By Brenda Miller and Lee Gulyas
I first fell in love with Smokey Bear through a Forest Ranger who told me the story of the burned and rescued cub. He pointed across the canyon in the Lincoln National Forest, saying: it happened right there. I became a dedicated forest protector, though I never spotted a wildfire. Still, I knew which side I was on: definitely pro-bear, anti-fire. We lived about two hours away in Roswell, so on weekends we spent hours in the car on canyon and mountain roads visiting forests, rainbow trout farms, and Carlsbad Caverns.
I left the National Forest with The True Story of Smokey Bear comic book, narrated by a golden eagle, and I would read and re-read about that hot, dry day when some careless man tossed a match causing a fire that spread so fast wildlife could not outrun the flames. Twenty-four soldiers called in from Ft. Bliss hid behind the fire line in a rockslide, wet handkerchiefs covering mouths and noses. When they stood up to see what remained, that’s when they spied him—the burned cub clinging to a charred tree.
I suppose Smokey Bear was my first crush. A bear wearing a ranger hat, cuffed jeans, and a belt may be a strange object of affection, but as a small child living in rural New Mexico that bear was an icon who survived the damage caused by humans. And I can still hear him point directly at me, his firm but gentle voice warning, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
Only you. So much responsibility for a child, and I took it to heart, as I did everything back then. What else could I prevent, I wondered? What disasters might lurk in the future? I gazed sternly at my parents, who seemed oblivious to the dangers that lay in wait.
Other bears took their turns with me: Yogi Bear, with his “pic-i-nick basket” and my Teddy Bear, with his dangling eyeball. Winnie the Pooh, whose fondness for lunch mirrored my own. When I grew older, I saw bears in the Alaskan wilderness: Grizzlies who stood on their hind legs and sniffed the air. For a year I lived a couple of blocks from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, where I walked nearly every day in the mornings before the tourists arrived. I often stopped to keep company with the Brown Bear who often sat by his man-made stream, dropping in a paw to see if any fish might have appeared.
I recently fostered a dog, a chow mix, whose face looked so ursine I named him Mr. Bear. That name can be said only affectionately and with enthusiasm: Mr. Bear! He responds by wagging his entire body against you, a considerable weight that makes you stagger. When he runs off-leash in the woods with the couple that adopted him, he often startles hikers on the trail. It doesn’t help when his owner yells out “Bear!”
That autumn I lived in Alaska, a woman my age drowned in the Sanctuary River. It was easy to do: one misstep and you’re a goner. The wilderness is always more wild than we imagine. Bears might have witnessed her death from the bank. They might have paused, then swum out to meet her, to scoop her up a like a salmon. I wondered what it would have been like: to be embraced by Bear, to feel his breath on your face, to go with him willingly into that flaming tundra.
Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016), winner of the Washington State Book Award for Memoir. She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University, and associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop.
Lee Gulyas’s work has appeared in journals such as The Common, Prime Number, Barn Owl Review, Event, The Malahat Review, Kahini Magazine, Tinderbox, Literary Mama, Sweet, and Full Grown People. She received a 2014 Washington State Artist Trust Grant, teaches at Western Washington University in Bellingham, and has twice participated as faculty in WWU’s Service-Learning Study Abroad Program to Rwanda.
Together, their collaborative work has appeared in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Los Angeles Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Passages North, reDIVIDer, and Jet Fuel Review (nominated for a Pushcart Prize).