On a warm morning last March, my friend Sally showed me how a post at her gate had been torn up, as if gouged with a screwdriver. Four feet of pressure treated wood, now splintered, that I chipped at with a fingernail. Sally didn’t have to explain what had happened. I knew right away that mountain lions had used the post in the middle of the night to sharpen their claws. Meaning that, only hours earlier, mountain lions, also called cougars, had been right there, nearly to the door of Sally’s house on the McKenzie River in Oregon, a couple of miles from my own.
For the seven years I’ve lived on the river, I’ve let myself believe that cougars wouldn’t dare venture down to human dwellings, near dogs and cars and danger. Why should they? The forest, thick with Douglas fir and cedar, is chock-full of the food lions prefer—deer and elk and, in the spring, tender fawns squeaking from beds hidden behind salal. And yet, the cats had found reason to descend from the hills here in early spring, and now they were close. Too close.
I went home from the walk shaken up, and because I’m someone who needs to entertain the worst possibilities so I know how to prepare, I promptly dug out a Charles Bowden essay, one I’d read years earlier that describes how a cougar kills its prey. The cat sneaks from behind, often gaining height on a ledge or boulder, and makes one sudden leap. (Cougars don’t give chase; their work is done with a single pounce.) Once it lands on a victim, with canines slipped in just so between vertebrae, the cougar clamps its jaws and twists until the neck bone it holds in its mouth snaps clean in two. Then the prey is, writes Bowden, “ripped open like an envelope.”
I read these lines aloud to my husband, who insisted a cougar wouldn’t take me on. I’m too big. Besides, it’s not hard to scare one off, he said. You make yourself even larger, flail your arms, and shout at it in the lowest timbre you can muster. Do that, he said, and you’ll be OK. But since I’m prone to thoughts of doom, especially these days, I didn’t believe him. If a lion attacked from behind, what chance would I have to pull out pepper spray or growl in a deep voice? Death would come fast, a surprise. There was no way to prepare or prevent. The only recourse, I decided, was to never again walk in the woods by myself.
A few days later, on another hike, Sally and I ran into a woman, an old-timer on the McKenzie. We warned her about close-by lions, and Sally added a story we’d both heard about a farmer a few miles upriver. Five goats had disappeared from one of the farm pens, leaving nothing but clumps of viscera. The farmer, that evening, set a slab of meat on a boulder at the back of her place to catch sight of thieves, and, sure enough, the smell of fresh beef drew in three lions after midnight: a female and two year-old cubs. Sally sent me critter-cam footage that the farmer had emailed to her, which I watched too many times for my own good, the animals slipping about like silver ghosts in the early spring darkness, their impossibly long tongues lapping gristle and fat from the rock.
But the older woman, who walked alone every day, wearing, inexplicably, ski mittens and three layers of coats—the winter had been too mild and dry for such a getup—waved away our worry. Lions had always been around, and in five decades, they hadn’t bothered her. Why start fussing about it now? She then changed the subject to people on the river, news and gossip, and I felt a twinge of envy over her air of nonchalance, her blank expression when I mentioned our region’s two-year drought, which showed no sign of lifting. Sally and I had worried ourselves over the diminishment of that which is usually abundant in our valley: water. We worried about the recent sightings of whole herds of elk and deer along the highway, seeking a creek or stream to drink from since smaller rivulets in the hills had gone dry. We worried about the cougars that would follow them.
In the years I’d lived up here with my husband, I’d noticed, among longtime river people like the older woman on the road, a refusal to accept large-scale change. Minor fluctuations, sure, but the general attitude is that the main course, the big rhythms of forest and water, of animals and weather, will endure no matter what. Just look at her, my old neighbor, how she pretends we’ll never reach the point of imbalance that would make her the prey, juicy in the mouth of a starved cougar—her own scrawny neck, or mine for that matter, snapped like a stomped-on tree branch.
• • •
My husband and I, seven years ago, gave up our long-distance marriage; I left my apartment in Portland to live in rural western Oregon with him. I knew I’d miss the city, but I thought I was ready for the uncluttered woods, the silence that falls over us at night like my grandmother’s wool blanket. Still, I had concerns about the loneliness of a relatively isolated life, and I insisted we stay busy. We mapped out hikes we’d take in the mountains, up to the obsidian cliffs and to high lakes, where we could kayak. Bike rides on the well-groomed trails. We planned to travel far from home, too; my husband had been to nearly one hundred countries, and now I wanted to see new lands, too, a coming-and-going sure to keep torpor at bay.
