Night quickly approached as we established camp. Storm clouds crawled over our patch of clearing amidst the dense forest in a somewhat taunting manner. We had not eaten dinner yet, so we were rapidly jabbing tent stakes into the ground and hastily inflating our sleeping pads to expedite the process.
Just before the sun set, Pneuma shot up from her perched position and began gazing intently into the recesses of the surrounding trees. As a gargoyle, she was unflinching-seemingly not even taking a breath.
We knew that she could hear or see something that we could not hear with our untrained human ears and eyes.
Carefully, we paused and I sauntered over in the general direction Pneuma was staring. At first look, I could see nothing but the forest in front of me.
The forest stared right back.
As the sun said its parting goodbye, large black objects (which I had thought were just voids among the trees) began moving towards me. My mind quickly realized that I had been staring right at three black bears the entire time.
Uncertainty left my body, creating a space for a new sensation: fear laced with a primal instinct to take flight from the danger now only 30 yards in front me.
With elevated heart rates, we quickly dropped what we were doing and retreated from the area as calmly as possible to let the bears know that we meant no harm.
As we stepped away from camp and our packs still full of food, we saw the bears trudge closer to us. A momma bear, one of her cubs, and a male casually made their way into the places we had stood just moments earlier.
After waiting a few more minutes, the massive creatures pressed on past us. The mother lingered behind though watching us intently so as to protect her cub. Once we felt comfortable returning to the area, Morgan and Pneuma settled in the tent.
Not knowing if the momma bear still watched from within the now pitch-black forest, I rapidly took our food away from our tent and placed it out of reach of the bears.
Night moved slowly that evening. Every sound echoed larger than usual. And every movement took on a larger quality than reality allowed.
All I could think the entire night was, “This is not our land.”
We have this odd tendancy as human beings to assume that the earth is ours. We purchase land and act as though we have cut a deal with the divine. We build structures and pipelines and malls without any paying attention to the consequences or impacts those building may have on the land they cover.
We take advantage of our public places of recreation, leaving trash and harmful footprints along our paths.
While we have a great blessing in our Parks System, we have adopted a mindset that quickly forgets that the earth is not ours. This planet that will call ‘home’ is not a possession to have but a gift to be cherished.
The bears that came into our camp that night jolted us with a stark reminder that the Appalachian Trail is not our land. We became the intruders-the disruptors-that evening. In our attempt to join nature, we constantly realize that we are the unnatural disturbance.
We are incredibly grateful for the time we get to spend in the forest with the bears. But, we now know not to assume that the forest is a possession of ours. We are guests in a land that is not our own. And what a gift it is to belong in a space we do not possess.