Man of the Wild

Papa Bear Art with flowers

Man of the Wild

Thoughts on the animal nature of my father

If I had to pick an animal that most represented my dad, Curtis Alexander, it would definitely be a bear. Now I know that Papa Bear is a cliche, but there is nothing else that quite speaks to his nature. His essence was incredibly ursine. By the time I came along he was a little paunchy around the middle but from years of wrestling and being a Marine underneath what appeared soft was hard as bricks. I never saw him flustered or in a rush, he would amble along following his curiosity, looking for good eats, especially sweets. Mostly he was mellow, just doing his thing. He could sprawl out and relax for hours reading or watching the telly. You wouldn’t want to come across him in the woods when he was hungry though. Before dinner time he’d go monosyllabic. Somebody feed the bear!

He was a real snuggly person and when he’d stretch out on our old beat up sofa all three of us kids jumped up to sit on top of him at the same time. We’d fight over who got a piece of Papa. He was really playful and fun. When we were really little he’d play flippas with us. He’d lie down on the ground and we’d sit on his feet and then he’d launch us up in the air and catch us with his hands and flip us over his head. We’d keep going until he got tired and needed a break. When we’d go grocery shopping with him, he’d put us in the grocery cart, look for an empty aisle and then start running, jump up and coast with us in the cart.

Being outdoors was where he was most himself, he would often get up and say he was going for a walk and then us kids would tag along walking as fast as we could to keep up with him. Our dogs bounded through the forest. Coming back in a flash at his whistle. We’d walk out to falling apart homesteads and red clay flats that looked like mini-deserts. We’d pass blackberry tangles, jump over creeks, examine mushroom gills, listen to bird calls and walk over to the swampy pond and see baby frogs. It seemed like magic to me that he could look up and see the silhouette of a bird and know what kind it was just by how it flew. A simple walk was always an adventure and a chance to learn. He had a preternatural sense of direction and could find his way anywhere on land or sea his only reference at times, a tiny little plastic compass he kept in his pocket.

His father, my grandfather (very worthy of his own story) was from swampy blackwater country in Eastern North Carolina, where they eked out a living through fishing, farming, and carpentry. To supplement their diet they also hunted. It was a necessity to feed nine children. My grandfather taught my dad early everything he knew. He took right to it. He deeply resonated with the native concept of honoring the life of the animal you take by not letting any of it go to waste. Trophy hunting wasn’t his thing and he would never take more than what he would use, he did it for the joy of being outdoors with friends and family and bringing home a meal we could enjoy together.

My brother, my sister, me and my mom all participated by helping clean and prepare the animals which were largely dove and quail, an occasional duck, a couple of times he got rabbit, squirrel and one time a great male 8-point buck that he taught us to skin. When we’d come home from a cool autumn day hunting we’d sit in the den with the dove, pluck the feathers off into brown paper bags. He’d gut the birds and note what they had eaten that day, usually corn. Some of the birds we’d put in the freezer and some of them my mom would cook, marinating them with red wine and garlic. A lot of our diet was wild game a fact I appreciate even now that I only eat plants. The animals lived a free and wild life before becoming food. He hadn’t hunted in a long time, maybe twenty years or so before he passed.

More than hunting, he loved fishing. Being on the water, in the water or near the water. When he was stationed in Okinawa during his Marine Corp days, he took up spear fishing and scuba diving. One time a sea snake followed him around. Another time he caught a big fish and two local men walking along the beach came over saw the fish and started cutting it up right then and there. The three of them shared impromptu sashimi together. This experience connected him to the community. He spoke very fondly of his time there.

There’s something about being outdoors and sitting very still for a long time that molds you. When you sit for hours in a boat, on a rock, or in a tree waiting patiently and intently, it creates a stillness inside, deepened observation, an attuned sense of your surroundings. He knew where to look and how to see things that were invisible to most. Look around, be aware of your surroundings at all times, pay attention to the little movements, use your ears, listen, trust your senses, follow your instincts, watch how everything interacts and connects. After time, you start to hear and feel all the life around you, even the things we perceive as still or lifeless. Every once in a while you can get a sense that you are being watched by something more powerful than yourself.

All of those experiences with him had an influence on me. I’ve had the good fortune to travel, hike and explore many places. There were so many great treks I wish he had been able to do with me. Deserts, tropical rainforests, cloud forests, volcanoes, lava fields, mountains, old growth forests, all of them I’ve had the opportunity to experience. Beautiful beaches, coral reefs, hot springs, gentle rivers, crystal clear lakes, he would have loved them all. In some ways he was/is always there with me. His love and understanding of nature has carried through to me and is one of the things I am most grateful for and what I take with me everywhere I go.

There’s so much more to be said, but I will leave that to future entries…

Written by jennalex

Artist and designer who explores the relationship between the natural world and the digital world and aims to create art and design that expands people's consciousness and creates meaningful experiences.

November 13, 2023