A relentless blizzard fiercely attacked towering limestone cliffs and jagged ridges of the Providence Mountains. On a late afternoon in December, steep mountainsides and deep canyons of the Mojave were drifting with wind-whipped, horizontally-driven snow.
In the blinding onslaught, a female mountain lion tested each precarious step along a high, exposed, snow-covered ledge. She sensed and avoided the injurious sharp spines of now-concealed lechuguilla and prickly pear. Spying an intrusion in the canyon wall, the big cat lunged through the cleft into a dark passage. Panting rapidly, bursts of steam issued from her flaring nostrils, and she pushed further.
She had happened upon the ideal shelter – a small rock-strewn room with a soft, dusty floor. In a single violent paroxysm, she shook the remaining ice from her damp tawny coat. Settling into a low crouch, her breathing slowed. She now heard only the muted scream of wind blasting through the crags outside. She became aware of a mixture of scents: dry, musty motes of ancient amberat suspended in dry cave air, and the smell of her muddy tracks in the soft dust. But there were additional vague harmonics of scent. Her acute olfactory system now sensed the wet fur and breath of another being. Her eyes adjusted to dim afternoon light coming through the narrrow entrance. In the grayness, she scanned the small room’s interior.
Beyond a fallen shard of limestone were two glassy specks, reflecting dim light from the darkening entrance. Indeed, these specks moving in unison could only be wide, fearful eyes. Quivering in intense fright, veins pulsing, heart pounding, a bighorn lamb raised his head. The lion’s brain, fangs, claws, tendons, ligaments, and muscle instantly fused into a lethal machine poised for a kill. The helpless lamb locked eyes with the terrifying feline. But she could not launch, lunge, or leap on the back of this helpless creature to break his neck with crushing jaws: narrow confines prevented her attack. The cat had insufficient space in which to stalk or pounce; her programmed predatory wiring was effectively short-circuited. She was immobilized and unable to attack; the lamb was paralyzed with fear. An impasse ensued.
They crouched in anticipation, bound in this dynamic, prisoners of their instinctive behavior, the walls, and the storm. The big cat roused to a sitting position and commenced licking her paw while scowling at the lamb. The lamb remained motionless but occasionally bleated – a pathetic, feeble cry for his mother. Into the night, tension dissipated as neither animal acted. Each remained vigilant while gradually adjusting to the other. They could not comprehend their mixed unfamiliar internal responses. The cat, confronted with her natural prey but unable to attack, settled into a mode of acceptance. Having killed a decrepit coyote in a dry wash several days earlier, she was not hungry, and of no threat to the lamb. The lamb, fragile and vulnerable, certainly presented no peril to the lion. Their primitive responses seemed to diminish, replaced by a calm, mutual tolerance. The cave entrance narrowed with accumulating snow, and the room warmed slightly with their heat.
In the darkness hours later, the lamb stirred, his body vibrating to a mysterious, rumbling purr. He nestled into the curve of the warm body enveloping him, and the cat’s rough pink tongue slowly began to bathe his ear. After a long sigh, she rested her muzzle on her paw. The lamb, trusting this comforting presence, drifted to sleep.
Much later, a bright beam of sunlight emerged through snow melting at the cave entrance. The animals slowly awakened and regarded each other. On a psychic level, each silently acknowledged the warmth and comfort received from the other. Muscles rippling, the cat rose on powerful long legs, yawned, stretched, padded to the cave entrance, and was gone. The lamb softly bleated, slowly arose, stretched, and walked to the entrance.
With a short leap, he emerged into dazzling sunshine and blinked his eyes. A vast panorama of towering crags, crystal-edged jagged ridges, and basalt bluffs sparkled under glittering blankets of white powder. Distant sky islands reached above a few remaining clouds and into the deepest cobalt blue. In the canyon below, calls of his mother echoed in crisp, icy air.
The Mojave is a vivid example of an immensely complex, vibrant ecosystem in which the various parts survive (and thrive) as much through cooperation as competition. The lion’s genes were programmed to permit the lamb to live. Allowed to become a desert bighorn ram with speed, strength, and endurance, he would survive to perpetuate his species, thus sustaining the lion's offspring. Desert creatures cannot consciously experience respect, kindness, or compassion at a human level. However, they are creative, intelligent, adaptable, and enduring. They live in balance with their own and diverse species. They thrive without greed, mayhem, hate, or anger. May we learn from them, sustain them, and coexist in harmony with them.
–Will Walsh ©2017