Except one August day, we sat in vinyl chairs in a urologist’s office, studying MRI images on a computer screen. The middle-aged doctor stood between us, his slacks high-waisted and stretched tight over his athletic rear end. He made a show of cocking his hip, which I later suspected was a need to display his own virility while erasing another’s, and he said a word my mind wouldn’t take in: metastatic. My first thought was, That can’t be right. But it was right. Metastasis means “change of position, state, or form,” and this is what had happened. Cancer we didn’t know about while we ate oatmeal that morning had already left its center of origin to wind its way into my husband’s bones and to pack two lymph nodes like so much Styrofoam. It wasn’t as if he was going to fall down dead in a matter of months; there were treatments that would extend his life—or so the doctor told us, pointing out chalky dots on the blue skeleton projected on the screen. But this word got to me, too. Extend? I’d always been sure my husband would live to the ripest of ages, a wise old man on the porch, watching his river float by.
We went to lunch in town after that first appointment, to my husband’s favorite café, where I campaigned to switch doctors and ignore this one’s advice about checking into the hospital for a first hit of drug that day. What’s the hurry? It was hot because it was August, and I had on shorts, which in memory strikes me as wrong somehow, too casual, the sound of my flip-flops mocking me when I walked outside. I’d gone out to report the diagnosis to my daughter by phone. When I told her, she started to cry. Why is she crying? Maybe she didn’t understand this wasn’t going to change much of anything. The condition was manageable, right? I mean, these days, who doesn’t have cancer? Whole industries have been formulated to assure us malignancies are temporary setbacks at worst. Don’t fret; there’s a drug to fix you.
On this diagnosis day, I clung to such promises of modern medicine, refusing to accept that our plans, our lives, had to be altered because a disease had shouldered its way in. We’d continue our good days on the river, disturbed only now and then by trips to the hospital, the elevator to the seventh floor, an afternoon in the fluorescent-lit chemo room, a cup of juice, a purple bandage on his arm. Hardly a bump.
But what I didn’t get yet was the heft of the mets. That’s how they refer to it in cancer lingo, mets, as if it came with a banner and a ball cap. Beat the Mets! Lesions in my husband’s body, bent on spreading and spreading some more. Preventing a surge of the gobbling cells, a tumble through his blood, the eventual purchase in marrow and tissue, would demand our full attention now.
• • •
The last trip my well-traveled husband took before he knew about the cancer was a long one, to fourteen different places on the globe. When he got back home, weary, he told me, “I think I’ve seen the end.” When I asked for details, he told me about poisoned water, diseased people, derelict landscapes. The planet on fire. The picture he painted was upsetting, a kind of horror I didn’t know how to measure—but, I have to admit, also far away. What could we do about it? It was only later that I realized he’d absorbed it, despairing for others, while he had no inkling of what was growing in his own body, cancer cells lined up to take him over inch by inch.
He’s lived in the McKenzie River house since he was a kid in graduate school, and he’s told me that, in that forty-year period, at least a hundred inches of rain have fallen annually on our land. Except for this year, and last year, and maybe next year. The accumulated inches are fewer now, and when it does rain, it seems to us it’s a deluge, a washout that erodes hillsides and alters the courses of streams. Not the soft, steady Oregon drizzle of the past. Now, the sun shines in October, when it should be raining, and in January, when it should be raining. The sun was shining on the March day I saw Sally’s torn up gatepost, when the mountain lions were practically knocking on the doors of our houses as if they were salesmen, encroaching on our territory as we’ve encroached on theirs.
A few days after I saw the post, Sally left on a trip. I kept my promise and did not walk alone on our usual trail. Instead, I tromped up to the woods behind the house I live in with my husband, carpeted in so much wood sorrel I might as well have been strolling through salad. The sky clouded over, and it started to rain. My god, how we needed the rain, but some niggling part of me resented it. I’d begun to prefer sunshine warming the top of my head, and dry shoes and socks, and maybe that’s what will happen to us down the road. I read recently that western Oregon might eventually become the new Southern California, sunny most days. Not such a bad turn for us then. Just skip over the part about the ridiculously long adaptation, as if the weave of an ecosystem can be taken apart and put back together effortlessly. As if tomorrow, olive trees and palms could march in around our house to replace the 150-foot Douglas firs, the predominate tree of our region, with root systems so shallow they risk toppling over in dry soil.
