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Posts Tagged ‘Chris Clarke’

Dulce et Dotcom Est

May 24, 2012 2 comments

by Chris Clarke

Bent double, web designers without slack,
Ache-wristed, hacking with tags, we cursed each kludge,
Till on the table cells we turned our back
And toward semantic code began to trudge.
We did not sleep. Many hours lost, reboots
And trancing iPods. All went numb; the grind;
Drunk with caffeine; deaf even to the suits
Of Hi-Fived Two Point Ohs who then resigned.
Crash! Crash! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Finding the clumsy backup just in time;
While CTO was chilling out and Tumblring,
Websurfing with a Tanqueray and lime . . .
Dim, through the tinted panes and Aeron mesh,
As under a green sea, I saw him clowning.
In all my coding, after each refresh,
His comments in there, muttering, joking, clowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the bitbucket we flung them in,
And watch one-liners twinkling ‘cross his face,
His sad trombone and tiny violin;
If you could watch him drinking Jolt, the flood
Of banter as he climbed each corporate rung,
Obscene as goatse, bitter as the cud
Of stupid WHASSUP jokes from off his tongue,
My friend, you would not Greek without regret
For clients entre whom you would preneur,
The old Lie; Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet
Consectetur.


Download the podcast (reading by Dave Bonta)

Chris Clarke (Coyote Crossing) is a natural history and environmental writer, an editor and photographer. He’s a finalist in the Los Angeles Press Club’s SoCal Journalism Awards this year, in the Advocacy Journalism category, for his environmental column at KCET.org. Chris is currently working on a book on Joshua trees, which will be based on over a decade of research.

Categories: Imitation Tags:

Sea Change

August 28, 2008 6 comments

One day the tide went out and kept on going.

There were some among our people who were nervous. “A great ebbing brings a killing wave!” they cried. And yet minutes passed, then hours, and mud that had been a fathom deep began to dry, to crack under a strangely swollen sun.

We went down to the sea to walk there among our boats fallen over.

Fish lay on their sides all around. We gathered baskets full. When we set all the fish out for smoking, the racks creaked under their weight.

The days were endless. The sun hung motionless above the western horizon, over canyons and broad plains once obscured by the sea.

Before long, we had gathered and eaten all the fish near our village. We ventured farther from the old shore to search for more, baskets in hand. Dry kelp, dry eelgrass tumbled in a dry wind. At length we stood upon the brink, the edge of the shallow sea that had fringed our land, and the old seafloor fell swift away from us. A mile down we climbed, the scent of old brine sharp in our nostrils, our steps raising a fine pale dust that made us cough hard.

There were those of us who had been lost at sea and we found them, alive beneath the wreckage of their ships. Their hair was ropy and green and they greeted us distractedly, lost in opaque thought. Aquamarine eyes that had once been brown or gray fixed on the sun, alarmed. We bade them return with us but they did not follow.

We stayed with them, our colors changing over days.

What were our spines but the backbones of fish? What were our arms but fins? We were fish then again, scuttling at the bottom of a sea of air. The air grew thick around us, cloaked the sun. A mile above us thick air parted from thin, a meniscus overhead, seething.

After some time, restless, we walked toward our homes on the old shore, but the air grew thin as we arrived. We could not stand, nor could we breathe. We fell down gasping. Animals were there, the dogs we had left to guard our homes grown sleek. They watched us choke. Their eyes had changed, grown yellow with fire in them. They regarded us with curiosity, with pity.

The dogs came to us where we lay dying and kindly pushed us back into the sea where we could breathe. They watched us with some fondness a while longer, then turned and went about their business, lords of the world we left for them.

by Chris Clarke

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Categories: Transformation Tags:

Bighorn

August 20, 2008 2 comments

Thin clouds blow in from the ocean to the west. The desert air bears a tang of distant rain. Dark clouds swirl from the sea to the south. Sage and datura strain thirsty leaves toward the sky.

Soon the rain will come, will slick these canyon walls with wet, quench the lichen and the moss. The rock will darken. Fifteen thousand years of rain and the rocks turn black as blood.

You grasp a rock chisel, your callused hands hard as hooves. Place the chisel against the rock. Strike it with the hammer. A fleck of desert varnish falls away, pale granite underneath.

Sweat beads your forehead. It runs into your eyes. Below you and miles away is the river, blue and tempting in this heat, but you are not fooled.

When you dreamed of the beginning of all things, your mother knew it. Your father argued. “That doesn’t happen anymore,” he said.
“She has the headaches.”
“It wasn’t that kind of dream.”
“It has to be. She has to be. Look what’s become of us.”
When the dream came again your father understood. He cut off your hair. He bought you boy’s clothes.

Clouds blow in from the west, from the south. A deep bass whisper comes from across the river. Dry lightning strikes the far mountains. You watch smoke curl from a distant peak. The remembered taste of tobacco smoke flits across your tongue.

