Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Golden Hills Like the Bodies of Mountain Lions

This weekend I went looking for the signs of cougars and bobcats in the summer-dry hills of Mount Tamalpais, that Sleeping Lady coastal mountain of sea fogs, redwood forests and ancient Douglas firs, where I found my own feet as a teenager and fell in love too, deeply, kissing under the branches of manzanitas that looked like skin and drooped with red berries. With fellow animal tracking enthusiasts, in our Catscapes class, we mapped a steep golden gulch with our explorations of deer trails, vole tunnels, scats, the places forest ended and meadow began. We came back and told our stories and drew them on a map, and the whole place came alive. Here a bobcat pooped, and there, a badger dug a den, and there I heard a wild scratching noise, up in the rocks under the Douglas firs, and there, in the forest humus, was a wild rose. The land and its parts were the subjects and characters of stories, not objects, not a stage set backdrop or a set field upon which human dramas occurred. It is a special place, where mountain lions still hunt down deer and crunch their bones and leave that story in the fir needles, keeping those hoofed families just plentiful enough so the plants under their teeth and the earth under their feet can thrive. Keeping us humble, when we walk alone in the golden hills so perfectly like their bodies, tawny and graceful, and hear a sudden noise.

A jackrabbit ate calmly from the path. She twitched her ears at us and didn't run away. Her body was the color of this golden land, dancing with fog.

In the evening, as the sun begins to set, this dry gold grass smells like dry earth and the tenderness of summer dusk.

These golden hills face the Pacific ocean, and the fog rolls against them, full of salt and strange shapes. Sometimes it is a thick veil, sometimes it sweeps in and clears. Sometimes it rushes up fast like a herd of elk. Just beyond, to the east, the forests begin. The shape of the land here is otherworldly, folded sharp by the hands of the San Andreas Fault below, smoothed out by the sea winds that stroke like a sculptor. I feel like I'm moving along the body of a great creature, in these ocean-facing hills, through veins, against bones and hips. The world a great body, paw and belly and tooth, with golden flanks. In the spring, the grass is so green it aches to look at. You want to roll in it, become a deer and feast.

Bay Area Puma Project photo. She's standing on the branch of a manzanita tree, bark like skin. Up close, her fur looks like the hills above. 
The mountain lion has many names in the languages of California Indian peoples: Tukumumuuntsi in Chemehuevi. Betá´muL in Salinian. Yamót in Pomo. In Chemehuevi stories (a tribe down south, along the Colorado River), Mountain Lion was one of the first four beings made by Ocean Woman to set the way of things for the creatures who were to come next. In Pomo myth (a tribe just north of Mount Tamalpais), Mountain Lion was born from the feathers of a falcon. He was alternately the perfect hunter, a demanding father, the chief of the animals, constantly hungry and seeking food. [See News from Native California, volume 4, Number 3, for more information]

This is the gulch we mapped. Signs of bobcats and a mountain lion moving through those trees to the right, leaving behind scats. I always try to say thank you, and sorry, for tromping around their territory, when we have already taken so much of it away, when wild places like this are a treasure, a fog-wrapped haven.

Our teachers thought this was from a mountain lion. Placed right in the center of a well worn, probably ancestral, deer run, through the Douglas fir and bay tree forest. It is longer than it seems from this photo-- about 10 to 12 inches, dense with hair and large bone fragments. I know it seems unappetizing, maybe disgusting, to examine another animal's shit on the ground. But I'm reminded of Gary Snyder's poem, "Song of the Taste," which begins like this:

"Eating the living germs of grasses
Eating the ova of large birds

the fleshy sweetness packed
around the sperm of swaying trees

The muscles of the flanks and thighs of
soft-voiced cows
the bounce in the lamb's leap
the swish in the ox's tail."

-From Regarding Wave (New Directions, 1970)

I'm also reminded of a beautiful passage in Catherynne M. Valente's magical novella, Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams, from the section titled "River Otters Sacrifice Fish."

Metamorphosis. It is a long line of bellies, chained together flesh-wise, circling each other in a blood-black smear. The sparrows pick cold red berries from the mud, the hawks pluck the sparrows from the sky. The fish swallow grasshoppers, the otters gulp down fish. The world eats and eats and eats, and stomach to stomach it embraces itself. Hawk is Berry, Otter is Grasshopper, Woman is Fish and Sparrow. (Page 169 of Myths of Origin).

The world is a great stomach. To consume, to absorb, to digest, to excrete, to decay, this is the cycle of things, the great alchemy of life. We eat the ripeness of the world, then turn it into mulch to make more things ripe (though as humans we've gone a bit astray in this regard...). In any case, what a single mountain lion eats for breakfast, where it leaves the remains, how crunched the bones, how dark, how much fur, these are stories, this is the world embracing itself, stomach to stomach. It's beautiful, when you think about it.

This one may be mountain lion too, though slightly smaller, or a large bobcat. There were several pieces this size.

A badger den, far away on a hillside so steep it was almost vertical. I wonder what it's like, inside that sheer gold hill, riddled with mole holes and vole runes, badger dens and gopher mazes. A labyrinth of rodent homes, ancient tillers of the soil, their ancestral dens and thoroughfares, dark as night, with chips of mica for stars.

The long path home, on the Bolinas-Fairfax road, driving into the summer fog. The air smelled of sea and pine and home.

No comments:

Post a Comment