From the Editor
A Hopeful Tail
One afternoon last summer I was hiking in the hills above Berkeley, California with a friend and talking – as it just so happened – about the nature of wildness when my companion stopped and pointed downward. There, fastened to the trunk of a coast live oak at about shin height, was a wildlife camera trap. We bent down to inspect. The motion detector-activated camera had a sticker from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a sticker from the wildlife group Panthera, and some language about how it was part of a cougar tracking study, illegal to remove or tamper with.
I was stunned. Sure, I knew, in an intellectual kind of way, that mountain lions had made it back to the chaparral hillsides above San Francisco Bay. Friends had told me of weird encounters in the hills with their dogs, glimpses of something large and fast-moving in the brush. I remembered the female cougar that made headlines in 2010 when it came into the middle of town and, after a midnight chase, was shot by police. But the camera trap seemed to make it all more real. Cougars, right here in the midst of a major metropolitan area, within view of my office building. Incredible!
As Noah Sudarsky reports in our cover story (“Cat Fight”), after centuries of persecution that sent the animal to the brink of extinction, the mountain lion has made something of a comeback. “Mountain lions are moving from their strongholds in the Mountain West and are returning to parts of the animal’s former range,” Sudarsky writes. Perhaps most impressively, the rebound has occurred without human assistance. Unlike the California condor or the gray wolf, the cougar has rewilded the land by itself.
I don’t want to overstate the case. The cougar’s return is, as Sudarsky writes, “tenuous.” Many people still hunt the animal for sport, and some states are relaxing their restrictions on cougar hunting. The animal’s fate hangs in the balance.
Still, the cougar’s story strikes me as a hopeful tale. That the animal has been able to find a way to survive, even thrive, in a world of shrinking wildness seems to me a powerful testament to life’s tenacity. Nature is more resilient than we often think. Such an observation does not, of course, excuse our reckless behavior, the scars we have caused, or the unforgiveable sin of extinction, which is a crime that lasts forever. Rather, a recognition of wildlife’s resilience can spur us to a new kind of humility, encouraging us to see that nature sometimes upsets humans’ best laid plans.
A similar thought came to mind as I was reading Jacques Leslie and Robert Dawson’s exploration of the abandoned golf courses of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (“Fairway to Heaven”). It took only a few years of neglect, and the once-manicured fairways and greens have come to resemble a jungle. I’m sure that bums out a lot of real estate agents. But I happen to believe it’s fantastic – yet more evidence of life’s indefatigable energy.
In a coda to his piece, Leslie calls the rewilding of the back nine a “resurrection.” I like to think the word could just as well describe the comeback of the enigmatic, irrepressible mountain lion.