Jeff VanderMeer, Florida panther

A post from the indefatiguably brilliant writer, editor and publisher Jeff VanderMeer about a moment of grace:

Hiking in North Florida, twelve miles in, I had an animal encounter that has stuck with me for over fifteen years. It was mid-afternoon, and I had already begun to have a sense of urgency from passing through swampy forest, with woods meeting a dank black water gutter, the place I’ve most often seen bear and heard things rustling in the darkness that the imagination assigns horrible forms to. Hiking alone is a different experience than hiking with someone. Conversation distracts from the still, standing water, from the reflections of cypress knees and the oppressive feel to the air, the sky blocked by scraggly pine trees. This, too, is the corridor where wild pigs once charged toward me, and while the danger is minimal, the imagination magnifies it, and in the absence of company the mind exaggerates. “Nature” in this context is something aggressive. Once through that gauntlet, you feel foolish for these thoughts.

In those final miles on the trail, where I had the encounter, the sun is so bright in the summer that you actually feel a little delirious, even though you know this is a mirage–you have water and you’re still hobbling through your blisters and petty aches.

Hot, tired, just wanting to reach the end, I came to a halt when a big cat suddenly padded onto the trail some two hundred feet ahead. I quickly took a look through my binoculars and I kept looking and looking yet again. Because I kept trying to identify the animal as “bobcat” or “lynx”—anything other than Florida panther. It couldn’t possibly be a panther, I reasoned—they’re so rare. But it was a panther, and I just stood there as it approached, down-wind from me, sniffing, appearing to not see me. My legs were weary and I couldn’t have begun to outrun it. I didn’t have anything with which to defend myself. All I could do is watch it approach. All I could do is let the panther decide how this was all going to turn out. It was a humbling and spiritual moment. I felt totally engaged, and completely exposed as well; it was as if I were more utterly myself as I watched the panther and yet not there at all.

A minute later, the panther wandered off the trail again, about forty feet from me. It truly hadn’t seen me, or had no interest in me, even as I had been acutely interested in it. When it didn’t reappear for several minutes, I walked past where it had left the trail, and saw nothing else until I reached my car. Later, it all felt like a dream I’d dreamt, a hallucination that I kept trying to believe was real. But now, so many years later, I don’t try to deny I saw the panther. I just keep trying as hard as possible to hold on to the details of every second of that brief encounter.

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