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

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Kelp & Mist & Badger Claws

My father's ancestors are from this land. The bluffs of coastal Mendocino. Before that—the journey across this great heaving country, and a ship from Ireland. 

We spent a long weekend at the end of June gathering here with my big and kind and raucous and beautiful extended family. But I felt that we also spent time with an older family, the family of the sea wilds. Something happens in me, in both of us (Simon's people are from Nova Scotia and long before that, Scotland, so the rugged kelp lorn coast sings up through his heart just as strong as mine), when clambering over rough tidal rocks to gather seaweed. A quieting. A happy peace mixed with that mournful terrible beauty that the ocean can stir up. A sense of being perched between the greatest beauty and the greatest awe, together. 

As I knelt on a rock covered in mussel shells, my knees searing, the waves knocking up far closer to me, perched out there, than was probably entirely safe, leaning down to gather a variety of kombu off the cold-tossed stone, I felt for a long instant a dizzying sense of the world's power, and myself enfolded within it—ocean rocking against stone, kombu growing into the salt, the immense lapis tide, the ancient wheeling cries of oystercatchers, watching us with red eyes and black wings, the animal thrill of all of my senses, soaked. And the feeling that women before me, women of my blood perhaps very long ago, knelt on stones and gathered seaweed, crooning little thank you songs, surging with the mystery of it all, of the soaking salting foaming living sea. 

I found a perfect swimming place, a long pool where the waves were tamed by rough rocks, so that they moved the water only gently, with a rocking exhalation and gentle inhalation, moving the thick-haired kelp in and out in a motion so delightful, so completely beguiling, I found myself leaving my clothes in a pile and plunging in to that shock and sweet of cold.

Let me tell you--as I am sure you know-- there is nothing in the world like standing waist deep in the bracing cold arms of a tidepool with kelp dancing soft around your knees and the waves rocking and seething with all the pull of the moon through them. Maybe it's a memory of the womb. A memory of being undivided; entirely held, without question made of the same substance as the universe. Of course, we still are. But we forget. Gosh, is it easy to forget, especially as the cool quick interiors of our little touch screen boxes, our keyboard click oblivions, further and further fragment our inner resources and keep our minds in a scattered state of spin.

But then, no matter our strange modern addictions, the way our necks are growing hunched and our fingerpads more sensitive to the touch of screens, in many cases, than soil, a fact we may recognize and mourn but see no easy way out of—go down to the shore, put your feet in the cold, and I swear the wholeness of your own self will flood you, the wholeness of yourself in the world. It is much older than the brief veneer of our modernity. Our bodies are very wise, and they know the language of the world, even if our minds have been trained to shut it out. 

We slept on the dunes, under the mist. Sometimes I forget that fog is sea-made. That it is ocean-drops condensed around salt, cold air sucked in toward the hot inland valleys by the air-pressure vacuum made between hot and cold. All night long, it sprinkled us. It laid tiny fingers across our noses. It tasted of kelp. It tasted of that mystery, the great tide.

On our way home, we took the long winding route along the coast to greet the rocky, sheer blue breadth of the edge of this land; to remember its span, which can be forgotten flying down freeways lined with gas stations and strip malls. 

Beside a cow pasture and a stand of willows, Simon spotted this beautiful being, recently dead. During my most recent tracking work this spring, we focused on the life and natural history of the badger. But she is a very elusive, very mysterious being, rarely seen. 

She is a deep digger of hillsides, bringing huge amounts of necessary aeration through the soil. Since badgers dig to hunt (mainly gophers, their favorite prey) the amount of holes they can riddle a landscape with is truly staggering. They churn the tidal sea of soil. The plumb that depth with broad scooping claws. It was a true honor to behold these enormous sickle claws, the perfect toe and heel pads, to imagine all the soils she swam in life.

We pulled the beautiful badger away from the road, down into a patch of willows, where we partially covered her in boughs, sprinkled juniper, said small words in the hope that her badger-soul had found its endless dirt-dark peace, returned to the great womb of things, the salt and tide of all hope.