You rarely see a corpse in the woods, but it happens now and then.
One evening, a couple of months after I’d come to live in the canyon, I was hurrying along an unfamiliar path at dusk. As I rounded a bend in the trail, my eyes on my shoes, a voice in my head said, “look up,” and when I did, I was just one step short of plummeting headfirst into a steep, rocky ravine.
I gripped onto a nearby sapling to catch my breath and my balance, and then peered over the edge to see just how far the fall would have been. There, some twenty feet below, lay the broken body of a young buck, his rack of antlers half-grown and velvety, his dead eye open and dull. How was it this creature—the very symbol of effortless grace—would come to take such a clumsy misstep and plunge to his death? How terrified he must have been to forget himself like that.
In those days my knowledge of predators was limited. At the time I asked myself, if it had been a pack of coyotes that chased it, why was the carcass left uneaten, intact in a wild place where nothing is wasted? But now, having lived in the wild for the last couple of years, I suspect it was a mountain lion that scared the poor thing off the cliff and that I had stumbled onto the scene moments before a feast. No doubt, the cougar had heard me a mile away—hidden in plain sight nearby, maybe draped on the branch of a live oak. I was lucky to be so unskilled, to announce myself so noisily. It gave the great cat time to grant me some grace, as I, the interloper, cut an inelegant path through the chaparral. […]