Matthew Neill Null


Matthew Neill Null is a writer from West Virginia and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His short fiction has appeared in Oxford American, Ploughshares, and PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories 2011. He has received writing fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, and the University of Iowa.

Natural Resources

Bears had been seen on the road.

Black bears, young males thrown out the den, nipped at by their mothers, romping over the green drop-cloth of spring. They tore up the last worm fences in that county—those relics of another life, 1860, 1870—and raked the wood for termites. They scared cows and old men picking up trash along the road. Too early, the young males tried mounting sow bears, to make more of their perfect selves. When bitten hard and warned back, they looked joyous even then. So happy to be alive. After two hundred years of decline, they were managing an upswing. A new era had come.


When the population dropped to less than five hundred statewide, the legislature had responded. It closed entire counties to bear-hunting, over the protest of farmers and sportsmen; voided the bounty system; banned hounds; tripled the number of game wardens. It established the Cranberry Wilderness—a 50,000 acre swath of mountains—and made it a sanctuary. This was public land, bought back from timber companies when it was nothing but fire-scarred leavings. No vehicles allowed. No guns.

Two decades passed. Black bears took to this stony land, and, to everyone’s surprise, other ruined places. They found the first-generation strip-mines, ones exhausted of coal, the mountains carved down to nubs and benches and abandoned like botched pieces of pottery. The strip-mines grew lush with exotic plants the coal companies seeded there, to stop the entire county from sloughing downhill in wet plates. By the time the legislature made it law to use native plants for mine reclamation, there was nothing left to reclaim. Autumn olive and Japanese rose overwhelmed everything, so tough and spry the worst winds couldn’t bend them. Tartar honeysuckle matted the slopes in a rich un-navigable pelt, an otherworldly green, something out of a movie set.

In hindsight, a good place for shy things to lose themselves. When the strip-mines filled up like hotels, the bears spilled into an old quarry, then hillside farms gone to briar, to sapling, to forest. They needed just this much rock.

They suckled cubs, owned the ridgelines, and toppled apiary boxes in singing clouds of bees. In consternation, in awe, you gazed out the window.


Tuscarora County wasn’t used to seeing bears. Many denied their existence for years to come. Once something had been taken away, it wasn’t given back: elk and wolves, mining jobs and cheap gasoline, even a village where the Army Corps of Engineers flooded a valley. So it took awhile to believe these visions:

A black cape cracking itself across a midnight road.

Or, what looks like a dog, then emphatically is not a dog.

Cubs rolling down a hillside like cannonballs.

Near nightfall on Fridays and Saturdays, a caravan of trucks and cars made its snaking way to the county dump. People lined up at a distance you couldn’t call safe. When the natural light turned soft and blue, bears eased off the mountain and sifted through trash. Soft human cries went up. A bear gripped a bowling pin in its mouth. Another savaged a washing machine, rocking it back and forth. Metal cringed. A wealthy store of rotten cabbage was uncovered in all its septic glory.

The show attracted a democratic swath: coalminers and lawyers, nurses and accountants, old and young. This went on for months. If you leaned out the window, a bear would delicately take a lollipop from your pinkly offered palm. Snap, snap, snap! went the cameras. You could smell its hide like sour milk.

They called it The Poor Man’s Safari.

A woman drove there with her children. She wanted a picture of her youngest with a bear; she wanted the child to graze the mystery, as people lift babies from the throng and lean to the President’s drifting touch. She took the boy, smeared his hand in honey, and put him out there so sweetness could be licked from his fingers. Moans and nervous laughter from the cars. She had her camera ready. Two bears came loping.

The Department of Health and Human Resources absorbed three children, the county fenced off the dump, the good times were over.

And they say this was once home to the happiest bears on earth. Not only are they giving us their toddlers, they’re dipping them in honey first.

Winter on the way, the bears sequestered themselves deep in the earth. The mountain filled. You thought about them. You had to. You nursed their absence like a blister. Imagine the molasses drip of their sleeping blood, their idling hearts. They’re safe from the razor-wire winds that flay you, safe from the leaden days, the country loneliness, the cold stars in the sky. What if the earth shrugs and crushes them in their beds? They won’t even know. Which might be the name of bliss.

Far away, the bear question was discussed under flickering fluorescent lights. Time had come for the Department of Natural Resources to draft the new management plan, as it did on the decade. Pens lifted. Legal pads recorded notes, outbursts, muttered asides.

The bear in a cave, its black eye as deep as a well, endless, plunging in blackness deeper than night. Suspecting and unsuspecting of all designs. The pupil focuses, the point of a knife.


