The Fire Trail, my novel-in-progress, is about the borders between civilization and the wilderness, so it has been with some interest that I witnessed a bobcat appear in our backyard three times in the last two weeks. He shows up around four to five o’clock in the afternoon, slipping silently up the hill below our house, through the rosemary and lavender, where he pauses on the edge of the patio and stares at me.
He is small, not much larger than a big cat, and I hoped that he was a cub and could not fit through our iron fence once he was older. But after Googling (hooray for the Internet), I have learned his full size is about twice the size of a cat, which means the fence will not bar him, will not protect us. We have not fenced out the wilderness.
I love animals and especially cats, so I was intrigued with the catlike face as our eyes locked. He had substantial whiskers, powerful hind legs. He loped confidently across our patio into the bushes on the opposite side, a graceful animal. But we have domestic cats, Lady Jane and Laddie, and we fear this wildcat would make short work of either of them. I saw the bobcat’s photo online, spotted in Mt. Diablo State Park nearby last week. The comments were all about how cute he was. Cute?
He is wild and he is hunting in my backyard. The wilderness has encroached upon the small space of safety we call home. The bobcat, I reflected, is a timely reminder of our helplessness in the face of nature. I recalled reading that Canadian wolves re-introduced to the northwest have multiplied beyond desire and safety. We cannot control the natural world.
In The Fire Trail, set in Berkeley, a trail runs east of the university between the town and the high dry grass and the flammable eucalyptus. Fire trails, like fences, are designed to keep the wild of the wilderness away from our domesticated and safe communities. They create a break between death and life. Fire, like the bobcat, has uses. Bobcats are excellent pest controls. Fire is useful too: it warms us, lights our way, cooks our food, runs our industries. Yet it burns, maims, devours, kills when not held in check.
And so it is a short way from the border between wilderness and civilization and the border between freedom and responsibility. How does a culture set its boundaries of behavior? How does an individual limit his own actions, impulses, desires? What are the limits, if any, in a democracy that cherishes the individual over the community, the minority over the majority, and oddly enough, those who cross the boundaries of accepted mores and suffer for doing so. These last – those who see freedom as the right to self-fulfillment at any cost – are lauded in our culture, as though our commonly held assumptions mean nothing. How do we protect free speech and the practice of religion in an orderly and civil manner?
Civil society has long looked to history to draw its boundaries, to tame the wild, to define its very self. It has long looked to its institutions – churches, temples, schools, community organizations – to tame the beast in each of us. Within the church, structured rituals tame our raging hearts, our untamed desires, our envy, anger, greed, gluttony, pride. We follow the Church Year faithfully, Christmas incarnation through Easter resurrection and see that we are fallen creatures who need help to rise from the earth, to stand. We cannot pull ourselves up on our own.
The bobcat paused and stared at me. I do not think he reflected, considered, that he was trespassing. He was hungry and thirsty. He hunted to survive. He was deadly.
It is Lent. It is a time to consider, like St. Therese of Lisieux, the “little flower,” our littleness, our helpless selfishness, our incivility, without God. In the still small moments of quiet that appear without warning during the day, in the sudden wakefulness that touches us in the dark of night, we pray, Our Father who art in heaven… We embrace little denials, here and there, unseen and unknown, and we pray, You are all I need… We learn to discipline our hearts so that we can truly love.
This week we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, that remarkable and glorious moment when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God had chosen her to bear his son. Mary sings a song of praise, My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour… God used her littleness to enter our world. He can use yours and he can use mine.
Our world is slip-sliding, it seems, backwards, away from the way forwards as the jungle encroaches upon us like a roaring lion. But like Mary we can say, Be it unto me according to thy will. Through sacrament and worship, through little gestures of listening and love, through our own self-denials, God magnifies us and strengthens us. We fall again and again. He reaches for us and pulls us up so that we can stand. He shows us the way.
And the bobcats will return to the wilderness as we rebuild civilization.