Tuesday
Jun142011

Californicus Ursusology

Jamie Iredell


 

By way of Georgia

 

Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra, founder of the first of California's Catholic Missions, was among the first Europeans to set permanent feet in California. Like the venerable father's converts, for me the Church was an insurmountable bear.

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The last known California grizzly bear found alive was shot in 1922.

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Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell, got ate up by the bears he loved, his abdomen ripped open, the surrounding skin paled, his staring eyes open and vacant as the scream still etched across his face. Bowels and ribcage.

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The grizzlies and black bears in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks pad alongside the main roads, past stopped cars, flashers flashing. They breathed past our station wagon's windows. Rangers kept hollering at assholes who offered the bears food. Humans are inclined to respond to wildlife in combination, or one, of two ways: feed and/or kill.

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J. "Grizzly" Adams scoured the Sierra Nevada Mountains, hunting up California Grizzlies for their hides, meat, and tallow. Eventually he captured and tamed them, and in a Barnum-style zoo in early San Francisco, wrestled bears (including his favorite, Ben, after Benjamin Franklin), having his head split four times, his brain exposed. He died of meningitis.

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Cal Bears and the UCLA Bruins: two bear-themed California sports mascots, referring to the California grizzly. Bruin comes from the Old English for brown, referring to bears in folk tales.

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The other day, a Sunday, was Halloween, which bothered some of the "mountain folk" here in North Georgia. One woman (a tightly coifed and dully dyed blonde with round glasses, makeup-less) said, "Halloween should not be on Sunday, because that's the Lord's Day, and the two are really opposites to one another." I did not expect trick-or-treaters at my mountain retreat, but I did get a bear! A big and beautiful black bear, donning long claws on one paw, with a Freddy Krueger mask marring his snout.

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I was once fearless and prepared in the wilderness. In survival training, they led us blindfolded to a California mountaintop. They allowed, carried with us, all that we could on our person, without a pack of any sort. We built survival kits that fit onto our belts or in a pocket. They removed our blindfolds, said, See you in the morning. I was eleven years old, but never scared through that training. Yesterday I went for a hike, wary of bears. I suppose it's because the locals here have talked about bear overpopulation, and some of my fellow artists have seen black bears crossing the road, or nosing about their cabins. I know better. To scare a bear, stand straight up and wave your arms and yell. If you can use anything to make loud noises, do so. Whatever you do, don't run away. While jogging I've worried that a bear might want to eat me since I am perpetually running away, prey to the predator.

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Bears are generally afraid of fire. Once, at my family's cabin in Squaw Valley, California, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I saw a bear. I had bought Subway for dinner, and after finishing it I threw my wrapper into the garbage can on the deck. There wasn't any food leftover in that wrapper or bag, but that does nothing for the smell of Eat Fresh, and by that I mean freshly baked dough and fresh ingredients, made to my exact specifications, by Subway Sandwich Artists. I was watching Discovery Channel. There is no small irony in how I was Discovering my world, or The Thrill of my Discovery, and I was thinking Let's all discover. And then: what the fuck was that? A large crash sounded from the deck. Dogs freely roam the valley, so I assumed a pack had tumbled the garbage. I ventured outside to right the can, the lid of which remained intact. As soon as I was back before the tube the crash sounded again. This time garbage spread across the driveway. I said, Goddamnit, and started cleaning it up when I heard grunting. To my left a rather large black bear had its nose stuck in a tuna can. He couldn't have been more than ten feet away. Back inside I grabbed the barbecue's lighter fluid and a log from the fireplace, doused and lit said log and tossed it into the driveway. The bear ran away. I sometimes have wished that I had lighter fluid with me here so I might toss burning logs at potential bear-attackers as I romp wildly through the forest, burning down the mountains.

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Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church in Castroville, California, held an annual fundraiser, The Big Bear Dinner. Maybe they called it that because of the story of the Valle de Los Osos and the missions, but that would mean someone knew a good deal about early California history. The proceeds from your ticket went to the church. Dinner was a slab of ham, along with mostachioli and marinara, salad, and candied yams. No bear was served, either a plate or on one. What's weirder is that the young lady chosen to be that year's Artichoke Festival Queen (more on that later) appeared at the dinner, and she donned a crude mask, made to look like Fozzy Bear from the Muppets. A raffle was held. The Queen assisted in this task: kissing winners, Fozzy Bear mask, hip-hugging dress, manicured nails.

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Xielolixii—or Iron Woman—is of the Bear Clan. She lies in Monterey County, where before the county was any kind of "county," her ancestors have lived for over a thousand years. In her seventieth year, bear claws tattooed down her chin.

