Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
— William Blake
I saw my first mountain lion when I was hunting rabbits at the southeast edge of the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in Southern California. I was sixteen years old. It was dusk. I was walking through rocky chaparral with a Fox Sterlingworth across my shoulders, my elbows hooked over the stock and barrel and my forearms hanging free — a tired boy not expecting anything special. My mind was on the arroyo ahead. It was sandy and open, scattered with slabs of rock that had spalled off a nearby cliff and were now fringed with thick brush. I decided to walk along the edge and shoot cottontails as they broke into the sandy flats below. Approaching the arroyo, I lowered the gun, slipped the safety, crouched slightly, and walked to the edge.
I saw a tan streak, but I remember, too, the sand flying behind its paws, how low it was to the ground, stretched, and especially the long tail, so long that the tail was its essential feature. Stunned, then elated, I ran after her through the chaparral, but she — for I just knew it a she — was gone.
Not until I was driving home did I realize I’d felt no desire to shoot the lion, an unusual reaction since I shot almost everything then, believing firmly that the world was here for my amusement and that killing was fun. But the lion was different. I have heard wolves howl and seen grizzlies wander high meadows and a tiger feed on a young water buffalo, but no wild animal has captured my imagination like that first lion. I might say she was a totem, but I believe it is simpler than that: I was smitten. I just wanted to see her again, and I often returned to that arroyo with more desire to see her than to hunt.
Years later I teared up over a stuffed female mountain lion at the Bryce Canyon National Park visitor center. This was several decades before it became fashionable for men to weep over dead animals, and I was both angry and embarrassed. Many more years later, in Chicago, I sometimes bought stew meat to surreptitiously feed the mountain lions, snow leopards, and tigers at the zoo. One particularly dark day, deeply depressed by city life, academia, and a failing marriage, I went to the zoo with my stew meat and discovered I no longer knew who felt more caged, the cats or me. And, worse, my presence before them confirmed something I no longer wished to confirm. I stopped going to zoos — and slowly began to hate them.
Emotion creates more emotion, and one need not be a Freudian to see that early loves have long, potent causal histories. We come to love before we come to hate, and their loyal metamorphoses and transformations of fear and refuge, rage and consolation, create hard boundaries for the self. I do not believe I would hate zoos if I had not seen that streak, the sand off the paws, the stretch, the long tail. Running through the chaparral with my Fox Sterlingworth that evening long ago, I fell in love.
T .E. Lawrence begins Seven Pillars of Wisdom with terse words of moral solace: “Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances.” I want to believe this; it somewhat excuses my going amok over a mountain lion at the zoo in Mysore, India.
In the spring of 1981 I was photographing parts of India for Mountain Travel, Inc., a California-based company that organized treks and expeditions to exotic destinations. It was going badly. At the Amber Fort, above Jaipur, I had been chased by a horde of monkeys who screamed in unison and pulled at my pants with their little fingernails. I flew to Bangalore, took the train to Mysore, and met my driver, a Sikh named Singh. (In India all Sikhs are named Singh, though not all Singhs are Sikhs.) He was a large, genial man with a neat car that reminded me of a Morris. Under the front seat was a pile of rags, and whenever the opportunity arose, Singh dabbed at paint and chrome. Singh drove me to my hotel, where I was to meet a former captain in the Gurkhas who still went by that title. That afternoon “Captain” drove me to the old Maharajah of Mysore’s hunting lodge by the Kabini River, now part of Nagarhole National Park, where I was to photograph wild elephants.
Proceeding immediately into the jungle, we were directly charged by a bull elephant, ears flapping — the full catastrophe. I got off two shots with the motor drive; the rest were blurs of green as Captain demonstrated remarkable skill at driving backward down the rutted two-track. This dulled my interest in photographing wild elephants, so we returned to the lodge for a drink — several drinks.
While I was enjoying a cold Star beer, a visiting scientist convinced me we occupied a herpetological paradise of little green vipers, kraits, and cobras, one of which my Navy snake manual described in uncharacteristically poetic prose as “a serpent.” He also said there was a healthy population of scorpions, and a “bird-eating” spider as large as his hand that can jump three feet. An employee promptly found one with a dismaying ease and brought it to us in a box. Since I was sleeping in a floorless army tent, I was not amused. Worse, a man had been assigned to spend the whole day — and night — walking around my tent with a stick.
