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September 23, 2004

Puma

The results of a quiz I found via Rana reminded me that I've been meaning to post this story, written about ten years ago.

It was the summer of 1986. I had been living in Washington, DC for two years, and was back in the Bay Area, visiting Matthew and Kathy for a two week escape from the deadening confines of the Beltway. Matthew and I had talked about spending a week or so in the Sierra Nevada; but just before I embarked at Dulles Airport, Matthew hurt his knee in a tragic seesaw mishap. We judged the gentler topography of Point Reyes more tolerant of his temporary disability.
Having been joined for the trip by Tony and KK, we hiked the short two and a half miles from the Bear Valley trailhead in Olema to Sky Camp, just underneath Mount Wittenberg.
Sky Camp’s water source looked suspicious, more so than we had been led to believe by the Ranger at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. Having thought there would be potable water at the camp, we had left Matthew’s filter in the car. This, though, was not really a problem, as we certainly had enough fuel to boil sufficient drinking water for four adults for three days. Matthew allowed as how he’d just as soon drink coffee as water, seeing as we were going to boil the water anyway. “Tony, can you get the coffee out of your pack?”
“What do you mean? It’s in Chris’ pack!”
“No, KK’s got it.”
KK didn’t have it.
I found the prospect of three days without coffee daunting enough that I volunteered to go back to the car to get it. Sky Camp lies about a half mile from Limantour Road, where I figured I could hitch a ride down to the parking lot fairly easily. A short walk along Sky Trail, past a pair of Point Reyes’ introduced white deer, and my boots hit pavement.
And hit it again, over and over, as I walked for miles down the deserted road, the only traffic being a few fast cars returning from the beach, their drivers in no mood to slow down for my benefit. I had been too optimistic when leaving camp: this paved road played hell with my good intentions.
Limantour Road is a narrow, winding two-lane that traverses the slip-strike-misplaced Salinian granite of the Point Reyes peninsula from Limantour Beach to the vicinity of Olema. That granite decomposes into fertile soil, from which grow, along Limantour Road, impressive Douglas Firs. As I walked, I watched the trees—there were certainly no cars to look out for—and noticed their needles hung down to form “drip tips,” to catch the summers’ abundant fogs and route them toward the trees’ roots: fog condensing on the needles drips right onto the root zone.
Looking across the San Andreas rift zone toward the Bolinas Ridge, I was struck, not for the first time, by just how different these neighboring ridges are. Inverness draped in mists, its trees sporting rainforest-style adaptations and cloaked in impossibly long Ramalina lichen like Spanish moss; Bolinas’ sere, flaxen grasslands across the way, baking in the sun. No doubt Bolinas Ridge is in Inverness’ rain shadow. A century of grazing has certainly had its impact on Bolinas Ridge, while at least this part of Inverness is off-limits to cows. This slope is oriented a bit to the north, while the ridge beyond faces a bit to the south. This ridge is made of granite, that ridge, a Franciscan area, may well have a lot of toxic serpentine in the soil. Plenty of good, logical reasons for the apparent lack of trees over yonder.
But walking down Limantour Road that day it seemed certain that Point Reyes was an island, a mist-shrouded, moving island that had tunneled up out of the Cretaceous, bringing with it an archæan load of lichens and gymnosperms, and plunked itself down into the arid, grassy late Pleistocene, steaming with the effort of having come all that way. Never mind that the chert and serpentine across the way were just as old, that’s how it looked to me that day.
It’s hard to dismiss the idea that La Punta de los Reyes is an island, just as the greater California that includes the Point was at first thought to be. A Sierra Club book of some importance in preserving this place bears the title An Island in Time. Anomalous soil, a populated valley between it and the mainland, not many roads connecting the Point with citified Marin County. Point Reyes, at least compared to its immediate neighbors, is a big, high, isolated and sparsely-peopled island, with abundant grass and browse for innumerable deer.
And as surely as mixing malt and hops with yeast produces beer, stirring a few deer into a large, roadless, lonely island produces, by a little-understood but inexorable process of fermentation, a being quite Cretaceous in temperament, if not in appearance.
As I rounded yet another bend in the road, the wind picked up. The breeze off the ocean had been a little gusty that afternoon, more so as I got deeper into the ravines on the east side of the ridge. That’s the only way I can explain what happened next; that the wind was too loud for the puma to hear me walking down the road. It must not have known I was there. Why else would it have leapt the guardrail to cross the road at precisely the time I arrived at said guardrail?

