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Bears With Us

The difficulty of finding an aptly symbolic quadruped

by Jack Neely

The first one I saw was a shiny, multicolored one. Smallish, probably just a cub, it was on all fours inside the plate-glass window of the old Farragut building, peering dubiously out the plate-glass window at 5 o'clock traffic on Gay Street. It's an admirable representative of what's to come. If you haven't seen one already, you'll see one by the end of the month. The few that showed up downtown last Friday were the first of what promises to be a local proliferation of sculptures of bears.

I wasn't part of the discussions that made the bear Knoxville's official mascot. If I had been, I might have offered some arguments in favor of that particular beast. Like Knoxville, bears are big, unwieldy things that move slowly and without a great deal of grace. They aren't built for looks and have a disconcerting fascination with garbage. They carry around a few more pounds than they need, enjoy a good nap, and spend most of the winter sleeping. They care for their young and are generally lovable, but bears have grumpy tendencies and can turn deadly without much warning.

I agree that there's obviously much in bears' favor as a symbol of Knoxville. I have a lot in common with bears, and so does my city.

There are some historical precedents for bears in Knoxville symbology. On Christmases in the 1890s, George Houser's saloon on Market Square would host the city's homeless for a real holiday feast, the centerpiece of which was a barbecued bear. Everybody could stay, he said, until it was all gone. And it was usually a pretty big bear.

There were also, I've heard, a good many dancing-bear acts in Knoxville's old vaudeville houses and even some bear-wrestling at the old Lyric Theater on Gay Street, as well as bear-baiting, an ancient practice involving an angry dog and a befuddled bear. That old medieval sport survived in Knoxville into the 20th century.

And, of course, for five years, beer-quaffing bears were prominent on the logo of the late, lamented New Knoxville Brewing Company.

My problem is that the actual animal isn't much of a Knoxvillian. I've lived in this city most of my life, and I get around. I've seen a variety of wild animals loose inside the city limits: foxes, raccoons, possums, deer; ducks, geese, herons; a variety of turtles, lizards, and snakes. The Knoxville Zoo has some bears, of course, but they also have rhinos and tigers.

I've never actually seen a real bear loose in the city limits. I do know they've been here, on rare occasions. One ambled through here a year or two ago. But I'm pretty sure he was on his way to somewhere else.

I don't know whether bears were ever common down here in the valley before there were streets and buildings here, or if they always preferred the mountains. When I was a kid getting my hair cut at the Bearden Barber Shop, I asked my dad where the bear den used to be, and he didn't seem to have any firsthand knowledge of it. For years, I pictured it being up in the woody hills behind the barber shop. I wondered if it might still be there, and looked warily back there every time we came.

Of course, I was wrong. Bearden was named for Capt. Marcus DeLafayette Bearden, the younger, who was once mayor of Knoxville.

Anyway, that's about the best I can do, I'm afraid. Bears weren't ever a very big part of this city's history. I don't know, but I get the impression that bears never cared for Knoxville very much.

It may be too late to propose an alternate beast, but I wonder what other options were discussed. The mule has possibilities, historically, literarily, and temperamentally. The possum is much more common in Knoxville than the bear, but shares many of its less attractive attributes; it is, if anything, uglier. Squirrels are everywhere, even downtown but, of course, they're squirrelly. Geese are here, and have plans to conquer the city.

But if we had it to do all over again, I might make a plea for the wild brown cottontail rabbit.

They're a good deal more urban than bears, and the fact that they're Knoxville residents is unquestionable. In the late spring, there may well be more rabbits than people in Knoxville.

They're quick and prolific and vigilant and adaptable. They can live in the pristine woods or in a Chem Lawn subdivision.

They're peaceful, for the most part, but watch their eyes. There's always something going on with rabbits that you can't be sure about. I think that's why they appeal to so many artists and storytellers, who interpret them ambiguously. For a docile game animal, rabbits have earned an interesting place in folklore, from the trickster rabbit of African folk tales, to Bugs Bunny.

We often have cause to identify with one rabbit in particular, whose first name was Br'er. Over the years, visitors have called Knoxville dirty, ugly, scruffy, worse. To them, Knoxville must seem a lot like a brier patch, a steamy, honeysuckle-choked holler stranded between the mountains with a woeful deficit of Starbuckses: an unlikely place to want to live.

But after a while, us rabbits found our way around this briar patch, and found reasons of our own to enjoy life among our mazes of narrow streets and viaducts and kudzu-strangled trestles and dead old factories. Some days here, I feel a whole lot like Br'er Rabbit, and wish I had some dumb, prejudiced fox to snicker at.

Then again, I guess bears aren't so bad.

August 16, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 33
© 2001 Metro Pulse