So I was not sleeping well when the monsoon arrived — early, of course. When the tent’s lower walls began to cave in from runoff, Captain moved me to the lodge. For my room he chose a narrow dining hall with a long table, high-backed chairs, several elegant cabinets, and a collection of “Bwana pictures” — my name for those early-twentieth-century photographs of immaculately groomed, young European males surrounded by servants and beaters and using dead leopards and tigers as footrests. They invariably held double rifles, something I’d always coveted, so I immediately disliked them. They looked resolute, their faces untroubled by bird-eating spiders, and I have no doubt they died well fighting each other at Verdun.
“Why, exactly, the dining room?” I asked, dumping my pack and duffel on one end of the table. The housekeeper made a squiggly motion with his finger and smiled. I looked at Captain.
“Scorpions,” he said. “They live in the furniture, and the rains make them active. You had best sleep on the table.”
I insisted on smiling until they left, then moved the chairs away from the table and rolled out my sleeping bag on the end opposite my pack and duffel. I did not sleep well.
The next morning we retreated to Mysore through mud that occasionally reached the axles of the Land Rover. Singh was waiting for me at the hotel and carried my duffel up to the room. The room had been painted a nauseating peach, it reeked of sandalwood (Mysore’s main claim to fame), the bed was canopied, and the linen was a mass of scalloped brocade. Sensing I was at the end of my tether, Singh kindly suggested we go to the zoo so that I might see at least a few of the animals I so obviously could no longer see in the jungle due to the monsoon.
I began fantasizing about hamburgers and chocolate-coated peanut M&M’s. I knew from long experience this meant I needed to get out of Asia. To escape the ghastly room, at least, we went to the Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Garden.
The first animal we saw was a bull elephant whose tusks had been cut off near the base. His right ankle was shackled, and a heavy chain bound him to a steel eye set in concrete. (Blake: “What the hammer? what the chain? / In what furnace was thy brain?”) He would step forward until the chain went slack, then step back for momentum and pull. He did this slowly, with intention. Again and again and again and again and again and again and again. His world had diminished to a simple choice: stand still or execute a small act of resistance.
Numb, spacey with rage, I left the poor beast and went looking for an Asiatic lion, a few of which remain in the Gir Forest in Gujarat. I thought they might be represented in the zoo’s collection of cats. I was obviously brain-dead and hadn’t gotten the elephant’s message.
Singh and I ambled on, looking in cages. Singh stopped to read a sign. I kept going, cage by cage. Then a mountain lion was in front of me.
She was small, more gray than tan, with a beautiful cream muzzle and a pink nose. She was immaculately clean. Her small cage contained a wooden loading pallet and a bowl of water — Blake’s fearful symmetry, framed by bars.
She showed no affect or attention; she did not move; her eyes stared off to my right. I gazed upon her as if she were kin in slavery, and since, like most men I know, my rage is in direct proportion to my sense of helplessness — and had already been well primed — I began to sink into that dead-end, rock-bottom, fuck-it pit of rage that is the trademark of my generation.
Perhaps a half dozen young Indian men came up on my left and stood at the rail. The one next to me began to throw a kind of popped grain at the lion. Though several pieces hit her in the face, she still did not move. Perhaps she had been humiliated too much, too often; perhaps she had achieved a state of grace where reaction was beneath her — I do not know. I looked at the man. He smiled at me and threw some more of whatever it was, harder. That was it.
I grabbed his throat and sank my thumb and middle finger into the joint behind his Adam’s apple. His eyes went white, and he flailed, trying to hit me, but he was too desperate. That’s the bitter truth in the fighting acronym NET: nuts, eyes, throat — three vulnerable points where one can lose all semblance of mind. I did not want to kill him, though, not even hurt him. I just wanted to terrify him so badly that he would never, ever, ever, ever again even presume to think of throwing something at that lion.
