lived off the land separated from the rest of a dwindling population. I made no mention of or allusion to an apocalyptic event. Rather, I imagined a world returning to something of an edenic state, because that’s how Nature, I believed, would have it. The action of the novel, however, still involved the man and the girl, when, in the course of their own journey to lay up stores for a long winter, they became separated, and in my notes the story moved back and forth in parallel sections that developed the ways in which these two dealt with life and loss in their own separateness. As for Nature, I would have to be content with it acting something like the gods in Homer
, setting out or removing obstacles in the paths of mere mortals, done for reasons known to those gods alone.
But that was neither the end nor the beginning of it.
Once upon a time, I made up a story for my children about a bear who helped my father and me find our lost dog, Troy. I did have a dog named Troy who ran off into the woods, and I had seen bears in those woods where I grew up, so the idea of one animal giving counsel on the ways of finding another seemed sensible not only to their imaginations but to mine as I told it. It wasn’t a very long story, or very involved. The purpose was to get the children into bed. What has lasted for a long time, though, is the persistence with which this story has stayed with my children. It has surprised me over the years how often the story’s retelling is required. Nights before the first day of summer vacation. Nights in August with summer on the wane. Nights in winter when snow is flying and they know that everything in the morning will come to a halt. And it begins this way:
Remember that story you told us about the bear?
He didn’t really talk, did he?
You tell me.
Bears don’t talk, but did you see one?
Were you and your father scared?
Scared for Troy, but not afraid.
Tell us the story again.
Even now, when they are older and spending evenings around a fire in the twilit shadow of Monadnock and listening to the ghostly cry of loons on the lake, one of them (my daughter usually) will say, Tell us the story of the bear
, as though it has risen to the level of myth among all of the other stories they have had to listen to over the years, and so I tell it again.
When I went up to New Hampshire and began to write the novel I believed I wanted to write about Nature’s role on the stage of our actions, I imagined being in the woods on a lake would make a difference. Simpler life, simpler times. Families new and old growing up or growing old on land that only got older, so old in fact it seemed to me you could actually hear
it, if you slowed down. If you listened. I always find something surprising, almost approaching the sublime, among the landscape and wildlife that seem as transcendental to me as they must have seemed to the Indigenous people and the transplanted Americans who have loved this same land. But the characters in the story I wanted to set here remained just that. Characters. And the Nature I wanted to place on the stage in order to be a first actor remained hidden in its presence, secondary, unapproachable, as though waiting in its ancient patience for something to happen. Something that remained a mystery to me.
Until one morning in late summer when I was fishing alone in my boat. There was mist rising from the warm surface of the water into the cool air, and it looked and felt as though I was surrounded by nothing but forest, water, and the mountain alone in the west. It was only a moment, yet one in which I thought about how beautiful this place must have looked for the first people who lived along the lake shore, in these woods, in the shadow of a solitary mountain, and I couldn’t help but wonder in that same moment what it would be like, sadly, for the last. And it was as if a curtain rose.
What if, in the twilight of human experience, one were to see that what we lay claim to and cling to as quintessentially human is actually quite limited compared to a wider, more transcendental experience of Nature itself? What if, in fact, an entire world of activity — an entire story
, if you will — has always been present in Nature, but we (most of us, at least) have not been attuned to it? What if human consciousness has crowded out the understanding of an entire natural consciousness waiting, in all of its ancientness, to return not to a past but to a present wherein it lives out its own struggle of beginning, middle, and end? And if so, would the last human actors, by virtue of their aloneness, be initiated into this mystery, not a loss to be mourned but a passing to be revered? What would that story be like, and who or what would tell it? I pulled in my line, rowed to shore, and went up to the house where I sat down and wrote the first line of the novel that would become The Bear
: “The last two were a girl and her father who lived along the old eastern range on the side of a mountain they called the mountain that stands alone.”
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of three novels: The Bear
; The Signal Flame
, a Chautauqua Prize finalist; and The Sojourn
, a National Book Award finalist and winner of both the Chautauqua Prize and Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He lives with his wife and three children in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in the shadow of Mount Monadnock, which inspired much of the landscape in The Bear
. For more information, visit www.andrewkrivak.com