Of Piss and Dreams

6 12 2016

In the weeks following the cougar attack and capture, the birds were present, as always, their camouflaged bodies adding no definition but much movement and sound to the landscape. When you are deeply in tune with a place you begin to notice not only what is present before you, but also what might be missing.

Something was definitely missing. Walking the dogs around the house, the property was no longer dotted with fox poop. It had been many nights since the faint smell of our resident deck skunk had made its way through the closed windows. The hilltop was quiet, except for the occasional peeping and trilling of the chickens. The gekkering foxes were either silent or absent. And we began to wonder how our cougar friend might be connected.

The researchers told us that, in all of their experience, cougars will not return to where they had been trapped and collared. And, while that might be true, we were still finding evidence of his having been here.

Danae drove the Polaris to the red gate on the logging road to go up and milk our last remaining milker, Ginger. When she got out of the vehicle to open the gate, she noticed something she hadn’t remembered seeing before. A redwood that our gate butts up against had a long patch of bark scratched off. She took a picture then showed it to me when she returned to the house.

“That’s our guy,” I said. “He was marking his territory.”

“OK,” she said, “that freaks me out. It’s one thing to know he was here, it’s completely another thing to know that he was claiming our space as his own.”

Danae and I walked down the road to the red gate to look at the tree. 79M was just shy of four and a half feet from snout to rump. I stood at the base of the tree and stretched my arms upward. I am 5’4″. The reach was beyond mine. The snout to rump measurement doesn’t include the expanded length of the animal when on his hind legs, arms outstretched, which could end up being well over six and a half feet.

I looked up and around. From my forays finding the back line of the property I recognized a small plateau just above and slightly beyond the red gate.

“You see that fairy circle up there,” I pointed about thirty feet above the slope and slightly behind us. “There is a perfectly flat spot just in the center of it.” When I was up there exploring, my first thought was that this looked like a hang out spot for somebody. It has a view of this whole section of the valley all the way down to the creek bed. “It’s possible that he’s been watching you going up and down this logging road for quite sometime. This marking was a message to you!”

When Danae first showed me that photo of the scratched bark, I thought it was odd that, of all the trees in our forest, he would choose to mark one right next to a gate that was used by a human twice a day. Suddenly I was realizing that a cougar’s marking behavior might not be just to warn other cougars away. This felt personal.

As humans we delude ourselves into thinking that the animal kingdom is something that exists around us, that we are somehow separate from and/or above it. Cougars will mark their territory with urine or scent emitted from their paw pads when scratching a tree. Suddenly, it was becoming clear that we were very much a part of a literal pissing contest with this guy over our land and livestock.

While we cannot be certain of his whereabouts for another few weeks when his tracking becomes public (but on a two day delay to protect him from hunters), we are remaining vigilant.

I have a terrible safety track record when left home alone. My most recent disaster was in 2015, months before we moved to the mountains. I was mucking the goat run after some heavy rain. It was muddy and slippery and I was determined to make a better environment for the animals. As usual, I loaded the garbage bin too high. As I braced myself to pull the heavy can out of the goat run and to the curb in front of our house, my feet slipped beneath me and I landed in the muck with this 95 gallon trash can pinning me down. I called out for help again and again, but no one came. Surrounded by houses and yet no one could hear me. I’d seen survival shows where people reported being able to lift a car or boulder in order to save their own life or the life of another. This moment showed me that this would never be me. I wasn’t even stuck in a cool or interesting place. I was pinned under a can of goat shit, and the can was sinking and beginning to cut off circulation to my legs. I could not move it for the literal life of me.

I screamed out again and again. It took minutes, but finally, Gwen, who was home from school that day, heard me through the cracked open bathroom window. She came out and went straight into hero mode. She couldn’t lift the can either. I was beginning to panic as the can was becoming heavier and heavier under it’s own weight. My girl finally figured out that, while she couldn’t lift the can, she could drag it in the other direction and off of me. Once again, just like when we were unable to lift Om Shanti into the back of the van, Gwen saved the day and, thanks to her, I only suffered some deep and ugly bruising.

In just over a year’s time, I have yet to muck our current goat run. Fear of that day pinned under a can of goat shit prevails in my imagination. There are no houses around us and it could be hours before anyone might pass and hear me. Plans of spending my days up on the hilltop tending to the animals and cultivating a huge garden had given away to fearing for my own safety. We hire day workers to do the work that I had intended to do on my own.

When we moved here, Danae made me promise that she would not come home to find that I had tried to climb and deadwood a redwood and failed, or that I had tried to cut down a large maple and had it land the wrong way and on top of me. I promised. I wasn’t really afraid of my inability to keep from doing something stupid but, in the back of my mind, I worried about rattle snakes and cougars, mishaps with the chainsaw and, as the months went by, I went up the hill or down to the creek less and less.

