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A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear
The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)
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VERGE OF WILD
A peasant had a docile bear,
A bear of manners pleasant,
And all the love she had to spare
She lavished on the peasant:
She proved her deep affection plainly
(The method was a bit ungainly).
The watchful bear, perceiving that
The gnat lit on her master,
Resolved to light upon the gnat
And plunge him in disaster;
She saw no sense in being lenient
When stones lay round her, most convenient.
Of course the bear was greatly grieved,
But, being just a dumb thing,
She only thought: “I was deceived,
But still, I did hit something!”
Which showed this masculine achievement
Had somewhat soothed her deep bereavement.
—Guy Wetmore Carryl, “The Confiding
Peasant and the Maladroit Bear,” 1898
A FELINE FEEDING
[Father] ought to remember one special night when he left me by the barn of the field we called “the Mountain field” when I actually saw the nose of the bear between the bushes, only the nose, and it looked a good deal like a pig’s, but it made me very unhappy.
—Letter from Willa Cather to Elsie Cather, 1911
If Jessica Soule had known how close the bears were, of course she wouldn’t have gone outside that afternoon, no matter how damn hot her living room got. If she had known, the whole cat-eating affair might never have happened.
Soule says that the summer of 1999 was the first time she started thinking of Grafton’s bears as unusual. For many in town, it was already shaping up to be one more bad year in the seemingly never-ending string of bad years that nibbled away at the community’s fragile bonds.
The first half of the year unfolded in the midst of a severe drought; in the forest, every plant, from the mightiest oak to the tiniest wisp of lichen, felt the lack of moisture and responded by withholding the usual bounty of fruit and foliage. That’s when the burden of want fell onto the shoulders of the woodland beasts. Most could slake their thirst from the brackish ponds and small rills left from the once-bubbling brooks, but each day the scarcity of food drove them closer to the brink of desperation.
For Grafton’s human residents, wells were depleted and haying operations stood at a standstill; the town’s few remaining farmers watched the stunted grass, hoping against all evidence that it would develop into something worth cutting.
But those hopes slowly wilted.
In July, the drought was capped by a heat wave that scorched the parched grass to a sickening brown scrub; in vegetable gardens, tomatoes unlucky enough to be in direct sunlight literally roasted on the vine. The specter of fire—from a poorly extinguished campfire or through the spontaneous combustion of a few kerosene-soaked rags in an old barn—was everywhere.
Few Graftonites have air conditioning, so people tried to beat the heat in other ways. For many, including Soule, that meant sitting outside in the evening, often with a beer in hand, to enjoy the heat’s recession, sometimes speeded by a much-appreciated summer breeze.
As the sun sagged into the horizon, she slipped out the front door of her quirky timber-framed home to go sit at her backyard picnic table, her only company the newest members of her family—three small kittens, recently dropped off at her house in the middle of the night by persons unknown, wrestling in the grass near her feet. Wild Meadow Road, the dry dirt lane that ran nearby and was named by the region’s first white settlers, kept her house continuously dusted.
The liquid silver of what the native Abenaki would have called Temaskikos, the Grass Cutter Moon, slid silently down tree trunks until it gently limned the ground. Dusk.
At the same time, plumes of microscopic particles of Soule and her kittens rose into the overheated July air. They floated across her lawn, winding through the surrounding bramble and wood like the beckoning scent of a cartoon pie. Finally, some very tiny percentage of those particles were caught in a sharp snorting intake of air that delivered them deep into a pair of bestial nostrils, where they presumably triggered the same physiological response that causes human mouths to water in the presence of aromatic lasagna or a fine ribeye.
But Soule was unaware that she’d been scented. She was serene, allowing the melody of the crickets and the muted light show of the fireflies to off-gas the worries of the day, and relax her mind.
This was the sort of freedom that made living in Grafton special. Here, one could be an individual without facing much judgment from the neighbors, if for no other reason than that the ample distance between houses took the sting out of most criticisms.
Soule’s thoughts were interrupted when something rushed toward her back, something so heavy she could feel the vibration of the footsteps in the dry ground beneath her.
