I was in the backyard looking for a stray cat.
In this case the backyard is the the thousand feet from my back door that ends at a rusty fence that demarks my land from the checkerboard of private and BLM land, which fades into the Willamette National Forest running up over the Cascade crest to LaPine some 120 miles east. A few small towns like Oakridge line the edges but for the most part beyond that barbed wire strand there are thousands of square miles of varying kinds of wilderness. Civilization here are mostly ribbons laid along rivers against a backdrop of green. The border is not static; the cat I was looking for had managed to drag off a full grown goat and half grown sheep in a single day leaving no trace behind. This was not your typical suburban feline issue.
My goal that day was to locate the goat remains in order to deny the cat a meal. Dead animals encourage predators and even if the state hunter got the cat next day the last thing I wanted was a pile of dead goat attracting coyotes And like any good farmer planning to stick a hand between a predator and it’s meal I brought a gun along not because I expected to hunt the cat, who most likely heard me close the backdoor to my house and walk to the woods, but in case I accidentally came face to face with it over goat guts I wanted something to equalize the situation. A cougar can weigh north of 200lb, leap 30 feet and follow a person for miles without a sound. Enough times in my life I have seen a cat print the width of my hand inside my own boot print and the cold feeling that comes with it; you can feel the eyes watching, waiting. You know that if you see the cat, it is because the cat has let you see it; it’s already decided not to eat you. While attacks on humans are rare, they can be devastating, and this cat had come down almost to the house so it wasn’t particularly afraid of people. I slipped a handgun into my pocket and a shovel over my shoulder and climbed up into the back pasture. A mix of oak meadow and fir trees, entwined with the dreaded Eurasian blackberry, it can be a stroll or a crawl depending on the particular microcosm.
When we bought the land two years ago and the back was a solid wall of blackberries. They wove into the trees and around fence posts and it wasn’t until months after we moved in that I actually found the back fence. Slowly I tore into it with a mower at first and with a tractor later. The goats followed the mower and now it can actually be a pleasant stroll, in places. From spots one can look west and see the Coast range as it draws ever closer across the narrow valley until it meets the Cascade Range south of town; the white church in Saginaw above the mill marking the western edge before everything is green and dark again. The ground was damp and the sun had set, there was not much more time for my task. I could not smell rot or ammonia, no paw marks in the muddy places. Nothing but grass and bramble. Suddenly one small tuft of tan fur on bramble stood out. Pausing to circle slowly around, my eyes come to rest on the white side of a bunch of blackberry leaves. Something went through there I knew, but not just a cat, the trail was too wide. Pushing aside the blackberries to crawl under the vine maple I saw the ground was torn up; something struggled there. That and a swatch of white goat hair was all that was left. The path up the hill is twenty-four inches tall, the light even dimmer under the vine maple. Finally good sense overcame curiosity and forced me back out of the brush. There is no following an apex predator into that in the darkness without more preparation without becoming the bait. The dead goat search would have to waIt. I penned the remaining goats by the house and set my “late night varmit gun” unloaded on the dresser in case the cougar came again.
The next morning the state hunter has the cougar treed before I have even left for work within site of my house and dispatched. A male it was likely solo but the kids are scared and my wife concerned; half my kids are smaller than that goat and a small child is likely to scream and run in a way a big cat would likely find prey worthy Since then I have walked the backyard every day without finding sign of the goat, or another cat. Most days the pistol comes with as rifle seems a lot to haul around for what is likely nothing more than the ghost of a fear. Like most gun owners it stays unloaded in the safe when not in my hand, just like I don’t leave my keys in my car, the nail gun attached to the air compressor or the saw plugged in. Tools should be stored in a way that reflects your surroundings and my surroundings includes curious hands. There is no holster for the handgun- it never leaves the property or even the house.
While my backdoor may lead to the wilderness, my front door still leads to America and as this drama unfolded my mind often wandered to the events of the last week; fifty nine dead and hundreds injured at a concert. I am thankful that I have no close connection this time; having family in Newtown and having lived near Clackamas Town Center the last round of mass shootings. Something is seriously wrong with us as a culture that this has become commonplace. There are other signs of this sickness; the deaths from relationship violence, road rage shootings, guns as political theater. The day I feel is acceptable to openly carry a gun in town is when the zombie apocalypse has happened, anything short of that and I will just leave it at home.
We as a nation have become enamoured in the temple of the self and the God of Id and Righteous Anger are the altars upon which we lay the shattered corpses of our sacrifices. As much as guns are useful tools to me, they are also dangerous tools and as we (as a people) cannot seem to just use common sense we must make laws to protect the innocent. The Second Amendment cannot take away the First Amendment’s right of the people to peaceable assembly. Pro-Gun jurist (and NRA member ) Antonin Scalia himself said that the state has a duty to promote gun laws that protect the people. The current laws are not working and need to change, and we keep revisiting this truth and we will keep revisiting it until we see it. I don’t have an answer, but I do believe as long as gun owners and users such as myself keep our heads in the collective sand we will be eventually corrected by the seventy percent of Americans who do not own guns. If we want to maintain our rights we need to quit demanding them; instead we need to look at our responsibilities as Americans to promote the peace and safety of all. That means not just controlling ourselves and never using a gun as a threat except in the direst of circumstances, but also promoting laws that keep guns out of the hands of people unable to use them. If you own a gun, think to yourself why would anyone want 23 high capacity magazine rifles with bump stocks? What purpose other than mass murder could be served by allowing people to have an arsenal like that?
In the realm of parenting daughters the cat is at least a problem I can deal with. They are unabashedly themselves; we can choose how to protect our kids and act accordingly. The real dangers are out the front door even if they are off in the distance- angry men who seem nice at first, friends who think it’s cool to drink and drive. These have always been issues. Now we get to add to that the dangers of going to school and attending a concert as things we must worry about, things we cannot protect them from or kiss away the hurts. In my mind there is no clear path forward, only that we must go somewhere from here. Anyone promoting the status quo is probably selling something; probably ammunition. Either that or they are working for someone who is.
In the darkness, sitting on my porch I can watch the cars on I-5, the freeway of my adult life. The goats and sheep bed down and bleat in the dark; I need to remind the oldest child to put the chickens to bed again. In each car are people with their own paths and desires; each set of headlights are the center of another narrative even as they are a backdrop in mine. No distance or elevation changes that. We must learn to honor each journey as we do our own, for only when we can do that will things really change from within. Until then the only other tool is law, which although blunt and imperfect is the best tool at hand.