Listening to the Call of the Wild
By Michael Olmert
Sunday, January 7, 1996; Page X04
"SHE WAS the color of oak leaves bleached by winter." The speaker
is Chris Bolgiano, at the instant she saw her first wild cougar, the
North American stellar beast that Linnaeus called Felis concolor, "the
cat of one color." It's a sacred experience, with a liturgy that
includes naming the creature's parts, its habits and habiliments.
Her eyes, Bolgiano observes, "were golden and the pupils were
medallions of light . . . Along the top of her nose was a line of froth
from running hard on this hot, dry day . . . She snarled once at the
dogs, her lips lifting to show white canines, then put her head on her
paws and blinked her eyes . . ." Plainly, Bolgiano revels in the solemn
beast, dignified and stately atop a tree, with a nearly perfect coat,
"marred only by a nick in her left ear."
That nick is crucial. It's akin to one of English poet John
Dryden's "flecks of humanity" that allow us to approach and understand
epic heroes. Wildlife study, like any sport, is easy once you know the
names and can learn to love the players. A cougar with a nicked ear is
just such a character.
The names puma, mountain lion, cougar, catamount, Nittany lion,
Florida panther, and painter (a variant of "panther") all refer to
essentially the same cat, once the most widespread mammal in the
Americas. Excepting humans, that is. You've heard this story before:
We've consumed most of the space on the land and are only now coming to
discover there's no room for the things our souls need.
Bolgiano makes the story new by giving us a tour of the nation's
remaining cougar habitat, letting us meet and understand the people who
study, protect, and -- yes -- hunt them. Teddy Roosevelt personally shot
12 Colorado lions in 1901. Roosevelt's guide was a man named Ben Lilly,
who is estimated to have killed some 600 lions in his lifetime; a
religious man, however, "he refused to hunt on Sunday and read the Bible
instead, leaving his dogs to guard overnight any animal they happened to
One of Bolgiano's wildlife biologists tells what it's like to lose
a cougar this way: "To the hunter -- well, who knows what goes through a
hunter's mind? But to us -- I mean, that hunter didn't know anything
about that cat, and yet he has him hanging on the wall. We knew that
cat's parents and grandparents. We learn their life histories, all the
trials and rigors of their lives, and then bammo, somebody shoots the
Rick Bass's book is also a quest, the search for the elusive -- and
written off as extinct -- Colorado grizzly. I won't spoil the ending,
except to say that in the deepest sense this is about striving to find
something lost in ourselves, something that can be supplied only by
solitude and wilderness and the presence of creatures more powerful and
self-assured than we are.
Grizzlies, like cougars, are what biologists call "indicator
species"; they're proxy measures of the environment, canaries in the
coal mine. In fact, says one of Bass's characters, "if we think it
look's bad for the wolf and the grizzly, we should . . . see how dire it
is for beetles -- that's the most accurate way to measure the health of
the forest . . . Beetles."
In following the great bear, Bass is following in the footsteps of
all our ancestors, learning to become more intuitive, relearning lessons
that we all once knew but have utterly forgotten, the sort of wisdom we
all once needed to survive. Exhausted and totally vulnerable, he
reflects on the physical exertion and intense scrutiny his search for
the bear has demanded. He's just had the fright of his life and has
collapsed on an elk switchback at about 12,000 feet in the Rockies: "I
let the mountain -- new to me, and me to it -- communicate itself into
my legs, in the manner perhaps of a computer programmer speaking to
silicon memory. The mountain is downloading information and I sit and
breathe it in."
The book is strong on closely observed behavior. Bears choose flat
spots for their day beds in the middle of trails, so they can detect
threats or meals coming from either direction (we know because they
leave fur behind). They climb aspens (leaving claw marks all up the
trunk) to peer out on the valleys. "Bears enjoy a good view," says a
"As the universe cools, as humans move in to take the place of the
bear, we become the bear," says Bass. And later, after his quest:
"Everything below the keystone species is a form of lichen. Doubtless,
to the mountain, the bear is a sort of glorified lichen, and to God or
Wakan Taka or Allah above, the mountains are themselves lichen --
slow-moving things that flare up brilliantly, as if after a rain."
Most people will be surprised and delighted to discover, in Ernest
Callenbach's book, that 200,000 buffalo are now alive and kicking in
North America. But it's a number that's scarcely a patch on the
estimated 60 million that used to be here. Even if they'd not been so
remorselessly slaughtered in the 19th century, they would nonetheless
have faced hard times. Loss of habitat is the explanation, most often
offered up as a justification as well. Buffalo need lots of room; their
vast herds evolved to keep moving, constantly scarifying the soil and
providing a movable feast for predators. If they stayed in any one place
for long, like cattle, they'd ruin the land; they were America's
wildebeest migration. Fences and superhighways would have done
eventually what the rifle and railroad once did overnight.
Sadly, Callenbach's is a flawed book. Not because its instincts
aren't earnest and honorable. It's just that it's more compiled than
written, like some sullen and obvious white paper. I counted the words
"sustainable" or "sustainability" 19 times on its pages. Worthy subjects
deserve better than worthy treatments.
He does get off a good one, however. Musing about Native Americans
and their sacred buffalo hunts, regularly held even today on the
reservations, he floats the suggestion that perhaps stalking and chasing
from the back of a pickup is somewhat less than spiritually satisfying.
And then he remembers that white people too have occasionally been seen
riding their cars to church. So God must understand.
On balance, the existence of these three books is a good sign.
Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt once said that, growing up in the West,
he killed every rattler he saw until he was in his twenties. We need
big, horrific, scary animals in our lives, simply because of the threat
they pose. They're an antidote to pride. We're not the top of the food
chain. Well maybe we are now. But if we are, it's only because we
exterminated our way to the top.
"Why is a gram of gold worth more than a butterfly?" one of Chris
Bolgiano's characters asks. Good question.
Michael Olmert's new book, "Milton's Teeth and Ovid's Umbrella," will be
published next spring; he has written the screenplay for "The Leopard
Son," forthcoming from Discovery Pictures.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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