Saturday, 30 August 2014

Archetype Cat Banishes Fear

I’ve been drawing and painting cougars a fair bit these past years but admit that I’ve never actually seen one.  When I was living in British Columbia I was terrified of seeing one but hardly anyone who wasn’t being attacked by one actually had.  That was the gist of it - cougars are shy animals and for the most part they leave us humans alone.  Yet as more of us enter their habitat, establishing our gardens and golf courses and attracting the local species of deer, mostly mule deer and white-tailed deer, it's become harder for the cougars to distinguish between deer and other fortuitous types of prey.  Especially if they're hungry.  A few days after I arrived on Vancouver Island, where the British Columbian capital of Victoria is situated, a cougar sprang from a rock ledge and gobbled up two corgis belonging to a woman who was taking them for their morning stroll along the Brentwood Bay beach.

Like most predators, cougars will go for the smallest and weakest, which was hardly reassuring to a shorty like me.  They are also liable to attack in the early morning hours or late in the afternoon, which is when I usually go walking after a day at the desk.  I was determined at the time, however, not to let my fear of them deprive me of this salutary recreation.  I walked and I watched.  But all the while with my heart doing cartwheels in my chest.

Long ago, when asked what I was like as a child, my mother paused and then provided one word.  Fearless, is what she said.  Of course, overhearing this, I was tremendously pleased.  Particularly as it wasn’t at all true.  Maybe I was good at hiding it, but I was fearful of a host of things.  A horde, you could say.  To begin with, I was afraid of fish (don’t ask why, that’s another story); of a boy who lived in our apartment building; of the red-haired chow dogs that prowled the street where my grandparents lived; of the murderers I read about; also painted-face clowns.  The sinister tones of the radio mysteries I listened to (because my mother acted in them) sent shock waves through me.  When I was seventeen, no less, I begged my parents not to go out and leave me alone with my two younger brothers after reading William March’s The Bad Seed.  (Believe me, as a means of sending terror ripping through you, the movie based on it doesn’t begin to compare.) 

Yet, it’s also true that I was capable then of feats of derring-do I couldn’t contemplate in my dotage.  I was sanguine driving, and I’m certainly not today.  I climbed tall trees without qualm and took off like a bird from high-diving boards – head first, with barely a ripple in the warmly receiving water.  I was totally, and foolishly, fearless in affairs of the heart.

But as I grew older I changed.  Motherhood, it has to be said, made me frightened in a way I never had been before.  All the things that could happen to a child overwhelmed me, so much so that I often found myself afraid to show my very deep love, lest something might happen to take a child away from me.  This, I imagine, is something akin to what parents felt in earlier times, when children’s mortality was the rule rather than the exception.  Perhaps it’s what makes them seem so harsh in our eyes today.  I became more anxious as well about what was happening in the world.  Inward- or outward-looking, I could scarcely control emotions so alarmingly intense.  We were deep in the midst of the Cold War when my first child arrived, and the sound of a low-flying airplane had me hugging him so hard it would surely startle him if I were to do so now, fifty odd years down the track.  Fifty years down the track I still worry about him, his siblings, and their children, and their children and children yet to be.  The older I get the crueller the world seems, and humans the cruellest creatures in it.

Age has set off its own battery of alarms.  I now have a fear of falling.  I fear I won’t manage when my partner dies or he won’t manage if I go before him.  I’m frightened by the prospect of not managing anything, and foisting the care of me onto overburdened others.  I see before me a bleak horizon of ever-increasing helplessness, unavoidable loneliness, and of course the end of it, the ineluctable fate of all of us, humans and animals alike.  Yet strangely and happily, the more I have to fear the less I do.  There are numerous reasons for this, but I'll narrow them down to three - love, laughs, and cougars.

We know about the importance of love, particularly in its agape mode, and no one would argue about the curative power of laughter.  But cougars?  That is something else.  I was confronted once, as said, with the fact of them without ever, mercifully, having been forced to face one.  But we all have to face our fears.  The big cats that haunt so many of my pictures, whose presence seems always to be with me, just below the scrambling surface of my quotidian consciousness, are a gift in that sense.  Cougar, puma, mountain lion, panther, jaguar, leopard, cheetah – whatever their names or habitats – have coalesced into a kind of archetype.  Bleached of their various distinguishing features, stripped of their distinctive markings, they offer themselves up as scapegoats, tabula rasas, blank screens – say what you will - onto which I’ve projected my anxieties.  Like a witch's familiar, the cats escort me.  And if they are big cats, that could be because they’re commensurate with my fears.  Big enough to carry the weight of them, and let me walk free.  


  1. Another lovely, thoughtful and elegant post. Your comment that "the older I get the crueller the world seems, and humans the cruellest creatures in it" resonated with me because it's something I've been thinking about lately too. I think "seems" is the operative word. That is, I think the world probably isn't crueller - I think of the Holocaust, of the Crusades, to take two (more or less) random examples. What I've been thinking is that I used to believe that we were on the path to a better humanity. I guess that's what comes from having your formative years in the 1960s and believing that we could surmount the things that divide us to become kinder people! Now, I'm realising that humans are humans and that while we probably have made some small progress in terms of the way we treat each other, it's way slower and more minimal than I could ever have believed back then, and what we have achieved is not necessarily on very firm ground. Sad.

    BTW I did once glimpse a mountain lion in Oak Canyon Nature Centre in Anaheim. There was a known corridor that they used back in the early 1990s. I'm not sure if development has destroyed that now. But, it was exciting. It was some (safe) distance away but it looked over towards where I was walking for a second and then went on its way. I've never forgotten it.

  2. Oh, and must say, I love your cougar sketch.

  3. Thanks, WG. Cougars are my thing at the moment. But how wonderful that you were able to see one - and safely - in its own habitat. On the question of cruelty, and progress, I do agree. I'm reading Blood Meridian at the moment, one of the most beautifully written books I've ever come across, but also a salutary reminder of the cruelties we have inflicted,

  4. Again, cut off for some reason. To end the sentence ... And continue to do so today. What isn't cruel about being slaughtered by a drone?

  5. I think I've cracked the "Notify me" thing on your blog. I'll see if it works. If I tick the "Notify me" box BEFORE I change the Comment as default from Google to Wordpress, I think the "Notify me" will work. But, if I don't then as soon as I change the Comment as default from Google, the Notify me checkbox disappears as an option. I discovered this on another person's blog. Let's see if it works here.

    Anyhow, Blood Meridian. I'm embarrassed to say that I never finished that book, not because I didn't want to but because I was unable at the time to give it the concentrated attention it needed. I still have it here in the hope .... McCarthy is one powerful writer isn't he?

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