The Bear King’s Lullaby
Children, January 2024, Literary, Poetry

The Bear King’s Lullaby

By Jane Valencia, inspired by the song “Binwag’s Lullaby,” lyrics by Debra Knodel

Once upon a time, a Bear King lived in a great forest hall in the north. During summer and the time of abundance, he had many visitors to his hall – Deer, Chickadee, Raccoon, and Red Fox to name a few who came. During the long summer days, the animals share much food and merriment together. In Autumn though, the visitors go their own way, and the Bear King too prepares for winter. And when winter begins, the Bear King is all alone.

The Bear King, as other bears do, drowses through the long winter nights. Many bears wake up and prowl about some before returning to slumber. The Bear King does this too, leaving his cedar branch bed to wander. But his wakefulness sometimes stretches unbearably, and overwhelms him with desolation. When he gazes outside at the winter-shrouded trees, and the imprisoned river, his own heart feels cold and locked in. The bleakness often grips him far too long before he can wrestle himself free to sleep.

One night, the Bear King wakes to the North Wind whipping through the canopy of his hall, and lashing the tree tops back and forth. Wind is laughing at him, mocking him in just that aggravating way that Coyote might. The Bear King’s heart swells with anger. Raising up on his haunches, he growls at the Wind.

This changes nothing with the Wind. The North Wind continues to laugh and whirl about. Infuriated, the Bear King lashes at one of the Alders growing in his hall and scrapes downward: roar! Stains appear on the tree where he scraped it, and, if it were daylight, the Bear King knows he’d see that they are crimson-red. He pulls back. He’s hurt the tree.

With a sigh, the Bear King lumbers over to a particular Douglas-fir that has bark crystalline with hardened resin. Breaking off a slab, he warms the resin between his paws and with his breath until it softens. He slathers the warmed resin onto the Alder as a tree-healing salve.

Sad and regretful, he retreats from his forest hall.

Outside, the Bear King gazes upon the snow, which is as it always is during the long winter, smothering the trees and locking the river in ice. On the horizon, he notices the undulating green and purple that are the Northern Lights, but he feels no joy. He glimpses the stars – sharp points in their constellations. And there! Even the constellations that all bears revere are bright and visible: the Great Bear and the Little Bear. But they seem so very distant, as if they had their backs to him and were heading away. He finds the North Star, Polaris, but feels that somehow he has lost his way.

And so he wanders down the river.

The North Wind whips again. The Bear King shakes his paw at the sky! He expects to hear the Wind in renewed laughter … But instead – how strange! – he hears not laughter, but song.

“Don’t wake my children, don’t stir from your slumbers, 
I’ll whisper of wonders to sweeten your dreams. 
The trees are wearing the winter’s snowy mantle, 
And icy jeweled necklaces decorate the streams

What is this? The forest singing? The Bear King leans into the Wind to listen.

I’ll sing of the North Wind who’s chasing his tail.
Whirling and growling, he laughs at the moon. 
Although he’s strong and he’s noisy in midwinter, 
His song will soon soften to summer’s gentle tune

It’s a lullaby! A Mother Bear must be sheltering in a den nearby. She’s singing to her tiny cubs of winter.

Outside, Northern Lights dance with the stars 
Waltzing over mountains, 
Wearing rainbow tiaras and slippers of ice. 
The Great Bear smiles from her home near Polaris. 
She’s guarding our passage through winter’s endless night”

Ah! The Bear King almost glimpses a grand dance around him. The song coaxes him to join in.

The first thoughts of berries are formed on frozen branches.
Young shoots of grass lie suspended in snow. 
The salmon are chanting their spells out into the ocean, 
Breaking icy enchantments that stop the river’s flow.

When darkness fades and the long nights start to dwindle,
The sun warms our bodies and wakes us from sleep.
We’ll wander a world that has skies as blue as glaciers,
Peaks touched with splendor, and valleys green and deep

Outside, Northern Lights dance with the stars 
Waltzing over mountains, 
Wearing rainbow tiaras and slippers of ice. 
The Small Bear teases and tumbles in your dreams 
His laughter will lead you through winter’s endless night

The Bear King growls, but gently. Maybe, just maybe, he hears the Small Bear at play in the dreams of the tiny hidden bear cubs.

So dream of the salmon that leap in sunlit rivers,
Trees filled with honey the color of gold,
Berries ripened to fill your mouths with sweetness,
Summer’s warm bounty after winter’s bitter col

But now, Northern Lights dance with the stars, waltzing over mountains
wearing rainbow tiaras and slippers of ice.
The Great Bear smiles from her home near Polaris.
She guards us with love –
on our passage through the night.

The song disperses, but the Bear King’s heart continues in its flow. He peers at the jeweled ice necklaces adorning the river, the Northern Lights dancing with the stars. And he feels the Great Bear smile upon him. The Bear King raises his paws to the heavens. He salutes the Great Bear herself, and waves to the Small Bear. He bows to the Northern Lights, and even nods in good humor at the laughing North Wind.

The Bear King lumbers back through the forest to his great hall. When he nestles in his bed of cedar branches, he knows he will soon, at last, sleep. To dream about the beauty and truth of winter, and of the promise of spring, and the summer to come.

Debra Knodel and Jane Valencia performed for many years as the harp duo, Spookytree. Deb was also an Islander. You can see her on the Island, still: Go to the piano at the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie and find the photo of the band River Bend. There you’ll see a woman with a harp. That’s Deb! Captivated by the melody, “Binwag’s Lullaby,” composed by our friend Steve Baughman, and, inspired by her childhood years in Alaska, she wrote the lyrics that the Mother Bear sings here.

Listen to “Binwag’s Lullaby” here.

January 8, 2024

About Author

jane Jane writes about what it means to be an Islander, and how we can nourish healthy community. A harper, storyteller, and herbalist, she also shares tales and art that she is sure the Island told her. Having lived with her family on Vashon for 20+ years, she is convinced of the Island's magic.