I have a friend who keeps chickens. His place is pretty high up, one of the last houses before the road to the mountain trail gives out, and he and his wife see a fair amount of wildlife on a regular basis. When water is scarce, bears lump around the holding pond just below their fence line , elk too, deer of course.
For years they have seen a bobcat, usually at dusk. My friend says, “It’s like he’s made of pure muscle but liquid … maybe more like the way fresh poured cement moves, you know, still liquid but almost solid.” He shakes his head. “It’s just always a privilege to see him.”
Last week the bobcat dug its way into the chicken coop. Before anyone could get to the chickens, the cat had killed twenty of the twenty-seven in the coop, neatly stacking their bodies in a pile. The crack of a rifle shot scared it off, but there isn’t much doubt that he’ll be back.
Living as far from town as they do, my friend and his wife have a complicated relationship with predators: They know that predation is both natural and necessary, and they can admire the elegant economy with which the creatures move, but they’re fond of their chickens as well, nervous and fussy as chickens often are.
So, where do we put these complicated feelings, reverence mixed with fear, admiration and disgust? The dilemma seems to particularly concern our relationship with the big cats. There’s nothing wrong with Pandas or Giraffes – perfectly amusing, attractive, odd – but they don’t inspire the same sort of respect we give the cats. Similarly, Hippos and Sharks, for example, are dangerous, but we’re not attracted to them in the same way we favor the big cats. Who doesn’t want a Tiger kitten? Anyone want a baby shark?
In what may seem a digression, I have to admit that for years I’ve been intrigued by college mascots; ask me the mascot of the University of California at Davis, and I’ll spit back – Gunrock the Mustang. It’s necessary to specify which mustang I mean because several other colleges also favor mustangs. Musty the Mustang (Cal Poly) is slightly less evocative; Peruna, representing the Southern Methodist University Mustangs, is a shetland pony.
Lions (Columbia, Penn State), and Tigers (Clemson, Princeton) and Bears (Baylor, UCLA) abound, but cats of some sort pretty much dominate the mascot universe. The Wildcat is the most popular mascot, aiding universities from Northwestern in Illinois to Davidson in North Carolina, from the University of New Hampshire to the University of Arizona.
Auburn, LSU, Grambling State, University of Memphis, University of Missouri, and Colorado College pledge themselves to straight up, unadorned, unmodified Tigers; apparently it is impolitic to take liberties with tigers. When it comes to lions, and particularly mountain lions, however, there is room for considerable invention.
Penn State, for example, trots out the Nittany Lion, referring to the mountain lions that once roamed nearby Mount Nittany. The University of Vermont is represented by the Catamount, northern New England’s mountain lion. A Puma, another name for mountain lion, stalks courtside at St. Joseph’s basketball games. Washington State and the University of Houston’s Cougars are also mountain lions. The University of Pittsburgh and Middlebury College both proudly summon the Panther, while Lafayette College in Pennsylvania consorts with the Leopard.
We all no doubt remember back in 2012 when Texas Southmost College split, with the University of Texas at Brownsville. TSC kept what had been the combined institution’s mascot, the Scorpion, leaving Brownsville to scrape something together quickly. UTB considered the Bull Shark, the Jaguarundi, and the Parrot, but settled on the Ocelot, joining Long Island University and Michigan’s Schoolcraft College. That’s about it for the felid subfamily except for the Lynx (Rhodes College in Tennessee) and the Bobcat (Bates, Montana State, Ohio University, Quinnipiac, West Virginia Wesleyan, and U Cal- Merced).
Since this piece began with a bobcat in the hen-house and the mixed emotions which its appearance brings, I’m going to go back to the use of the word totem to describe a spirit being that distinguishes clans, tribes, and families. Goofy mascot costumes on the sideline obscure a deeper tribal need to identify with and take power from an entity that possesses qualities that we long to summon in ourselves, qualities that call to us from the murky myth-making unconscious.
I’m not suggesting that we stumble along as aspiring shamans, although I do think that much of the attention given to spirituality as practiced by indigenous people does derive from the hope that there is unseen power in the natural world. I’m talking about unarticulated myth-making. What Jung called the collective unconscious, contemporary practitioners of depth psychology call autonomous psyche or objective psyche, the primordial images and impulses that exist outside of our individual experience and which arrive without our having asked for them.
That’s a lot of babbling from a guy whose spirit animal is probably a vole, but on a sleepless night, a moon-soaked night, I had walked aimlessly for more than an hour, hoping to wear myself out. Tired but still restless, I threw open the door to a meeting room, a room adjacent to a long meadow. Moonshadows striped the room; the curtains hung like pelts. I noticed a dark object on one of the large leather chairs and walked to it, intending to pick it up, find its owner, restore order to someone’s world. I was almost upon it when a slight glint from the chair stopped me. A fox curled in its own tail looked up at me, considered its options, then with quiet deliberation, unfolded itself, slid from the chair, and walked out into the meadow.
I don’t worship foxes or wear a fox mask when distressed, but what I felt in that moment was something like reverence. It is a privilege to come upon a wild creature, to be in its company for a moment, to remember in the middle of our complicated, disjointed lives, a creature distinct and complete.
It’s also a good idea to double up the fencing around the hen-house.
laimed the chair
I don’t know why mascots stick in my brain, but they do. I don’t think I respond to mascots as totems, spirit beings, as sacred emblems, but