It was mid morning and I was pondering the grits I had left on the stove, when a crash in the leaves over my right shoulder caught my ear. Apparently, mine was not the only ear caught as what had been a cacophony of foraging squirrels stopped in an instant. I could hear nothing. My first thought was that the red-shouldered hawk who frequented this corner of the farm must have taken one of the squirrels. Slowly I turned to look behind me, hoping to see the mantled wings of a hawk guarding her prey.
I scanned the eerily quiet woods. Something moved fifty or sixty yards out. It was not a hawk. This was a mammal, but too small small to be a deer. Coyote, perhaps?
A couple steps was all I needed for a clear, positive identification. Bobcat. The feline moved slowly but without apparent concern through the woods on a line which, if unchanged, would bring her within twenty yard of me. The squirrels remained silent. I had forgotten my binoculars that morning, so if I wanted a closer look, my rifle scope would have to do.
As she passed behind a large oak, I lifted the stock to my shoulder and took aim. She walked with her mouth open, her head low in a perfect line. I wondered what the occasional flick of her short tail was communicating. When she paused and turned her head towards me, I froze. She seemed to look right through me, her tufted ears poised to gather evidence of any move I would make. She turned her head the other way revealing large white eyespots on the back of her ears. Looking back to her front, she continued on her way.
Coming even with me she entered a blackberry tangle, disappearing. When she reemerged, she was thirty yards away and passing me. Through the scope she felt close enough to touch.
Her path angled towards me, crossing broadside in front of my stand. I was taken by the mechanics of her shoulders, how her head remained steady, her large feet silent.
When she looked away from me, I became acutely aware that the crosshairs of my scope were squarely on her vital organs, just behind her shoulder–the kill zone. My finger was on the trigger. I pulled my finger away, out of the trigger guard, and reached for the safety. It was off. I did not risk clicking it back on and attracting her attention, but gripped the stock with my full hand, finger safely away from the lever that could take her life.
In that moment, I remembered a note Aldo Leopold made in his shack journal about shooting a bobcat while deer hunting on his farm along the Wisconsin River. He made the entry a couple decades after seeing a “fierce green fire dying” in the eye of a wolf he shot in New Mexico, an incident he used to illustrate the need for change in our relationship with predators in his essay Thinking Like A Mountain.
It is hard for me to imagine the same man who wrote such impassioned words about what “tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day,” pulling the trigger on a bobcat, but he did. Then again, I had just had my finger on the trigger.
Like the rest of us, Leopold was a complex man. He was a hunter and a conservationist. He recognized the the importance of “every cog and wheel” that keep the biotic community running smoothly, and he enjoyed taking not only his “meat from God,” but the shooting of non-game species as well.
I did not pull the trigger that morning, but for just an instant perhaps I could have. Some instinct had me ready, even if my rational and emotional minds pulled me quickly back. To run my fingers through the coat of a bobcat is compelling. To take its life for that opportunity, was not something I could do.
How Leopold, so late in a life so rich with evolving thought and understanding as to lead to his Land Ethic, was able to pull that trigger, I don’t understand. Yet, he did. Like I said, Leopold was a complex man.
The bobcat’s path changed again. She turned to move directly away from me. Five yards on her new trajectory, she pause, crouched, lowered her head and sniffed at something in the leaves. Perhaps she smelled the deer I had dropped there a week ago–my “meat from God.”
Another ten yards away from me, she jumped effortlessly onto a thirty inch downed oak. A second tree of similar size lay perpendicular across the first one like a pair of pickup sticks. She reached forward and pulled herself up until she was nearly vertical, then looked back over her shoulder for a moment, this time right into my scope. A quick jump onto the top log and she disappeared over the other side. I clicked on my safety, lowered my rifle, and lifted my cup. The tea was cold. As I stared into the woods in the direction she had gone, I heard leaves rustling behind me, then more to my right. As the woods came back to life, I climbed down from my perch and walked back to the house for breakfast.