Sunday, April 01, 2007

Panther


I was ten years old the first time I saw God. This huge canal I live on was then just a creek that meandered for six or so miles draining into the Alafia River, then into Cockroach Bay which shelters fish nurseries and scallop beds.


I spent many hours there in defiance of my mother who extolled the dangers of those wild woods . She warned me about escaped prisoners who sometimes ran from the county jail downstream and hid there amid the palmettos. To her mind, those men were more to fear than the gators and snakes that she had come upon there when she defied her mother to go visit the creek in her youth.


Never saw any escaped prisoners. Me and the neighborhood kids once saw a body floating down under the train trestle when we'd gone down there to swim. We found out later that it was a drunk that stumbled into the creek and drowned out behind the Six Mile Creek tavern upstream. But nothing live ever appeared moving on two feet with steely eyes the color of stones bent on murder and mayhem to a child . So I continued to go. Mostly by myself.


There were small springs and pools surrounded with Louisiana irises, elephant ears big enough to use as an umbrella when brief, angry summer storms came up. Paths wound their way around stands of palmetto and water oaks, the sand sparkled in the sun from quartz or mica flecks like diamonds beckoning you on. Huge woody liana vines were a favored pastime to play a wannabe Tarzan. One of my favorite trees was a huge magnolia growing formally in the midst of all the gangly oaks. I loved the glossy leaves and would fashion a crown out of the dinner plate sized blossoms. I sniffed in the heady fragrance of them until my face was yellow with pollen and I was almost drugged from the rich smell.


Sometimes, I would just sit on the banks of the stream watching fish or making stick villages on the sandy paths. I knew how to pull young palmetto shoots to chew off the tender pink-white flesh on the root end and there were huckleberrys and fox grapes aplenty. Whenever things at home got out of control, I sought the comfort of that swamp.


My sister Lynda and me once went to cross the creek at Masaro's cattle crossing - normally just shin deep. But there'd been a hurricane three days before and we were swept away by the clawing current that had undercut the sandy bottom. We swan diagonally to the bank, catching a branch and then quickly letting go when the current occupant - a cotton mouth mocassin - objected with a hiss. We finally made the other side at a steep curve in the creek path, me pulling Lynn out of the water behind me.


She laughed the whole escapade through. I was a bit more sober for my three years on her and knew that we had been very lucky not to have been pulled into a gator hole or an undertow. I'd had my share of stupid living playing chicken on the train trestle that spanned the creek as it blew a frantic warning to my skinny, small form. I would dive into the waters when I could feel the rails vibrate and see the dust snake up from the heavy ties sitting on their bed of quartz rip-rap. I only did it a couple of times. News of a neighborhood boy who lost a leg while trying to jump onto a box car and ride down to his road somehow sunk home. I used to wonder if they ever found the rest of his leg and what they did with it.


Crossing Masaro's Dairy pasture was another wag at danger. If you timed it just right, you could cut off a good bit of leg work by cutting through the back corner. You had to ease yourself through the strands of barb wire and mind you didn't tear your shirt or your skin, both of which assured a march to the switch tree in the back yard. Mr. Masaro kept Brahma bulls in his herd for beef and they policed the pasture with a vigor to be admired by any Green Beret unit looking on any intruder as a threat to their territory and dominance over the few heifers peaceably grazing .


The trick was to time it so that the bulls were on the other side of the big pasture with their asses to you. You had to get through the barb wire fence on the quick and silent, high tail it the long block to the other fence, then skinny your way through that one before you were spotted. I once spent a miserable afternoon in a live oak with Brahma's grazing and farting below until their simple cow minds wandered them off to the far side of the pasture and it was safe to shinny down the tree and out through the fence to home again.


It was on one of these successful shortcuts that I saw Him. I was slowly and silently picking my way through the late morning sun along my favorite path. On both sides, palmetto fans waved in the dappled sun filtering through Spanish Moss beards in the trees above. He came out of a palmetto stand on the path before me, all dusky gold and brown and shining. His eyes glowed like amber. A long, pink tongue panted out his rhythm between sparkling white teeth that looked about a foot long.


He was a big cat, fully grown, sleek and fat. We both stood stock still, regarding each other. Six steps would have carried me to him, so close I could smell the musky fur, but I was still, quiet. I do not remember being afraid. I remember being in a place of awe. The wind stopped. The trees and branches absolutely fixed. The air danced with an energy I've seen so very few times since. I don't know how long we stood looking at each other, but it seemed like forever and a second.


A blink, then two, he just melted into the palmetto stand across the path from me and didn't move a branch or crack a twig under His big feet. After all, I was nothing to concern Himself over. Aware that something very special had happened to me, I felt privaledged. Knowing it was special and had not happened to very many people, I knew I could tell no one. I was also positive that despite my knowing that I'd spent a moment in utter holiness and divinity, an ass whipping would have awaited the disclosure and would surely have spoiled that moment.


I became obsessed with religion, God, divinity, the spiritual path. Sometimes my reading was uplifting. Other times, it was dark and morose. Mostly, religion was confusing.


I asked to go to the Methodist church next to my elementary school with Patty Brian and was allowed. I found disappointment there when I would here the message of brotherhood extolled at the pulpit and the petty sniping and gosip aimed at a poor family from my neighborhood. I went a second time to be sure that this confusion of Christian message, Hades behavior was indeed not a fluke and quit.


I am also saddened that such a majestic creature should be in the twilight of their lives with diminishing numbers hovering around 100 of them. Texas cougars have been introduced into the gene pool in hopes of replenishing the species. The offspring are lighter in color and much smaller than the big male I remember. Maybe it is because I was so small and thin.


Over the years, this sacred and special moment when I was indeed in the presence of something both graceful and divine has become incorporated into my spirituality. I don't think I've ever told the tale whole to anyone. It is my miracle, my introduction to sacredness. Now you have it. Trying to explain how and why I was so affected at such an early age would also somehow sadden the colors of it. Perhaps it will recall your first discovery of something sacred outside of yourself. So I'll leave it to you.


The art above is by Edward Bierly and can be puchased from the National Wildlife Federation.

3 comments:

Martha Marshall said...

Even I had not heard this story! Beautiful.

Pam said...

Wow. Great story. It took me back to my childhood days of playing in the woods and fields, my fascination of catepillars and their miraculous transformation into butterflies, and how peaceful nature could be.

You did indeed have a beautiful experience.

queenlint1 said...

Pam, you sound like you had a childhood of discovery such as mine! There are mysteries inumerable in any square foot of earth!
Martha, I shared with you that I'd seen a panther in the swamp. Now you have the backstory!