Living with them is such a risk. Something must be done. The incident at the dump just goes to show. Can we call a vote? Raise your hands. Higher. The population peaked at twelve thousand. Time to thin them out. A yearly kill of 10% is sustainable. A bear stamp was designed and meted out for tax purposes; estimates of economic impact slavered over. The legislature opened Tuscarora to bearhunting—except for the Cranberry Wilderness, that lone green corner.

You started seeing trucks with raucous dog-boxes in the back and bristling with CB antennas. The first day was a circus. Sound split the quiet places of winter: Cranberry Glades, Hell-For-Certain, Shades-of-Death, Pigeon Mountain. Hounds, reports, radio crackle.

A record harvest. Near the village of Canvas, crowds gathered at the gas station, which had invested in a big tackle scale, the kind harbors use to hoist dead sharks. They had a Hall of Fame, photographs on a corkboard.

Men with arms gloved in blood, and the Chinese merchants there to buy gallbladders, three hundred dollars apiece, green greasy aphrodisiac, casting looks over their shoulders for the warden.

People dug out curling photographs of great-grandpa posing over a dead darkish thing—a rug maybe? a tarpaulin?—and blew off the dust, taped them to refrigerators. The generations in between were considered—what? a little cowardly?—ones who had forsaken the hunt. The bloodlines of Plott hounds were traced with a care once accorded kings.

You looked forward to December. Walking the ridge, gun in hand, the cold air blooming in your lungs like a tree of ice. Out there among them. One more reason to love this place.

And the biologists were right. In a year, the population recovered.


The Bearhunters’ Association called for changes. They proposed an open season in spring and summer. No, they wouldn’t shoot the bears, just run their hounds in all that green, for practice. After treeing a bear, they’d let it go free. No harm. Play. God, the sweltering boredom of June. In the country you make your own fun.

The biologists thought the proposal was a joke—with a sinking sensation, they realized the truth. Voters were polled, and thought it a good idea. The legislature responded. The reform was approved 31-3. The DNR director resigned. The governor appointed a new one that day.

Chased three seasons through, the bears couldn’t store enough fat for hibernation. They were skinny mean animals, not the wobbling clowns of seasons past. You got used to seeing hunters out in warm months and muttering into handsets. On the mountain, hounds sang that clean bawling treble, clear as a movie soundtrack. Bears lifted their purpled muzzles from the blackberries, knowing again it was time to run.

Winter mortality on the rise. Cubs aborted in the womb. Old sows crawled back in caves and never came out. The population dropped 65%. Biologists pleaded. A response was called for.

The Cranberry Wilderness—the last sanctuary—was opened for business. It had served its purpose. A new era had come.


It took a few malingering years, but that was the end of black bears in Tuscarora. Teased endlessly by the dogs, they seemed to fling themselves in front of the guns. Everyone had one of those bleached skulls on the mantel. The orbits were huge. That long daft grin. You traced it with your thumb. Bone gathered a sleek film of dust, and yellowed. Finally, the skulls were stowed away in trunks and drawers among old chattering crockery.

(People cherished the odd sighting and would brag on one for months, for years. A midsized black dog, running, was called a bear. An interesting dark rock glimpsed from a passing car was called a bear.)

But earth turns, and old ways are reexamined. Now insurance companies say there are so many deer, so many wrecks. They have algorithms on their side. Kill more deer. Let all the predators live.

Four points: 1) I grew up fishing and hunting, and, in another life, I would’ve been a game warden. 2) Writers are so professionalized now. A great number have done the MFA thing, including me. I remember there being such a keen focus on the individual character, the primacy of one’s unique experience, one’s talk, one’s emotional baggage, wrenching Stanislavski into a writing technique, etc. Not a bad thing, but you must learn and unlearn. In a minute act of rebellion, I wanted to write a story that had no individual characters. Just the rise and fall of another species, just a community of people and its governance and its clashing desires. I junked dialogue and traditional scene in favor of language, concept, artifice. Even if no one ever notices, I often write a story in vague response to another. Primo Levi’s ‘A Tranquil Star’ moved me. Such an expansive sense of time and experience. Let something else be the focal point. An exploding star. Another species. A changing earth. 3) We really used to go watch the bears at the Clay County dump. Great fun. I was just a few years old, and my parents took me. My dad’s old law partner said it was almost as good as Yellowstone, and cheaper. Then, as in the story, a woman smeared her kid’s hand in honey and pushed her out there. Unlike the story, the bear bit the kid’s little hand off. That’s a blurry memory. I didn’t go back and microfiche a newspaper for veracity’s sake, but it sounds plausible. Life in West Virginia tells me so. However, it’s so gory and awful an episode that, if I had put it in this piece of fiction as I knew it from ‘real life,’ it would’ve distracted from everything else. 4) The lives of animals are mysterious. Mystery is the lifeblood of fiction.