I am maybe eight or ten feet from the rail. The puma is caught in between. I am stunned. I have never before seen a puma in the wild, and here’s one close enough to pet. Wow.
It’s just a moment before I remember something from high school math, regarding the magnitude of the difference between a and b equaling that of the difference between b and a. If I can touch this puma, then, logically, it can touch me. The cat, evidently going through an equivalent mental process, grows an expression of intense displeasure on its face. It has cornered itself, and it doesn’t like that fact, and it doesn’t like me. Back arching, it hisses at me just like a house cat.
An eternity passes. The puma is just beginning to wind down its hiss. I’m growing frustrated with my inability to think of some mutually-agreeable solution to this little impasse in which kitty and I have found ourselves. I could back off, but I’m not sure that wouldn’t be taken as a sign of weakness, or of flight. With my brain temporarily out of service, I’d be hard-pressed not to accidentally break and run, just what puma is looking for. Something he understands. Prey runs.
But I can’t just stand here and do nothing, because that obviously isn’t getting us anywhere. Puma’s neckhairs are increasingly standing on end, but then so are mine. Hey! Aren’t I supposed to fall to the ground in a ball, head tucked between my knees, so as to protect my internal organs from the slashing, tearing claws and teeth of the…no wait, that’s grizzly bears.
When the brain fails, or so they say, the body takes over. Unfortunately, my body has spent a lot of time walking along farm roads, the kind with barking dogs. Pick up a stone, or even just pretend to pick up a stone, and the dog cuts short its attack fearing the impact of flung rock. I reach—no, my right arm reaches—down to pick up an imaginary stone.
And the puma, seeing a chance to break the stalemate, swipes at me with a paw the size of a football, hitting me on the left elbow with its rock-hard pad. Seeing that it is likely to be eaten, my body surrenders, falling supine on the gravel beside Limantour Road.
Then comes the obligatory investigation of the kill. (“How about that,” I think. “I’m ‘the kill.’”) The cat sticks his muzzle in my throat. Sniffs and snorts.
This cat is buffed. Looks like he’s got spring steel under that fur. I want to touch his flank. Instead, deciding I don’t want to witness my final consummation, I look away, my gaze falling on a stripe of rock in the roadcut. Hmm. Laird sandstone, probably. And Diplacus aurantiacus? Growing in the shade? Odd. A great big warm whiskery sponge presses up under my chin. I go away for a while.

Doug Peacock, the Earth First!er and friend of the big brown bear, said once that it isn’t wilderness unless there’s something in it that will eat you. I am, quite truthfully, afraid of getting eaten. The Sierra Nevada, with its timid black bears, is the kind of wilderness I can handle. I love Yellowstone, but I’d be nervous backpacking there. Same with Waterton-Glacier, or anywhere in Alaska. Or Bangladesh, or Kenya or Komodo. I probably won’t ever go swimming in a river in Northern Australia, and I’ll pass on surfing between Mendocino and Monterey.
I know that most people feel the same way. There are grizzly bear enthusiasts, to be sure, and I’ll count myself among them from my armchair here, but at least grizzlies are reasonable. You can negotiate with them. Not all mammals are as smart and forgiving as is the grizzly. Cats, for example, are quite narrow-minded. To a cat you’re either a threat, a potential mate, or a potential meal. If you don’t fit one of those niches, a cat won’t even notice you. (I believe that most housecats have humans classified under a special subcategory of “potential meal,” in which we provide food but are not actually eaten.) And cats are still mammals, and relatively smart. Reptilian predators, for example, are even less tractable. There are no analogues of Doug Peacock hiking in Komodo dragon habitat, or at least not for very long.
But our eminently sensible fear of being eaten aside, most of us living in cities are absolutely fascinated with carnivores. If you want to sell a calendar, put a picture of a wolf on it. Want your car to project a sleek, powerful image? Name it after a flesh-eater. (Just tonight I sat at a red light behind a Jaguar with a Florida Panther license plate.) The two animals we most often choose to live with are predators. Sure, a dog’s predatory instincts are blunted by breeding and conditioning, and sure, a housecat can’t hurt us all that badly except by tripping us at the top of the stairs, but neither dogs nor cats have yet relinquished their membership in the flesh-eating guild.
Part of our bond with dogs and cats, at least, is that their innate behaviors are economically advantageous. Cats kill rodents, reducing competition for our food supply. Dogs help us hunt, they protect us, they tend our flocks. (Well, other people’s dogs do.)
Our love affair with big predators could be viewed as a relatively recent development, millennia of cohabiting with Canis familiaris notwithstanding. Until very recently, the predominant attitude toward our sharp-teethed colleagues was one of both fear and revulsion. There are indeed people who still hold predators in contempt, especially when they feel, however unjustifiably, that said predators threaten their livelihood. The lands of the Western US are littered with the bones of coyotes and pumas, killed on general principle on behalf of taxpayer-sustained ranchers, slob ungulate hunters, and their ilk. If not their elk. Conservationist icon Theodore Roosevelt once called the puma “…the big horse-killing cat, the destroyer of the deer, the lord of stealthy murder…with a heart both craven and cruel.” Though Roosevelt later recanted this calumny against Felis concolor after gaining a modicum of experience with the species, his epithet remains valid in the minds of many, who could reasonably assert that urbanites might feel differently were cougars or coyotes to take a bite out of their income. More than likely, the urban human’s present-day interest in big fierce animals has come in part as a result of those animals’ increasing rarity in our lives. Whether puma or dinosaur, these big and nasty critters might as well be extinct in Oakland.
I have to wonder how much of this fascinated horror stems from our distant past, from memories of tens of thousands of millennia past, peering with our big primate eyes through the acacia leaves as the Cynodictis ate poor Aunt Gladys. We’re still much closer, genetically and temperamentally, to the quaking prey in the branches than to the sleek, spotted, toothy beast scaling the tree trunk. You won’t live long if you take your eyes off the kitty that’s trying to catch and eat you. We’ve put them safely into pictures on the wall, but still we can’t take our eyes off them.
Keep your eyes on the predator: good advice when trying to keep from becoming someone’s treetop picnic; good advice when monitoring the health of a disintegrating ecosystem. Predators are dumping grounds for bioaccumulative poisons; they need uninterrupted habitat; they depend on the health of their prey. If a habitat loses its predators, you better pay attention: something is seriously wrong with the habitat. And the absence of predators degrades habitat further. Take away the puma, and you hurt the deer; what the puma doesn’t eat, the tick and botfly will. Legions of diseased, overcrowded, hungry deer ravage the available browse. Take out the knot at the center and the whole fabric unravels.
I’ll have to go along with Peacock on his definition of wilderness. I don’t relish the thought of being eaten. But there is something seriously wrong with any habitat that has lost its top trophic level. The land grows lions, wolves and eagles, just as surely as it grows bluestem and oak, rabbit and pronghorn. And the lion gardens the land, by eating the slowest of the deer and rabbit. An Inuit maxim describes the wolf as “the knife that carves the caribou.” Do you find beauty, supple grace, in the gentle contour of the muledeer? Credit generations of puma, who crafted that grace no less patiently than an Inuit carver shapes his soapstone.

