Ernest Callenbach

Go to the first chapter of "Bring Back the Buffalo"

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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 tree."

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 sucker."

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 researcher.

"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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