In the Eyes of a Bear

by Julian Hoffman

As the sun rose over the mountains I walked a treeless ridge that buckled into the hazy distance. A vast summer sky cradled a few threads of cloud and a warm breeze rolled over my shoulders. Skylark song sparkled like sunlit rain above the meadows. The alpine world was bursting into song, the brief, ecstatic season when the mountain’s granite bones are clothed in wildflowers and butterflies. It was a morning of bird monitoring for me, but as I neared the place where I’d spend the coming hours scanning the skies around a wind farm for raptors, ravens and pelicans a very different kind of creature stepped into sunlight ahead of me.

I’d always imagined that my first real encounter with a European brown bear would unfold in a forest. It’s where our legends and myths tell us they live, deep in the dark and leafy heart of the remnant wild. And over the years, it’s where I’ve most often found their prints, large and looming in the yielding earth, big enough to make my hand resemble a child’s in comparison. Forest raspberry canes are stripped clean of their fruit within days of ripening and high claw marks decorate those trees chosen as scratching posts. Mounds of bear dung mark the woodland floor like native cairns, their varying constituents an inventory of the seasons: plum stones, beetle wings and rosehips; apple pips, wasp heads and fur. Seeing these signs is a reminder: that for all that is solitary about my walks, this world is shared and sentient beyond measure.

Bear Tracks. Image by Julian Hoffman

So sudden and unexpected was the appearance of the animal in the meadow that for the slenderest of moments I had no idea what I was looking at, whether some giant feral dog or a strange hybrid of creatures more common to me. It didn’t fit with anything I’d ever experienced as it lumbered into view from behind a rocky outcrop, stepping up to settle in sunlight on a boulder in front of me. But that momentary flicker of uncertainty was eclipsed by a swift blaze of clarity, as if the scene had been floodlit and telescoped into focus: only fifteen metres of alpine meadow separated me from a brown bear, the European relative of the American grizzly. My mind suddenly emptied, leaving a clear and continuous space in which all I could hear was my heart, like the quivering thrum of an arrow after hitting its target. From its low saddle of stone the bear eyed me in the meadow, and the wild rushed in like a river.

Although the sun was still low in the sky, it was rising with summer fire. The sunlight reached my back and flared past, illuminating the bear in fine and delicate detail, its eyes magnified to dark, absorbing pools. In his book Becoming Animal, David Abram says that “reciprocity is the very structure of perception.” To look into the eyes of a wild creature is to enter into a relationship, a shared exchange carried out over common ground. For all that we praise and rightfully honour the other senses, sight remains for humans the most elevated of perceptual tools. It’s how we tend to map and render the world. Peering into the reflective gleam of a frog at ease on both land and water, or to look between the ancient, knowing lids of a tortoise sheltered within its shell, is to be offered the possibility of empathy, of imagining a remarkable life and lineage vastly different to our own. But there in that bright meadow, looking back at the bear as it stared at me intently, I felt no tingle of curiosity or inquisitiveness. Awe and fear had filled me in equal measure, leaving no space for anything else.

Image by Julian Hoffman

The light poured over the mountains until the bear was enthroned in summer glow. Its fur was more grizzled than brown, sleek and shimmering, as if each length of hair was tipped by a silver shard. Dark rings encircled its eyes and waves of muscle rolled through its shoulders when it moved. It nodded at the air with its stout black muzzle, picking up whatever traces of adrenaline and fear were seeping through me. Although on all fours it would have stood about waist-height against me, it appeared to be a young bear on the cusp of adulthood, and I was sure its mother was near. I turned slowly in search of her, the space between the bear and me seeming even narrower than before when I considered the consequences of coming between them – all that a threat to a mother’s long labour of blood and nourishing would entail – to see only an empty meadow rippling with wildflowers and wind. Feeling the stare of the bear deepen inside me, I began backing up slowly into sunlight.

For as long as we’ve depicted animals on cave walls and shared language around fires, stories of our relationship to the wild kingdom have helped render this world sensible and meaningful to human consciousness. Those stories have also been practical guides, of vital importance to our survival. But on that ridge of rising summer light, only a short and startling distance from an animal more than equal to myself, I finally understood something of what the philosopher Krishnamurti meant when he wrote that “the description is not the described, the word is not the thing.” No amount of stories about our wild inheritance could prepare me for its actuality, the arising of our animal essence. From the moment the bear appeared my skin was electric, every last hair bristling and alive. My entire body felt charged with a taut pulse, as if no longer flesh but a conductor of pure and necessary energy. I acted with little thought, my mind operating on some ancient, preserving level, the same kind of instinctiveness that our ancestors must have known intimately. That immediate, visceral response to the near presence of the bear was the evolutionary reaction of prey to a predator. I was no longer the dominant species; all the assumptions and riches of human culture had fallen away, exposing some kernel at the core of our animal beginnings, like the stripped-back bones of those mountains before summer bestows its flourish of colour on them. All that was ever wild remains within us.

For whatever reason, the bear suddenly startled. There’d been no sound or sign of a mother in the end, so that only the two of us shared that brimming spring world. It may have finally seen my dark silhouette as it edged out of the blinding glare with the shifting angle of the sun, or picked up an additional scent on the wind, some pungent, primitive smell of mine that resonated with its genetic inheritance, the stories its own species carries in blood, nerve and bone. The bear padded off the rock to hit the meadow in full flight, charged with electric intensity as I retreated with slow steps. It thumped across the unfolding summer flowers, scattering butterflies into the still air. Silence welled up to fill that long, hollow second until the bear sheered away, hurtling down the slope of bilberries and meadow grasses to slip into a pocket of mountain beeches. The echo of its run beat like a drum across the miles, and all I could do was stand still in the sunlight, breathing, breathing, breathing, as skylark song fell about me like rain.

Julian Hoffman lives beside the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece. His book, The Small Heart of Things, was chosen by Terry Tempest Williams as the winner of the 2012 AWP Award Series for Nonfiction and won a 2014 National Outdoor Book Award for natural history writing. You can catch up with him at