Puma grew up in the wide open space of Camp Pendleton on the southern end of the coastal range. He had inherited his realm from his father who was killed by a rancher at the edge of the military preserve. Puma’s kingdom extended 150 square miles and was home to three females, each roaming about 60 square miles, slightly overlapping into each other’s hunting grounds. In the last few years, open land was more and more fragmented by the poorly planned development of Southern California.
Puma’s vital space was getting smaller, so the magnificent hundred-pound lion began exploring north. One day he found himself in the upper reaches of Coal Canyon. That evening in the falling twilight he slid along rapidly toward the east end of the barranca. In the gathering semidarkness he became an indiscernible shadow gliding through the chaparral.
As night fell he reached a narrow ledge overlooking the freeway. Heavy traffic could be seen and heard from his vantage point. The star-filled sky faintly illumined the undisturbed wilderness beyond the frightful flow of roaring machines. He watched motionless for about an hour, then without a sound moved cautiously to a rise closer to the freeway and sat there watching cars go by for the rest of the night, afraid, waiting to make his move.
Puma’s ancestors had hunted this wilderness for centuries among grizzly bear and countless deer, antelope, and other wildlife. Mountain lions coexisted with early men who gathered acorns in the dense oak forests and went hunting and fishing here.
As he waited by the freeway, ancestral memories dissolved into his recent trauma. When searching for broader hunting grounds, he had wandered into a cul-de-sac and climbed a shady oak tree in a well-manicured backyard to rest. He watched a man scurrying into the house looking very much like prey. Soon after, steel monsters with flashing red lights appeared and beamed fiery eyes at him from all sides. Puma was stung by a large flying needle and stunned. He fell from the tree, growled once, then foundered into drowsiness and sudden sleep.
Puma awoke sick and alone in the chaparral. He roamed hungry, thirsty and disoriented over unfamiliar ground. He entered a deep canyon and came to a place where the wind could not reach and all was hush and peaceful. A narrow stream opened into a quiet pool. He crossed a small meadow and stopped by the side of the pool. With drooping head and half shut eyes he lapped the cool water.
Beyond the pool the land rose gently, covered by a blanket of green, velvety grass. A cottontail moved. Puma froze and his body slowly sunk low to hug the ground as his muscles vibrated with new life. On the slope blossoms of manzanita wafted their spring fragrance. The air was sharp and light. Butterflies drifted from shadows to sunshine like fluttering spots of color. Puma could hear the drowsy hum of bees as his gaze stayed locked on the rabbit who moved from morsel to morsel unaware of the ominous presence. Occasionally the rabbit froze and its long ears quivered, monitoring changes in the bubbling sound of the stream. Carefully, in small spurts, it gradually moved around the pool, closer and closer to the great, motionless cat. For an instant the rabbit’s head lifted and tensed with eagerness, trying to capture the almost inaudible sound of a beating heart. In that instant the king bolted and leaped, his deadly jaws breaking the small prey’s back.
Food and sleep restored Puma to full vigor. His sharp instincts returned with the first whiff of a female whose irresistible scent he began to follow along the narrow canyon until he reached the freeway. She had successfully crossed the wide river of roaring lights and established her range out there in that unexplored land beyond.
Puma was now on the rise at the edge of the canyon, patiently waiting for his chance to cross. In the chilly hours of the night preceding dawn the traffic died down. With the first light of dawn a soft coastal mist covered the wild hills like a veil. Every fiber of Puma’s being was impelled by his mating instinct to cross. A primordial perception quickened his heart, the lure of virgin land, essential space, where he could be all he was meant to be, a king mighty and free. There were no moving lights out there, no deafening roars to shatter the starlit, musical silence of the night.
He patiently observed the traffic, slowly gathering the courage to cross. Twice he rose to make his move, but thunderous speeding trucks made him squat again. He must act soon while the shadowless dawn made him indiscernible.
As the first colors appeared causing the stars to shyly go into hiding one by one, Puma, with pounding heart, cautiously tread onto the moist, silent asphalt. He was past midway, almost on the other side, when he heard the roar and saw the brute lunging at him out of the mist with lightning speed. Screeching tires. An aborted leap. The deadly thud of impact. He was violently hurled through the air and fell in the dirt of the roadway’s shoulder where the open land began. The dark killer swerved to a grinding, squealing stop, leaving long sinewy tracks on the pavement. Its driver dashed out, cursing. Then, recognizing the lion, he approached cautiously and stopped at a safe distance to watch the broken creature drag itself in dreadful agony into the safety of the chaparral.
Now, concealed by dense bushes, Puma listened to the machine’s roar fading in the distance until there was only the sound of his own heartbeat. Torment choked his being. The fragrance of the spring breeze mixed with the mating message was still there. He inched further amidst the shadows, entering the morning of his last night. He stopped to vomit blood. The innocent feral heart stemmed beating for a moment. The last call of the wild stirred his wonder-filled memories, blending with the impermanent silence of a desecrated land. From this imperfect refuge Puma entered the timeless hunting grounds where the wind is an eternal caress and the only roar is that of the immortal lion.
Who can explain what makes human hearts insensitive to the splendor of the earth, what blinds human eyes to beauty, what prevents human ears from hearing the song of nature? This terrible disorder of the soul is a menace to all life. This nameless fear that separates many from the earth must be finally overcome.
From the oceans, the mountains, the valleys, the forests, ever louder comes the last call of the wild reverberating beyond the limits of the solar system. A haunting, mighty appeal to save the very source of our humanity: wilderness, where it all began, where what lies behind life itself can be contacted. The last call of the wild is a mighty invocation of life longing for itself.