I walked through the fir woods behind our house, dotted with alder and huckleberry, past my husband’s wood ricks and the compost bin, watching for ungulate prints on the ground left by elk and deer moving through the meadow while we slept. Though that’s not exactly true. I was actually keeping my eyes peeled for cat prints, remembering the Bowden essay again, how he writes that “Nature is this teeming, unruly bitch at the gates of our lives, ready at an instant to violate our humanity.”
My neck tingled.
When it got to be too much, the tingling, I hurried out of the woods and strolled instead to the noisy highway and back up the road again, recalling former walks to my favorite grocery store in Portland, where I’d follow the scent of fresh bread to the bakery, load my cart with local apples and cheeses and Columbia Valley red wines and go home again, waving at neighbors on their porches as if nothing at all could go wrong on our planet.
Now, once a week, I bake our bread. A sourdough, long fermented, which, according to a health book, is best for cancer. We’ve stopped eating meat and most cheese and, on the nutritionist’s advice, potatoes. Yams we consume, but the russets of my Idaho youth are forbidden. Every other morning, I make juice—beets, carrots, ginger, turmeric, kale. Blueberries for sweetness. My husband swallows thirty-seven supplements and stirs pectin into his plain yogurt and sips green tea instead of coffee. We devote ourselves to believing this will help, the regimen of capsules, shots, leafy greens piled in our refrigerator. One more sprinkle of chia seed, another session of dry brushing to stimulate the lymph, and yoga ending with an om that I pray doesn’t ring with desperation.
Most days, you wouldn’t know he’s sick. He goes about his tasks, his work, but we both silently calculate cancer’s toll. He schedules naps every day, and we’ve cancelled vacations. Airports are hard. My husband no longer walks with me on the trails along the McKenzie River. It hurts to walk. He helps me put the kayak on the roof of our car, and he helps me take it off when we reach the boat landing, but he sits at a mossy picnic table and reads while I go out for an hour.
I put my boat in the river the same week I saw claw marks on Sally’s post. It was seventy-five degrees when I set off in the kayak, the river calm and low. Beautiful, except I was annoyed to be by myself. Pissed to be on the river alone once again, but who was there to complain to? I paddled upriver to a small island, where I figured I’d run into mergansers and cormorants. The birds were banked against the island and burst into the air, squawking and flying off as soon as I drew near, causing me to feel even more alone. I went on drifting under trees whose limbs were crooked and bare because, despite my short-sleeved T-shirt and sunglasses, it was still winter.
I noticed movement in the high branches of a tall cottonwood growing behind a sentry of alders and shaded my eyes to see what was up there. I counted four nests in the crown, a fuzzy rookery, each nest occupied by a great blue heron. Brooding already, in early March? I didn’t like that. These females, I feared, had laid their eggs too soon, signaled by the string of warm, rainless days to get on with procreation.
Without the cover of budding leaves—the coin-jangling leaves of the gentle cottonwood—these heron nests blared like trumpets. And I, of course, imagined the worst. The calamity that would visit, first, the eggs and, after that, any surviving pencil-necked hatchlings. A spring cold snap the chicks couldn’t survive. Hawks that would pick them off like so many cherries. One of the herons, as if reading my mind, looked down on me in my narrow boat, bobbing stupidly there on the river. Go away. If I was waiting for some message about the nobility of endurance, the essential nature of hope, this bird was not about to deliver it to me.
And so I left. I paddled straight back to the landing. My husband closed his book and moved to the edge of the water to greet me. I stepped shin-deep into the cold river to push the kayak to shore while he took hold of the front handle and pulled, his back hunched against the effort. It was when we’d pumped the boat over our heads, snapping it into the roof rack, that I decided not to mention the herons. I wouldn’t describe to my husband the snarl of twigs and feathers, the shaggy nests barely clutching flimsy tree branches; nor would I say I was anxious about the birds giving in to instinct too soon. Neither of us, my husband or me, could manage another nature song of lament.
Besides, the man who climbed into the driver’s seat to get us on home that day knew far better than I: we’re all in jeopardy now.