Danae admits now that she had convinced herself that a cougar wouldn’t ever come on our property. We’re surrounded by redwoods, she thought. Oaks, maples, madrones, these are the trees that have boughs where a cougar can sleep or lie in wait, low boughs with just enough horizontal attitude as to be comfortable and practical. Our maples, while stunning in fall, are not quite old enough to provide a wide enough berth, and our oaks are actually not oaks at all, but tanoaks (or tanbark oaks), a part of the beech family and, much like the redwood, have long lengths of trunk with narrow, bendy boughs higher up on the tree.

This is where Danae and I differ. While she was sweeping the possibility of us being in prime cougar habitat under the rug, I was diving headlong into all the reasons why they would be here. I’ll admit, before we moved into the house, I shared Danae’s thinking that the redwoods don’t make suitable cougar bunkhouses, but as soon as we were living here I began studying the trees around us for various reasons — primarily to determine if any threatened the house and should be taken down. Redwoods upon redwoods, douglas firs (thankfully none close to the house, as they do tend to fall), tanoak, maple and…madrone. Looking around the house, I began to see them everywhere. There’s one. There is another. That one over there provides a great view of the dog run, and that one looks down on the patio where we sit in the hot tub each night. Those up on the hill? Perfect for keeping an eye on the goat run (and Danae). Madrone after madrone. Our visitor should have been no surprise. But, if I was as crazy as Danae to go milking in the dark, I suppose I might try to convince myself I was safe as well.

Still, I remember bringing the kids to the property before we moved in. We went down the rickety old creek stairs and, at the bottom, found a deposit of deer bones. They had been there quite a while as they were clean and dry. We knew then that it must have been a cougar kill, but from how long ago? We had to put fear out of our minds. As time went on, I’d find more bones between the steps down to the creek. Finally, this summer, when we were having the stairs rebuilt, the workers pulled out the skull, which now sits in a planter next to our front door. I can only imagine the pieces of the animal were dispersed by other animals over time.

Just as I had to put fear out of my mind the day we found the deposit of bones, I realized I needed to set out to conquer my fear of being alone up on the hill.

Thursday I went for a walk at Rio Del Mar. It was sunny and the ocean breeze was cool, but not cold. I got a text from Gwen. She was asking if she could hang out with friends after school. I said yes, but then realized it was adding another two hours to my day. I simply did not have that many errands to run in Santa Cruz, so I decided to head home. On my way, I stopped at San Lorenzo Lumber to look at a small, rechargeable chainsaw that I had been wanting. I hate dealing with pull chords, so a rechargeable would give me an easy way to trim, prune, etc. When I really examined the tool, I realized  how short the guide bar was and decided that it was not worth the $179. Instead, I bought a pair of $20 tree pruners, went home and walked up that hill. I hadn’t spent time with the goats since the attack. To be honest, I was still reeling from my trip back east and hadn’t been ready to confront the loss.

Up on the hill, the ceiling of the goat run was low. It was painfully obvious everywhere the animal had been. The seam where he fell in, the corner where he busted out, the spot where Danae had found our lifeless Om Shanti.

The rest of the goats were getting back to normal, but Rainbow, poor Rainbow. Her neck was still swollen and there was pain in her eyes. I walked around and gathered redwood shoots then offered them to everybody. Adobe came over to me. We touched foreheads.

“I know what you did,” I said to him. “I know what you did. I know what you did.” I couldn’t help but repeat myself as tears welled up in my eyes at the thought of the terror these guys must have felt — trapped that night by the very enclosure that had been built to keep them safe. I grabbed his beard and tugged on it, then grabbed his horns and playfully tugged at them as well. I picked up my tree pruners and rested them on my shoulder.

“You got one,” I yelled out to the forest. “But you’re done.”

I looked around to the goat run and began cutting branch after branch away from the perimeter. When I was done there would be nowhere left to hide. Once I cleared the perimeter, I slung the pruners over my shoulder and walked out onto the clearing. At the southern edge of the hilltop is a slight drop to a gentle slope that, thirty years ago, used to be a clearing but is now covered in brush and baby tanoaks. We know this was once clear by not only the age of the trees that are now present, but also because there is still a tire swing there which, with all the new growth, makes no sense. I became determined to make it a clearing once again. This will not only expand our useable space, but will also create a safety perimeter as brush is a favorite tool of the ambush predator.

I turned around and looked at the space around me. This part of our land had become lost in the overwhelming project of bringing the house into this century and perhaps Om Shanti was the cost of that. The afternoon light was low, the cold was settling in and our muddy, sad little hilltop began looking to me like the unused pages of a child’s coloring book. The work I had in front of me now was to find the the color pallete for this space inside my imagination and to then find the courage and determination inside myself to color in the lines and bring that dream to fruition. In front of my eyes planter boxes began sprouting from muck piles, the road was graveled, monarchs  were stopping by to feed on milkweed. And that tire swing? Not only was it back up and running, but all around it was a course of zip lines running down the hillside. I walked down the hill toward house and there, on the trail, was a small deposit of fox poop. We’re gonna color the hell out of this hillside — not with pee and scratches, but with dreams.







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