I was sitting in my bedroom typing into a screen, just like now, when it happened. A shaft of sunlight stretched through the window and onto my feet. It was a cosmic photon corridor that had shimmied 93 million miles, all the way from the sun. I saw small motes rise and fall as they absorbed and reflected the light. Galactic light. Powerful stuff.
Suddenly there was a squawk outside, multiple blood-curdling squawks in fact. After that it was all instinct. Throwing my laptop on my bed, I hurled myself out of the door. Seconds expanded into minutes as I absorbed the scene. Red feathers were flying, and my three chickens were running and flapping for dear life. I saw the wildcat. So close. Perhaps four metres from me. He stared directly into me, reading the extent of my authority, green eyes flashing like a pair of feline traffic lights. The anger poured off the creature like sweat. I’d ruined lunch.
Cat and human faced each other off for two or three seconds. How sure of himself this animal was! How unwilling to run, and how ready to challenge. Who moved first? Me or Wildcat? I lunged along the path to protect my hens. Wildcat leapt ahead. All of us pelted down past the barn, past the huerta to the power ash tree. The hens (wisely) veered left. I stayed central. Wildcat trotted to the bottom of the land. It was hardly a dash. Certainly not an escape. There, just before the stone wall, the cat turned and hovered. Those eyes. They were steel.
I knew Wildcat was hoping the hens would separate. I could see Hilde standing stock-still under a bramble. Priscilla, always last, was loitering by the huerta. Then I spotted Frida gasping at the stone wall...
Earlier this year...
“Did you ever see that wildcat again?” a friend had asked me one day back in December.
“No. No, I think he’s gone,” I'd replied, suddenly remembering the majestic moggy of the hills.
The wildcat of northern Spain is a beautiful creature, with mottled long fur, and a distinctive black ridge that runs along its spine, culminating in a black ringed tail. At a glance it’s not much different from an overfed house cat. But a second glance soon highlights the difference. The gato de montaña is significantly bigger. And those paws are not house cat feet, they’re the matted paws of miniature lion.
I first saw Wildcat soon after I bought this land. As I sat and drank in my new world, I would spot the black rings of his tail snaking through the rocks and brambles. Sometimes I’d find huge ‘cat’ poop in the barn too, and assumed he was sleeping there. But of course I’ve now sequestered the barn, turning it into something else. So for two years I haven’t seen him.
When my friend had inquired back in December, I’d felt a pang. Was I another one of these wretched habitat stealing humans? So I sat by the power ash tree and asked the hills, “what became of Wildcat? Is he okay?”
Did the tom hear me as he snuck over the peaks yonder? Did the trees convey my question? Because three weeks ago who should come prancing out of the creek, but the mountain moggy himself. He raised his wide head when he saw me, eyeing me somewhat scathingly, before strutting over to a rock in the centre of my land. There he basked in feline magnificence, owning the place. I watched and watched, awed by the unshakeable confidence of this animal.
“Hello my friend, so good to see you!” I said as I peered at him from my kitchen hut. I never considered Wildcat would attack my hens. Why? Because they’re born under the stars of ridiculous fortune. Nothing has attacked them in the two years they’ve been here. Until this week…
The February sun was hammering down that morning. It was hot. T-shirt and shorts hot. The hens were scattered. Wildcat was still loitering at the edge of my land. Waiting. Waiting for a chance. I rushed over to Frida hen. It was obvious she was injured and she collapsed into the grass as I approached. Oh so gently I picked her up to move her out of harm’s way. Wildcat surveyed it all from the rocky perimeter of my land, the black line on his spine rippling.
“Hilde, Priscilla, come! Come on! This way!” I yelled as I cradled Frida in my arms and ran up to the kitchen hut. But Hilde and Priscilla were paralysed with terror, their limbic systems dragging them back to the Cretaceous era, when humans didn’t save chickens from anything.
Placing Frida by the water bowl, I left her and ran back down to pick up my other two hens. Stomping up the hill, a bird under each arm, I shoved them in the coop before returning to poor Frida. Her beak was opening and closing, searching for air. Her yellow eyes rolled back in her head, the pupils expanding and contracting like dark matter engulfing a world. She convulsed. Her chest heaved. I guessed she was having a heart attack.