I’m here to tell the tale, so, obviously, I didn’t die. Time passed, and I realized that I was still on the side of the road, still breathing, and that my fear sweat had grown cold. It had been ten minutes at least. I looked over, somewhat warily. No puma in sight. I didn’t smell enough like a deer, I guess. I got up and walked. After ten more minutes, a little green MG gave me a ride to Tony’s car, which I drove back to the closer trailhead. Matthew, KK, and Tony, to my amazement, accepted my story without apparent doubt. I had the best cup of coffee I’d ever tasted. The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful. We didn’t get sprayed by the striped skunk that meandered among our sleeping bags that night, Matthew’s fervent predictions to the contrary. The next night, we dug in the sand at the beach, watching the bioluminescent glitter of the red tide microörganisms in the deepening twilight. Then on to civilized Olema, where we feasted on oysters and beer. A few days later, I was en route to serve the rest of my sentence in Washington DC.
I didn’t report my encounter to the Rangers, for fear it would be classified as “puma attack on hiker.” There wasn’t any reason to report it. The puma had reacted out of fear, not malice. It was likely to be more cautious in the future, to look both ways before crossing the road. And I was, and am, unwilling to be one more statistical excuse for reopening the mountain lion hunt. (The press makes much of the less-than-a-handful of attacks on humans by cougars, while flat-out ignoring the numbers on the other side. In Cougar, the American Lion, Kevin Hansen cites 66,665 fatal attacks by humans on pumas between 1907 and 1978 in the western states and provinces; this is certainly an incomplete estimate, mainly reflecting bounties paid.)
Rather, I prefer to view my encounter as wholly good news: Point Reyes still grows pumas. This island of unorthodox rock, surging into the present from hundreds of miles south and millions of years before, poisoned and crowded and hemmed in by dairies and development, can yet distill from its soils the “lord of stealthy murder”…which saw fit to brush me, for just a moment, with its restrained paw, a reminder of a reality that I had managed to forget. The puma didn’t eat me, no thanks to my gibbering brain; but something will, someday, and no amount of cynicism or religion can change that fact. And I hope, on the day that I climb the Big Tree to join my prosimian ancestors, that there are still lurking, healthy savages with sharp teeth waiting in ambush behind the leaves.

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 23, 2004 07:43 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

Feh. I went to the library today. I came staggering back with a pile of books on wilderness and being and reflection. To think I only needed to look here.

Please tell me that story was published somewhere. It's excellent.

Posted by: Siona at September 23, 2004 08:52 PM
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By a strange coincidence, the animal quiz says I'm a puma. Teehee. I think.

Posted by: alice at September 24, 2004 08:48 AM
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chris, i believe this is my favorite of your stories. one can never forget the close encounters. oh, and, you'll never guess which animal i was.

Posted by: Anne at September 24, 2004 09:28 AM
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Wow. Just wow.

The story alone is astonishing -- and then you had to go and write an amazing and thoughtful essay to wrap it around. Caw!

Posted by: Rana at September 24, 2004 12:16 PM
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A wonderful essay.

Posted by: dale at September 24, 2004 04:30 PM
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Maybe you just smelled bad.

What an amazing story. I'm, grateful to that puma for letting you go, or to your brain for whatever signals it gave out that told it, "nt this time." But what really gets me is - you were brushed by a puma. That's just incredible to me. I'm imagining it - and yet, I almost can't. I bet, now, you don't regret it. And, oh, by the way, this is a wonderful piece of writing, one of your best that I've read.

Posted by: beth at September 25, 2004 04:03 PM
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