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Monday, 1 February 2016

Bears in Bliss (The Zagori Village, Vikos Gorge, Greece)

Here's a short story I started many years ago:


As the human population of the villages declined, the bear population increased. Fewer people walked up and down the old cobbled paths through the woods or down the steps to the river at the bottom of the deep gorge. They seldom used the old paths to visit other villages on the other side of the gorge.

The last remaining villagers no longer kept livestock such as cattle, sheep or goats, in large numbers, they no longer tended their orchards and fruit trees, which had been left to grow wild, the fruit uncollected.

Cornel Fruit (Photo Jeremy Eccles)

Kyria Maria was one of the few villagers who still tried to harvest the fruit, mainly plums, apples, cherries, cornel fruit and quinces, to make jams and preserves. But she couldn't gather or use more than a fraction of what the trees produced. Much of the fruit just fell from the trees and lay rotting on the ground. Sometimes Maria would find some 'bear's business' in the orchard, droppings full of berry or plum stones, but she never really worried or thought twice about it.

Every Summer and early Autumn Maria had a comfortable hammock slung between two plum trees, where she would sometimes enjoy a siesta in her orchard in the shade of the trees.

One night Maria heard a noise at about three o'clock in the morning, and she woke up with a start. She looked out of her window and saw a large brown bear in the back yard, boldly approaching her kitchen door. Had she remembered to close it and lock it? She couldn't remember. The brown bear must have heard a noise from the upstairs bedroom, and ran off down the steps to the lower level of the steeply terraced garden.

The next morning Maria found a number of broken branches where the bear had been reaching for the ripest fruit.

The next night Maria decided to watch and to keep very quiet. After a while she heard a noise. She could just see the fruit trees where she had slung the hammock. And what do you think she saw? There was the big brown male bear, lying on his back on the hammock, as happy as Larry, shaking the branches of the plum tree, and letting the ripe plums drop into his mouth. The bear must have weighed as much as 200 kilos, and the stretched hammock sank down almost to touch the ground.

Two Illustrations - Stefanie Von Uslar

Maria decided to stay well clear of the hammock and the orchard for the next few days, but one evening she went to join some of the elderly ladies in the village at "the little parliament", which is what they called the long stone ledge or bench next to the communal cistern in the village square. In the summer the women would gather there in the evening to sit outside for a few hours to chat and 'chew the fat' about local issues, including the problem of the bears. None of them knew what to do about the problem.

Some said they should cut down all the fruit trees, others suggested the installation of electric fences around the orchards and places where they kept bee hives, chickens or goats. The shepherd's mother suggested they should leave a radio playing in the orchard all night. The goatherd's auntie suggested hanging bells in the tree which would ring if the bear starting picking the fruit or shaking the trees. One lady thought the bears should be shot by hunters, but the others said that killing bears was illegal, as the bears were protected by law, and they were not dangerous unless a mother bear felt that her young bear-cub was threatened. The lady replied that they could give the bear to a Natural History Museum, to be stuffed and put on display for educational purposes.

Archive photo from an exhibition at the Rizareio Exhibition Centre, Monodendri

The oldest lady in the little parliament suggested that they should try to capture the bear and sell it to a zoo or even to be trained as a dancing bear like the ones that they used to see in the old days. Or else it could be taken to a Bear Sanctuary, on condition that it was never returned to the wild. Then she thought about seeking advice from Aristakis, the "Lord of the Gorge", a wise old goatherd from the neighbouring village, who kept his flocks on the steep, almost vertical, slopes of the Vikos Gorge and Mount Gamila. Aristakis was probably over ninety years old, but no one knew for certain. He was still very sure-footed. In his spare moments he read nothing but Homer; he still thought of himself as an Ancient Greek hero.

So they sent for Aristakis, who announced that he would go down to Dodoni, to consult the famous oracle about what to do.

He told them he would listen to the rustling of the leaves from the sacred oak tree, and try to interpret the oracle himself, without the help of any priestesses or cauldrons.

The leaves are not rustling,
The pigeons don't fly - 
But the wild flowers are saying
"You'll live till you die".

The members of the little parliament were very doubtful about him making the journey to Dodoni, let alone getting an answer from the Ancient Oracle. They thought it was a silly pagan idea, anyway; they preferred to pay the local priest to hold a special service at the little stone chapel of Saint Nicholas, on the path down to the gorge, one of the deserted paths which the bears probably used to come up to the village. They would light candles and their prayers would be more effective than any electric fence. Saint Nicholas would protect them. If he failed, there was still the old chapel of the Archangels higher up the path, although it was a bit too close for comfort. Still, the Archangels were very powerful and high-ranking angels, armed with swords which were a match for any bear's claws!

Later that night Maria walked down the lonely cobbled path to her house all alone, and she started to feel quite nervous, as the path led past her house straight down to the thick woods in the gorge.

She could hear all the village dogs barking loudly, and one of the dogs called Heracles ran past her at speed, to investigate a smell he had sensed. Maria peered down the lane, as far as she could see, but it was badly lit and there was no moon. Could that be a bear standing up on its forelegs, looking directly at her? Maria fumbled with her key and the latch, and quickly closed the old wooden outer door behind her, securing it firmly with an iron bar.

She hurried through the courtyard, disturbing the swallows and house martins that had made their nests in the eaves and even round the flex of the naked electric light bulb hanging above the cistern, opened the kitchen door and switched on the lights. She was safe, as all the windows were barred. The houses in the village were built of stone, like small fortresses. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the villagers were scared of being attacked by bandits, so the houses were designed to be easy to defend.

The dogs were still barking wildly, so they must have sensed something. There was certainly a bear out there, looking for food. Maybe there was a whole family of bears. The next day Maria learned that two of Antigone's and Frosso's goats had been attacked and eaten by a bear that had broken in, and several beehives had been destroyed up in the area of the Ancient Settlement, in the outskirts of the village. The honey inside the hives had been devoured. The Ancient Settlement had been inhabited from as long ago as the 9th century BC, but after many centuries of continuous habitation it had been abandoned. Was that because of the bears?

The next night Maria was awoken by a loud bang. Someone had fired a shot-gun at around three o'clock in the morning. Could it have been a hunter? More likely someone firing a shot in the air in order to protect his chickens, to frighten off a hungry bear. Maybe he had heard the dogs becoming unsettled and starting to bark.

Maria thought that she might soon have to abandon her own house and move to the city. She could cope with the occasional scorpion or snake, but bears were a different matter. There were so few villagers left and the winters could be hard and lonely. The rains were constant and heavy and a lot of snow usually fell in February. It was difficult to heat the stone house. What a pity that she couldn't go into hibernation like a bear, she thought, or fly away to Africa like a swallow, once it had built its nest and raised its young.

She didn't want to live in Athens or in Ioannina, She would miss the clear mountain air, the singing of the nightingales and even the monotonous sound of the Scops owl. She loved listening to the sound of the sheep's and goat's bells when the shepherds and goatherds drove their flocks and herds across the mountains to graze. But there were far fewer bells than before. She couldn't even be sure that Mr and Mrs Swallow would return this year to build their nest in her courtyard. The swallows always returned from Africa to have their young in the same spot...

"We shall not dream of wolves, of bears...
We hear the basil breathe and grow;
Wake with cattle-bells, cockerel's crow."

"Haros has been here, in the village again...
He came like a bear to the sheepfold".

My grandchildren said the story needed a better ending. This is one possibility:

Some months later, Maria's grandson, who was studying English, happened to read a poem about animal cruelty, by the poet Christina Rossetti. He told her about it when he was staying in the village at the time of the panigyri in August. Kyria Maria remembered having been very upset by the sight of dancing bears in her youth. Her grandson translated these moving lines from the poem into Greek, and Maria managed to memorise them. She would often recite them to the children in the village.

Brother Bruin

A Dancing Bear grotesque and funny
Earned for his master heaps of money,
Gruff yet good-natured, fond of honey,
And cheerful if the day was sunny...
Still, year on year, and wear and tear,
Age even the gruffest bluffest bear.
A day came when he scarce could prance,
And when his master looked askance
On dancing bear who would not dance.
To looks succeeded blows: hard blows
Battered his ears and poor old nose.

One dark day when the snow was snowing
His cup was brimmed to overflowing:
He tottered, toppled on one side,
Growled once, and shook his head, and died.

Kyria Maria decided she would try to do something about cruelty to animals, especially brown bears.

She didn't have the means to start a bear sanctuary on her own, but her grandson told her about an organisation in Greece called ARCTUROS, and she decided that she would find a way to support its good work. First she adopted a brown bear, and then she applied to become a volunteer. Now Kyria Maria considers herself as a guardian of bears. It may sound strange, but it's true, but nowadays the village is never bothered by hungry bears in search of food. They find enough in the forests, and people have learnt to leave them in peace.

NB - story copyright Jim Potts; all colour photographs copyright Jim Potts, except one photograph of Cornel Fruit by Jeremy Eccles and three at the end, courtesy of Arcturos; two illustrations of Bear on Hammock copyright Stefanie Von Uslar.

Some years after I wrote this little story, intended primarily for children, photos appeared in the media of a black bear in Florida lying on a hammock! See the YouTube video . A coincidence that proves it is not impossible!

Another update - 3 Bears and a hammock video

When I finally rework this story for publication, I have permission from Panos Stefanou (Press Officer and Social Media, Arcturos) to draw on the wonderful archival photographs of Arcturos -

Three examples from Arcturos:

Background Notes, from Protected Area of Northern Pindus, pp 72-73: 

"Bears are omnivores, with a preference for food of vegetal origin. They eat all the available kinds of forest fruits: blackberries, wild plums, wild cherries, wild apples, wild pears, raspberries, elderberries, hips, wild strawberries, acorns and beechnuts, and also bulbs, roots and grasses. They supplement their diet with honey, large and small mammals, insects (mainly ants) and tortoises...Bears are primarily forest organisms. They are seed transporters through their excrement, influencing forest vegetation".

NB "The mating season is from mid-May until the end of July, when the male bear is in constant search of a partner; the cubs are born in midwinter- ie January/February". The mother-bear and cubs are likely to visit the villages around September, when the cubs are around 9 months old.

PS - I decided not to see The Revenant.

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