Queen of the Bosque

Mountain Lioness resting in the shaded woodlands of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Only seldom, and rarely in my wildest dreams, have I dared myself into imagining a face to face encounter with a mountain lion. And in those dreams, how fanciful it would be to presume it would take place with a camera in close proximity.

Minutes before this gift from the gods, I was motioned by a fellow human to the shoulder of the road, “Where’s the best place to see the cranes at sunset on the refuge?” he asked.

My heart sank on his behalf. Though some “scouts” had been spotted on the refuge, the sandhills he was searching for were still migrating.

“We heard this deck is the best place to see them at sunset, is that correct?”

“Ohhh,” I said, “where did you hear that, online?”

Both he and his partner nodded.

“I’m so sorry, I’ve been here for only a day but haven’t seen any cranes yet. But I have heard them up the clouds and off in the distance!” Though my voice was carried on a wing of hopefulness, his expression dropped. 

And so, of course, I persisted, “Bosque del Apache is amazing in ever season. You could visit the boardwalk, which is the perfect place for sunset now. The water is so lovely as it reflects the colors of the sky. And pelicans! The pelicans are migrating through and quite an astonishing sight in these parts!”

“So… we’re a bit too early, then…” his voice sank like a pebble as it rippled out.

I nodded while pointing to the songs of the redwing blackbirds, the night herons, and other waterfowl who would reward their efforts if they ventured onward – especially as the sunlight danced through the leaves of the cottonwood trees at sunrise.

Won’t you stay for sunrise?

His friend, an Asian man, bowed his head slightly, “Thank you. Thank you so very much for your kindness.”

It is I who owe a bow of gratitude to the couple who hailed me to the cusp of wonder. If it weren’t for the synchronicity of their questioning, placing me at the perfect place in the perfect time, I would have missed a once in lifetime encounter with Queen of the Apache Woodlands.

The Cherokee have a name for mountain lion. Klandagi, Lord of the Forest. As Klandagi emerged from the shadowy brush – half moon ears catching the light – I knew in a heartbeat I was crossing paths with something magical. Regal and assured, each paw touched the ground with a quality of grace known only to prima ballerinas.

By some miracle, in an altered state, I resisted traumatizing the brakes. Perhaps some guardian spirit calmed my limbic system, but something spoke to me just seconds earlier. A silent voice responding to disappointments and reminding that even though a wished-for spectacle of ancient birds had yet to emerge, Nature has a way of surprising open-hearted wanderers. Time and again, while reveling in the wilderness over half a century, I’ve learned to be patient. Mother Earth is always beckoning, poised to fill our capacity for healing and astonishment.

At first glance of rounded ears, my first thought was, Oh my god! Finally, a bobcat!  But the Queen took another step, emerging from a still-green thicket of willows in full display and necklaced with a tracking collar wedged beneath her chin, it was evident each footprint was honored; each paw print valuable. Klandagi, not Bob, had arrived on this threshold!

Heart completely gulped, I gently hit the brake, shifted and reversed the car, praying in some unconscious, unspeakable language to the woodland goddesses: Please, please, please! Don’t scare her away from me!

How quaint, this thought, that the Grand Dame of the Desert would be afraid… of me.

Through the silent cacophony of reversals, praying, and reaching for my camera, Her Majesty grounded in a robe of earth. Eyes met through meticulous layers of stacked glass, I sensed she was holding court – a wise elder regarding a vulnerable, starstruck subject.

I cannot fully reveal what tumbled through handfuls of precious minutes, this miracle. Like Jodie Foster encountering intelligent life in a faraway galaxy, there are no words to contain the felt sense of being known and seen. It is here where seconds expand into centuries.

“They should have sent a poet,” is what her character said.

Tell me, isn’t every heart in every living thing, poetry?  Yes! Every heart entrusted to carry all past, present, and future Wisdom Stories. When the time comes when you are disinclined to embody yourself from the power of the natural world, go then, into the woods to remember all that is sacred; all that is worth treasuring, protecting, and crying over. Grief is no solitary wanderer.

And Klandagi stood up and said, Pick up your life! Pick up your one precious life. Go, and tell your sisters and brothers. 


Photo Credits:  Queen of the Bosque , by Susan J. Preston, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © 2022, all rights reserved