Thursday, November 28, 2013

Staying vigilant in cougar country: Where there’s more than one predator in the field

As a farmhand, I spend a lot of time in the coastal orchards that border cougar country in California.

A recent posting of a photo on Facebook from a neighboring farm showed the clear M-shaped padding of a California mountain lion’s paw.

“Holy shit!” I commented.

That’s so close, I thought, in cougar time, just minutes away. That beast could pounce and I’d never know it.

It happened not long ago in Orange County, I remember. A competitive and sponsored cyclist hunched over a broken bicycle chain in the Whiting Ranch wilderness area took a crushing bite to the back of his neck, as is the habit of cougars on the prowl for easy prey, and was dragged off the path and into the brush. He got eaten. 

Not long after that the same lion apparently dragged a woman cyclist by her head into the brush, but an alert friend grabbed the woman’s leg, fending off the lion, saving her friend from certain death. 

Authorities found the previous cyclist’s body partially buried in the vicinity after tending the traumatized woman, and discovered a healthy 2-year old male lion weighing 115 pounds lurking nearby, standing guard over his earlier quarry. Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed the lion.

The proximity of the cougar’s print to my work place made me reflect on the many days I’ve spent alone in the middle of the avocado and orange groves, out of shouting range, hunched over, concentrating, as the cyclist, on the task at hand, oblivious to predators. And believe me, they’re out there.

I’m an easy target for a hungry lion.

Lately, I’ve spent most of my work hours in and between the rows, in the deep dark middle of a forest of avocado trees, pruning, trimming suckers and deadwood, tending irrigation lines that provide water and nutrients, enjoying the fresh air and serenity of the outdoors.
It’s quiet steady work and I like it. It keeps me fit and no one bothers me, I go at my own pace. I’m alone. No office politics or subterfuge, no irritating phone calls and needless interruptions. I just go, and occasionally pause to observe the leavings and scat and rustlings of previous visitors from the surrounding wild.

I have the run of the orchard, which plays host to a myriad of beasts small and large. Wild boars, piglets, skunks, turkeys, deer, quail, coyotes, bobcats, squirrels, rats and quite possibly mountain lions.

I’ve seen all the creatures in both orchards, with the exception of mountain lions and wild boars, which is fine with me.

“Yeah, well, they’re out there,” says the ranch boss, stating the obvious, when I mention the image of tracks posted on Facebook, “but they’re mostly looking for deer or…” he hesitates, “…sheep.”

Sheep means domestic, which means close to home, next to the orchards. And there are plenty of deer in the orange grove, which means plenty of food for mountain lions. I see deer lounging in the shade between rows of large leafy green trees, resting, keeping watch, bolting into the brush when they see me.

The boss’s remark only slightly assures me.

“They’re mostly nocturnal,” he adds of the big cat. Small comfort, I think.

Now, throughout the day I keep close watch over my shoulders, frequently peering up and down and between the trees, searching for signs of life other than my own.

I’m somewhat clueless about the otherworldly stealth and elusiveness of these incredible creatures that cover huge swaths of ground in a day. Generally, they tend to shy away from encounters with humans. As development creeps into their range, however, encounters become more likely.

I imagine that I could fend one off with my long-handled cultivator, which has sharp heavy metal tines at one end and give the effect of a claw. I carry it with me during my treks through the orchards, twirling and spinning it like the wood staff I learned to wield as a weapon through years of aikido training.

I’d throw myself into the combat with that or with a much longer, extended pruning saw that I also carry and which cuts sharp.

Experts advise those who may find themselves face-to-face with a mountain lion to make themselves big, throw up their arms and yell and make lots of noise, the opposite of what we might want to do instinctively, which is to run.

My landlord, no chicken-hearted individual, a person known for his daring, who pioneered big wave surfing with his friend Jerry Lopez on the North Shore of Oahu, told me of an encounter with a cougar during the night that had him crawling under his vehicle for protection.

He had pulled up to a watering station on his ranch, just a few canyons down the highway from the orchards where I work. It was dark out and he did not see the animal. As he was about to adjust the valves, he heard a blood-curdling scream from the beast not 10 yards away.

“I’ve never been so terrified in my life,” he said, explaining why he crawled under the four-wheeler instead of bolting. “I was shaking in my boots.” After slipping away, he returned the next day to find the lion’s kill on the other side of the tree where he’d been standing.

I stretch with my long-handled cultivator and breathe and feel the earth beneath my boots and know that I’d last about two seconds in such an encounter.

