I know the second verse of Dixie. By cosmic chance in the space time continuum, I was born in Dublin, Georgia. I will always have sand between my toes and cornbread in my memories. I have picked cotton on my Grampa's farm. Didn't like it much. They have machines to do that now and Grampa's farm got bought for nothing from my Gramma after he died way too young from lung cancer. He was 56 and a heavy smoker. Gramma wasn't. She died in her nineties but her lights dimmed ten years earlier from Alzheimer's. A big timber company wound up with the farm. It got clearcut and grows pine trees now.
When I was nine or ten, Grampa was driving my brother and I around the "back" of the farm... He called the part of his farm that he hunted on, the "Back" because it was swampy and lay along the Oconee River in Laurens County. It was back behind the part where he grew corn and beans and cotton. His farm was about 500 acres and in those days farmers left as much of their land as they could alone. This way they could hunt things. On the farm part of the farm, he also had cows, but what I remember most that he grew was watermelon. That day he was driving two of his grandkids around and showing off his farm to us, you know, the "back" part.
I think this made for a fine day for Grampa. At that point in his life he was not yet fifty and had six surviving children who in turn had yielded him nine grandchildren. Grampa was doing allright in the "eat, survive, reproduce" sense.
Thinking back to Grampa's big belly, I think he was especially good at the eating part, even though he only had about a third of his teeth left by then. Breakfast at Grampa's house usually involved extremely well ripened cantaloupe and streak o' lean. I have tried to over come many prejudices in my life, but the most unyielding one is my hatred of cantaloupe. It is a personal failing I have decided to live with. I cannot get over the smell which sends me hurtling back to my Grandparents dining table where I would sit eye level to my plate, and stare at the beautifully presented slice of musk melon ripened to near stinking mush. The assault on my childhood heightened olfactory sense was intensified by the adult's command, "You have to eat your vegetable before you can have anything else." I never, ever, ate one of the damned things! Grampa never gave in and neither did I. He would eventually get tired of trying to convince me that I wouldn't grow very tall if I didn't eat my cantaloupe and go on about his day. I think if he had been taller that 5'5" it would have helped his case. Gramma would give me an egg after he left.
So there was Grampa driving us down the sand road on the back of the farm and, as we round a curve, an animal is standing in the road. My brother saw it first but we all got a good look at it. I remember thinking at first that it must be somebody's hound dog, but it didn't look quite right. It had a huge tail from a dog perspective. In the late morning sun it looked dark colored. Grampa immediately stopped the car, got out, and took his shotgun out of the trunk. The animal loped down the road for a hundred yards or so and cut left into the woods. It didn't seem like it was in too much of a hurry. The beast just didn't like being in the same place we were and decided to leave. Setting the shotgun at the ready beside him, Grampa started the car down the road to where the animal had turned into the woods. I think Grampa did a lot of driving around with the shotgun alongside his right leg because he seemed real comfortable with it. "Stay in the car," Grampa told us as he took the gun and got out. We sat there about two seconds before we jumped out and ran right up behind him. He smiled at us even though we had disobeyed a direct order. I remember wondering why, since he was a fairly stern man, but I understand now, as I look for evidence of independence and bravery in my own two kids.
"Boy's, that's a Panther," he said. "Don't see 'em much but they're here." He said it softly and as a matter of fact. It was no big deal to him. Just a perceived threat to his farm animals that he was going to shoot if he got the chance. I don't think they are "here" anymore. There are maybe fifty or less somewhere in south Florida. Back in 1958 there was at least one in Georgia and I saw it. I'm glad. I treasure that memory. I will not be able to share it with my own children, I don't think. We stared at the tracks. The car had covered some of them up but we could see where it had kicked up the sand when it turned and jumped into the woods. As hard as we looked into the woods, we saw nothing. From what I know now of Puma behavior, it was more than likely standing somewhere a little ways off watching us. Even big predators are nearly invisible in their element. Humans stand out like a stinking cantaloupe in a flower bouquet.
I thought about the panther because someone who hunts near us told me that his brother had seen one. It is always someone's brother or neighbor or cousin that is claimed to have seen a cougar. I'm skeptical but I am also hopeful. I would love to think that an endangered species could make a comeback like that.
It is an odd thing to me that anyone could be opposed to the Endangered Species Act, since it is supposed to keep species from disappearing from the Earth for all time. I think it is generally misunderstood. The Eastern Cougar should be thought of as our canary in the mine just as should every other species inhabiting the planet. Certain species are early indicators of the Earth's ability to support life. When the canary keeled over, the miners knew something had to be done. The mine owners did not necessarily agree and lots of miners have died over the years. Are you making any connections here?
Predators, for the most part, are not getting picked off by farmers with shotguns. They are getting killed by pollution and having no place to live. First it is the big predators, then the little ones. Then it will be us.
Even though we make a big public display about the sanctity of human life, killing people is actually no big deal in our society. We aren't very consistent about it though. A straight forward honest murderer who gets mad and shoots someone will probably go to jail. Certain states will kill him back, or at least will kill someone for the crime whether they actually did it or not. It is OK for Corporations, though, to kill a certain number of people if these corporations can make a profit on the deal. Humans aren't much of a predator except to themselves, it seems. Want to know how much a human life means much to the accounting department of a large corporation? It is the amount of money in the cost benefit ratio. Your life is worth somewhere between $3.2 million and $6.2 million dollars in cost benefit money to the Environmental Protection Agency. It used to be the higher figure but the Bush Administration has proposed the lower figure. Your life has lost $3 million dollars in value over the last few years.
This concept of cost benefit analysis for human lives was one of the main planks in Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. This contract was based on the basic conservative theory that voters are morons. Every time I watch a Speech by President Bush and he says he attacked Iraq to fight terrorism, I have to think that this particular piece of Conservative theory may be correct. Bush is the cattleman wanting his cows to be happy as they plod up the ramp to the abattoir.
If our society can justify taking a human life for a certain amount of profit, I have to be fairly pessimistic about having my kids by my side and seeing a Cougar.