As I shook him, he grabbed my arms, and we danced away from the cage like a mad couple. Then his friends intervened, and we became a clot of bodies. I was big and trained to fight; they were small but many, scratching and pulling my ears. Like most fights it was over in seconds. Blood stained the ground, and some of it was mine. Then Singh had his arm around my shoulders, and we started for his car, trailing a small angry mob. Singh spoke to them in English, Hindi, and a language I did not know. I looked back at the lion. She still had not moved, but now her long tail was in the air and twitching, as when a house cat sees a bird — my only gift to her.
At the car, Singh reached under the driver’s seat and handed me his cleaning rags. I dabbed at scratches, a bleeding nose, and a bad eye. At the hotel the concierge was aghast as I dripped blood on his marble floor, and it occurred to me that someone in ancient Rome must have specialized in removing blood from marble. After washing, I went out onto the terrace where Singh was waiting, his eyes still bright with concern. He suggested I leave town. He was willing to drive me. I don’t believe I had ever before in my life dismissed someone, but I dismissed Singh. Then I turned and paced the terrace, still on the fine line between that all-too-human rage and its — I must believe this — psychotic expression.
I did not want to leave; I wanted an AK-47. I wanted to go back to the zoo and kill people. I had this absurd thought of leaving the zoo with the lion in my arms. But whom to kill? A fool who throws things at animals? The zoo administrators? (Better.) The son of a bitch who trapped the mountain lion and shipped her to a living death of unending humiliation in a squalid hole in Mysore, India? (Much better.) But that target was not at the zoo, and it is the absence of a responsible target that leads to random violence. Besides, there are approximately 750 accredited zoos in the world, and thousands unaccredited, both public and private. Most of them probably contain mountain lions. So to seriously consider releasing them was tantamount to war.
The heart does have its reasons which reason cannot understand. When I reflect on that day, I produce reasons for my behavior that my culture says do not compute: the lion had no freedom, she was far from home, she was defenseless, she was being humiliated. I construe it now as a matter of dignity; that not doing something would somehow have demeaned me. But at the time I did not “think” at all. Depending on my current theoretical predilections, I explain my behavior to myself as a borderline narcissistic character disorder, an Ugly American syndrome, an ongoing tendency to violence, an identification with wild nature (which for some reason is always assumed to be peaceful), or a particularly bad case of totemic projection — all of which are merely ways of talking around something I don’t understand.
I spent quite some time at the end of the terrace, staring down at the bare, rusty red earth into which the rains had carved myriad rivulets. A sudden gestalt switch made them look like southern Utah from ten thousand feet, and I wanted to go home and head for the Escalante country.
I turned. Singh was still there.
“You’re right,” I said. “I should go.”
So we drove the rest of that day and on into the night, even though one does not drive at night in India, and slowly we made our way to the famous Jain temple at Shravanabelagola. Before dawn I climbed its granite slabs to meditate. With the first light, Digambara Jains, the world’s great pacifists, wandered by, ignoring me. Except for gauze masks over their faces to keep from inhaling insects, they were naked. Shuffling along, they swept their intended paths with long peacock feathers, thus protecting more insects. I wondered what they did about bird-eating spiders and Ugly Americans. I thought their gauze masks and feathers excessive, but I did admire the shelters they maintained for diseased and dying animals. And I longed for their equanimity, for when I tried to meditate, that lion burned in my brain like a torch.
From The Abstract Wild by Jack Turner. © 1996 John S. Turner. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press (uapress.arizona.edu).
Jack Turner’s essay “Mountain Lions” in your August 2014 issue brought tears to my eyes. His description of standing before the caged mountain lion at a pathetic little zoo in India while a smiling idiot next to him threw popcorn in the lion’s face really got to me. The lion did her best to rise above the insult by showing no response, which only made the idiot increase his popcorn throwing.
Like Turner, I have seen the beauty, grace, and power of mountain lions in the wild. I was with him 100 percent when, beside himself with rage and grief, he lunged for that idiot’s throat. I’m sorry he had to leave that dignified animal in her squalid cage, but I’d like him to know that I appreciate his actions that day.