Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mountain lion encounters

I've met seven mountain lions in the wild. They are also called cougars, puma, panthers, wildcats, and catamounts, among other monikers. I prefer mountain lion, puma, and cougar, which I use interchangeably. I recall each encounter pretty well. The first was 35 years ago, and the most recent was last fall. All but one were near my Santa Fe home, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (depicted in the last post). The first was in southern Colorado, growling across a high-altitude chasm. I was a young, foolish cougar neophyte from the Northeast. It didn’t occur to me that it could have jumped that crevice as easily as I could skip a stream, had it so desired. It didn’t occur to me to be afraid.

I must be lucky, or smell funny, to have encountered so many of them, when others who spend more time in the backcountry have seen none. I've a habit--as readers know-- of following and observing deer, the cougar's favorite food. But that doesn't explain the seven encounters. I was not tracking or observing deer when any of the lion encounters occurred. I think and dream about them frequently. I read in the Mountain Gazette last week that a Colorado Division of Wildlife officer, summoned after a cougar sighting, left a home-owner with the parting words “Most people who see them change forever” (Stew Mosberg, Letter to the Editor, quoting Agent Dorsey). I’ve been thinking about that.

I’ve changed forever seven times. That actually sounds about right. Each sighting has unearthed a new dimension of my dreams, poetry, painting, consciousness; my imagination, which is purring along in overdrive all of the time even without external stimuli. The puma is as potent a symbol of masculinity as it is femininity. It is a hundred pound (give or take) killing machine that can take down prey several times its size. It succeeds in 90% of attempted deer kills when it is able to conceal itself within 30 feet, researchers say. It kills by stealth. That’s feminine. It meows. I’ve never heard it, but I believe those who have. When in estrous, it screams and cries and wails like a grieving woman. Its movement is equal parts muscle, sinew, and, grace; it is a cat. Every time I’ve seen a cougar, it has made me feel intensely alive. It has brought dreams of a mountain lion bursting violently into my house to reveal herself as a heartsick mother searching for lost kittens. It has colored my paintings, inspired poetry, doubled me over with laughter at the absurdity of trying to outrun my station on the food chain, made me feel lucky, terrified, and hyper-aware.

I’ve no cougar photos to post here. I read in Chris Bolgiano’s Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People, that nearly every published cougar photo was taken by a paying client on a hunt moments before the cat was treed by hounds and shot to death. A few, says Bolgiano, might have been snapped on the more recently popular photo hunts, on which professional hunting guides tree cougars with hounds for the benefit of photographer-clients.

My encounters with pumas were sufficiently visceral to preclude photography, even if I had had a camera in my hand when they occurred. Each one elicited the electrical adrenaline pin pricks of fight-or-flight and shut down all mental processes.  No doubt I would be a better Buddhist (less cognitive, more aware) if I had a cougar in my field of vision every minute. Which reminds me of a line from the Flannery O’Connor story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Having just murdered the obnoxious grandmother whom O’Connor makes you want silent by the end of the story, The Misfit remarks, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

My intention today was to review some books about mountain lions and people that I’ve read in the past few weeks, as promised in my last post. That will have to wait until a future post, as will my stories of cougar sightings. I’ll close with a poem I wrote five years ago.

The Easy Path

Riding my bike
up Mt. Shirley this morning
deer tracks everywhere

By the light of last night’s disintegrating moon
they had taken the path
I now traveled

Trailing them
all the way to the top
a mountain lion

Ascending in the quiet morning
I felt their fear
their restlessness

Near the top the lion caught them
Hoof prints in all directions
Front hooves splayed out
The mark of a dragged carcass

I stopped
of tracking what remained of the kill
to the place a lion would hide it
half covered with leaves and pine needles
while following its thirst or resting nearby
before going back for the legs
the face
having first opened the chest surgically
with one-inch retractable razors
carving a bowl
empty of heart
lungs, liver

I headed instead up the path traveled
by my own kind
the easy path

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