Wednesday, March 13, 2013


            In winter when I go out walking, I pack a stout Smith & Wesson revolver.  It’s heavy and makes an awkward lump under my coat.  The cylinder is filled with six hollow-point .357 rounds—designed to leave more than a dent.  I don’t carry the Smith because of gangs.  I don’t carry it because of crime.  It’s because of predators.
            Predators are a fact of life in America’s “back forty.”  In the past five months, my neighbors have shot three mountain lions within a mile or two of my house.  One of them was hiding in plain sight, just 50 feet or so away from the town store.  That was probably the same cat that killed my neighbor’s four day-old colt, which was corralled down the road from here. 
            The cats are afoot, and aplenty.  Our state fish and wildlife department knows we’re crawling with them, and will occasionally send a warden to dispatch a lion that has taken up housekeeping in the valley.  But new homesteaders keep on arriving.  When I’m out walking—often in the dark—I peer deeply into black barn doors, and scrutinize the limbs of overhanging trees.  It’s a strange and prickly feeling, the sense that you’re prospective prey.  Of course, I do have the Smith.  But it is well known that cats tend to attack by stealth, and from behind.
            The hunting and killing of large predators is a touchy business.  Many city folk can’t stomach the idea.  I can see their side.  Large predators—cats, wolves, bears—are gorgeous creatures, and look positively magisterial when staring out of the pages of a wildlife magazine.  It is also, I believe, a great privilege to live in a country where large carnivores still roam free.  When I lived in Scotland, you were lucky if you ever saw a hedgehog, let alone a deer.  Our North American predators are big, strong, beautiful animals.  Talismans.  Totems.  No wonder our sports teams are cluttered with large carnivore names.  Who, after all, would christen their football franchise “The Sage Hens?”  That’s right.  No one.
            So we Americans adore our predators.  But the stark reality is that some few of us must also live with them.  And here are the facts.  Predators kill cattle, sheep, and horses.  Predators kill pets.  And on rare occasions, they kill people.  So what to do?  The idea (I’ve heard this proposed) that rural residents are invading predators’ territory and should therefore remove themselves to the cities is unacceptable.  More realistically, the Rancher offers the predator a bargain:  Don’t come into my town, to my house, to my corrals.  Don’t eat my horses, cattle, sheep, or dogs.  Stay out of my sight and out of my stock.  Come here to do your killing, Long Tooth, and be hunted yourself.  Keep to the timber, the desert, the wild—roam free and in peace.   

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hart Mountain

            It doesn’t matter where you stand in south Warner Valley—in the vast jigsaw puzzle of irrigated hay meadows, among the tules at the edge of Guano Reservoir, at the terminus of the valley where Twenty Mile Creek tumbles out of its canyon—regardless of where you stand, you can see Hart Mountain. 
            From the south, you see the mountain in profile: a massive flat-topped monolith, standing sentinel at the mouth of the valley.  From north Warner, you look Hart Mountain square in the face.  From that aspect, Hart presents itself as a glowering black wall, gauged out by V-shaped gorges and ravines, that runs for miles along the valley’s eastern flank, ranches scattered loosely about its feet.
            Geologists call Hart a “fault block” mountain.  By this they mean that Hart was created by the slippage of enormous blocks of the Earth’s crust as they slid and ground along fault lines or cracks.  As huge wedges of rock slipped downward on either side of it, Hart Mountain was thrust up like it was being raised by a crowbar.
            In 1844, John C. Frémont and his men threw down their packs and picketed horses on Christmas Eve at Hart Mountain’s base.  Their goal was to reach the gentle climate of coastal California, but that winter night they spent huddled against the sleeping giant.  Who’s to say that one or two of those men didn’t lie awake that night dwelling on the presence close at his back—immense and invisible, exhaling in the dark.
            Hart Mountain is almost human.  It has moods.  Summer finds it clothed in warm colors, a russet bloom upon its shoulders. Fall thunderstorms cluster around its formidable brow, black and foreboding.  In the coldest, hardest part of winter, Hart hibernates—a frozen blue and white tomb.  And in rare moments, its head wreathed in clouds, the mountain dreams silently away.
            The people who ranch in this valley grow up, grow old, and die with Hart Mountain within their line of sight.  To these people, Hart Mountain is not just a part of the local geography, or a geological feature.  It is a permanent fixture of that subtle geography of the mind that anchors a person’s sense of place by dead reckoning. Like true north on a compass, or the pole star to a sailor, this mountain is a fixed point of reference for the people of Warner Valley.  Hart Mountain means home.