I'm a city person. I like to think of myself as a small city person, but the years in my life in a big city like Austin or Corpus far outnumber my years in Montana towns and Guinea villages combined. This all amounts to a certain kind of conditioning, of which I am generally not made aware of, until there is a disturbance of such magnitude that I am forced to re-evaluate exactly where I am from and what I am made of.
I recently heard a panther scream. It did not cry or whine or growl or sniff or any of a variety of things that critters are known to do. It screamed loud and long. Though my hearing is not the best, I approximate that it was no further than twenty yards away.
This had an incalculable effect on my city boy upbringing. It didn't matter any more that I've read hundreds of books, gone to college, or know how to make homemade chocolate croissants. What mattered was that I was in the moment, calm and collected, and could react to whatever happened next.
Yeah, right. That attitude lasted for fifteen seconds tops.
I happened to be hiking with a book with a chapter on panthers. Tales of Old-Time Texas by J. Frank Dobie is a really fun book under normal circumstances. I opened it to a chapter called "The Panther's Scream." The chapter starts like this:
"A hundred years ago and more, a settler on the Trinity River cut down a bee tree. Its crash to the ground broke the silence of the forest. Immediately a high scream from a panther in the distance responded, and out of mockery the man screamed back. The panther replied, nearer now. The man quit mocking to listen, but a panther's movements, even on the forest's leafy floor, make no sound. The man had no idea that the panther was so near until he saw it spring upon the stump of the felled tree."
I had to put the book down.
Fortunately, I was surrounded by plants and trees. I was able to take an inventory of them, as I kept shining my headlamp outside of my netting every few moments. I had to consciously relax. They can smell fear, I thought to myself.
I did relax, but it wasn't until some time passed that I heard a scream far in the distance that I was able to get any rest at all. And even then, it was a pitiful excuse for repose.