June 2023

Life Sentences

‘O remember / In your narrowing dark hours / That more things move / Than blood in the heart’

By Sarah Holland-Batt
The poetry that delivered perspective when the author came face to face with a grizzly bear in the wilds of Alaska

These lines come from a poem I love, called “Night”, by Louise Bogan. I memorised them many years ago because I liked their succinct imperative not to fear death. They are also the lines that swam into my mind when I came as close as I have ever come to dying, standing face to face with an adult male grizzly bear in the wilds of Alaska.

I’d been living in New York that year, trying to write my second book. It was one of the worst winters on record: blizzard after blizzard, the streets strangled by ice. I was at a low ebb. My relationship had ended, my poems were going nowhere and I needed to escape the city. I bought myself a ticket to Anchorage in July. Summer came, and I got on the plane.

Suddenly, there was a surfeit of light. Alaskan summers are aimless, the days long and drifting. The sun never fully sets, just dips over the horizon, then creeps back again. I was staying with an old Australian friend, Emma, a geophysicist living in Anchorage. In the mornings I went birdwatching, keeping my distance from moose and their calves in the woods, scanning the sky for bald eagles. In the evenings Emma and I went hiking, then grilled halibut and drank beer in the lingering twilight.

One weekend, we drove north to the national park surrounding Denali’s massive white peak. Our campsite was a stretch of gravel along a braided creek of snowmelt, in a remote part of the park. We set up our tent, then went for an early evening walk along the water. The path was clear at first, then winnowed into a tunnel of greenery that rose over a rocky bluff wedged beside the running water. We had to duck our heads as we walked.

I’d read Denali’s wildlife guidelines, which recommended making noise to warn bears in earshot. But as I yelled what the guidebook had advised (Hey, bear!), Emma became increasingly exasperated. I was desecrating the solitude. For Christ’s sake, she said, would you shut up. So I did.

We scrambled down the far side of the bluff, and emerged to a sweep of braided water stretching to the horizon. Blue shadows of conifers leaned down the ridges. I sensed movement behind me. Back up the steep slope we’d just descended, my eye snagged on a patch of rustling leaves. The massive dark head of a grizzly bear appeared, shaggy and elemental, between the trees. It was standing on its hind legs, looking down at us, more than 6 feet tall. Then it dropped down and disappeared.

Emma, I said, there’s a bear. I could hardly get the words out. Sure there is, she said, then froze. There it was, at the bottom of the bluff: first its head, and then its whole lumbering body, 2 metres away, pinning us against the swift-moving creek. There was nowhere to go. The guidelines said to stay a minimum of 200 metres from grizzlies, and to never turn your back or run. They said nothing about what to do if you found yourself face to face with one. I knew enough from what I’d read to tell Emma to spread our arms and legs into the shape of an X, so we did. Hey bear, we both said firmly. Hey.

The bear gave us a long, appraising stare: not entirely curious, not indifferent. It had no fear. In that instant, I understood viscerally what I had always known in the abstract – that my own existence was a speck, a tiny atom in the great machine. This is it, I remember thinking, astonished. This is how my life ends.

Any attempt at retreat would have been fatal, so we held our ground. Emma’s breathing beside me was ragged. After a long moment, the bear ambled over to a soapberry bush to feed, then eventually towards some distant trees, and into the dusk.

Then there were the words, unbidden: More things move / than blood in the heart. A skerrick of poetry, springing from some crevice of my mind, reminding me that I was not at the centre of things, and that the bear and I were both creatures moving through a world we shared. As we walked back to the campsite, hysterical with relief, Louise Bogan’s words seemed to synchronise with my elevated heartbeat. They’ve become a private motto over the years, and a reminder of my own place in the order of things, always bringing with them a necessary recalibration in perspective.

Sarah Holland-Batt

Sarah Holland-Batt is the author, most recently, of The Jaguar and Fishing for Lightning.

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