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This Great Society
 

The bear’s name is Roseanne. Or more precisely, the bears’ names are Roseanne. Every time we see a black bear along the thirty kilometre stretch of logging road that leads to our gravel pit turned bush camp, we point and say, “There’s Roseanne.”

One afternoon we cross paths with Roseanne five times in one trip.

“Roseanne sure moves fast,” I say to Erin, my assistant cook and constant companion for May, June and July. She laughs and so do I. The joke is not particularly humorous, but it is old and shared, and moreover, it reminds me of Angie. Some people alight on our lives, leaving only the faintest hint in our memory. Others land with a force of personality, marking and defining a season of our lives. Angie—with her curly brown hair, easy smile and endless stream of exaggerated encounters, verbal caricatures and self-deprecating stories—falls into the latter category. It is almost impossible not to laugh along with her as she tells her tales, and to smile when you retell them to someone else.

Like Erin and me, Angie cooks for tree planters during the summer months. This year her camp is only fifteen kilometres away, in another gravel pit on the same logging road. It was Angie who named a bear she saw along the road Roseanne. I am easily drawn into this naming charade, but the bears themselves remain vague and indistinguishable to my untrained eyes.

Seeing black bears is not uncommon in the forests west of Prince George, British Columbia, where we work. Neither are sightings of elk, moose, deer, or field mice—just one of the minor hazards of cooking in what I like to call an “open-concept” tent kitchen. Friends from the city often ask about life in the wilderness or “the bush” as everyone calls it out there. It’s not nearly as wild as they suspect or as I let them believe. I suppose naming black bears is not a common pastime for people in downtown Toronto or New York, but the land under the forests is really no different than the earth beneath high-rise apartments and office buildings. Every square foot has been assigned a latitude and longitude. It has been surveyed, mined, probed, leased, logged and fit into the twenty-year plan of some forester or minister of natural resources.

“Humans modify the world wherever they go,” says my friend Erik. “Out here it’s just a lower level.” This is not wilderness. Someone has already been everywhere my foot falls. The land is tracked and mapped with the dreams and schemes and foiled and flaunted efforts of man. It is inscribed with memory.

When I look around for something that still retains a semblance of wildness, my gaze settles on the animals that inhabit these forests. Most of the time I see them from the window of a moving vehicle, a hunk of glass, steel and rubber. The rumble of the diesel engine sends bears scampering into the thick trees and causes deer to freeze at the liminal space between the ditch and the road, while I cross my fingers and hope that they don’t dash in front of the truck in the unavoidable last seconds. No matter how deep we travel into the heart of their wilderness, it always seems like they are on the margins, these animals. Where we invade, they evade.

 
This Great Society
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