Yarns about Mountain Lions

Mountain Lion
Photo: Zach Key (Unsplash)

Ask local folk if mountain lions (aka cougars/ pumas/ panthers) still prowl the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia and you’ll likely get a nod or they might bend your ear to tell a tale. But if you visit the WV Division of Natural Resources  you’ll read the big cats were extirpated over a century ago.

Do people who live in the country know better than wildlife officers who patrol it? It’s a touchy subject. Firmly held convictions about a secretive native species are harder to argue against than belief in the Sasquatch of Canada or Nessie in Scotland.

Few people want an apex predator in their backyard, but we are a quirky species. We want to be in control of our environment, to make it safe and productive, yet at the same time we love to celebrate the romantic mystery of wild places. I dread the day, if ever it comes, when we know everything about every square yard on a tamed Earth or when science completes its journey of exploration. Better the joys of search and discovery that the end of curiosity, where boredom begins. Better the frisson felt on the trail when an unseen beast bolts from the brush into the deep woods than being blind and deaf to nature. Novelty and surprise are sauce for stories to bring home.

A gamecam photo of a mountain lion dragging a white-tailed deer posted on social media prompted the following string of comments from people around Pocahontas County. [My added remarks].

  1. Holy cow! [Perhaps the commentator thought the photo was taken recently and locally, but neither the case]
  2. I saw one in Randolph County 25 years ago and my husband and I witnessed two young mountain lions near Huntersville in Pocahontas County a few years ago ‘mousing’ in a field. Our son had one on his game camera last winter near Minnehaha Springs [nearby].
  3. Saw one at Clover Lick about 15 years ago [also nearby].
  4. We told the game warden about two in Huntersville. She said she knew a momma had a pair in the rocks at Beaver Creek.
  5. I’m surprised they said that. Any warden we ever talked to said it’s impossible. But maybe that’s changing [diplomatic].
  6. My daughter saw one up back of our trailer on Elk Mountain.
  7. If we have mountain lions why bear hunter never treed one. None has been hit by a car. No trail cam pictures. Been hunting here all my life but nave (sic) seen a track. Not calling anyone a liar, just like piece of proof.
  8. And didn’t the game wardens attempt to prosecute the farmer that killed it? It was after his sheep.
  9. I know what I seen. I stopped and looked. It wasn’t brown but black and wasn’t a house cat. [No definite records of wild black panthers in the US]
  10. Wow!
  11. Mountain lions were there when I was growin up. They were in the backyard.
  12. If you killed one ye go 20 years in federal pen [really?!]. That probably why ye never hear of one bein killed.

You don’t need to take sides in the debate about mountain lions roaming the county. Standing on both sides of the fence at the same time is perfectly comfortable.

Some sightings by the public are undeniable, although most cases are probably mistaken identity. Authentic reports are too rare to make hiking there more exciting!

On the other hand, the DNR is also correct insofar that no breeding population of mountain lions currently exists. Convincing reports of individual beasts are likely based on escapees from captivity or deliberate releases into the wild after kittens grow up savage.

I heard a persuasive story this summer by someone I know from four miles away. When she opened her door, she saw a big cat in the backyard menacing her pet cat. She screamed at the top of her voice so loud her father heard it a quarter mile away. Knowing it meant his daughter was in trouble, Keith Mace grabbed a rifle and ran down the mountainside. No one suffered harm that day but the event added another chapter to the ongoing debate.

Keith Mace in Pocahontas County

Today, I draft this post on the first anniversary of the passing of my friend Keith Mace, who died from a tractor accident at age 81. He was born and lived most of his life on Mace Mountain, named after his pioneer ancestors.

Next Post: Peregrine Falcon

Carving for the Ages (Petroglyphs)

A slab of yellow sandstone larger than a dinner plate lay at the foot of an old maple tree close to a woodland trail in the Allegheny Mountains. The shadow of an inscription on its flat face made me pause for a closer look. It read:

billymemorial

There are several hundred cemeteries dotted across the county, but few of them are “official.” The county resists zoning laws, so private landowners can bury the dead in their own backyards. Casualties of war, especially the fallen enemy, were not always honored with ceremony or laid in consecrated ground but rolled into a hastily dug grave where they moldered from anonymity to invisibility. But if the memorial stone marked Billy’s grave, he had not been buried carelessly.

