Monday, November 24, 2014

Bear Heart

A black bear staggered past our porch as we practiced tai chi. I wondered if I was the only person mildly alarmed at the enormous shadow cast on the yard. David continued with his slow and deliberate movements. I kept losing my focus as I listened to the chuffing beast as mist rose from his hirsute primordial mask. Over the next few days in the Poconos, I would see black bears wandering around the rented cabins of summer homes. As long as I didn’t make eye contact, they seemed like the typical New Englander: cold, pre-occupied, head and eyes focused on the ground, steaming along toward whatever task they had assigned themselves to be done immediately.

The next day on the way back from the local bar, David parked the car along the road to pick flowers. A giant behemoth lumbered across the dirt road. Once again, I appeared to be the only person to take note of her. I noted that I was referring to the bear with a female pronoun. Apparently I decided that this one was female and the previous was male from my 100% non-expert intuition. David was immersed in the task of flowers, the elderly neighbors had mysteriously disappeared when I turned back around and saw the black shadow rolling through their yard, rummaging for the apple cores, animal guts, chicken bones, sweet n’ sticky mulches of cruciferous vegetables and rotting fruit flesh. A pizza sat on the passenger side of our car. I slowly rolled the window up as I distanced myself from the old Chevy which was now a bear bait trap. But the bear was busy, her heart was set on a particular pile of garbage and cans. David came back with stalks of wild flowers, oblivious to the gobbling and snorting noises behind a cabin.

Iron Bear Heart.

I received my Navajo spirit name at a sweat lodge in New Mexico. We were set up in the rough outdoors of a friend’s backyard. The half- acre of land was filled with snakes, tarantulas, and mosquitoes. The spirit/sweat master told me that I had to give him a gift or offering to receive my name. Thoroughly unprepared for a new name, much less the offerings in order to receive a new name, I rummaged from my belongings looking for something to give. I took a handful of organic almonds and soaked them in water overnight. The next morning I peeled away the skin to the reveal white, pristine stones. The sweat master had mentioned at our first breakfast that almonds without the skin was healthier. I thought my offering showed that was I was not only concerned about good health, but that I had been paying attention and had applied a lesson to a recent scenario, which is the ultimate sign of respect for a teacher.

The sweat master -an old, pot-bellied white man in a poncho who had a penchant for flashing topless pictures of women from he saved on his cell phone- accepted the offering with a solemn dignity. In turn, his silence made me feel dignified. After a moment he started flipping the nuts into his mouth like he was at a baseball game and the regal silence was broken by his chomping and pacing up and down the camp grounds. He came back with a name: Iron Bear Heart. he told me that I could shorten it to just Bear Heart.

I wonder what triggered that name. The previous evening the sweat master had joked about how loud I snored. But also I had been appointed a fireman on the first day of the sweat lodge.


The crowd nodded in appreciation at the honorific title. I was entrusted with the task of creating the fire, finding the smooth, clean stones to toss into the blazing pit, and culling these rocks until they were glowing red kernels. Once they were at the precipice of exploding, the firemen carefully picked up the stones with two sticks (they break very easily when they’re that hot), walk down the fireline and carry the fiery tablet into the sweat lodge tent. Once inside, the tent was tightly resealed with layers of blankets and leather flaps as the fireman placed the stone in the sweat lodge pit, The spirit master chanted a round of mantras. Then water ladled over the pit would sizzle and precipitate into scalding hot white clouds of steam. Drums banged, chants were shouted, as sweat retreatants sat on the cool mud.

An occasional traumatized tarantula would be captured inside the tent and tossed. The hairy and poisonous arachnids were so drunk from the throbbing drums, falsetto war cries, scalding heat, that they would crawl into or onto any person or object exiting the dark inferno. The firemen were the only people honored enough to leave the tent, retrieve more stones, and bring back more heat.

I was told how difficult the honor was going to be, but I didn’t have much trouble with the spiders, stones, or heat. The only thing I had a problem with as a fireman was the fire. Constant rain during the weekend sweat lodge, constantly threatened to drown the pit and rain drops tapping against the glowing stones, released bolts of heats as I quickly rushed back to the tent.  Dealing with the heat, juggling stones, walking up and down the line, and plucking off tarantulas,was all done shirtless, pantless, and shoeless. It was preferred to just wear a simple pair of shorts and some sort of bandana wrapped around the head. So perhaps the sweat master saw something in me: a willingness to walk barefoot in the forest, to be covered in mud, half-blind without glasses, and carry stones which could cause third-degree burns? Or simply someone big enough to be yelled, a cartoonish ox to be yolked into the merciless task? Whatever the case, this sweat lodge is where I earned my fire badge and my name.

Strangely enough, in Buddhism I received my Bodhisattva name and it was Chakri Sengge, which translates as Lion of Iron Mountain. Apparently when people look at me they see iron.

You thought it was be as big as your head, but heavier; weighing about 30-40 lbs. Shortly after getting your Native American name you began picturing your animal and its heart. You imagine this this throbbing mass of water muscle and blood cartilage sitting on a butcher’s wooden table. You wonder what it would be like to become the name, to ingest the thing you were named after, to eat the honor.

The first ceremony is be raw and ritualistic. A snipped and thin outer layer of the heart would be consumed like the body of Christ. The actual bear heart meal requires more time and preparation. A bear heart is too tough and leathery to eat in significant portions without some sort of cooking.

You marinate the heart overnight in something citrus and tart to cut the bitter iron taste. After 10 hours of soaking, the heart is soft enough to allow an expert carver to create his design. Slicing the heart into filets, you lay the strips out onto a baking pan.

After pre-heat, you place the filets in the oven for over an hour, sealing in the juices, orange zest, and blood sauce. Then the filets is cut into chunks for a salad or bean stew. The meal is completed with some dark red wines. Leftovers str dried for jerky which goes well with beer on a summer day, when black bears roam through the backyard as you try to do tai chi on your porch.

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