Grabbing a plastic syringe, I knelt beside her. Oh Frida, the Zen hen, you can’t die now. Not now! Squirting water gently into her gaping beak, I blinked as she swallowed a bit. Then a bit more. The seconds passed. Her eye rolled again, the pupil eating the iris. I squirted more water. She swallowed it. The life inside my bird was fighting, hanging on to its body, staying present. Time inched by. She stayed. For now.
I carried Frida to the coop. Her eyes were heavy, the bottom lids white with shock. Yet she stood, as chickens are wont to, even on their last legs. Everything in me said, “don’t call the vet.” So I let go. Time for nature’s intelligence to step in.
Do hens possess empathy and kindness? Most think not, including many of those who rear or treat them. Normally, when a bird in a flock is down like this they will be pecked and attacked by the others. My three hens must be different though, especially Hilde Hen who doesn’t seem to hold a mean bone in her body.
Hilde watched the unfolding of events as she always does, like a wise child considering it all deeply. Seemingly understanding her friend’s plight, she perched in the doorway, protecting. When I closed the door that night, torch light checking the status quo, I saw Hilde had given up her spot on the balcony to allow Frida the room to sit comfortably. She never does this. None of them do. But she did that night. Honestly I was moved. This is a hen, yet she has more heart than most people in government.
But as I closed the door, I sighed. I could hear Frida rasping. It was all in someone else’s hands now.
The next day I opened the coop door, dreading what may or may not come out. Hilde jumped out. Then Priscilla waddled through the door, fat butt struggling to get through. Then I saw her. Frida. She peered out at me. She was still clinging to life, albeit by the skin of her beak.
She lived through that day, and ate a little. But she refused to go outside. The world was no longer the safe place it had been. It was now inhabited by awful hairy monsters with claws and teeth. However, fear or no fear, the following morning the will to live took over. Frida stepped gingerly out of the coop, because heck, a hen can’t stay inside forever! I held her gently and checked her belly. It was then I noticed the squashed yellow plum of a bruise spreading over her chest. That she’d not suffered a fatal internal injury was beyond miraculous.
On the third day, Frida joined her friends down in the compost heap scratching up bugs. On the fourth she laid an egg. I won’t lie, I was dumbfounded. How can anything recover from such an injury so fast? If I’d had a heart attack four days ago, I wouldn’t be laying anything, I can tell you. Birds are fragile creatures in so many ways, designed for the air more than the land. Yet as with everything Gaia breathes life into, they are designed to recover and regenerate. By day five, Frida had pushed her bad experience to the hinterlands of her focus. Life is there to be lived if you’re a hen.
The Time of the Wild
And here we are in 2022, none of us the same people we were two years ago. Just as for Frida, our world is no longer the same place either. The ground is shifting beneath our feet daily, the lines between good and bad, safe and dangerous flickering like fluorescent strips in a power shortage. Friends have come and gone. Institutions are warping, rights and laws bending and buckling like an old car chassis under a crusher. Left is now right, up is down, and the fringe is as large as the centre. Borders are broken and treaties scrapped. This isn’t the time for rigid agendas. The days of pension plans and insurance schemes are disappearing faster than the white rhino. Who knows what’s coming next?
So...welcome to the jungle folks, to much of my life since 1997 when I moved to Turkey and was paid millions of lira in plastic bags because inflation was so high. Welcome to the lives of the other half of the world. Welcome to the time of the wild. No diplomas are going to help you here. No title or career or fashionable home decor. Even your bank account is looking insecure. Face facts, the system isn’t going to save you. Your wits, ingenuity, and wild side on the other hand just might.
As I sat yesterday at the edge of the woodland, the fingers of the hazel branches catching the light and throwing it back at the sky, I closed my eyes and reached out for Wildcat. It was so peaceful in that space. So solid. I sensed the velvety undulations of the hills holding us, and the limestone rock-knuckles protecting. The trees were friends. The birds ecstatic. Then there he was...Wildcat stalking through the meadows, being oh so very wild. Fearless. Sure. An ambassador of Gaia.
Barns may come and go. As do humans and their societies. Land can change hands. Pandemics can have more waves than the Bay of Biscay. And armies may invade. But the Wildcat strolls on regardless. As do the chickens. All of them out there roaming, more sure-footed than the humans right now, so many of whom seem to have forgotten what freedom or living even is.
And then it dawns on me. I finally understand as I watch the sun arc ever lower and the shadows stretch ever longer. Maybe they never knew.
My wildcat on a visit three years ago.
For a much more impressive video and some beautiful photos of the northern Spanish wildcat in action head to:
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