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Folsom Blues.

by Andrew Wingfield

Editor's Note: This essay provides a glimpse of how, where, and why Andrew Wingfield developed his connection with some of the mountain lions that populate his novel, Hear Him Roar, which is reviewed in this issue of Terrain.org. Read the review by Judyth A. Willis.

When I was a kid, Folsom, California was a gritty little town notable mainly for its single block of preserved Gold Rush-era facades and for the state prison that gave Johnny Cash the blues. Blue is how I feel today, driving over to Folsom from my sister’s house toward the end of this year’s family visit. Folsom is not a town anymore. Like my home town and every other little burg between Sacramento and the Sierra foothills, Folsom has succumbed to sprawl.

Blue is the color above me this sunny day—the smoggy, feckless blue of the Sacramento Valley sky. Blue is the color below me as I cross into the old part of Folsom on the original car bridge—the deep, dark blue of Sierra snowmelt impounded in Lake Natoma. To my left, up toward Folsom dam, stands the iron train bridge, just wide enough for a single set of tracks. To my right, down toward Nimbus Dam, stretches the new car bridge, wide enough for six lanes of traffic.

Soon I reach the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary, the end point of my annual pilgrimage. Blue is the most striking color on the peacock that greets me from the gift shop roof as I enter the gate—the rich, royal, iridescent hue of the bird’s neck, cap, and crest; and the many eyes of the fanned-out tail with their midnight pupils rimmed by a paler, twilight shade. Beyond this gaudy gatekeeper threads a simple network of paths that wind among a collection of enclosures nestled into the slope. Live oaks make deep shade for bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, foxes, owls, eagles, bears, and other northern California natives. I pay my respects to each resident en route to the mountain lion enclosure, where vines of wild grape weave through the green wire of walls and roof.

Blue is the color of a mountain lion kitten’s eyes—the sweet, sudden blue of cornflowers. All but one of the zoo’s five cougars had eyes that color when they arrived here. These regal cats, like all the other animals in this sanctuary, live here because they wouldn’t make it in the wild. Many are orphans, untutored in basic survival skills. Some have never recovered fully from serious injuries suffered at the hands of humans. These animals’ bodies, some magnificent, some pitifully mangled, combine with the words on their enclosure plaques to tell individual stories of life among Homo sapiens in contemporary California. The many single stories weave a larger narrative that maims the region’s myth of heroic growth.

The male cougar Willow lies in the grass grooming himself. His pink tongue makes long, scaly passes across his tawny hide. Dark stripes split the gold balls of his eyes. His ears move singly, as if each follows a different conversation. The last section of his black-tipped tail waves constantly, tracing shapes that look like the outlines of thoughts. Now and then he lifts his pink triangular nose to read the breeze.

Willow’s mother killed a jogger not far from here more than ten years ago. She was shot by state authorities, who then found her kitten and brought him to the right place. A few years after Willow’s arrival I appeared beside his enclosure one day with pad and pen. In a single afternoon, he taught me to say how mountain lions move.

Each year since then, my trip west has included a visit to Willow. This is the best ritual I’ve found for mourning a vanished place. The landscape that nourished my senses as a child has since devolved into a bewildering suburban Everywhere. Instead of wandering down dirt roads I used to love, strolling favorite orchards, straying out past town limits to experience the heady breadth of open space, I come here to meditate upon Willow. This cat embodies physical splendor. He animates wildness compromised, destiny diverted. He inhabits the deep pertinence of his biography. He brings me home.

Blues, I believe, is the longing for home.

Blues is what I’m building on this page.

Blues is a sanctuary.


Andrew Wingfield's novel, Hear Him Roar (Utah State University Press, 2005), deals with people and mountain lions in the northern California region "Folsom Blues" evokes. Andrew's place-based personal essays have also appeared in ISLE, Weber Studies, and other magazines. He teaches in New Century College, the integrative studies program at George Mason University in Virginia.
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