by Maxine Kumin

 Advice from a pamphlet published by the Canadian Minister of the Enviroment

been here
for thousands of years.
the visitor:
encounters. Think ahead.
Keep clear
of berry patches
garbage dumps, carcasses.
On woods walks bring
noisemakers, bells.
Clap hands along the trail
or sing
but in dense bush
or by running water
bear may not hear your clatter.
Whatever else
don’t whistle. Whistling
is thought by some to imitate
the sounds bears make when they mate.
You need to know
there are two kinds:
ursus arctus horribilis
or grizzly
and ursus americanus
the smaller black
said to be
somewhat less likely to attack.
Alas, a small horribilis
is difficult to distinguish
from a large americanus.
there is no guaranteed life-saving way
to deal with an aggressive bear
some ploys
have probed more
successful than others.
Running’s a poor choice.
Bear can outrun a racehorse.
Once you’re face to face
speak softly. Take
off your pack
and set it down
to distract the grizzly,
Meanwhile back
slowly toward a large
sparsely branched tree
but remember
black bears are agile climbers
in which case
a tree may not offer escape.
As a last resort you can
play dead. Drop
to the ground face down.
In this case
wearing your pack
may shield your body from attack.
Courage. Lie still. Sometimes
you bear may veer away.
If not
bears have been known
to inflict only minor injuries
upon the prone.
Is death
by bear to be preferred
to death by bomb? Under
these extenuating circumstances
your mind may make absurd
leaps. The answer’s yes.
Come on in, Cherish
your wilderness.

SOURCE: The Dire Elegies: 59 Poets on Endangered Species of North America, Edited by Karla Linn Merrifield and Roger M. Weir (Foothills Publishing, 2006), available at

IMAGE: “Black Bear Has a Gentle Look” by Richard Wear. Prints available at


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Maxine Kumin (1925-2014) was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. She was the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1981-1982, and taught at many of the country’s most prestigious universities, including MIT, Princeton, and Columbia. Kumin’s poetry collections include Nurture (1989), The Long Approach (1986), Nurture, Looking for Luck (1992), Connecting the Dots: Poems (1996), The Long Marriage (2002), Inside the Halo and Beyond (1999), Jack and Other New Poems (2005), Still to Mow (2007), and Where I Live: New and Selected Poems (2011).