I’ve been vacationing in western North Carolina and northern Georgia since I was a kid. I arrive, marvel at the mountains and put on an unconvincing Southern drawl. In recent summers I’ve brought my own kids, too.
But last summer I got some scary news. Black bears – several mothers and their cubs – had been spotted near where we usually stay. I had trouble getting my head around this new reality. My summer idyll had bears? By the time we pulled up the driveway in North Carolina, I was scanning the woods, then rushing everyone indoors. How could I let my kids explore or play outside?
Instead of planning hikes, I researched what to do if we met a bear. Back off slowly. Raise your arms to appear bigger. But don’t make eye contact. Remember that bears can swat through screen doors and smell a barbecue from miles away.
I urged everyone to prepare a brief monologue for bear encounters. The book “Living With Bears” recommended speaking to the animal in a firm monotone and making one person in a group the designated “bear talker.”
This seemed promising. A neighbor claimed to have scared off the bear he met in his driveway by announcing, “Stop! I am president of the Homeowners Association and I will fine you if you hurt me!” I made my kids practice holding their backpacks above their heads, staring at the ground, and stating, “Go away bear, I’m in first grade.”
None of this quelled my bear obsession. A wildlife report said there may be more bears in North Carolina today than at any time in the last 100 years. I imagined various scenarios in which I valiantly faced down a mother bear, as our respective cubs and children huddled nearby. (In most of these scenarios, my husband was reading a book.)
As I learned about lady bears, I realized we’re not so different. They’re four to six feet long and weigh between 100 and 300 pounds. They avoid humans, and don’t like it when many address them at once. They consume enough calories in eight months to last all year.
But I may have crossed the line from heroic to panicky. My kids gradually stopped treating me like their bear guru, and started treating me like the crazy lady who was ruining their vacation.
My husband, who’s British, wasn’t worried about bears at all. But he was reading a book on how to write a screenplay and said I was forcing our vacation into a classic narrative: A monster appears and threatens the family or community. The hero steps in to slay it and restore tranquility. It’s the plot of “Jaws ,” “Fatal Attraction” and James Bond.
Americans didn’t invent this narrative, but we’ve embraced it with a special fervor. Never mind that owning a gun makes you less safe; we like the story that says we’re protecting our families. Never mind the enormous drops in homicide, robbery and other violence. We cling to the story that the world has become more dangerous.
The hero story also seeps into American politics. Why are many Republican presidential candidates obsessed with undocumented immigrants? They’re inventing a monster that threatens America, then promising to rescue us. Donald J. Trump has Mexicans; I have bears.
There’s a catastrophic narrative in American parenting, too: If you aren’t envisioning worst-case scenarios, you’re not doing your job. Maybe I’ve economized my worrying; bears are pedophiles, sunburn and college rejections, rolled into one.
Or maybe a bear is just a bear. In my research, I eventually notice bits that say black bears are rarely aggressive. “North Carolina has not experienced an unprovoked bear attack,” says a report by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “People bother them, they don’t bother people,” explains an employee of the lodge in Georgia where we’re staying this year.
When my daughter notices that the guidebook has a page on black-bear safety, she slams it shut. “No bear talk,” she warns me. (I peek later. “There are very few bear attacks on record in Georgia, and NO fatalities.”)
Anyway, as another summer winds down, I still haven’t seen a single bear.
Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist who lives in Paris.