Federal troops were known to be stationed there during the Civil War. Probably they were involved in the fierce engagement with the Confederate Army at Droop Mountain in November of that year that swung in their favor. Perhaps Billy was mortally injured in the fight, or maybe he died of measles, which was claiming victims in both armies.

soldiers-gravestoneTo examine the lettering on the hard stone, which was probably made with a knife point, is to realize this was a tenderly made memorial amidst so much suffering and misery. Billy has long gone out of memory, and would have disappeared from notice if his platoon merely tied two sticks to make a wooden cross, but carving a rock gave the young man a greater longevity, at least in name. Had the inscriber chosen a softer rock, like my father’s first headstone, it would not be legible for long, but deep gouges in the stone preserved Billy’s biosketch for 150 years.

On an ancient route across a rocky plain in Anatolia, and near the town of İmamkullu, a Hittite paused to carve a boulder over 3,000 years ago. The images are worn but you can see a princely soldier and a god, as well as incomprehensible hieroglyphs. Petroglyphs are found the world over from prehistoric times, and if you want to leave a memorial to posterity never leave it in ink or paint, but carve it on rock. Hard rock!

I mused about Billy’s gravestone while I chipped away at a boulder on our property, some twenty miles across the county. It’s hard to explain the impulse for my first rock carving, although the boulder offered a flat, vertical surface decorated with several species of lichens with a mossy seat on top. It is beautiful, and it was irresistible even for a virgin of the rocks.rockwoodcarving72dpi

If I was an accomplished rocksmith with time on my hands I might have carved a noble, sphinx-like head of a Shawnee brave, because this was the tribe’s hunting ground. My ambition was far more modest, the mere cutting of eight letters under the eye of James Alexander Thom, a family member who carves wood when taking time out from writing historical novels. I won’t add my signature or even my initials, preferring the carver to remain anonymous and somewhat mysterious like Billy’s inscriber.

When the cerebral effort of design is finished and the repetitive work of execution begins, a different part of the brain seems to kick in. As the rational region relaxes, the imagination can take over for dreaming to the noisy accompaniment of chipping. I wonder if anyone will stop to ponder the inscription in future centuries and millennia? I guess they might need a translator to read the word, “ROCKWOOD.” And I try to imagine what will those people will look like and how much the environment will have changed. The struggle to look forward probably stretches the imagination as much as when they try to look back at me, or I try to picture the Hittite.

When I returned to Billy’s gravestone I met the landowner Tom, whose family has lived on the mountain since they came as pioneers in 1830. He restores old log cabins transplanted on the back of a big flat-bed truck from across the Alleghenies, even as far away as Pennsylvania. Billy may have known one of the cabins because it used to stand on Droop Mountain. They are far more comfortable after renovation with a new tin roof and stone chimney than for the families who built them, and make attractive rental properties for visitors. Few cabins survive on their original sites because wood quickly rots when they are no longer cared for and the roof falls in, whereas castles and cathedrals quarried out of rock in the mother country of Tom’s ancestors will endure for eons. Without conservationists like him there would be fewer testaments to the lives of struggling pioneers.

After chatting about how the logs were cut and chinked, I asked him about the memorial stone on his land. I could tell from his changed demeanor that he had news. “It’s not the original! After lying there so long, someone stole it fifteen years ago.” He found a stone to replace it and carved the tribute to Billy from memory. “It’s a pretty good replica,” he told me.

The memorial says something about the carver again, the second time around, but I blush at the notions expressed sometimes about Appalachian mountain men by ignorant outlanders. As an afterthought Tom said, “It’s a pity it wasn’t too big to be carried away,” which brought my boulder to mind.

Next Post: Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation