Thursday, January 05, 2006

In the East Bay Hills

The grassy, oak-crowned hills in the East Bay remind me of Kenya. This rolling landscape with its spare lines and subtle colors is the primal scene for all of us. Millions of years ago, we were born in country like this; the first humans imprinted on their surroundings, and even now we respond with yearning to the wheat-colored hills, the clumps of trees, the fragrant underbrush marking the crevices where life-giving water collects. In a profound sense, country like this—grassy hills on the edge of a great geologic fault—is home to us all.

In Africa, this landscape is home to an astonishing variety of animals. In California we have mammals as small as the pocket mouse and as big as mule deer and black bears. The only pocket mouse I’ve spotted was roadkill; the deer die on the roads, too, and present much more threat to the early-morning commuter. The great grizzly bear, once monarch of these hills, still survives on the state flag, but it is extinct in the wild in California. Still, there are black bears here, and I hope to see one someday. (I’ve seen them in Pennsylvania.)

In the sky above these hills I’ve seen red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, egrets, great blue herons, the occasional eagle, and plenty of more familiar birds. Still haven’t spotted a condor, though we have some nesting pairs. Rock outcrops are good places to look for tiger salamanders and all their reptilian kin.

Coyotes are common enough to be a nuisance, and deer can be, too, despite their beauty. Still, it was a pleasure when Sonja and I spotted a few deer feeding in the hills along Crow Canyon Road just east of Castro Valley. We were returning from Costco with a month’s worth of groceries—a suburban Saturday-morning expedition that was made adventurous by the grazing deer.

As we rounded a curve, I kept my eye on the hills, still golden despite the December rains. And spotted, with a kick at my heart, a large cat creeping along the hillside toward the deer, like a housecat stalking a catnip mouse. But this was no housecat. Nor was it a bobcat, although we have them here. This was more than twice the size of a bobcat.

A mountain lion.

It was darker than I expected: less gold than medium brown, and paler underneath. It was moving along the deer trail, carefully working its way downwind of the deer. I realized that this was the ideal strategy: the deer were around the shoulder of the hill and a little downhill, so when the lion spotted them, he (or she) could leap downward upon the unsuspecting animals.

It’s one thing to spot a wild animal basking in sunlight, or crossing a road, another entirely to catch a glimpse of it in action. The hunting lion had no attention for anything but its prey. Although I was safe in the car, I suddenly felt small and scared. It was humbling, this elemental fear of the predator. This feeling too must be a legacy of the first humans, those agile hairless creatures so easy for lions to run down and kill.

As well as fear, I felt awe and pleasure. I felt honored by this glimpse of the wild. The only things like it in my life have been the kick at the heart, the terror and awe, of feeling an earthquake or seeing a ghost: things utterly beyond my understanding or control.

We humans are the greatest predators now. Do the deer and the lions feel the same awe when we pass them by in our steel and plastic boxes? I don’t know. But I think that’s why people hunt the great mammals to extinction—not for food, but to make the lion, the grizzly, the elephant feel afraid and small, thus to erase their own sense of being helpless in the face of the wilderness.

No comments: