Becoming the Bear
I have a rather unconventional career as a field archaeologist, which means that I am often away from home many months out of the year. Like many, most of my days are consumed by work. Those days, weeks, or months when I am not working, I find myself in a debilitating panic. When my days are not filled by tactile tasks, my mind occupies itself with anxieties instead.
— Lindsay Vermillion
As a society, we tend to value action, achievement, and public success over stillness, withdrawal, and reclusive reflection. Perpetual work has become a part of our world, a part of our culture. Because of this, creativity has fallen out of many of our lives. Yet, inspiration and ingenuity live in the pause, in the gaps between work and play. Art is born out of rhythmic hymns, those buzzing moments amid movement, in hibernation.
While thinking about the necessity of hibernation or just taking periodic breaks from work (which is often not even a feasible idea to entertain), I was reminded of the words of Terry Tempest Williams as she spoke of the symbology of the bear. For Williams, the bear personifies "opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter - and she emerges with young by her side. I think that's a wonderful model for us, particularly as women. And it's one I've tried to adopt." The represents a blatant duality. She is wild yet nurturing, strong yet gentle and motherly. As a woman in the working world with both familial and civic duties, I am trying to implement this sense of balance into my own life, to embrace the ‘bothness.’ I am allowing myself to be present in the waking world where things are warm and abundant but accepting the need to hibernate during the cold and dark times in order to create and emerge anew.
The symbology of bears and their tales revivification run deep. This beautiful creature and the energy associated with her has been a profound metaphor for people, both past and present. “To the ancients," Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of Women Who Run with Wolves writes "bears symbolized resurrection. The creature goes to sleep for a long time, its heartbeat decreases to almost nothing. The male often impregnates the female right before hibernation, but miraculously, egg and sperm do not unite right away. They float separately in her uterine broth until much later. Near the end of hibernation, the egg and sperm unite, and cell division begins, so that the cubs will be born in the spring when the mother is awakening, just in time to care for and teach her new offspring.” The bear awakens from a long hibernation as if out of death, shedding her old coat, and transforming into a new rested being ready to venture out of her den and into the world. But what’s more, is that the bear awakens having been transformed into a mother nestled with new young.
The bear awakens from a long hibernation as if out of death, shedding her old coat, and transforming into a new rested being ready to venture out of her den and into the world.
Uncertain, noisy, and unwelcoming times may drive us to seek shelter in our own metaphorical dens. We wait out our own winters in our temporary homes, where, like the bear, we become grounded and eventually emerge transformed, seemingly with new life inside. By embracing the bear within us, or “undressing” it, as Tempest suggests, “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." Hibernation and the simple act of slowing down can often be more transformative and therefore necessary experience than the constant effort to move. Though a creature is wild and fierce, she can still grow in the gentle quiet.
The duality of bear symbology is useful to all people, especially to those who struggle to balance their public and private lives, juggling the ever-conflicting demands of ones family, community, career, personal or creative work. "In the psyche,” Estés explains, “the bear can be understood as the ability to regulate one's life, especially one's feeling of life. Bearish power is the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert, or quiet down into a hibernative sleep that renews one's energy for the next cycle. The bear image teaches that it is possible to maintain a kind of pressure gauge for one's emotional life, and most especially that one can be fierce and generous at the same time. One can be reticent and valuable. One can protect one's territory, make one's boundaries clear, shake the sky if need be, yet be available, accessible, engendering all the same." Even when we have control of the clock that dictates our lives, the symbol of the allegorical bear and cyclic hibernation is a valuable one. As a culture, we must learn to embrace stillness in the same way that we prize action.
While reading over bear-energy, folklore and the passages of Estés and Williams, one passage in particular really hit home: "We are creatures of paradox, women and bears, two animals that are enormously unpredictable, hence our mystery," writes Williams. "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." Non-conforming personas are not something that should be fought but, rather, embraced.
We as women and as people must not only accept the bear within us but celebrate it. We are fierce, wild, determined daughters. We are gentle, loving, nurturing mothers. We are naïve girls traipsing through adolescence and tumbling headfirst into our own inspiration. We are the wise women who watch the world over. We retreat in solitude into our dampened dark dens and emerge having birthed new life.
Lindsay Vermillion is an archaeologist, queer poet, and kitchen witch based in the southwest. Her focus is in paleoethnobotany and she's a big believer that plants are the strongest connections to our earth and our past. You'll likely find her sipping tea, flipping through fables , or cowboy camping (sometimes all at once).
Photo credit: Isis Velkova // @isiskameko