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What will children dream if not of bears?


Spent an hour with a three-year-old last night, talking about bears, and was again reminded that the purest of people is a three-year-old. Gender makes no difference. They focus, you know? If they like bears, you are into bears for the foreseeable future, and nothing gets in the way of bears.

Boy with imaginary bear, artwork by Chris JohnstonAnd it turns out there are a lot of things you can talk about when you talk about bears. There are bears of all sorts of colours, probably more colors than we have words for colours, when you think about it, because bears have been around longer than words have been around.

Bears have been around since before there were even pencils, as my young friend said, which is a remarkable sentence, and inarguably true, and not something I had ever considered before.

He drew some bears, with a pencil, to show me the sort of bears he was talking about, which looked roughly like black bears. I told him I once saw a black bear in Canada, on the side of a mountain near a glacier, and we talked about all this for a while, the ideas of Canada and glaciers being new to him, but not mountains, he knew mountains, mountains were in his dreams, where they spoke to him, they have deep voices, like bears.

This was another new idea for me, that mountains and bears might have similar voices, probably from being around each other for many millions of years.

I mentioned that I had once read that bears appear to have been around for about 40 million years and probably began quite small, about the size of your dog, but then over the years some species got to be whopping huge, and we agreed that this was pretty cool, and drew some more bears for a while, before he decided that running one million laps around the house was a good idea, and away he went.

I thought about bears on the way home, and how when we are children we feel a certain friendship and camaraderie generally with bears, partly because of the whole teddy bear thing, but also because they are large and hairy and independent and strong and no one messes with them, as a rule.

I wonder if part of the reason we so like bears when we are young is because we would like to be like bears, eating anything we want and sleeping where we want and not being told what to do by anyone.

It is interesting how often bears appear in an avuncular capacity in our modern stories and myths and fables, often acting as powerful and exacting but fair-minded mentors to young avatars like Mowgli and Lyra and Frodo.

Have bears changed their roles in our stories over the last thousand years, from grim implacable avatars of wilderness to be defeated and conquered, to rough uncles, grandfathers who seem stern but are not so stern at all, older brothers who are actually gentle beneath their mountainous muscles?

Once a youth would go into the wilderness and test his or her mettle against the biggest and wildest resident therein; could it be that now that there is no wilderness, there are no longer those sorts of bears in our dreams?

When we talk about all that is lost in a world in which wilderness is lost, we rightly talk about the species a day that vanishes forever, and the holiness of that lost life, and the dwindling possibility that new species will emerge if there are no wild places in which they might be born, and the terrible possibility that the new organisms that may be born are those against which we have no defence, like viruses immune to our medical manoeuvres and manipulations.

But we never really talk about the loss of the life we imagine, the life that speaks to us in deep voices in our dreams. When there are no bears in the world, then no children will dream of bears, and draw bears, and sleep with bears, and that will be a terrible shame.

That will be a sin, to call a thing by its true name.


Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, alcoholism, depression



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Existing comments

It's possible the reason we've never considered before that bears have been around since before there were even pencils is because adults need cannabis and lysergic acid diethylmide in order to reach these blinding realisations. And I can picture Christopher Lloyd's character in the American TV series 'Taxi' at the moment of hitting this truth. If children didn't exist, they would need to be invented.

Roy Chen Yee | 07 December 2015  

I clearly remember the first time I heard my oldest granddaughter say "polar bear". They've been my favourite bears since.

Pam | 07 December 2015  

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