On the Origin of Bear

polsonI walked into Shannon Huffman Polson’s “Writing into Lament” session on memoir expecting to learn something about how to transform grief into something helpful and literary. I knew nothing of Polson’s writing or the journey that she had taken into grief in the wild north where her parents died. I walked away from the session with two pieces of information. One, writing memoir requires courage. Two, bears are wild animals.

Polson was visiting her brother’s family when she got the phone call that a bear had walked into her parents’ camp and killed them. Her reaction was not just one of grief, but a longing to understand how this could have happened. And so she did something that I can’t imagine anyone doing. She went a year later to retrace the path in the wilderness that her parents, avid lovers of the Arctic wilds, had taken.

She told us about how writing requires the same courage to revisit the places in our lives that cause us pain. “All good writing is about pushing on the bruise,” she said.

And then she told us about the research she had done on bears. Even the origin of the name “bear” was surrounded in superstition.

Angry Brown Bear in GrassAccording to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word “bear” is rooted in the proto-Germanic “beron” which means “the brown one”. The superstition part comes in because people said “the brown one” as a placeholder for the real name just as in the Harry Potter novels, people said “he who shall not be named” in place of Voldemort. It was believed that saying the true name for bears had power enough to call them down from the wilds to terrorize your village.

This was not just true among people who spoke English or proto-Germanic. Other cultures used placeholders as well. Instead of whatever the word for bear was, Irish people used “the good calf,” Welsh people said “honey-pig,” Lithuanian people “the licker,” and Russians “honey-eater”. So no one really knows what the original name for bear is any more. It’s locked away behind history’s iron curtain.

I9780310328766ronically, as Polson shared about her dual exploration into the wilderness and into herself, she did the very thing that the ancient people refused to do. She named the fear and brought it into the light of understanding.

I can’t say that I’m itching to get into writing memoir based on what she said, but if and when I do decide to “press on the bruise,” I at least know what to expect. I just hope that I can do it with the same courage that Polson used in writing North of Hope.

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