Before she could react, the bear was within feet of her. It didn’t go for Soule—perhaps, when it got close enough, it lost its nerve. (The sturdy forty-five-year-old had once used a shovel to beat off an attack by a large, vicious weasel.) In 1999, the bears of Grafton were not bold enough to attack a woman of Soule’s stature.
Instead, the bear blew right past her and continued on into the forest, the rustling of the dead leaves beneath its feet a counterpoint to the sudden frantic mewlings of two kittens—Jessica’s kittens—now in its mouth.
Beyond the tree line, the bear reemerged, a bulky silhouette against the moon. It stopped at a small creek running through the rear of Soule’s property. Now there were other shadows—bear cubs, crowding alongside their mother.
Soule said she could only watch, horrified, as the bears finished their prize. She’ll never forget the sounds.
Soule scrabbled in the tall grass near the tree line, searching for the third kitten and trying to watch in all directions for the return of the bears, which had disappeared from sight.
“Amber,” she stage-whispered. Her calls slowly grew louder, more plaintive, but produced no kitten. Not until morning did she find the bedraggled Amber, huddling beneath the carpet of leaves.
THE ATTACK ON Soule’s kittens—an extremely rare example of a bear eating a domestic cat—would have been strange in any circumstances. But Soule told me it was only the beginning.
The sow that ate Soule’s kittens apparently developed a taste for cats. It taught its two cubs to eat cats, and soon an extended family of bears was predating upon the cats in Soule’s neighborhood.
That this was not more widely remarked upon is perhaps not as strange as it seems.
Though the world thinks of Grafton as a single tiny town in the woods, it is actually broken up into even smaller, discrete historical villages that reflect an earlier era. Graftonites think of themselves as living in East Grafton, Grafton Center, Grafton Village, Slab City (audaciously termed a “city” by its residents, who number, literally, in the dozens), or West Grafton. Each little village is a neighborhood unto itself, and the encroaching forest has increasingly isolated the villages from each other.
Soule’s village, centered on Wild Meadow Road, is called Bungtown, named for one or more barrel bungs that once popped out during a carriage transport and spilled a remarkable amount of alcohol onto the roadway.
Outside of Bungtown, not many people made the connection between the shrinking number of housecats and bears. But Bungtowners found the bears’ taste for cats to be particularly unsettling.
Mightn’t eating cats, they wondered, be a kind of gateway drug to eating humans?
People took precautions.
While walking their dogs, they began avoiding the path that ran along the town’s rusty old rail lines and other known bear hotspots. Before doing yard work, they might strap on a firearm, just in case. And they began keeping a closer eye on small children, mindful perhaps of April 27, 1905, the day that two-year-old Elwin Braley ran merrily around the corner of his family’s Bungtown farmhouse, and briefly out of the sight of his mother. Young Elwin cried out—his mother would later say that it was difficult to tell whether it was with joy or terror—and was never seen again. The mother blamed a panther, or possibly a bear. Many in the community blamed the mother, though no criminal charges were ever filed.
At any rate, the cat-eating bears of 1999 were just a blip in Grafton’s ongoing bad year. June’s drought and July’s heat wave were quickly forgotten in September, when deadly Hurricane Floyd ripped through the region, disrupting power lines, peeling shingles from roofs, and uprooting trees. Over the course of a few days, the town went from parched to inundated. Soon, five-hundred-year-high floodwaters had gouged washouts up to eight feet deep into Grafton’s dirt roads and completely isolated some of its residents from the larger world. Grafton’s road crew, tiny and ill-resourced, was quickly overwhelmed by the scope of the work that faced them after the floodwaters receded. In a typical example of Grafton’s municipal dialogue, someone responded by angrily smashing the windows of the town dump truck.
It was Soule’s story of cat-eating bears that first drew my attention to Grafton. I was working as a reporter for the Valley News, a regional daily newspaper, and I was immediately captivated by the idea that Grafton’s bear population might be exhibiting behavior that lay somewhere on the spectrum of rare to unheard of.
