Dreaming of Bears

Yesterday, at a felting workshop, the conversation turned to encounters with bears. One woman spoke of a black bear accidently falling into her house as he lean on the screen door to peak inside. She locked herself in her bedroom, but eventually realizing that her kids could arrive home at any moment via another door. She chased the bear from the house with her broom.

Another woman spoke about bears sneaking down her street in Nelson. Neighbours frantically phoned to each other, “Get the kids and pets indoors quick,” they warned each other as the black beast ambled over manicured lawns following his nose to the barbaque.

One woman spoke of dreaming of bears.

Many herb traditions believe dreaming of bears bestows one with healing gifts, particularly in the use of plant medicine.

The Mi’kmaq people, who live on the eastern coast of Canada, tell stories of the bear’s spirit traveling during hibernation to a place where plants teach others about the medicine they contain. Just before the bear awakens, the Mi’kmaq people prepare a feast for the bear of berries and fish. In return the bear shares the knowledge gain during his deep sleep and dreams with the people.

All mammals, beside anteaters, dream. It is not hard to image a bear dreaming of nibbling on juicy berries, crunchy roots and succulent leaves throughout her deep winter’s sleep.

All over the world, medicinal plants are named in honour of the bear.

There is bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva ursi). The latin word arcto means bear. The word artic is derived from this latin word. Ursi is another word for bear. The word usri is also used to name constellations in the night sky as in Ursa major, the great bear. When herbalists speak of uva ursi, we are saying bear grape or berry, uva meaning berry.

Bears love the mealy red berry that dots this low growing shrub. Herbalists, unlike the bears, are not so interested in the berry, but more in the plants leaves. The tough leaves, the size of a fingernail, is one of those plants that perfectly illustrates the truth “the whole is greater than the sum of its part.”

Uva usri contain a chemical called arbutin. Arbutin has significant anti-microbial effects in the urinary tract. When isolated from the plant, arbutin has little effect on a urinary tract infection. But when a tea of the leaves is made, both the arbutin and tannins are extracted. Together these two plant constituents tame bladder infections.

Then there are the plants known as bear root. These hairy, paw like roots are strongly anti-microbial and fill the mouth with a pungent bitter taste. Upon awakening in the spring, after stretching and groaning, bears seek out these roots out, dig them up, chew them to a pulp, swallow some and spit the rest over their fur. The bear then rolls onto his back, rubbing the medicine deeply into his fur. The plant medicine mixed with salvia acts a healing balm, killing any bugs that may be living in the deep warm recesses of the bears fur.

Within in the bear, the pungent roots are thick with resins. The warming effect of the resins stimulate the bear’s sleepy metabolism and cleanses his respiratory tract of any musty residue left behind from sleeping in a damp cave on a bed of decaying plant material. The root’s heat wakes up the bear’s liver preparing it to begin to digest any carrion the bear might stumble upon. The pungent warmth of the plant stimulates the flow of blood easing stiffness from the bear’s joints and muscles. The roots invigourate the bear with the spring mating urge.

These plants called bear root have other names: osha (Lugusticum porteria), balsam root (Balsambrhiza sagitatte) and lomatium (Lomatium dissectum) are all used in a similar manner by herbalists. They are favoured for helping the body overcome respiratory infections, open up liver congestion (or in other words support the body when it has difficulty digesting fat and protein) and stimulate the metabolism.

If by chance a dream of a bear arrives one night this winter, do not be frightened. Perhaps the dream bear is a messenger bringing knowledge of plant medicine and healing.



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