I met a bear in the bush, and she told me a story.
Hiking in a wilderness area on the south shore of Nova Scotia, I heard this odd, mechanical growl. The sound was masked by the racket I was making, moving through narrow paths on barrens covered with huckleberry, sedge and rose, over granite rocks, roots, puddles and sopping peat.
At first I wasn’t alarmed. I thought, construction somewhere, a boat on the water, thunder. I thought: nothing.
Then I heard it again.
Construction was unlikely, miles from anywhere. Ditto a marine motor: boats are rarely audible until you’re fairly near the shore. As for thunder, it was a bright, fresh morning, and the sky was perfectly clear.
It was strange to hear a noise so loud in this wild, untrafficked place. But by now it had stopped. I started to go on.
Then maybe something moved in the brush ahead. Maybe the growling resumed. I stopped, hoping for calm, and from deep in the bushes came an unmistakable sound: something big, huffing like a thwarted child.
The thing about black bears is that they are more afraid of us than we are of them. No bear has killed a human in Nova Scotia and that huffing sound they make is a fear vocalization. But the thing about humans is that we know better than to trust this kind of raw generalization. Like humans, individual animals have distinct personalities, histories and patterns of behaviour.
Maybe this bear had experienced threats from humans in the past. Maybe she was a new mother caring for a pair of cubs sleeping in the bushes.
I backed away, talking as calmly as I could until it seemed safe to turn around. What a thrill to be reminded that this coast is not ours! To have its wildness proven!
As I walked, I wondered how my trespassing might have seemed from her point of view—yet another heedless human, stumbling through her living room.
If that was her point of view.
Later, listening to black bear vocalizations on YouTube, I felt startled and delighted to be reminded how magnificent an unfamiliar voice can be, its meaning encoded, in tone and pattern and cadence, with a world of awareness and desire.
Hey, bear? Thank you.
To be reminded that there is glory in difference—that difference doesn’t have to be threatening, isn’t something to be overcome—feels, this dark fall, like a gift.
It was the end of a gruelling, exhilarating hike: 13 km of intense climbs and descents on a rugged wilderness trail in unrelenting heat. Maybe I was a little disoriented, because when the snake-like thing danced with me mid-run, I felt charmed instead of scared. There are no venomous snakes in Nova Scotia, I told myself, so why worry that its mouth veered toward my bare calf? I moved away a foot or two, then stopped to look back: olive-green and black patterned tail, blue-green upper body and—hang on—was that a pair of legs near its head?
My hiking partner got out his phone to take pictures, and we debated. Were those legs—or were they gills? And what was with the graduated colour scheme, warm green blending into cool blue? We tried out theories: snakes go through a juvenile phase in which they sport proto-limbs? This was a vagrant lizard, visiting from away? Nothing made sense.
Walking on, talking of other things, we set the question of the creature aside. Then on the final uphill, heat and muscular exhaustion getting the better of me, I suddenly thought: but why couldn’t it be a baby dragon?
At the mid-point of this hike, just when I’d most needed refreshment, I found a fairytale waterfall and washed my hair in it to cool down. The moment felt magical. So, while a mythical creature is ho-hum in fiction—all too easy to conjure—the idea of one felt exciting and possible in those fabulous woods.
A few days later, a friend with a nearly-finished novel said, Tell me it’s not a rule that Canadian stories have to end with a body in the bushes!
Of course there is no rule that in fiction the grimmest possibility is the best or truest one. There’s no rule that fiction has to follow rules. We make stories in order to satisfy a yearning for new understanding, for truth entwined with imagination, for surprise and thrill and mystery.
Stories are necessary. And doesn’t the fact we make them instinctively—transforming a snake with a frog in its mouth into a fantastical creature—seem like evidence they’re a form of play whose success depends on dodging rules?
It was too dry this summer, so the woods were on fire.
If you’d asked me last spring, Could this happen? I think I’d have said, How could it not?
Every trip through the wilderness, I’d see evidence of carelessness. Fire circles made of stones, charred logs left lying where they burned or kicked under brush. They worried me. So when the inevitable happened—wildfires burning out of control, hectares of woodland lost, backcountry travel bans in place—I felt helpless.
No one was allowed in the woods. It didn’t matter that I’d never struck a match among trees—I couldn’t go for a walk. It felt unfair. Don’t you understand, I want to say, it’s not hikers who build fires—it’s people who build fires who build fires. These may be intersecting sets, but they are not the same.
Why did I feel such impatience, I wondered? I just wanted to walk. But there was something very familiar about this feeling of impotence crashing up against selfish desire …
Rejection is probably the hardest experience a writer has to manage. All you want is to write, and publication seems like a way to validate that desire. Why don’t the people in charge—the publishers who accept or reject—understand?
As an editor I can appreciate the writer’s disappointment at being told not yet. As a teacher and friend I feel the grief my students and fellow writers experience. It rings through me as it rings through them.
But the writer in me is torn. The writer wants to say: Rejection is a reprieve. It means you can still revise.
I love to revise because I have seen the difference it can make. Stories and novels take off in revision. It’s when the real writing begins.
Of course finished stories do get rejected. Just as there’s no necessary relationship between the firebug and the hiker, rejection doesn’t correlate with failure. Luck plays a part. Each story or novel must find an acquiring editor passionate enough to shepherd it through challenge.
The difficulty for the writer is in knowing when a story is done. You can ask, Am I amazed by this soaring thing I imagined, or plagued by unease? Honesty is crucial, because once you identify a problem, you can rectify it.
Just as a match turns tinder into flame, as drought inevitably gives way to rain, change releases stories so they can lift off.