At first, I was skeptical that many cats in Grafton were eaten by bears, or even that one cat in Grafton was eaten by a bear. There was no video evidence. And when cats are swallowed up by the New Hampshire woods, blame is typically assigned to other animals, like coyotes. As one pet recovery expert told me, “The only way you know is if you find those remains.”
I began paying attention to notices about Grafton’s lost cats, both online and on posters tacked to trees around town.
“Mostly white cat with dark tabby patches, or perhaps some black spots. Her name is Abby… We miss her much,” read one, while others pleaded for information about Buddha (large, orange, long hair), Bryce (brown/black tiger with white markings), and Brother (“This is the first time he has gone missing and we are devastated”).
Something, it seemed, was emerging from the underbrush to snatch up felines when backs were turned. If bears were indeed the culprits, Grafton was in the midst of an invasion.
Or, as I would soon learn, two invasions.
A TAXING TRADITION
When first my father settled here,
’Twas then the frontier line:
The panther’s scream, filled night with fear
And bears preyed on the swine.
—Abraham Lincoln, “The Bear Hunt,” 1847
Even before New England colonists began warring with the British monarchy, they were engaged in long-standing open hostilities with the region’s bears, a fact that, in the summer of 1776, came home to a young man named Eleazar Wilcox in a violent and visceral way.
Life had gotten harder for the athletic newlywed, age twenty-five, since the previous fall, when he’d moved from his boyhood home on the Connecticut coast and into New Hampshire’s wooded frontier. Here the lack of roads, noted a historian, “necessitated the coarsest fare and the plainest living.” Bean porridge, leather clothing, and homemade furniture were the order of the day. “The ground had to be cleared of the dense growth of trees before any crop could be planted and a constant watch kept against the bears and the wolves that by day and by night prowled around the log huts.”
Despite his newcomer status, Eleazar knew enough to drop a few musket balls into his pants pocket when leaving the safety of his log cabin. One day in early summer, he headed out to his pasture and first saw the immense bear about seven car lengths away (a measure that would have perplexed Eleazer, as cars had not yet been invented). Scrabbling a bullet out of his pocket, Eleazer fired with pinpoint accuracy—a direct hit to the head.
The bear fell heavily. But as Eleazer ran to the corpse, it rose up in a decidedly uncorpse-like manner and bolted, bleeding, into the woods.
Pursuing the bear would have been foolhardy. The homestead’s cleared pastures, long sight lines, and sturdy house functioned as a bright little oasis of safety—just beyond, in bear country, towering black spruce, hemlocks, barren oak, and bitter hickory created a state of permanent gloom. Some areas were dominated by spreading balsam firs, needles so thick they cut visibility to near-zero; other areas were covered in muck or choked with thorny scrub growth, all of which served to hide bears and impair human movement.
On the other hand, the only thing more dangerous than having a bear nosing around your homestead is having a wounded bear nosing around your homestead.
Eleazar sought help from a woods-savvy friend, Joshua Osgood, and the pair entered the damp spring forest, following a trail marked by drying blotches of tacky blood. Miles on, the drops turned more viscous—fresh blood. At this point, to maximize their chances of getting a clear shot, the two men split up, which is why Eleazer was alone when the bear charged. With spectacularly poor timing, his musket misfired harmlessly.
One account says that the bear struck Eleazer in the head and that he fell, then rose to his knees as the bear pressed down on him from above. Another says that the bear swiped the gun (which future generations cherished as a claw-scarred family artifact) from Eleazer’s hands and grabbed him, and that Eleazer responded by seizing the bear’s tongue and crying for help.
Osgood arrived in time to save Eleazer’s life, but he had to be carried back to his wife on a litter, with an injured back and forty-two flesh wounds. Though Eleazer lived, his health never fully returned. It was years before he had any children, and the rest of his life was plagued by what he called his “bear fits.”
Eleazer Wilcox was one of many settlers discovering the prominence of bears in the primeval New Hampshire forest, as evidenced by modern maps pockmarked with Bear Hills, Bear Hollows, Bear Ponds, Bear Brooks, and Bear Creeks. Two distinct mountainous areas were named Bear World, while Lake Winnipesaukee’s Bear Island earned its name after a group of land surveyors in 1772 used both guns and knives in a successful, though bloody, effort to dispatch four bears.
To the bears, the homesteads brought a welcome addition to the landscape.
“He places himself between two rows of corn,” complained one contemporary account, “and with his paws breaks down the stalks of four contiguous hills, bending them toward the center of the space, that the ears may lie near to each other, and then devours them. Passing through a field in this manner, he destroys the corn in great quantities.”
In addition to corn, the bears were fond of sweet apples. They were drawn in great numbers to sheep. They devoured barnsful of young swine. At times, it seemed that New England’s entire agricultural economy was in danger of disappearing down their bottomless gullets.
Worse, unless they were being actively fired upon, the bears showed little fear of the pale-faced primates in their midst. One Grafton County bear hunter, Jonathan Marston, was treed by a bear and spent the entire night trying to get back down. (A search party eventually ended the standoff.) Bears browsed through barns and peeped into kitchen windows, burly bundles of ursine meat watching ambulatory hominine meat cooking juicy chunks of ovine meat.
Sometimes the people themselves were the meals.
Late one August day in 1784, a Mr. Leach saw a bear seize his eight-year-old son from the pasture and drag him toward the undergrowth. Leach, horrified, attacked with a wooden stake, but it “broke in his hand; and the bear, leaving his prey, turned upon the parent who, in the anguish of his soul, was obliged to retreat and call for help.”
After a fretful night, a search party followed a short and grisly trail to the boy’s carcass, his throat torn out and one thigh eaten. The bear emerged from the undergrowth and tried to drive the humans away, but they brought it down in a volley of gunfire, burning the corpse as if it were a demon that could otherwise rise again.
KEEPING THE BEARS away at night was nearly impossible. Log deadfall traps, baited with pig offal, were labor-intensive to build and only spottily effective. Dogs well trained enough to babysit a patch of corn overnight were likely to be slaughtered by a marauding bear before a gun-toting farmer could arrive as backup. Some farmers guarded herds or crops all night long, but this was dangerous and, as some noted, “too tedious to be constant.”
One solution was to “place a loaded gun, and stretch a line, connected with the trigger, across the field, so that the bear in his walk, by pressing against the line, may draw the trigger, and kill himself.” Though clever, the brutal downside of such booby traps became quickly obvious.
“People not apprised of the design may,” a contemporary wrote, “in passing through a field, kill or wound themselves, and in fact this mode of setting guns has, in some instances, proved fatal.”
England’s monarchs, separated by an ocean from the colonists, never quite grasped the immediacy of the American bear problem, any more than they understood a host of other gripes. The British Crown’s failure to engage in bear management was a natural feature of a nation built on belief in a greater power—for millennia, any state-sanctioned killing of bears would have been acceptable only if it were done in the name of gods or monarchies.
This conceit served the ruling class much better than those ruled, and America’s revolutionaries, springboarding off ideas first widely disseminated by philosopher John Locke, called bullshit on the entire enterprise. In arguments that were firmly baked into the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they flipped the script on dictatorships, asserting that the right to rule came not from divine law but from the consent of those governed.
Shortly after embracing the somewhat novel concept of individual rights, America’s postrevolutionary leaders took up the bear problem. They soon found themselves, however, in a dilemma of their own devising: how to kill bears in the name of liberty.
Ordering people to kill bears would smack of monarchism. And funding a costly, state-run bear hit squad would require imposing unpopular taxes.
Instead of these options, lawmakers devised a low-cost solution that would preserve the right of the individual to act freely: it put a price on bear heads. At a pen stroke, this bit of capitalist innovation turned every armed homesteader into a potential bounty hunter who could cash in on an adult “bar’s head” with both ears on.
And when New Hampshire’s freedom-loving individuals were asked to bear arms against bears, Grafton County went to war.