The desert burns piece by piece. The others brought strange grasses with them, weeds that spread as quickly as the very fires they fed, and what had once been clean bare soil between the creosote bushes now lies choked with fuel. One spark eats an entire mountain. Flame piles on flame, smoke on smoke, and nothing escapes. The desert dies. Centuries-old piñons die, and junipers. Each fire roasts jackrabbits alive, and coyotes. All that remains is ash and char. You try to chase the image from your mind.

There comes above you a scrabbling of claw on rock: spiny lizards contend for territory, doing pushups. The vanquished one dives for cover in a crack, disappears into the other world.

How many times have you died of fire? How many times has the smoke filled you, brought the haloes, the headache, how many times have you died and gone to him? He met you there the first time, the man with the spiral horns, he came to you and he folded himself into you and you became him, and you flew out over the desert and fell wet onto its greedy soil. It all made sense then. Who better to bring rain than a man who bleeds? The others were like the river below: stopped up, plugged up, unable to come up out of their concrete tombs. How many times have you come back from death, puking, longing for the permanence of the deaths the others die? Girl become man, become ram, become rain: how many trips through that crack in the rock, split hooves clinging to the thinnest flake?

Too many such deaths to remember, and after each one another bighorn carved into the rock.

Too many such deaths to remember, and after this one there will be just one more to come.

You try to chase the image from your mind. You were not there but you see it plain. The desert dies. A wall of flame, a cliff of flame, and it blocked the canyon mouth. There was no escape. There was nothing to be done. All bones; all bones. All char and ash. The sky turned black as blood.

Still, she was lucky: she only had to die that once.

Hammer hits chisel, and again. You free another fleck of rock. The new bighorn takes shape, forefeet raised, standing like a man. Another hour, perhaps two, and then all will be finished. Sweat beads your forehead, falls upon the soil.

Soon the rain will come, will quench the fires. The river will swell, will burst. The dams upstream will pop out one by one, teeth on a zipper. The sky will darken. Loud cataracts in every canyon will scour the desert clean; will sweep away the fetid river cities as dead, dried leaves on a sudden wind. Cattails and tules will sprout where once the jet skis fumed. You feel a raindrop, fat and cold, hitting your shoulder. Then comes another. Your children will plant beans on the graves of old casinos, soil marled with the ashes of those you loved.

You grasp the chisel, your callused hands hard as hooves. Fifteen thousand years and these rocks themselves will dance. Place the chisel against the rock. Strike it with the hammer. Distant thunder comes from across the river. A fleck of desert varnish falls away, pale granite underneath.

by Chris Clarke

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Categories: Transformation Tags:

Yucca Moths

December 19, 2007 2 comments

After a rainy winter, the Mojave Desert blooms. Billions of waiting seeds, scattered a year ago or fifty by the desert’s annual plants, respond to a good wet season by sprouting, covering the earth with a pale green fuzz. To eyes accustomed to the red and brown of desert varnish on rock this can be a bit disconcerting, like a layer of mold on an orange. But leaves emerge from the mass of shoots, and within a few weeks the green is covered in blossoms. Evening primroses push out pale, paper-thin petals, impossibly delicate against the desert landscape. Globemallow hangs bright orange blossoms on its gray-green leaves. Indigo bush bears spikes of electric blue beanflowers, and the prostrate sand verbena holds disks of pink florets less than an inch wide. In the washes, thin arcing leaves — one per plant — emerge slowly from the sand. They feed the bulbs of the desert mariposa, Calochortus kennedyi, which send up vivid orange, three-petaled flowers in July.

Some of the desert bloom is not as colorful. Buds on a few scattered Joshua trees stir strangely, driven by climate, the time of year, and some unknown internal clock. Stalks emerge from the whorls of sharp leaves at the end of the trees’ branches. The stalks look vaguely like large asparagus spears. They extend about a foot and a half from their bases; some a little longer, some shorter. Short subsidiary stems emerge from their sides, some of them branched. Each stem holds flowers about two inches long. At first glance the flowers resemble orchids, three petals and three sepals — six “tepals” — opening only at the ends of the flower. When they reach full size, the flowers make a solid mass the length of the inflorescence. Their cream-colored flesh is thick and waxy, and if you pinch a blossom and eat it, the slight soapy flavor isn’t much of a hindrance to edibility. You can batter and fry the blooms.

Stick your face into a mass of Joshua tree flowers during the day, and the effect is less than overwhelming. The flowers have a pallid scent, somewhat floral, somewhat fungal; a bit like stepping into your grandmother’s closet. At night the flowers open, and the scent becomes more pronounced. Even then it is not particularly remarkable. That’s OK. The flowers aren’t talking to you. A conversation is taking place to which you are not privy. Your flashlight is far too bright to illuminate it, but if you have a circle of red cellophane handy — and who doesn’t? — slip that over the lens, let your eyes adjust, and look again.

