On New Year’s Day I go for a long solo walk up the fire roads, through the oak groves, and across the meadows of the land I occupy.
Heading across a sprouting green meadow (a pale, determined green, in the midst of drought), I realize that there is not so much that I want to let go of this year (I hold multitudes, Whitman whispers in my ear). There is, however, something I want to claim: wildness.
But as I sit alone with this grand aspiration in the quiet of a clearing, under the leaf-fall of an old tan oak tree, I begin to shake with a humbling, familiar fear – my fear of mountain lions.
I have never met a mountain lion. I live on 400 acres of collectively-owned land in Sonoma County, California, and often go for these solo walks. Our land is populated by foxes, jackrabbits, deer, bobcats, birds of all feathers and sizes, and of course, mountain lions. My husband installed a wildlife camera by a backwoods gate through which I frequently pass, and the camera did catch a photo of one ambling by. Some of my neighbors have seen one, and others yearn to. Whole books have been written about searching for a glimpse of one. When my children are nervous about them, I say “Don’t worry, they are not interested in people.”
I am in awe of the puma’s power and beauty, but she terrifies me. I do not want to meet a mountain lion.
But I need to know how to face one if I do.
I have read the words of naturalists, and listened to my neighbors who have lived here for a long time. I know that you are not to cower or run, lest the puma mistake you for prey. I know you are supposed to carry a big stick, pick up your children, sing a loud song, just be as human as you can possibly be. I know it’s not a great idea to walk at dusk or dawn. But when I am out walking alone in the middle of the day, and the fear of meeting the lion begins to creep across my skull, I question all I know. Do you yell or sing? Do you look it in the eye? Would a stick really help or is that too threatening? Could they be awake now? What would it take for me to be unafraid? My vision wavers and blurs; I can no longer focus on the clear shards of beauty I usually find all around me – a frosted leaf, a dragon-shaped tree, the rustle of woodpecker wings.
“Their ability to wait and attack from behind without sound weighs heavily,” writes Craig Childs in The Animal Dialogues. “They will hunt anytime, equally as capable of taking an animal down during the day as at night.” And then, when he is faced by one, “How much fear can one release into the world before it finally takes form, before it gains strong legs and canine teeth, hard and sharp like white steel?”
As I shiver under the tan oak tree on New Year’s Day, I see my fear released into the world. I see not the puma, but the way that my fear of the puma literally clouds my ability to sink into the wild landscape around me. But allowing the raw coldness of fear to seep through my body, and seeing it for what it is, opens a door today. I can suddenly smell the breath of fear in other, apparently less primal, places.
Such as this place, right now, in my chair, and this act of typing the words you are reading. For these words mark the beginning of a wild journey for me – the journey of writing for strangers.
My fear of writing for strangers – really writing, showing my true face – has for longer than I care to admit clouded my ability to sink into the wild landscape of my imagination, a landscape that I love, and which in other ways I know intimately. Novels, histories, dreamscapes, stories; the precision, rhythm, and flow of language – these are my home.
I have piles and piles of books on writing and creativity. I have worked with a coach. I have “done” The Artist’s Way. I have a crate and a half full of journals, two novels partway done, and a goddamn Ph.D. But until this past year I had never published a word as my unadorned self.
I am in awe of the power and beauty of the written word, but it terrifies me.
Something deep inside me does not want to fail.
But I need to know how to face it if I do.
It is the beginning of a new year. Welcome to my journey. I don’t think I am going to carry a big stick, but I can still pick up my children, sing a loud song, and just be as human as I can possibly be. And I am definitely going to write at dusk and dawn. So let’s learn what it’s like to shatter the silence of a woman’s visible mind. Let’s call out wildly and unpreparedly to that elusive mountain lion. Let’s transmute fear into form, words sharp like white steel, bright like new flowers. There is only what happens. There is no doing it wrong.