One farmwife attacked a bear in the middle of the night with a hand ax. The notably muscular Joseph Hatch found two mother bears and four cubs eating his corn crop and went after them with a spike, keeping them at bay until his neighbor shot them. Others baited bears by sheathing clumps of cruelly pointed fishhooks in balls of tallow to literally tear their innards apart. Hunters shot bears out of trees, and pairs of trappers slung dead bears onto poles to carry home. Two teens found a bear treed in a tall pine near their home; the family musket lacked a firing mechanism, so they ignited its powder with a metal poker from the fire. The meat, so the story goes, saved the family from starvation that year.
Long after it was no longer practically necessary, killing bears remained popular. Boys grew up eager to shoot a bear as a rite of passage; middle-aged men shot them as an assertion of manliness; old men prowled the woods with guns at the ready to show that, for now at least, they still had the ineffable “it” that could otherwise be expressed only by dropping one’s trousers, ruler at the ready.
Richard “Dick” French boasted of killing more bears than anyone else in Grafton County. And Jonathan Marston—after spending a night treed by an angry bear—went on to claim that he’d “killed more ursuline brutes” than anyone else in America. There are no records of either man’s kill total, but they must have been staggering, given the number of bear kills attributed to men who made no such claim of a remarkable body count.
After a devout Grafton County Methodist named Benjamin Locke was driven from his homestead by bears, his uncle, Tom Locke, killed sixteen in a single season. Elsewhere in the county, a Scotsman caught bears in a massive steel-toothed trap that his grandfather brought from Scotland in 1727. He counted forty-nine kills, including a 450-pounder.
And just as bear-killing fueled one’s manhood, lack of such prowess did the opposite. In neighboring Vermont in 1815, Governor Jonas Galusha, seeking reelection, proudly announced that he would hunt a particularly notorious bear known as “Old Slipperyskin” with a hitherto-unknown hunting method. Galusha slathered himself with female bear scent and strode off into the woods, only to return to his entourage at a full sprint, the bear behind him. (He lost the gubernatorial campaign.)
In 1783, American colonists exported 10,500 bearskins to England, and by 1803 that number had risen to more than 25,000, with each skin fetching about 40 shillings. As bear populations dwindled, the landscape lost its mystical power over the spirit of the townspeople. The region’s forbidding forests were terraformed into an unconscious re-creation of the open African savanna on which humans evolved.
Groups began to make militia-like incursions into the deepest bear strongholds—in Andover, amid angst over sheep loss, a posse containing “as many men as could be induced to join the battle” stormed the rocky and ravine-laden terrain of Ragged Mountain for two years running. “During this final hunt, so much noise was made by shouting and the firing of guns that the surviving animals, of which several were seen, were probably frightened away,” they noted.
It took years. It took decades. Untold thousands of animals were slaughtered, bear by bear by bear; untold millions of trees were felled, trunk by trunk by trunk. Untold billions of dollars in natural resources were liquidated, pelt by plank by perch. When it was over, the settlers raised their grandchildren in a new world, built from the bones of a wilderness that—seemingly—had been vanquished.
INTO THIS INTENSE cauldron of deprivation and bear-battling came Grafton’s first settlers. Military captains Joseph Hoyt and Aaron Barney brought one hundred apple trees, their families, and a few dozen other optimists, hoping to carve new lives from the bear-infested Connecticut River Valley.
Their raggle-taggle group included Eli Haskins, already a Revolutionary War veteran at the ripe old age of sixteen; Captain Hoyt’s brother Jonathan, a shoemaker (whose head was destined to be crushed by the wheel of an ox-drawn wagon); several farmers with monosyllabic names like Smith, Dean, Cole, and Gove; and Barney’s son, Jabez Barney, who would go on to marry a young woman that a county history delicately referred to as “Miss Barney” (they were cousins).
During those first critical years, Hoyt, Barney, and many of the other able-bodied men were called away to serve in militias under George Washington, general of the newly formed Continental Congress. This left the women to care for the children and the infirm while, “in the night, the woods would ring with the howling and fighting of wolves and other furious animals,” noted a local historian.
The settlers hated bears with the sizzling, white-hot hatred that comes from living in constant fear. But there was something they hated even more—taxes.
