Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Where the Mountain Lion Walks

Although we didn't come bearing handfuls of hazel catkin, or juniper berry; although we didn't come scattering mica in our wake or chanting or praying or walking down on our knees in honor, it still felt like a small act of communion, or pilgrimage. At least it did to me. To come to deep and lonely forest canyons, to high and misty ridges, for the sake of mountain lions. For the big cats who call Mt Tamalpais home, more so than I could ever dream. 

I said it quietly, to myself, to the trees, to the serpentine outcrops and into the mist so the message might somehow be passed along—I love and honor you, great cats. I always have. 

The equipment of this pilgrimage came in the form of plastic bags full of data cards and a plastic box full of dozens of different keys. I like to dream that reverent words and juniper berries left at tree roots, stories written with a strange and wild seam through their hearts, might be enough in this world to change the way we relate to the animals and plants around us.

 But the truth is, wildlife cameras help a great deal. I daresay a great deal more. Especially in places like the Bay Area, which are rich with open space (a huge, blessed amount of wild open space preserved largely in the 1960's by heroic & saintly human beings who fought hard and long), but also very dense with human beings, and only becoming more so. The Bay Area Puma Project, part of Felidae, an organization that looks to protect big cats world-wide, came into being originally in the South Bay, tracking and tagging mountain lions in the Santa Cruz mountains, because of legitimate fears that the encroachment of development in the Silicon Valley would start to cut off wildlife corridors, creating a kind of island out of those mountains that could result in inbreeding, more aggression toward human beings, and therefore more lion fatalities at the hands of Fish & Game.

Now the whole project is moving into Marin and the East Bay, putting up wildlife cameras in all the windy wooded wild places that mountain lions like best, to try to make sure that they always have room to roam, to hunt, to stay secretive and silent as they are most wont to do. 

A lot of the work involves actually tracking and tagging mountain lions with radio collars, great bulky things that make them look strangely like pets. And while the romantic and the luddite in my heart both balk a little at some of the implications here—I've read terrifying plans to create Facebook pages for wild radio-collared animals, to affix tiny needles to the collars that release a sedative into the bloodstream of an animal too close to a road or a livestock pen (seriously, this sounds like science fiction; but then we seem to be living a lot of the fantasies of science fiction all around us, don't we?)—this is deeply important work.

We've made a mess of things, and while we can work to deeply re-align our stories and re-wild our bones, in the meanwhile development can happen brutally fast, and without hard data that says--mountain lions use this ridge, this canyon, right here, right now—no amount of reverent words will be worth a damn. So I am really grateful for Felidae, for the scientists of the Bay Area Puma Project-- and very happy to be tagging along to check cameras and walk the canyons where the lions come down in the quiet hours to roam and hunt and rest and love.

Since I was a little girl, big cats have always held a special, fierce place in my heart. They've always stirred an almost painful longing in me. I remember a very clear memory of wanting so badly to know what it was like to be a cheetah, running at the speed of wind over a savannah, that it made my heart hurt. As an an adult, I went through several years of intense mountain lion dreams, in which I would finally, at last, encounter one face to face, and it would  lunge at me, ready to bite-- and then I would wake. When I started tracking animals almost four years ago, the dreams stopped. I've seen the flash of a mountain lion, golden and quick, only once, so fast and stealthy across a trail and up a fallen log I almost could have imagined it. It was fluid as a dream. When I walk alone I walk with mixed nervousness at the base of my belly, and intense, quivering longing-- to behold this quiet, beautiful animal. She has such a hold on my soul. 

To walk up here on the misty ridges of Mt. Tamalpais, near Kent Lake, where serpentine outcrops grow deep green under the hands of fog, in honor of mountain lions, for the sake of mountain lions; even if it is a small thing, this makes me feel happy inside. It feels like an honor. Like I am reaching out to her with my head bowed.

And the serpentine looks on, with stories in its creases about time, about stars, about fire, about the great fleeting beauty of animal life.

Tarweed is in bloom now up in the dry hills, one of those hardy, resinous wildflowers of our summer season, a thousand fallen suns.

The mariposa lilies, which look to me so delicate, so enchanted, wait for this dry time of year to bloom too, opening up the furred cups of their bodies to the heat and to the fog-drip.

And the pearly everlasting blooms have arrived too, white and papery and smelling so warm, like incense.  Like summer heat held in tiny hands.

Past all of these, the lions pad silently, leading secret lives of deep rest and sudden blood-sharp strength, of languid tenderness and terrifying precision. It is so good to remember that other feet pad where our feet tread; that other lives are watching ours with light, knowing eyes as we pass through the dry grass.

I learned recently from a friend that the spiders who build tunnel webs, or parachute webs, only do so once in their lives. The classic webs of orb weavers are often re-spun daily. But these webs, hammocks full of mist in the chamise brush, are the work of a spider's lifetime. What sacred baskets, these little homes. What a precious thing, a wild home, safe in the hands of the hills.

I pray that we begin to see, more and more clearly, with gathering strength,  in greater numbers, that we are not the only ones deserving of homes, and with a right to space and security. That in preserving the homes of the more-than-human people, we are also preserving a home for our own souls. As Jay Griffiths writes of the English poet John Clare, in her magnificent A Country Called Childhood (Kith in the UK)— "as a child he could feel safely nested only when the land around him was a safe nesting-place for every other kind of creature, knowing that the human mind can nest or make a home only when the ecology provides a home for all species." (p. 25)

Yes. Yes. (Thank goodness for Jay Griffiths.) And may we do what it takes to honor again all the nests, all the homes, all the quiet cat-lit dens of this world.

Mountain lion image caught on a Bay Area Puma Project Camera

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