Saturday, 24 November 2012

The land of the blind

One shiny wet nose! 

Two big furry ears! 
Two big googly eyes! 

Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury

The captain is a one-armed dwarf
He's throwing dice along the wharf
In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king
So take this ring... 

Tom Waits

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king and, in a car with two occupants, the former zoology student is instantly promoted to resident expert on all matters ursine, when a bear appears unexpectedly on the road less traveled ahead.

'Holy crap!' says Spike, 'It's a bear!' Which is as succinct a description of our situation as you'd expect from a former student of English Literature. Moving with the grace of a ballet dancer and at the speed of a striking cobra, Spike hits the power window button (on his side, not mine).

'Um, will it charge the car, or anything?' he asks. I know less about bear biology than I do about foraminifera, say, but I have discovered in life that it's not what you know that counts, it's the conviction with which you express your opinion.

'No.' I said, authoritatively. 'It's just curious. We're probably the first human beings its ever seen.'

'What do they eat?' Asks Spike, evidently less impressed by my fund of bear-lore than I am. 'Um, vegetables, I think, and worms probably. Humans too, but rarely.'

The bear seems to be curious. It swiftly retreats from the road into the forest but I can see it examining us, peering out from behind tree trunks, evidently frightened, but not enough to vanish.

This is a magical moment. Neither Spike nor I had seen a wild bear previously in our 80+ combined years of globe-trotting and neither of us expects to see another. There are only a few thousand bears left on Hokkaido, or perhaps only a few hundred (see here for an impeccably researched article on the subject), and the more I think about it, the luckier I feel for having encountered one. Our bear is a beautiful animal, with dark brown fur and a honey-coloured collar and face.

It's a particularly bad time to be a bear in Hokkaido, though perhaps there has never been a really good one. To stray into a town, where the dustbins overflow with bear food in the way that Israel allegedly did with milk and honey, is tantamount to suicide. The news-starved providers of content for Japanese domestic TV dispatch reporters to cover the bear hunt and its inevitable death, at the hands of police marksmen. Terrified civilians are interviewed: 'How is this possible? I mean, I have a baby. The bear might have eaten her. Why isn't the government doing something?'

Spike suggested, and perhaps on this occasion he is even right, that the reaction of most Japanese citizens to our encounter would have been horror or revulsion or a demand for a detachment of paratroopers to be sent immediately to kill the beast. Spike and I spent most of our time together in Japan seeking out roads that no sane native of those islands would voluntarily travel. On the occasions when our attempt to drive such roads wasn't thwarted by an impassable steel-and-concrete barrier, we encountered virtually no other traffic. It is a bizarre experience, traveling in one of the most populous nations on earth, to find oneself completely alone, barely a dozen miles from the nearest 7-11. If you had a puncture out there, you'd either starve to death or walk out.

When we were students together, Spike introduced me to Tom Waits. I quoted the line at the head of this post in an essay on optimal foraging theory, written in my final exams, and I've been looking for an excuse ever since to deploy it again.

No comments: