An Unexpected Dedication

Robert Peake reads a poem next to

Photo by Randy Graham

I broke away from work to attend the dedication ceremony for my neighbor Mark Benkert’s new memorial sculpture to the Aliso Street Bear (a.k.a “Elliot”). In introducing me to read the poem I wrote dedicated to the bear, Mark also mentioned something remarkable about the process of sculpting the memorial.

For both Mark and I, the loss of the bear resonated deeply with the loss of our sons. As Mark was inscribing the letters “J” and “B”, the initials of his son, Jonah Benkert, the “B” also read much like a “P” — and he mentioned that “J.P.” reminded him of our own son, James Peake. Needless to say that by the time I took the microphone, I was nearly unable to speak.

Yet I managed to read my poem, honoring the bear, our sons, our community. The rest of the dedication meant a lot to me — from written poems and prose pieces, to impromptu verbal tributes, a song, and drumming. It was also a moment of catharsis for our community, coming together once more to honor all that the bear brought to us.

To learn more about how to promote the peaceful coexistence of humans and animals in the Ojai Valley, please visit the Ojai Wildlife League website.

“Climb the Pine” to Remember the Bear

I am not the only one for whom the bear seems to have left an indelible imprint. Each morning this week, when I step outside my door to go to to work, I see the silhouette of a bear in the pine tree just across the street. It looks just like him. But it is not him. It is a 70-pound metal sculpture created by my neighbor, Mark Benkert, in memoriam.

To learn more about how to promote the peaceful coexistence of humans and animals in the Ojai Valley, please visit the Ojai Wildlife League website.

To the Bear in a Neighbor’s Tree (A Poem)

I never post new poems on my website. But this piece came through me this morning, and I want to offer it up to our grieving community.

To the Bear in a Neighbor’s Tree

How quickly we become accustomed to the light,
blinking through discomfort, standing upright,
when our claws break, we fashion tools, use
them, and then just as easily put them down.

We discover clumps of hair on the ground,
and see our lack of fur as a great improvement,
stamping and shivering, we like a cold wind!
When our night vision fades, we stumble a dance.

Now, we have lost you too, primeval cousin,
lost the instinct that might have guided us
in shooing you back where you came from.
We can no longer smell what is on the wind.

You sat all day in a tree, learning our gestures.
You waved at the crowds and considered making a speech.
When you became too much like us, we brought you down,
and hauled your massive blackness into the night.

The truth is that we lost you long ago, long before
our friends loaded up their guns. Look how far
we have come! Our fingers fit the triggers.
And still we remember not to look in an animal’s eyes.

I looked, and became frozen on my couch.
I blinked into the sunlight, and you were gone.
The black spot in the tree is no longer you.
It is the place that you have burned into my mind.

To learn more about how to promote the peaceful coexistence of humans and animals in the Ojai Valley, please visit the Ojai Wildlife League website.

The Bear

When my English wife first came to this country, she was eager see North American wildlife. “I want to see a raccoon,” she said. Soon after, we found ourselves in Yosemite, watching a family of raccoons collecting and munching stray Cheetos, orange paws aglow in the moonlight. “I want to see a sea otter.” At the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, we watched sea otters float on their backs like canoes and smash open abalone on the rocks. “I want to see a bear!” she grinned.

I paused, remembering my father’s story of having been nose-to-nose with a grizzly bear, separated only by mosquito netting — the story he told on Boy Scout camp outs that kept us awake in our tents all night. “No,” I replied, “No, honey, you don’t. You want to see a bear in a photograph. You want to see a bear on a nature documentary. You don’t ever want to see a real, live bear up close.”

The Bear

Photo by Erin Ellwood

When I heard our neighbor exclaim, “Call animal control!” late Friday night, I assumed raccoons had found their trash. I rolled over and went back to sleep. In the morning, we discovered several police vehicles parked on our street, and a crowd gathering on our front lawn. In the night, a several-hundred-pound Black Bear had scaled our neighbor’s back fence, bounded down the gravel footpath between our houses and, confused by the people and lights, followed his instincts up a large pine tree across the street.

People came to take pictures. People brought their small children, and hoisted them up on their shoulders to get a better view. Eventually, the police cordoned off the street, and still people gathered along the line of yellow police tape to catch a glimpse of the bear. From our living room couch, the cat and I sat and watched him — napping on a branch, shifting his considerable weight, hugging the trunk of the tree. At one point, he seemed to be waving, fanning the air with paws the size of my head. I got to watch the bear, closely and safely, for a long time. And I fell in love.

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