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Yet another bear ransacked the cabin, as one did when the neighbor wrote of the bear in the kitchen. I learn about this, the new bear, from mom on a recent trip into town where the cell phone works. The cabin sits in Squaw Valley, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in California, far from any mission. I tell mom of the bears here, in the mountains of north Georgia. She tells me to be careful while jogging. Now I'm more nervous about bears. Thanks mom. The bear that broke into the cabin ate the microwave.

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When supplies dwindled in San Diego, Monterey, San Antonio, and San Gabriel, the priests, soldiers, and neophytes resorted to surviving off their cows' milk. Finally, a ship from San Blas, leveled almost to the ocean's surface with flour, beans, and beloved chocolate, sailed into San Diego Bay, saving the mission and presidio. Contrary winds kept the vessel from continuing north to Monterey for a rescue. Remembering that south of San Antonio sat the valley that Father Fray Juan Crespí and Captain Portolá had explored in 1769, where they found deep holes dug into the valley floor, and that the exploring party soon discovered grizzly bears digging for roots, and that they had named it El Valle de Los Osos, the Valley of the Bears, the Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra ordered up a hunting party. When the soldiers returned to San Antonio and Monterey, they'd netted over nine thousand pounds of dried bear meat, and, along with the seeds for which they traded with the Chumash Indians, the Europeans survived. The natives were awed by the power with which the white men's guns took down the massive creatures, the California grizzly bears, and the Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra knew that he would soon take down the Devil as well, by founding his Mission of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in El Valle de Los Osos, and converting the heathen there to God.

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With the aforementioned Spaniards' bear hunt of 1772 in El Valle de Los Osos, thus began the extirpation of grizzly bears in what would eventually become the contiguous United Stated States of America.

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In the later years of Spanish colonial California, vaqueros lassoed grizzlies and dragged them groaning down a pueblo's main drag. In the rodeo they tied bears paw-to-hoof to bulls, then clubbed, whipped, yelled at, and smacked both animals toward one the other, forcing them to fight, till one or both of them died. Few bulls could manage a California grizzly. The beasts reared on their hind legs, towered near ten feet high, and swapped down a terrible clawed paw that easily broke a bull's neck. Whatever animal was left standing, bloodied and panting, already scared nearly enough to death, was shot.

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A grizzly bear flies prominently on the "Bear Flag" of the state of California, though the last known California grizzly was shot in 1922.

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According to California Grizzly, by Tracy Storer and Lloyd Tevis, "In 1853 the California legislature made provision for licensing bear-and-bull fights, imposing a tax of twenty-five dollars per exhibition."

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Don Pedro Fages Beleta, governor of colonial California (1770 – 1774 and 1782 – 1791) was nicknamed El Oso, The Bear. He makes a brief fictional appearance in Isabel Allende's novel Zorro, where he constantly feuds with his rich wife, Eulalia. In real life The Bear fought for control over Upper California against the Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra.

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In the 1988 Dennis Hopper-directed film Colors, starring Sean Pean and Robert Duvall, a very minor character, met on a sting gone awry, is named "Oso."

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I again today ran up the mountain, and at its rounded top I found a Toyota. Inside sat a bear, and in the passenger seat Zorro gripped the end of the lasso with which he'd lassoed his bear to the steering wheel. Jimi Hendrix's cover of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" blared from the dash. They passed a joint, Zorro and his bear. I jogged back down the mountain, wanting to 1) not sweat in the Toyota's back seat; and 2) have nothing to do with any of that scene.

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When Peter the Aleut would not renounce his Eastern Orthodox faith, the padre of San Francisco had a toe severed from each foot with each refusal, totaling ten. The native Ohlones employed in this gruesome task—their obsidian chiseled knives tearing through skin and grinding bone—continued as per the orders, and next cut off also each of Peter's fingers. They quartered the martyr, spilled his bowels, as if from bear attack, attack by a bear in the shape of a Catholic.

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It is now cold. I wear sweatpants to run and burn fires in the fireplace. My studio reeks of woodfire. If I caught a bear, his skewered parts would sizzle in that fireplace.

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Ursus arctos californicus: California grizzly bear: trapped, poisoned, hunted, forced to fight bulls into extinction. The state animal of California appears on the Bear Flag, large humped muscular shoulders hunching along a grassy knoll. Last known bear alive: gunned down in the San Gabriel Mountains: 1922.

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At Monterey the cattle roamed freely in plains beyond the dunes. The Spaniards slaughtered their beasts of burden in the open air, at shore, where today the Customs House leads tourists out to Fisherman's Wharf. The offal rotted on the rocks and attracted flies and grizzly bears, the bears loping in from the Salinas and Carmel Valleys. The bears carried off calves when the soldados de cuera could not plunk them off with their muskets. Bloody paw prints on the sea sage, and drips, purplish-black, in the loamy sand.