Most modern Westerners find the idea of killing a bear extremely perverse. After all, we’ve all grown up with a bit of that subtle propaganda about their gentle ways. Winnie-the-Pooh, Paddington, and countless Teddy Bears have all given us the impression that a bear is sort of like a rotund dog that lives in the forest on nuts and bears and sometimes wanders down to a river and catches salmon.
But to my ancestors who wandered deep into Appalachia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the bear was both a scourge and a bounty on the land. It was a scourge because many black bears became sheep and pig killers, and livestock was not easily brought over from Europe. But for those who came to trap beaver and hunt deer for hides, the bear was something else: the finest quality red meat that nature provided.
So the Daniel Boones of the world came out into the mountains and hunted black bears as their top choice of meat. I don’t know all my ancestral lines and what they lived off of, but I do know that one of my ancestors was a noted bear hunter.
Variously called John, Jacob, and Jehu Summers, my six or seven greats grandfather was famous for his Appalachian frontier wanderings. He was born in the Shenandoah Valley in settlement that consisted mostly of Germans from Pennsylvania. He was only the second generation removed from the Palatinate, but his father moved the whole family into the deep Alleghenies to roughly the place where Summersville, West Virgina is located. (The name was originally spelled Somers).
Jehu went west into Kentucky and were he made his living off hides and furs, and in the War of 1812, he found himself running with Andrew Jackson through the Deep Southland, and his name is listed among Kentucky militia at the Battle of New Orleans.
After his service, he went back into the Alleghenies, going into the Western foothills, where he trapped beaver and sold a fortune to John Jacob Astor. He made a mistake by putting up a bond for the sheriff of the county, who then absconded, and he had pay his whole fortune to cover the debt. And then he went a bit west, where the bears still roamed in big numbers.
Near where the Clay County, West Virginia, courthouse is now located, it was said that he would hunt the bears very hard. Famous stories, perhaps embellished by country tall tales and lore, claim that he once killed a dozen bears one afternoon.
The story might be dubious, but if it were even half true, it would point both to the ubiquity of the bears in those early nineteenth century days and to his skills as a hunter and a man of the land.
He made his fortune off the beaver, as so many men of the frontier did back in those days. After all, in a world without synthetics, the felt made from beaver fur was the main substance from which men’s hats were made. This fashion is one big reason why European beavers are so rare. They simply had too much demand for the supply.
But by the artifices of contract and law, he was made a debtor and a pauper, it was the flesh of the black bear that sustained him and his family. That rich red meat filled their stomachs and made their muscles hard.
Such figures would be celebrated in lore, but we live in a different era. My grandpa Westfall, who was on the other side of the family, and perhaps had a different sensibility, saw the bear as a great black devil that should never have been suffered to live.
He saw the bear as the thing that might kill him or his dogs while hunted in the woods. Even though only a single black bear has ever killed anyone in the history of West Virginia, perhaps he knew of a few nasty stories of bears carrying off sheep or swine from his grandparents. They were of the farming generation, not wild men of the mountains like Summers clan.
That killer bear, by the way, offed three children while they were out flower picking in the high mountains of Randolph County. They were unaccompanied minors, and the bear was a nice young boar, perhaps just testing out a new food source that he’d never really seen before. The bear was tracked down and killed in short order, so he never became one of those habitual man-eaters of the forest, which we all hear stories about but only rarely see properly documented.
And that one bear meat his demise in that land of the mountain laurel, but countless scores of his of kind have fallen, been skinned, and then placed in smokehouses for the winter.
Fatty bear meat is just what the body needs while trying to make a go of it in the long, frigid winters of the frontier and farmstead, and the grease from the bear is fine for frying all sorts of delicacies.
They were truly the people of the bear, and without the bear, I would not be here. Mine whole line could have been lost on a frigid January night, when the hunger finally slipped in and took away my ancestor into the darkness of infinity.
But we now live in an era in which the black bear is roaring back into much of its old haunts. States, such as New Jersey and Florida, have opened limited hunting seasons on the bear, much to chagrin of the animal rights activists, who think that no animal should ever be hunted.
Never mind that the wilderness is no longer there. Never mind that the bears, when they overpopulate will come into suburbia and tear up things, expensive things. Never mind that the meat of the bear is good and that the hunters pay their license fees to the wildlife departments, which then spend that money on wildlife research and conservation.
Just never mind it all, because we now live in this alienated modern world, which sees man as a devoid of all nature and natural processes. We are a species with a strong sense of what we call morality, but we live in such immoral, materialistic times. Our political systems are broken, yet so much of the population wants to do right. Politicians on the center-left can no longer provide the level of social democracy they once did, so going along with whatever fancy animal rights cause might be a good way to keep the base settled and on your side.
Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”
These spiritual dangerous are magnified when one lives without having any knowledge of how hunting works within the North American model of conservation. It is hunting that pays for so much of the wildlife conservation that we all appreciate, but in our urban worlds, we now believe the hunter is the enemy of the deer, the turkey, and the bear, when indeed it is the hunter that paid for much of what it took to have them restored in such bounty.
These dangers are becoming even more hazardous in the era of social media, where we can all have tweeting lynch mob organized when someone shoots an invasive feral goat on an island in Scotland. Cecil the lion got better billing online than all the horrid things Mugabe ever did while he was in power.
And while we’re fighting these little wars online, we’re forgetting that the planet is warming, and it is warming because of us. And that is the real danger for wildlife and for mankind’s continued ease of existence on this planet.
Every second we’re talking about some animal rights cause celebre, we’re not talking about real issues of conservation, and it would be far wiser if conservationists would distance themselves from animal rights issues as they can. Animal rights campaigning might be good publicity, but ultimately, the goals of preserving wildlife and endangered species will come up hard against the fanatical cry of “never kill one.”
And now I think of my bear-eating ancestors. They would be shocked to have found that this country is now so developed, so technologically advanced, that is now fundamentally alienated from the green wood in which they lived and eked out an existence.
They would surely think of us extraterrestrial and strange, for they would have more in common with the indigenous hunters that they ethnically cleansed from the land than the very people who hold their DNA in the modern era.
They would probably marvel at our advancement, but if they watched it for a little while longer, I bet they would mourn.
I know I certainly would. The People of the Bear have given away to the electronic lynch mob.
Which is as sad a development as the felling of the last giant tulip tree of the virgin forest and slaughter of the last Eastern bison in the Allegheny mountains.
It is a passing of something great, that can never be restored.
And, yes, it should be mourned.