Still, I strive to be vigilant and know that sooner or later, if it’s not the mountain lion, something else is going to get me. Being alone, mindful of the risks, ever watchful, I’m constantly reminded of my mortality and the shortness of life.

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but it’s end is the way of death.”

I read that the other day as I was thinking about the mountain lion prowling the fields nearby, wondering about its range and whether it might ever come into the orchard.

I read it on the marque of the community church downtown. It’s a quote from the book of Proverbs in the bible, calling into question our ability to choose, calling out our need for guidance and protection.

The sign irritated me at first but I had to think about it: Am I doing the right thing? Do I belong here in the orchards? What guides me through these uncertain days? What is the end of “my” way?

It doesn’t look too hopeful, at least not from here, not yet. I’ve been working the fields since 2008, when the economy drew near collapse, altering countless lives, including mine, putting millions on notice that nothing is secure, not your job, not your life. I found farm work one of the few viable options.

I gave up publishing and took to the local farm, exposing myself to an entirely different way of life. It’s wild and wonderful out here but it doesn’t pay well, and there are plenty of risks. I live from one paycheck to the next. I chose this path because it was the only one available at the time. So far, I like it.

Now, five years later, I wonder where this will lead me. How will it all end?

Do I want to get eaten by a mountain lion? No, but it might be better than some of the other alternatives, like cancer, or a head-on collision on Highway 1, or worse, encounters with some local ranchers, or bullies in the office.

I prefer the path of spirit. Every day I think about the shortness of life, about possibilities and how I might live more wakefully. The cougar has helped me with that.

I seek the companionship of those who have been touched in an honest way, who’ve been broken and know their limits and yet keep aiming beyond what they know.

Life is short, as we’ve heard so often, and so, between the mountain lion and choosing a path, I’ve been thinking a lot about how quickly time passes. At 55, I’m not so young any more. The years have passed quickly, more than I care to admit.

“I’m an old man!” I’d yell. “You don’t want to eat me! I’d taste like shit!” I’d say to the mountain lion. 

Turkey vultures and red tailed hawks, a golden eagle, circle above, lifted by updrafts from the surrounding hills, which are barren and rocky. The trees, thank god, are merely green with leaves and nothing lurks in them.

I scan the ridge lines and arroyos, searching for movement in the dry weeds and grasses common to the coastal sage region after years of drought.

About a year ago, the ranch lost a sheep to a mountain lion.

I was drinking coffee with the boss, going over the day’s work plan for my solo duties in the orchard, when he blurted, “Oh yeah, and watch out for the big cat!”

It took me a moment to register the “big cat” part of his comment. I was heading out the door when I realized what he meant. I turned to face the boss, “You mean, mountain lion?”

“Yeah, got one of our sheep last night.”

“Should I be carrying a gun?” I offered.

“You can if it’ll make you feel better but you’ll be all right.”

I spent that entire day creeped out by the possibility of crossing paths with that nocturnal sheep rustler.

I encountered a mountain lion once in the wild of coastal northern California while camping on a sandbar on a creek between towering redwoods.

I had just tucked into my sleeping bag next to my wife, who was already sleeping. We rested beneath a tarp I had rigged into a lean-to so we could look up at the stars and stay protected from the moisture of nightfall.

The coals were still burning hot on the campfire I’d built in the sand at the opening to our shelter, keeping us warm. A full stack of deadwood I’d gathered in the forest stood ready to stir the fire again in the morning chill.

I had dozed off when I was awakened by the quick flip-flapping sound—splish, splash, splish—of a duck’s webbed feet, scooting along the creek just below the sand bar.

I thought nothing of it until, seconds later, I heard the slow deliberate steps of a man walking up river. My watch showed just past 1 a.m.

Who would be walking upstream at this hour?

I grabbed my flashlight and shined it on the creek below where I’d heard the steps, and saw the unmistakable sleek shape and brown coloring of a mountain lion not 30 yards away. It stood frozen in the unnatural light, its legs stuck like posts in middle of the dark creek.

The duck had long ago disappeared. Dinner escaped into the forest night.
For whatever reason, call it a fool’s curiosity, a death wish, the need to hail the beast, I whistled at it like a bird.

The animal turned to face me and began to walk across the creek. 

“Oh fuck!” I yelled.

[For every “Oh fuck!” I’ve blurted, I wonder how different my life would be if I had shouted, “Oh yeah!”]

