Paul Greenberg

If I could rest anywhere, it would be in Arkansas, where men are of the half-horse, half-alligator breed such as grows nowhere else on the face of the universal earth. -Davy Crockett, supposedly

LITTLE ROCK - In a sign of the effete times, the Bear State is now the Natural State - a more respectable, acceptable and promotable way of referring to Arkansas' natural bounty. Like the bears, we've been tamed. To resurrect a nickname like the Bear State could prove more a deterrent than an incentive to tourists, investors, and others with cash to spare.

The Bear State was just one of Arkansas' nicknames that didn't endure - any more than the bears did, though they're said to be making a comeback in these more environmentally conscious times.

For a time Arkansas was also known as the Bowie State in honor of the Bowie Knife/Arkansas Toothpick.

The story is that, back when this was the Arkansas Territory, one James Black made the first such utensil according to Jim Bowie's exacting specifications. To wit: The knife was to be sharp as a razor, heavy as a hatchet, long enough to double as a sword, and wide enough to paddle a canoe. (At least the Arkansas tendency to embellish on mere reality has endured, which is assuring.)

Between the world wars, we became the Wonder State in tribute to the varieties of our mineral wealth, including diamonds.

The change was understandable. A moniker like The Bear State might leave entirely too rustic an impression, much like other now verboten references considered insufficiently cosmopolitan - Lum 'n' Abner, Bob (Bazooka) Burns, "On a Slow Train Through Arkansas."

Even to mention them now feels daring, as if some unofficial taboo were being violated. The Bear State? Why, Louisiana might as well want to be called the Alligator State.

As Arkansas became more modernized, industrialized and generally Americanized, a tag like the Wonder State gave way to Land of Opportunity, which is still true enough. Names like Walton and Tyson now have become as familiar as Rockefeller and Morgan were a century ago.

Then, a decade ago, the Natural State emerged as Arkansas' license-plate identity, inspired by the state's tourism ads. Arkansas is a natural!)

But memories of the Bear State were briefly revived by virtue of a front-page story the other day in the statewide daily, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The story was about Jo Bear, age 3, who is now safely ensconced at a wildlife refuge. Before that, he'd resided in a makeshift cage alongside the driveway of a rural homestead outside Paragould, Ark. But it seems the neighbors, along with the bear, were growing restless. Especially after they spied Jo Bear being taken on his constitutional on a leash.

So the bear's owner/potential prey called the wildlife refuge and made it in an offer it couldn't refuse: "If you don't come and get this bear, I'm going to tie it to a tree and shoot it."

How did he come into possession of the bear? It seems the previous owner got a tad nervous when the cute little cub started turning into - surprise! - a bear. ("When he got old enough to where [the bear] wanted to play a little bit, he got scared of him. He wasn't teaching him no manners or nothingŠ.")

There's just something about an unmannerly bear that grates.

Jo Bear, it seems, didn't prove as much fun as its last owner had anticipated, so "I thought, 'Well, I'll just make a rug out of him when he gets bigger.' But then, you know, we kind of got attached to him.'"

Even unmannerly bears evidently have their charms. For some of us. But the bear's owner eventually gave him up. Which is how Jo Bear got to the wildlife refuge.

It's hard to let go of a story like this. It's like having a bear by the tail.

My problem is much the same as the bear's former owner: Fascinating as the subject is, how end the relationship? Shakespeare solved the problem simply enough in Act III, Scene 3, of "The Winter's Tale." To quote his stage direction, in toto:

Exit, pursued by a bear.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.