July 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

As I lay in bed this morning, a man who had lost his dog called up and down the road outside. He passed, he called, he returned. At first I tried to block it out, annoyed. Then I tuned in. The dog’s name was Monster. “Monster!” called the man, anxiously, always on the same falling note. “Mooooon-Steeeer.” Then it occurred to me that maybe he had lost a monster. And then I thought, perhaps it’s not a loss at all, but a warning – of something seen and coming. “Monster!” called again and again to the sleeping street. And there I was, lying in bed, nothing if not potential monstermunch.

I’m re-reading AS Byatt’s wonderful book Possession which in part takes place, through a long exchange of letters and poetry, in Victorian England. The Victorians liked monsters. They were fascinated by monster-myths, relating them, dissecting and re-telling them. They found small monsters all around, getting hold of microscopes and inspecting insects, dissecting them more literally. “A seething, striving horde/Of animacules lashing dragon-tails” (that’s in a glass of water). In Byatt’s novel the Victorians seem romantic, rational-magical, one scoop of each melting into each other.

Last week, for the 4th July I went to Humbolt Redwoods State Park, 30 miles South of Eureka in Northern California. The giant trees can reach 100 meters in height – the length of a football pitch. Some are hollow, and the bark of many isn’t red but black from fires; a scaly carbon skin. Walking between them it’s easy to imagine dragons sleeping somewhere close by; elves and orcs and things with wings that aren’t vultures or butterflies.

Humbolt Redwood State Park

Spot the person

Burnt tree

Tree burnt to dragon-skin

And bears. We knew there were bears in the woods and especially the grassy places between, where they eat grass – apparently – and dig for grubs and ground bees, and come down to eat fruit from the trees left by the first homesteaders. We wanted to see bears – it became an obsession. First we found what seemed to be claw marks in the moss covering a tree’s base. Then tracks in the mud which looked like deer-prints – but maybe from a very small bear? We became hyper-aware of dark shapes in the trees, movement up ahead or in the peripheral vision.

A tree with possible claw marks

Claw marks?

Possible bear tracks


That night, I woke up once, immediately wide awake and able to hear every tiny sound with extreme clarity. “Bears,” said my bear-alert brain as twigs crackled and something stirred against the outside of the tent.

The next day, we were sure we would see a bear. We saw snakes and eagles; lizards, deer, squirrels. I saw a family of raccoons on the road at night, and a creature which looked – it’s the only way to describe it – like a cross between a rat and a turkey, which I don’t know how to look up. We never saw a bear. As compensation, Andy Andersen (white hair in a ponytail, bear-tooth necklace, knife-belt) who ran the horse-camp where we stayed, gave us photos pulled down from his trailer walls.

Andy's bear photo

Spot the bear

Come back, he said, you’ll see bears, I guarantee. Why was it so important? We like monsters too, and mostly live without them.

Lost dogs sign

Lost - to what?

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