Brown moths flit back and forth from each open flower, their wingspans a bit more than half an inch, a fringe of fine hairs on their wings. They crawl inside the flowers, engaged in some sort of work you cannot quite see. Sometimes they leave one flower, crawl into an adjacent one. Sometimes they come to the lip of a flower, then fly just out of range of your red light, and you cannot guess where they land.

They are yucca moths, Tegeticula, the Joshua tree’s chosen life partner. Yucca moths and Joshua trees have co-evolved a relationship from which neither can escape. They depend on one another. The yucca moth can’t reproduce without the Joshua tree. The yucca can’t reproduce without the moth.

On any given day over the last decade or so, I have had at least one woody-looking oblong pod in my home, often more than one, rattly tan husks of dubious appearance adorning desks and bookshelves. Now and then I will take one, pry it open with my fingers. It resists until it snaps open, scattering little black seeds all over the room. Those that don’t scatter stay in tight little rows within the husk, usually six of them arranged around the core, separated by dry, spongy cellulose. They fit together as if machined, and it almost seems a shame to break them out of their divisions.

One or more of those rows is almost always different, chaotic dull, seeds glued together with dark, congealed sawdust. Those seeds are perforated as if by a one-eighth inch drill bit, perfect circles gouged away on the broad sides of each seed in the row. Sometimes the drill bit is still there, a dingy gray-brown, segmented caterpillar eating its way through the row: a larval yucca moth.

When Joshua trees are ready to bloom, yucca moths emerge from the ground. They mate, presumably somewhere in the vicinity of the flower stalk, though no one knows for sure. The males are a little smaller than the females. When they have finished mating, the males go off to become food for night lizards and western pipistrelle bats. The females get to work.

Female yucca moths have a set of tentacles growing from their mouthparts. These tentacles are unique in the world of insect anatomy. They are unarticulated: they have no joints. The female moth walks to the anther of the Joshua tree flower, scrapes some sticky pollen from the anther with her tentacles, molds the pollen into a ball, then sticks it into a little cavity on the underside of her head, which would be just below her chin, had she a chin.

She walks further into the flower, to a swollen mass of waxy white tissue at the base: the ovary. She stabs it with her ovipositor, a sharp-tipped protrusion from her abdomen built like a hypodermic needle. She lays a number of eggs within the ovary in a set of structures called ovules.

She then climbs a short stalk, the style, to the stigma, the flower’s female reproductive surface. She takes a bit of her pollen and packs it into the stigma, fertilizing the flower. This act sets her apart from most other pollinating animals. Bees and bats and beetles pollinate by accident, transferring pollen that they collect inadvertently. The yucca moth pollinates Joshua trees as an act of volition, if moths can be said to have volition. She departs and finds another flower to fertilize and lay eggs in, and then another. After a few nights of this labor, she dies.

Joshua trees will shed flowers into which yucca moths have deposited too many eggs. The trees shed flowers if the moth has not packed enough pollen into the stigma, or if too much of that pollen came from the same flower, raising the risk of inbred seedlings. (The moths use less pollen in each flower than they collect. They will often tote a mix of pollen from many trees, reducing the risk of self-pollination.) If the moth has left a proper balance of eggs and pollen, the flower sets seed, each of the ovules becoming one of those tight-packed rows of black flakes. The eggs hatch. The larvae begin to eat.

Larvae usually destroy fewer than half the seeds in a ripe fruit. At the end of a row, they emerge, drop to the ground, and if they find themselves on desert soil rather than on my hardwood floor, they burrow into the ground. No one knows how deep they go. In the lab, they routinely get to the bottom of the soil container provided them, up to eight inches down. Wherever they stop burrowing, they spin a silken cocoon and go to sleep.

Though that sleep may last for years, there comes a time when something — soil moisture, temperature — spurs the larva to pupate. Shortly thereafter, adult moths emerge from the soil, look for their own kind and for flowering Joshua trees to pollinate. They don’t always find the trees in flower. Some years no Joshua trees in a given stand will bloom at all. Some years the Joshua trees bloom massively, and then a few lean years of no flowers follow.

Each species in this partnership pays a price. The moth totes up to a tenth its weight in pollen, and sends occasional entire generations out into the world without reproducing. The Joshua tree offers up a few dozen seeds in each fruit as a sacrifice. The individual moth, the individual seed matter little.

It seems a strange strategy, to tie your species’ future so wholly to the fate of another. If your timing is off, you could come out of the ground to a forest of non-blooming trees. There is an admirable blind confidence at work within the yucca moth, flinging entire generations into the sky and trusting that the trees will be there to catch them.

by Chris Clarke

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Categories: Insecta Tags:

Puma

May 25, 2007 6 comments

From Creek Running North, September 23, 2004

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 archaean load of lichens and gymnosperms, and had 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 micro-organisms 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.

by Chris Clarke

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