Consider the lion


Last updated 4/30/2024 at 10:15am

The first time I heard a mountain lion scream I was standing in the horse barn at Soldier Meadows Ranch, Nevada. The barn was made of stone stacked by members of the U.S. Cavalry who had lost the deployment lottery and been assigned to this bewildering outpost in the wilderness known as Camp McGarry. It could only have been tough duty — they were out there to protect immigrants along the notoriously unpleasant Emigrant Trail, where many died of thirst, exhaustion, or laudanum overdoses.

When a mountain lion screams it sounds like a woman being murdered. They make other sounds too, including a bird-like chirping which carries a strong hint of menace notably absent from most birdsong. It is identifiable precisely because it might be a bird but clearly isn’t. The lions I heard chirping were traveling between our house and the barn — a mother and two cubs, which I know because within a couple of days they had killed some goats nearby.

I’m all for lions and wolves until they start eating livestock and house pets, which is the fundamental problem. Opening the door to find an entirely unreasonable mountain lion in your garage tends to inspire a different kind of awakening in those inclined to think of them as sanctified stuffed animals.

Einstein was notoriously hostile to the notion of “common sense” as it applied to the realm of physics — and for good reason — but in matters of apex predators poaching lambs, calves, and Aunt Zelda’s yap dog it retains a certain cachet.

When the lion screamed at Soldier Meadows — close enough to send an icy corkscrew down my spine — it was as if a door had suddenly been opened between me and a parallel universe that exists just there, mostly invisible, in what the world’s top scientists once called the “luminiferous ether” — which they thought acted as a vehicle for conveying light through the universe.

The luminiferous ether was ultimately debunked but the scream of a lion is harder to knock the bottom out of.

First thoughts are often dangerous, particularly when informed by that primordial reaction from the era when we roamed the earth as prey animals. We spent a long time in that condition before discovering fire and stone tools, and eventually surpassing everything else — with the exception of viruses and bacteria — as first-order killers. My instant reaction to the highly-electrified lightning strike of a lion’s scream, while standing in the barn and bridling the horse I was meant to ride that day, was a kind of pathetic startle-flinch, and my first thought was that a woman had been kidnapped, hauled into the remotest corner of a remote desert, and was now being savagely murdered. My second thought was admittedly imprecise: I should probably do something about this.

The word “caterwaul” has origins in both English and Dutch, from the word “cater” meaning tomcat, and “waul” and “wrawler,” which are forms of yowling. Shakespeare had a firm grip on the word: “Thou knowest the first time we smell the earth we waul and cry.” But the mountain lion orbiting the darkness outside the barn, just beyond the dim reach of the one lightbulb, seemed less devolved into anger than to be speaking with the utterly gut-wrenching voice of the world’s accumulated agonies. I was admittedly terrified, but time, which we now know bends, stretches, and often shortens, also heals. So, in what felt like several minutes, it took only a few seconds to realize that what I was hearing wasn’t a made-for-television murder mystery, but only a lion traveling through the dark with an aggregate of angst.

Which is when my fear was replaced by something just shy of awe.

Jim Harrison noted that it is very difficult to determine a pathology when everything is considered pathological, which was meant as a condemnation of the victim mentality that has metastasized throughout our culture. I tend to agree: the heavy emphasis on the trauma-recovery loop probably isn’t doing us any favors. It seems to have pried open a vault full of artful excuses for not simply getting it together and carrying on.

Tragedy is real but we can’t live in it without inviting an endless parade of catastrophe. All three of my uncles come to mind. One of them blew himself up while smoking in bed. One of them went to take a nap after a long life full of whining, and never woke up. And one of them froze to death on a highway outside of Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, after crashing his car in a snowstorm, falling down drunk. I can imagine him there, slipping into the nepenthe, with snowflakes landing on his eyelids.

Which are all reasons that the lion’s scream keeps surfacing in my memory. A lion might wend through the rocks, with eyes evolved to see almost clearly in the darkness, and it may vent off a little steam when it wails, but it would be hard to imagine a lion that would choose victimhood over valor.

We may be living through a mass-extinction event, according to many of the scientists whose work crosses my desk. I’ll admit to some ambivalence on the topic. Mostly because the planet has been through much worse and there seems to be an unmanaged expectation that humans go on forever. I don’t think they do. Which isn’t an excuse for bad behavior. Mostly, just pick up your trash and be nice to people. But don’t forget the sun will eventually go supernova, and every now and then the world suffers a cataclysm that kills almost everything.

And then we start all over.

Other creatures have other ways of talking to us. Not everything screams. Which reminds me of a night on the Lower Deschutes, fishing with my friend Steve Erickson. I say night. It wasn’t really, more of that evening nautical twilight where the moon is up and the earth is turning shades of gray and graphite, when images lose their edges, and you are left with the cold air and the sound of a river rushing over the rocks. I was out of the boat, tossing my fly, when suddenly I heard a sound, just beside me, like a huge stone being dropped into the river. I felt that old familiar corkscrew winding through my vertebrae. But it was only a beaver, who had swum up beside me and slapped the water with his tail. He was probably as surprised to find me standing there as I was surprised to hear his alarm — although, and I like this idea more, maybe beavers can see perfectly well in the dark.


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