Grafton’s founders had not braved the throat of this godforsaken wilderness to pay taxes. In fact, they demonstrated very little appetite for law of any kind.
Their first order of business was to completely ignore centuries of traditional Abenaki law by purchasing land from founding father John Hancock and other speculators. Hancock had bought the land from King George III. King George had gotten it from God.
Once the Abenaki were safely cut out of the picture, Grafton’s second order of business became overthrowing King George, who God had also, it turns out, imbued with the divine right to impose onerous taxes and policies. For example, Britain ordered New Hampshire’s foresters to reserve the colony’s towering white pines for use as naval ship masts. This decree sparked the Pine Tree Riots, in which Grafton-area townspeople disarmed a royalist sheriff and his deputies, beat them with tree switches, and sent them home on horses that, in an unfortunate example of misplaced anger, had been shaved and de-eared.
Grafton’s settlers, very much on board with the anti-tax, anti-law sentiment, named their community after the Duke of Grafton, a notoriously lusty British nobleman who’d earned the honor by suggesting that the Crown impose fewer taxes on the American colonists.
As the Revolutionary War began to tilt in favor of Washington’s forces, Grafton’s proud anti-tax revolutionaries got stunningly bad news—the Continental Congress, like the British before them, intended to levy taxes on Grafton.
Faced with a new tax bill for the murky benefit of “protection,” many Graftonites felt like they had merely swapped one unwelcome master for another. And so, safely beyond the reach of both Abenaki and royal law, Grafton’s third order of business quickly became the avoidance of US taxes. It’s a pursuit that continues today.
Just a year after the Declaration of Independence, Grafton produced the earliest surviving record of its disquiet with taxes—a May 1777 petition in which town leaders tried to convince the ruling New Hampshire Council that they should be exempt.
"[A] witty and precisely observed debut....Hongoltz-Hetling skillfully probes shortcomings and ironies in the libertarian philosophy....The result is an entertaining and incisive portrait of political ideology run amok."
"An entertaining sendup of idealistic politics and the fatal flaws of overweening self-interest."
"[Hongoltz-Hetling] reconstructs a remarkable, and remarkably strange, episode in recent history....The resulting narrative is simultaneously hilarious, poignant, and deeply unsettling."
—The New Republic
"Every once in a while, a book comes along that is so darkly comedic, with such a defined sense of place and filled with characters that range from the fascinating to the bizarre to the earnest, that partway through reading, it hits you: This has got to become a Coen brothers movie...Hongoltz-Hetling is a master of the turn of phrase. His voice is breezy and critical, with a finely tuned eye aimed at the absurdities as well as at the earnestness of the Free Town Project."
- "Since the beginning, Americans have been fighting about the balance between individual liberty and the common good. Hongoltz-Hetling shows what can happen when one rural New Hampshire town went to the libertarian extreme in this madcap tale that zig-zags between tragedy and farce, with the possibility of being eaten."—Colin Woodard, New York Times-bestselling author of American Nations and Union
- "A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear is a finely drawn portrait of one freedom-loving town, and a joyful romp through the dark corners of the American psyche. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling is a gifted writer with a high-powered radar for the strange details of American life. He skillfully portrays the dreamers and eccentrics who populate Grafton, and the bears lurking just beyond its treelines. At turns hilarious and alarming, this story had me firmly in its jaws from the opening pages."—Evan Ratliff, author of The Mastermind
- "Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling's wild and wonderful blend of small-town America and large-scale ideals, imparted with humor and insight reminiscent of Sarah Vowell and Bill Bryson, is an unpredictable and endlessly fascinating feat of immersive reporting, filled with singular characters and doughnut-eating bears."—Michael Finkel, bestselling author of The Stranger in the Woods
- “An alarming, eyebrow-raising and often hilarious true life tale of what happens when a fringe political ideology clashes with the real world, in ways which incorporate economics, conservation, zoology, parasitology, environmentalism, various types of psychology and animal behaviour studies, and more.”—BBC Science Focus
- On Sale
- Sep 15, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages