Looking for water

leaf pool

The afternoon sun catches the bobcat full in the face where he rests under a boulder near the top of the talus slope, waiting for night. It wakes him from a pleasant dream of raiding a mouse’s nest and crunching down an endless supply of succulent squirming hairless mouse babies. He blinks, and tries shifting around to get away from the sunlight, but the small shelter, which stinks of porcupine, barely accommodates him as it is.

The sun makes him thirsty. He remembers the last time he came this way, finding a series of small pools right over the crest of the ridge from here, near the edge of an old field. It’s worth a try.

He emerges cautiously onto the rocks, his pupils narrowing into needles against the glare. Fortunately, he’s only two short leaps from shade and the shelter of the trees.

The air is still. It feels strange to be walking around in daylight, with his mind still half in dream. The sounds of his own footsteps in the leaf litter don’t seem nearly loud enough, and there’s a disconcerting sense of sameness to the various odors that reach his nostrils, as if everything’s been tainted with some kind of poison from the sun.

He clears the fringe of laurel and walks through the open woods along the flat top of the ridge. When he reaches the spot where he remembered finding the pools, there’s nothing but mud. He sniffs, and draws back. The only moisture here is from the hind-ends of horny white-tailed deer, who never seem to mind pissing where they drink and shitting where they eat.

The bobcat continues north along the ridge, remembering a brushy ravine that leads down to the creek. He never sees the pair of deer hunters, a married couple, dressed in blaze orange and sitting against a tree about fifty feet away. Colorblind like all bobcats, he will never see the yellow and orange and red of the autumn leaves, not even when he returns a week later and finds some rainwater to drink in two of the pools that had been dry on his earlier visit.

By that time, the hunters will have told and retold their story of the bobcat to almost everyone they know, and it will have taken on a certain mythic dimension, despite the fact that they are scrupulously honest about the details, the animal’s small size, its apparent lack of caution. It starts becoming possible to imagine what the world must look like to a bobcat — how it can be so wary, such a good hunter, and yet so oblivious.

It is, after all a cat, and we know cats. Everyone knows about cats and water, how particular they are about pulling their whiskers back and only breaking the surface with their tongue. Drinking from the creek is one thing, but still water must make a wild cat especially cautious. Can’t you just see him, catching sight of this other cat in the water and jumping back, then maybe sneaking up on it and touching it with his paw?

Well, I’m sure it won’t be the first time he’s ever drunk from a pool during the daytime. But yeah, I’ll bet he still does a double-take.

The omniscient narrator finds himself unwilling to speculate further. It’s all too easy for those of us who see in color to think we know exactly what we’re looking at.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

19 Comments


  1. We must be so many generations removed from any ancestral predator I can hardly imagine stealth as a way of being. I think even hunters in orange sense they’re faking it, every time they reach for their guns.

    The photograph is really beautiful, dave. I can almost see the bobcat’s reflected image, you have so clearly drawn it.

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  2. I was wondering where you were going with this: “Ewww, anthropomorphism!” my Inner Critic shrieked. Your last two sentences effectively shut her up.

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  3. I’m a practicer of anthropomorphism in my writing and I think it has a certain value. We will never know how a bobcat or other nonhuman organism thinks; all we can do is make analogies to our own perceptions of the world in an effort to empathise and understand.

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  4. I loved this. I don’t worry about anthropomorphism. Illegitimate projection is the beginning of “horizon-melting-together,” as Gadamer (if I’m remembering right — maybe I’m projecting?) said. I.e. the beginning of understanding someone else.

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  5. (That’s weird! I thought i left a comment earlier in response to r.a. and Loriannne, but it vanished. Maybe I forgot to hit the “submit” button.)

    robin andrea – Thanks for your kind words about the photo. As for the stealthiness of hunters, I don’t know. Most of our crowd here are the sit-and-wait type, which requires immense patience, to say the least. I have also come to have a great deal of respect for their observational skills — the best hunters are easily as good as the best birdwatchers (and I know some people who are both).

    Lorianne – I typed this post in such haste this morning, it wouldn’t surprise me if outer as well as inner critics were shrieking! In fact, I have yet to re-read the damned thing…

    Larry and dale – I agree. I’m a firm believer in the power and importance of anthroporphism.

    dale – Hans-Georg Gadamer is one of those rare philosophers whom I’d like to read more of. In fact, I just picked up a used copy of his The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays a couple weeks ago. With a title like that, I’m having fun imaging what’s inside.

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  6. That photo is remarkable, Dave.

    I, too, was made slightly uncomfortable by the anthropomorphism. We can’t expect to accurately think like others, including other species. Just as the sense of vision (or smell, or…) makes for a hugely different experience from species to species, I think our thought processes probably do as well. Nonetheless, it is often useful to imagine ourselves in the shoes — or pawprints — of others, if it extends our habitual thought patterns or challenges assumptions.

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  7. Well, there’s anthropomorphism, but there’s also sort of a reverse to that, that actually works a little better. We humans have this fancy symbolic/verbal mind, but it’s wrapped around a generic mammallian brain (which in turn is wrapped around a “reptile” brain, which is itself wrapped around a primal vertebrate brainstem/spine)….

    So, we do still have something like that cat within us, if we can just get our higher functions to shut up for a little while….

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  8. MB – I wonder if you still would have felt uncomfortable had I put it in the first person and assumed the voice of the bobcat? As you may know, dramatic monologues are one of my favorite forms in poetry. I like to think that some of them have come off rather well. But what makes this kind of writing here feel intrusive to me is the presumption of the omniscient narrator — hence my (non-)conclusion. As a writer, I am really much more interested in intersubjectivity and in what happens when we switch masks.

    [Update – I took my own advice. See next post.]

    David Harmon – Yes, I also like to think we can connect with other species by accessing pre-literate and pre-verbal parts of brains. Thanks for weighing in.

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  9. Our cats extend their pinkies before lapping up their water…LOL!

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  10. Gorgeous photo! Enjoyed the words and a question popped up in my head. How do we know bobcats do not see in colour?

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  11. Thanks. Because of the structure of their eyes, I guess. They do have excellent night vision, though, with special light-gathering cells in the retina and pupils that dilate to an unusual width.

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  12. Cat retinas have both rods and cones, so they have some color vision. Here’s a nicely-written comparison of human and cat vision from
    http://www.cathealth.com/CatEyes.htm

    ….cats have poor detail vision compared to humans. And because cones are also responsible for color vision, cats have comparatively poor color vision. But they’re not colorblind. Instead, they have the same type of color vision as many people who are called colorblind: a type of red-green colorblindness termed deuteranopia….

    Whatever the bobcat saw, or thought, I’m envious of the people who sat still enough to watch him!

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  13. Hey, thanks for that link! I guess my mistake was in retaining “bobcat” as a search term (and in trusting an online essay by a nature writer who is not a scientist).

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  14. Enjoyed the piece. It’s interesting to try to imagine the sensory experiences of other creatures. Priorities must differ greatly. The accompanying photo is superb.

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