Contiguous Places

When Hemingway was asked to write a novel in half-a-dozen words, he responded with, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." I now submit, "A mountain lion is on the prowl." O.K. Seven words. These novelettes contain worlds of potential meaning: we may parse them any which way, but both send a shiver down the spine. What Margot texted me (thus prompting this abbreviated work of fiction) was more like 'Field Notes from a Chaparral Ecologist': "Possible mountain lion sighting this morning - young, big head, light tan, long tail, no bobcat colorations. Tail more than the long tailed bobcat :)."

Consider this formal acknowledgment of the source work. I cannot get those seven words out of my head. I have memorized my novel. I could probably recite it backwards. It has the awful ring of truth. By the pricking of my thumbs, something predatory this way comes.

Lorrie and I did our own field notes the other day. They were not as neatly typed as Margot's. They were not as scientifically precise. They involved pyjamas (Return to Bear Canyon). But they revolved around the same issue: big bobcats (Lynx rufus) and small mountain lions (Puma concolor). You have to go down the check list. Striped pyjamas, by the way are almost certainly an indicator of a bobcat. Length of tail is critical: the animal we saw had a tail of maybe twelve inches long, it was one of Margot's "long tailed bobcat(s)". So, with some confusion over the tail and its ears not definitively tufted - it all came down to the markings.

When we visited the Natural History Museum recently in Santa Barbara (Hotel California), we wandered through the California diorama hall, partly prompted by a friend who had visited us recently and mentioned that one of his first jobs out of college was working on these displays. I love dioramas. There's actually a good one in the Ojai Museum of the Sespe wilderness environment with local animals, including, I seem to remember, a mountain lion (confirmation needed). The dioramas in Santa Barbara date back to the 1930's and many feature fine plein air paintings by Roy Strong, (1905-2006). They have separate settings for the bobcat and mountain lion. The mountain lion is small and has some mottled dark markings. What's that word when two species converge? (Wikipedia responds: "Similarity in species of different ancestry that is the result of convergent evolution is called homoplasy").

So, even frozen in the taxidermist's art, the bobcat and the mountain lion are easily confused. We are quite clear however, that as of this writing, we have not seen a mountain lion on our property, but there are regular bobcat sightings. As I have mentioned in Cats and Dogs, my definitive mountain lion sighting was in the Berkshires when a large specimen ran across my running trail, briefly and shockingly visible as it emerged from the tall grass cover through which the trail threaded.

I texted Margot in return: "Where Exactly", and received the reply, "Northeast corner of my place heading down to the creek". In other words, moving towards our place, perhaps, although if the lion kept to the creek and its banks we would not see it. Bear Creek is deeply shrouded in riparian woodland as it winds along the western edge of our land and is further separated from the house by the central rocky spine that shelters the west meadow from our view.

The previous evening we had had a small dinner party, and although we were told when we arrived in Ojai that the subject of gophers inevitably got an airing at all such events we managed to avoid it; I do believe, however, that the talk briefly turned to mountain lions and bears. With a native wildland restoration ecologist and a landscape architect at the table a brief review of the table decoration (tar-weed and Acourtia) also ensued. I was accustomed to calling Acourtia by its old name, Perezia, as indicated in the late Uncle Milt's Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains, but now I understand that Acourtia is named in honor of the amateur English botanist Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Catherine Gibbes A'Court 1792-1878. I think I have the new genus name firmly handled: there is, in the showy mauve flowers that transmute into puffs of white seed after picking, some redolence in my mind, of Ms. A'Court, in full Victorian expeditionary attire.

We spent this Friday evening in the company of about two hundred and fifty others celebrating the acquisition, by the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, of the Hollingsworth Ranch, which includes about a mile of Ventura River frontage and most importantly, a natural holding pond for steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), (Nymphs and Naiads). As part of the show and tell we had the opportunity of viewing a 24" steelhead and a smaller twelve inch fish in this pond which functions as a refuge for the trout in even the driest of years- which this most certainly isn't - the body of the river was still flowing briskly in the center of its broad bed. Two state agencies, Fish and Game and the Coastal Conservancy kicked in the majority of the acquisition funds but the arduous task of maintaining the property and developing its educational potential is left to the OVLC. The Ranch represents prime habitat for a wide range of native fauna, mountain lions and bobcats almost certainly amongst them.

OVLC director, Greg Gamble stressed the value of cultural preservation and my mind turned to the possibility that there was a native American village site on the 70 acres. But no, he was referring to preservation of the 1930's cottage with its charming stone walls and steel mullioned windows and original, green tiled showers and green bathroom fixtures. Lorrie made a cogent point: can you still get green plastic toilet seats? Perhaps Liz at Liz's Antiques on La Brea could help out. While preservation of the stone cottage may be sentimentally desirable, and even financially and beaurocratically beneficial, let's get real: a cultural monument it ain't.

The stone ranch house does, however, take us back to a time, before the 1950's, when 5,000 or more steelhead trout spawned in the Ventura River. That number is down, recently, to less than 100. Similarly, mountain lions were once numerous enough in Upper Ojai, we can presume, for the local Chumash to name an area at the west end of Upper Ojai situkem, in the Ojai dialect of Ventureno, for the animal. This name is now memorialized in Lion Creek which runs through Black Mountain Ranch.

The Chumash hunted mountain lions and there is pictographic evidence that they were a part of their mythyology - the story telling in which animals play their roles in explanation of the cosmos. Soksouh, an evil spirit in the shape of a mountain lion with the sun in its mouth, is depicted in the painted cave on the Tule Indian Reservation in the San Yoaquin Valley - Yokuts territory. The Chumash, however, formed a significant diaspora during and immediately after missionization and they headed north and east - into territory where they already had trading relations and here their culture survived well into the nineteenth century and was reliably remembered into the twentieth. Although the mountain lion has an extraordinary range, from northern Canada to the southern tip of Chile, it is not found in California's Central Valley - thus adding support to the notion that the soksouh pictograph is of Chumash origin.

Like the steelhead trout, mountain lions have been decimated in Southern California - primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation of their range, - which for males extends to 150 square miles and females forty - by roads and urban development. Additionally, they are threatened by secondary poisoning from feeding on animals like coyotes that have consumed poisoned rodents, although their primary diet consists of mule deer.

Mountain Lions' extended perambulations are likely to have more to do with finding a mate than hunting prey because the reduction in their numbers, and a truncated hunting season, have resulted in a superfluity of deer. Genetically, lions in the Santa Monica and Topa Topa-San Rafael mountain ranges are at the southern end of a larger population that extends northward to Big Sur. Their long-term survival depends on their ability to move between regions via wildlife corridors to maintain genetic diversity. "A mountain lion is on the prowl." is not a horror story (unless you are a young mule deer) but a romance - for when mountain lions go on the prowl they are looking for love in contiguous places.