I plan on posting occasional articles having to do with local Californian polytheism/animism. For those of us whose primary traditions originate in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa but live far from those regions, it is important to integrate spiritually into our local bioregions. For those of us who are urban pagans this includes honoring of local heroes, both human and non-human. The House of Vines has done some excellent material on Oregon. Here, I will start with Monarch.
Monarch was one of the last California grizzly bears. In a publicity stunt in 1889, William Randolph Hears told a reporter, Allen Kelly at the San Francisco Examiner, to find a grizzly and bring it to the City. Kelly searched for five months, the bears having been largely wiped out during the gold rush, but heard that a group of Mexican men had captured one in the then remote reaches of Ventura County. With some difficulty the 1,600 pound bear was brought north to San Francisco by train where he was to live in the Mission District’s Woodward Gardens menagerie before being moved to Golden Gate Park a few years later. Eventually a bear cage was built at what came to be known as Monarch Hill in the park. He would live there until his death in May, 1911.
Monarch became the model for the California state flag, though California already had a bear flag, which dates back to the days of the intriguing, if very short-lived, Bear Flag Republic, when California was an independent nation.
The bitter irony is that the California grizzly is extinct, with the last known one being shot in 1922. The subspecies is reputed to have been largest of bears, growing up to 8 feet tall and weighing up to 2,000 pounds. The subspecies was reported to be distinct in its behavior, cooperating in groups in the abundant acorn, berry and salmon rich lands of old California. Monarch’s body was taxidermied and can be seen in the California Academy of Sciences. Sadly, a spokesperson for the museum said there was no commemoration planned to mark the centennial of his death.
I’m surprised that there is no marker commemorating this magnificent bear in the park. As far as I can tell the actual location of his pen is now a fenced-off park maintenance area. The hill has a beautiful native oak grove and is full of squirrels and jays. There are stone blocks scattered near the top, remnants of another odd building project, one in which Hearst in a hubristic project hoped to reconstruct a Trappist Spanish abbey that he’d had dismantled in its original location (the 13th century Santa Maria de Ovila) on one of his estates. The project fell through and the blocks ended up near the old bear pen. There has been a fair amount of controversy about these stones, with some of them being used in landscaping projects by park gardeners (and called a desecration by a Catholic authority) and also in recent years being used to build a new Cistercian retreat near the Hearst Wyntoon estate on the McCloud River under Mt. Shasta, www.sfweekly.com/content/printVersion/309607/. At any rate, various of the stones remain on the hill and often have birdseed and small offerings scattered on them, which sure seems a good repurposing to me. Various pagan groups have used the Monarch Hill Grove for ritual, including an OBOD grove, and an ADF one over the years. The quiet woodland of the AIDS Memorial Grove lies below.
I feel Monarch is a local and California ‘totem’ spirit (and connects us to the tragedy of extinction of his magnificent subspecies as well). May Monarch be long remembered and inspire people to protect and to find all bears kin! Monarch Hill is a peaceful place in which to meditate and to contact and commune with the spirits of the land, and various non-human friends.