Bear Descriptions

People around here joke that we measure rain in feet, not inches. I walk to work. Add those sentences and you see why I use an umbrella. Recently, I had to order a new umbrella. This one is not the kind that folds up in my backpack. It’s old-fashioned, long, big, and sturdy. (Somewhere, the shade of Amelia Peabody is nodding in approval).

This time of year there is a lot of bear sightings because the bears are stuffing themselves before hibernation. My husband calls me a bear magnet because of all the interactions I have with them. When you think that to get to work I walk one-and-a-half miles through their habitat, it’s not surprising.

So as I walked along this morning, my mind wandered like usual, and I wondered how a bear would perceive an umbrella. Since it’s black and long, would it scare him, make him assume it’s a rifle? I doubt he has a word for ‘umbrella’. I doubt he has a word for ‘color’ or ‘black’. I started trying to figure out how I would describe something, if I had to break it down to its barest minimum. A stick like night?

Sometimes in writing, description can carry on too long, or be too much. I think we writers have a tendency to not trust the reader to understand what we are saying, so we repeat ourselves, rewording slightly, to make sure readers get it. That can kill an otherwise wonderful description.

Thinking about the bear made me wonder if describing something from the eyes of an animal might make a challenging writing exercise. Like the umbrella. But then I realized I’d drive myself insane. I suggested a ‘stick like night’ above. But the bear wouldn’t have a word for ‘night’ any more than he would have a word for ‘black’. Yes I know, bears don’t have words, but for the purposes of writing challenges, I’m continuing with the analogy. So ‘bear’ with me please.

In some ways it would be like trying to describe something to a person who speaks a different language. I think it would end up looking like a game of charades. Back to the bear. Would he understand that the umbrella is not a rifle, if I opened it? Well, that would probably be equally terrifying for him. But can we describe more accurately through action? There’s another writing challenge. Instead of having simple narrative in your story that describes the scenery, bring it alive through action or interaction.

I like the idea of taking an object and trying to strip it down to the most basic, simple description. I’m going to try this with a few things lying around and see what I come up with. I challenge you to do the same.

2 thoughts on “Bear Descriptions

  1. Hooray for a Peabody-worthy umbrella! Did I tell you I recently found some Elizabeth Peters I haven’t yet read (I know! how did this happen?!), and in rediscovering my joy in her writing, I realized I enjoy your stories for some of the same reasons: strong sense of place, no character is boring, adventure with a little romance, and protagonists who really think about the world they’re in and the consequences of their actions. 🙂

    I love “a stick like night.” I agree, a bear probably wouldn’t see it that way, but it’s still a great way to think of it. Animals may not even see the way we do, anyway — did you see the side-by-side comparison, made by a photographer, of a human’s and a cat’s view of the same scene?

    I used to do a similar exercise for many years. I love the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder and I used to imagine young Laura coming forward in time to hang out with me. I’d try to think how I would explain the modern environment to her: cars, TV, infrastructure in general. Not quite the same as explaining something to the language-less (such a challenge!), but also fun.

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