There are times when I have sensed a language of the landscape, a shared communication between its varied occupants, whether predator or prey, tree or shrub. It’s possible, of course, that it isn’t a shared language at all, but a universal response to an intruder. My snowshoes in the winter woods on New Year’s Day were noisy enough to break the snow-clad silence of the western Maine woods. I am also an adherent of the scientific method and tend towards embracing the provable over the mystical. Still, for whatever reason, sometimes the landscape speaks in one voice. There is mystery in it.

Such was the case on New Year’s Day. So much was revealed in the woods during the several hours that my companion and I spent tromping through unbroken snow near Flagstaff Lake that I cannot leave it behind without further exploration. 

The watchful woods were as still as night, even in the sunlight of morning, when we found the denning bear snoozing beneath the snow. Even the science of that is magical: unlike you and me, the bear can sleep for months without even drinking or urinating, and yet almost no urea builds up in the bloodstream. Black bears do not get bed sores or lose muscle mass, as sedentary humans do, even though they lose up to 37 percent of their body weight during their quasi-hibernation. Females suckling newborn cubs for several winter months lose the most weight. Yet, when they wake in spring, the bears don’t seem the worse for it. They lumber around and regain their appetite slowly as hormones kick back in to stimulate hunger. 

They don’t lose bone mass during their long inactivity, as sedentary humans do. Even the regular inactivity of modern life, such as sitting at a desk to write this, results in losing bone mass. Bears dodge that (both the computer and the bone loss), leading researchers to probe the chemical trigger that could potentially lead to human applications in preventing or treating osteoporosis.

I first heard about Minnesota bear biologist Lynn Rogers in the early ’90s when I was working at Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, where running into bears was an almost daily occurrence. Rogers used Dian Fossey’s mountain-gorilla approach to bears, introducing himself to them, then following them closely on foot throughout their days to record behavior, even entering their dens during winter. Recent news about Rogers’ research subjects becoming too habituated to humans is troubling, but his work over the years led to further understanding of bear family dynamics, their home ranges, and what they eat. The black bear diet is almost entirely made up of vegetable matter such as nuts, roots, berries, and plants. They also flip over rocks and rip into logs in search of grubs and insects. Rarely, they hunt. They’re opportunists, going after donuts and trash, when available. Rogers didn’t find them aggressive. They huffed and puffed, and false charged, but mostly ignored him. Other bear researchers disagree with some of his conclusions. 

I doubt I would crawl into a bear’s den, even if biologist Bernd Heinrich reports that a hound that strayed into a winter bear’s den in western Maine was there for two days because the sleepy bear kept hauling it back inside when it tried to escape, mistaking it for one of her cubs.  

Next week Christine Parrish writes about winter bird behavior seen near Flagstaff Lake.