Recently retired, Evan volunteered to clear trails in the woods around Brant Lake. Every Wednesday he went out from early morning until evening, cutting brush and low hanging limbs that obscured the trail. One of his responsibilities also involved attaching trail markers to the trees; the blue markers were for easy trails, black for trails covered with boulders or ascending steeply.
Everyone knew the trails Evan cleared. How? Quite simple. Evan was barely over 5 feet tall and whenever he attached a marker it was placed very low on the tree. Those unfamiliar with the area speculated that the rectangular pieces of colored metal were placed by someone kneeling, but those of us in the know realized Evan had been there.
The importance of Evan’s height was of little concern until the day of the black bear. The number of black bears in the Adirondacks is estimated at 4000. Since many people camp in the woods, the bears often venture into populated areas. Storing up for the winter the bears eat and eat, plants, berries, insects and, when a deer fawn comes there way, they imbibe on this culinary delight. Bears are smart. Bears are curious. Bears are hungry. After all, if you are going to hibernate for five months, beginning at Thanksgiving, a bear is well advised to eat well. Eating and sleeping are the perfect combination for the black bears of the Adirondacks.
But, about Evan. Early one morning as he cleared a white birch that blocked the trail, he heard a strange sound further up the path. Another volunteer? No, only Evan had been assigned to this segment of the trail. A deer? No, the sound was from a lumbering object. This was not good, and, since trails are never one-way, suddenly Evan spied a bear coming in the opposite direction. Evan saw the bear. The bear saw Evan and when I heard this story I remembered a childhood poem: “Algy met a bear. The bear was bulgy. The bulge was Algy!” What could Evan do? He definitely did not recite the poem. Bears might be intelligent but they do not appreciate poetry. Except in Winnie the Pooh.
Evan searched his memory. What did the books say about meeting a bear? First, make a loud noise. Evan clapped, he hollered, he sang which always scared off his wife. The bear growled. He didn’t sing. ”Walk backwards,” the instructions had said. Evan walked backwards. The bear walked forwards. Then Evan remembered the most important instruction, stand erect, look big, make yourself tall. Evan rose to his full 5’. Not quite a towering presence. The bear stood on his back feet. The bear was taller than Evan. But, undaunted, Evan stretched. Higher. Higher. Taller. Taller. The bear stopped. Then the bear turned and walked away. Evan would not be Algy.
Yes, Evan stood as tall as possible and frightened off the bear, but his real height was not an external calculation. Evan’s height was gauged by his confidence and that was very high. Self-assured, positive and secure as a person, his stature grew and grew and grew, until it repelled the bear.
Who we are is best measured from within.