Sunday, May 29, 2016


Looking Glass Pass

In the days when snomobiles were new, everyone looked for places to go in the snow.  One of them was the closed pass called “Looking Glass” between Kiowa Kamp and East Glacier.  At the top was a bear den for hibernation so we went up to see.  There WAS nothing to see, since the den was covered by feet of snow, but there was a little air hole with a trickle of steam coming out, bear breath.  We each leaned over to sniff, sharing molecules with an animal usually unapproachable, in hibernation — not quite alive and not quite dead.

At the Scriver Taxidermy Studio we did a lot of bear-hugging, but they were all dead.  Since they weighed hundreds of pounds, we embraced them to move them across the room so we could skin them out.  It was not a bloody task because mammal body tissues are organized into sheaves, each enclosed with thin pearly tissue.  To cool the bear right after killing it, the viscera would have been removed along with most of the blood.  A mold for the papier mach√© form made directly from that individual bear was much better than buying a commercial standard form, which one can begin to recognize after a while.  Jonas Brothers’ rearing grizzly shows up everywhere zombie taxidermy gives the skill a bad name.

Emotion is what makes a mounted animal come alive, the same as any art.  Bob was emotionally entangled with bears early in life but the incident that seemed to be his indicator was about a human drunk who slammed his head with a gunstock when Bob (as a child) and his dog were out shooting gophers with a .22 -- considered a beginner’s long gun in the years before Red Ryder Daisy BB guns.   The boy lay unconscious with his dog guarding him until he was found.  On his left temple a mark remained lifelong.  

He identified with bears.  By the time he was late in his teens, he was stalking them.  He studied a bear skull carefully to see where the point of most vulnerability was and found it on the left temple.  Then he went out to kill a grizzly with his .22, a totally irresponsible thing to do from any point of view.  But he did it.  Bears in those days were predators, unprotected.  Maybe not even requiring a license to hunt.  

I only did one polar bear.  It was too big for the bear table.

Alonzo Skunk Cap, our neighbor and friend, was said to be the only Blackfeet brave enough to hunt bears.  In fact, he was breaking the taboo.  As the politics of going back to the past heated up, our bear rug edger and liner quit us, which is how I ended up doing it, sitting on the bear table where tanned hides dried flat, like a sweater stabilizing after washing, and using a big three-edged buckskin needle to put the felt ruffle around the edge.  The bear was in my lap, spread out over my legs.

When I first came (1961), there were three mounted bears in the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife:  the iconic grizzly; a very handsome standing black bear, glossy as a raven’s wing; and a sort of fuzzy young cinnamon bear that was out in the entrance where it was often dressed up in human clothes as a joke.  That’s what they thought.   "Smoky the Bear."

In a little more hidden way, it was reducing bears to toys, taking the fear out of them by claiming them as one of us.  As Bob began to be more upscale than a tourist attraction and his work progressed from trinkets to highbrow gallery art, he removed the little bear, along with the two-headed calf and the albino skunk.  Animals are cultural indicators even within white contexts.  Rich people can see them one way, while people scrambling to make a living see them in quite another.

By the time the art was carrying the studio, displacing the taxidermy, and then showing enough profit to buy the Flatiron Ranch (previously owned by the Doane family and across the road from Skunkcap’s) which was on a creek that came down out of the mountains, forming a roadway for bears, he was a little bit brain-damaged from strokes and heart attacks,  more recklessly defiant than he had ever been.  In spite of protests from the neighbors, he collected carcasses and dumped them on a ridge he could see with binoculars from the ranch house.  

Coyotes and cougars also found this little feeding ground, but the wardens were wary enough to just fly over low now and then, knowing Bob might shoot at an airplane but they could get out of range.  From the plane they could use their telemetry to see what bears were there.  I’d been gone for decades by then and was relieved that I didn’t have to confront the moral dilemmas of Bob's defiance, because my sympathies were always on every side, including that of the bear.  It is a painful quality but serves me well.

One day he could see the five horses lined up on a nearby hill top, gazing at something down in the willow brush along the creek.  It was May, the mating season.  Bears entangle violence and death with sex as much as humans do, so he decided not to walk up to see what was happening.  From the pickup he could see bear rumps, rhythmically pumping.  

John Clarke, grandson of Malcolm Clark whose murder triggered the Baker Massacre, was an aged deaf-and-mute famous woodcarver in East Glacier.  On the wall of his tumble-down studio, he had saved photos.  One was out of Life magazine, a rather famous photo of bears mating, the male behind in both senses.  In those days it was shocking.  These days it’s usual in R-movies.  John thought it was very funny.  Bob always examined it carefully.

One day in the Sixties when I walked into the shop suddenly Bob plopped a bear cub into my arms.  It was dead, about the size of a human baby just before it begins to walk.  It had somehow gotten into town, gone up a telephone pole and been shot down.  Naturally it was brought to Bob the same as every other problematic little curious or emotionally charged thing.  He was a maternal man, but often displaced it off onto me.  I’m am NOT a maternal woman, but anyone would have felt the surge of response to that little body.  I rocked it without knowing that I was.  I didn’t think of it as a teddy bear.  Bob smiled, but there were tears just behind.

This is why I’m telling these stories on Memorial Day, for the mixture of war and birth, the need to dominate mixed with the need to protect, and the simple fact that grief drives into our bodies far deeper than graves, because it is not in earth, but in time, reaching back to first awareness, reaching back to first human arts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'll always miss that old two-headed calf. Not just because it was a curiosity, but to a child's mind, one could almost imagine it alive.

I missed out on Bob's later life and cantankerous period, but think I would have liked to known him then.