Fortunately, perhaps it was instinct, I had already jumped out of my bag before turning on the flashlight. I was on my feet, standing next to the pile of dead wood I’d stacked for the morning fire.

I tossed several large pieces of the dry wood onto the hot coals and they burst into flame with a suddenness that startled even me. I shouted loudly through the fire, “Yeah!”

The cougar turned quickly away and ran back into the forest across the creek.

“What’s going on?” my wife asked sleepily.

I told her what had happened.

“Sometimes you’re not so bright,” she said, turning to go back to sleep. I sat by the fire for as long as possible, restless and unsettled, feeling stupid.

Now, as the shadows grow long and the days turn shorter I’m keenly alert to any signs of intruders in the orchard. I watch for tracks, scat, and anything that would warn of the presence of a mountain lion.

The boss’s “Well, yeah, they’re out there” keeps playing through my mind. I spend less time crouched beneath the trees and more time looking over my shoulders, listening for crackling leaves and twigs, basically any sign of life in the darkening grove.

I’ve attuned my ears to the presence of raptors winging overhead in search of prey, the whoosh of air from their wings swooping swiftly like a phantom past the tops of avocado trees. I’ve developed an eye for signs of coyotes chewing on irrigation lines and pigs pushing up leaves in search of food. 

I’ve spotted deer and bobcats, wild turkeys and the remains of skunks shredded by predators, perhaps a great horned owl or coyote.

The orchards teem with wildlife.

Experts advise against solo ventures into the wild. A good way to protect oneself from harm is to travel with a companion. I don’t have that option and rather like working alone in the orchards.

It feels right most days. Still, I often wonder what I’m doing here, thinking that I might do better for myself, and long for the editor’s chair and wish for another chance to publish a magazine (where lions of another sort can be confronted, even tamed).

In the five long years since the so-called Great Recession, I’ve worked in the fields, picking up side jobs in landscaping and window cleaning, pushing wheelbarrows and climbing ladders. I’ve been mostly a laborer and work hard for my money. At my age, that’s no easy feat.

The lion doesn’t frighten me half as much, however, as the vultures on Wall Street, who were mostly responsible for the crash of 2008, and some of the people I’ve met here, who have their own predatory habits, which are more insidious and deadly than the much-maligned cougar.

I’ve witnessed beauty here that few ever get to see, and I’m grateful for that. There’s blight out here too, but mostly it’s fresh and clean, the air swept cool from coastal breezes, the land tended and watched, scrubbed by sun and drought.

Water is a precious resource in this dry, semi-arid climate but there seems to be plenty of it in this part of the country. It can vary from one canyon to the next, though, and not far from here farmers are hauling truckloads of water and paying lots for it to keep their trees alive.

We haven’t had that problem in this canyon yet and hope that we never will. But if the drought continues, the worst on record, as it has for these many years, it could get ugly.

I’ve seen ugly when a farmer gets stingy with water. I suffered the loss of a full season’s harvest of blueberries because we were refused water from our supplier, a long-time farmer.

Green berries about to turn color, promising a well-deserved bounty, fell off the plants by the buckets full. The plants went dry and we lost our harvest, and possibly thousands of dollars.

I pleaded for water long before it got so bad. “You of all people, a farmer, must know how important it is for me to harvest those berries and get them to market,” I argued. 

“Well, get yourself a water tank,” he said after a moment. 

“Just let us have some water to get through the harvest,” I said, “and then we’ll get out of here.” He did not want us there. 

I don’t know to this day what we did to turn him on us. I thought he was a good guy, a good Christian who attends the church whose marque warns of the perils of the paths we choose. 

“Oh yeah, he’s a straight up guy,” a person I admire, a local businessman, once said of him. I thought so too until he put me out of business.

There are worse predators in this town than mountain lions, people who call themselves Christians, people who love to hate, people who refuse to give you water when you need it.

The way of death really belongs to them. Frankly, I’d rather be eaten by a mountain lion than make friends with someone who is more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing and goes to church. That’s the choice I want to make, the path that seems right to me: Steer clear of predators, hypocrites and trouble.

I heard a story once about a hunter who was tracking a mountain lion in the hills not far from here. He found himself going in a circle after a while and then got a creepy feeling. He turned on instinct and not 15 yards behind him was the very lion he had been tracking.

Maybe it’s a true story, maybe it’s not. But it shows that we are never far from trouble if we go looking for it.

For now, as I say, I like working alone and keeping vigilant watch in cougar country. §

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