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Mudgett: Bear Stories

05/17/12 5:55PM By Jill Mudgett
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(Host) First it was the story of the Governor and the four bears - followed by endless puns in the media about bears and bareness. Now, it's bear art in Burlington. But commentator Jill Mudgett - who writes about Vermont history from her home in Lamoille County - notes that Vermont has a long history of bear stories guaranteed to please a crowd.

(Mudgett) Okay, so Gov. Shumlin was bare-naked and ready for bed when he chased four bears away from the birdfeeders outside his Montpelier home - and the bears famously chased him back.

It was a classic story of danger-in-the-nude, and reminded me instantly of John Singleton Copley's famous painting from 1778, titled Watson and the Shark, in which a young sailor is attacked by a shark while enjoying a naked swim in the ocean. Watson lived to tell the tale, but not before losing half a leg and plenty of blood. Fortunately, Gov. Shumlin's story had a much happier ending.

Mostly, though, the governor's adventure reminded me that there's a long history of human-bear interactions in Vermont. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, just as the children of the state's founding generation were busy raising children of their own, the numbers of large game animals were in serious decline. Vermonters of the day - and for decades afterward - reacted to that decline by simultaneously lamenting what had been lost and by breathing a sigh of relief that the woods were now safer for humans. Within that context, the news of a wolf, bear, or catamount sighting was received with a combination of fear and fascination.

One of my favorite nineteenth-century Vermonters was a curmudgeonly bachelor named James Johns, who was a son of two of Huntington's first settlers. He was drawn to stories of wild animals. He may have been slightly obsessed. Johns self-published a little volume titled The Green Mountain Tradition, or Book of Bears that chronicled bear stories of early settlement. He also wrote a poem called "Dangers of the Woods in a New Country, or Bear Adventures in Huntington." Johns wasn't trying to fool anyone by portraying members of his own generation as brave bear slayers. Instead, he wanted his contemporaries to remember and to respect the ruggedness of the state's founders and to appreciate how easy life had become. Back in 1786, Johns' parents had witnessed a bear attack a neighbor's ox. Johns' father first managed to scare off the bear and then successfully fired a shot into its side. The story had an instructive quality, as Johns concluded:

Few of us yea indeed I doubt,
If there be any one,
Of the young folks who realize,
What their old sires have done.

When a bear was killed in Huntington in the summer of 1860, townspeople found the event noteworthy enough to display the dead bear on the green beside the tavern. When Johns recorded that event, he included it under the heading "A Memorandum of Prominent Occurrences."

James Johns confided that he'd never seen a live bear cross his path. That kind of familiarity with bears had belonged to his parents' generation.

Today, encounters between bears and Vermonters are once again becoming more frequent, but as was usually the case in the past - most of them are uneventful and the bears are the only ones who are not wearing clothes.
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