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Cougar Medicine: A Lesson in Gratitude (part 1)

Published September 13th, 2018 in Community Perspectives

By Eric Muritz

I’d been living at Breitenbush for 6 years. There had been many a night, driving home on Forest Service Road 46, where I had hoped to catch a glimpse of an animal fabled to roam these mountains. How cool would it be to see a cougar in the distant headlights?

So, imagine my surprise on the morning of June 21st–just a mere hour after the celestial solstice–suddenly finding myself face-to-face with this apex predator: a powerful force of nature that would momentarily unhinge my world.

* * *

That same week my beloved house cat, Beowulf, had disappeared. Though he liked the outdoors, he never strayed from the cabin for more than a few hours without checking in. I work nights, and he often waited for me to return at the base of the footbridge. On the morning of his disappearance I did a brief walkabout, calling for him, but he was nowhere to be found. Instead, I observed some odd tracks near the bridge: it looked as though something had been drug through the gravel, but I had no basis for jumping to conclusions.

Four days later, my partner and I were sitting on the back porch of my cabin in the pre-dawn light. It was 4:15am and the landscape was a shadowy web of foliage. We had been up all night, mourning and processing the unexplained disappearance of our feline friend (Beowulf had been my companion for 12 years–we had traveled to Oregon together from the East Coast, and I was quite distraught to have him go missing). We sighed with heavy hearts, reconciling ourselves to the sad reality that Beowulf, for whatever reason, was gone. We held one another tightly and closed our eyes.

My eyes couldn’t have been shut for more than 10 seconds; when I opened them, my brain had difficulty processing what I was seeing. It was like a dream! There, crouched down and slinking towards me, was the answer to our question: what had happened to Beowulf?

For just a moment, I had been looking square into the yellow eyes of what was otherwise a ghostly shadow. The big cat had stealthy approached to within two feet of me–so close I could have touched it! All I could stammer was “Whoa–whoa–whoa–whoa!” as I stood up and waved my hands defensively, as though trying to ward off a bad omen.

The mountain lion sprung backwards, leaving pronounced tracks in the earth; it hissed loudly and bolted into the brush. And that was that!

My partner and I ducked into the cabin and slammed the door shut, staring at each other in disbelief. “There’s no doubt about it,” I proclaimed, my eyes as big as saucers. “That thing got Beowulf, and came back for us!”.  Sitting down and prone as we had been, it seemed we had narrowly avoided a violent encounter.

It was a profound reminder that our relationship here, in the midst of nature, is one of giving and taking. As the only human enclave in the midst of millions of acres of Nation Forest, we do a lot of taking. Breitenbush has given me so much. This summer, I was called upon to tithe: sacrificing pieces of my life to the all-powerful Spirit.

To be continued…