Leaving the Mother Country

The day I arrived in Los Angeles from San Francisco in 1991, I was sad and fully unprepared for how weird a place it was. I spent years—too many—at war with L.A. for all the regular reasons: traffic, pollution, shootings, police helicopters dive-bombing our house at night. I would leave often, for months at a time, to be closer to my heart geography—Northern California, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, where I could write in peace, but also feel the wild nature nearby pushing me to be something better and brighter.

I stayed in L.A. for decades, mostly against my will. But there were a few wonderful reasons to remain; love and children and a home built over twenty years rooted to the same ground. The quiet walks with my dog in the early morning darkness of Elysian Park, the wintry evenings in Griffith when you actually needed a sweater. Those falcons in May, the bobcats, the summer wildflowers. L.A. could be so heartbreakingly beautiful. And then there was P-22, the world’s most famous mountain lion. I know I am not the only one who fell in love with the ‘loneliest cat’ in L.A. Yet, somehow, these gifts of L.A. were not enough. My heart never found its place there among the noise and pollution.

The journey out and eventually to Iceland, where I now live, was via a small cabin in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. We would use it to get away from the Southland. And every time we pulled out of the woods after a month or two and headed back to L.A., I cried. I didn’t want to go back. I loved the cabin so much that we kept it and moved to Iceland anyway. 

In a larger sense, my move to Iceland was probably a move not just from L.A. but from the recklessness of California’s tension between capitalism and growth and the vanishing natural world. I had been born to a wilder and less inhabited Northern California. I swore I’d never leave the place I called home where there were still streams you could drink from, and a natural world not yet sullied by hordes of tourists. It still pains me that I did leave; or really felt I had to for my sanity. There were other problems, too, that seemed deeply rooted in American culture and made me increasingly anxious and depressed. Iceland felt like home. What could be better for someone desperate for the wild society of nature than living on a giant windswept rock in the North Atlantic where fire erupts from the ground and falls freeze into ice sheets over cliffs.

Then something happened. On December 17, 2022, my beloved L.A.connection P-22 died. Sitting in my apartment in Reykjavik, I fell apart. Nothing made me think of Los Angeles as home more than that reclusive cat had while I lived there. P-22 was to me a solitary apparition, roaming without benefit of mate or offspring, tagged by wildlife biologists to be studied and evaluated, seen as an “only in L.A.” celebrity who was known throughout the world. His most daring and improbable feat was crossing two ten-lane freeways from the Santa Monica mountains to his new and final home, Griffith Park. He lived there without a mate and largely alone for the rest of his life, with a fraction of the room he needed for an adequate home range.

But P-22, who liked to hang out in the sun under the Hollywood sign, was also a majestic puma born like all mountain lions with remarkable agility. His dexterity and innate cunning—intrinsic qualities of cougars—may explain why he managed to evade death crossing the world’s largest freeways. In 2016, cameras at the L.A. Zoo caught him leaping over an eight-foot wall and mauling a sleeping Koala to death.  Zookeepers decided, against policy, not to trap and kill P-22. Instead, they adapted to his wildness (and possibly his celebrity) by keeping the zoo animals inside at night. 

P-22, like all mountain lions, was very rarely seen, no small feat in a park visited by millions of people each year. When I look at pictures of him, I am struck every time by his regal stature. P-22’s natural stealth and independence was typical of his species. His hind legs were so strong he, like most mountain lions, was able to leap forty feet horizontally and up to eighteen feet in the air. He became a symbol to me of enduring strength and power even under the most difficult circumstances. Sometimes, in my darkest hours, I would think of him and gather my own courage. 

It can’t have been easy living in Griffith Park, though for P-22 there were plentiful deer and enough water to stay alive. Space, or in his case, lack of it, was his greatest challenge. It is remarkable that he survived there at all because mountain lions, as a rule, have the largest “home ranges” of any mammal in the Americas. One hundred-twenty-five square miles is a general estimate for their needs, but sixty square miles will do. Griffith Park, where P-22 deteriorated and died is six and a half square miles and bordered on every side by freeways and boulevards. It is no place for a lion.

At the end of his life P-22 was captured and evaluated after he attacked two domestic dogs. Alarmed by his movements, the biologists who monitored, and loved him, finally sedated him, and brought him in for an examination. Not only did he suffer head trauma and an eye injury from being struck by a car, but he exhibited signs of kidney failure and appeared to have a parasitic skin condition. 

I am comforted by the love and care the biologists had for him, that they brought him in and away from further depletion and humiliation. I’d heard about his deteriorating state after he was hit by a car. I often wondered who hit him, if they knew they’d just collided with the most famous mountain lion in the world. The driver left the scene. Witnesses said they saw a dark sedan luxury car driving away after striking the puma. And wasn’t it just so L.A. that the beginning of the end of P-22’s final passage of time on Earth was instigated by someone hitting him with their luxury car and fleeing the scene? 

When P-22 was captured, his list of health issues was exhaustive, and too serious to fix. It was time to say goodbye and he was humanely euthanized on December 17, 2022. Miraculously, P-22 did manage to live a long life, somewhere between twelve and thirteen years, before he was put down. This is perhaps what I love most about him. In spite of it all, he persevered and even outdid the ten-year average lifespan for his kind. 

His celebrity status made it possible for him to become the face of a much needed campaign to build a wildlife bridge so wild animals can safely cross into other parts of untamed Los Angeles. Yet, I can’t help but feel rage and confusion over our monumental failure with this animal and so many others like him. His difficult life and unseemly death reveal our collective failure to protect all wildlife, urban and otherwise, and not just for the animals but for all of us. I am constantly baffled that people don’t realize humans are inextricably part of an ecosystem and the protection of one animal protects us all. P-22 faced challenges that no mountain lion should have to endure and his hardships and eventual deterioration, much of it human-induced, struck me as cruel and senseless.

I don’t know if it’s fair to project loneliness on a distinctly solitary animal like a mountain lion. But if P-22 felt any “loneliness” as I might understand it, it would probably fall under a vague category of homelessness. I would sometimes imagine him roaming at night, hunting and mourning for the natural order—a mate and offspring and plentiful land on which to wander. I can’t help but believe that on some instinctual level he knew that something profoundly true to his nature was missing. I saw him as the archetype of rootlessness, cast into a world ravaged by human indifference.

And that was just the way I’d felt so often about myself living in crowded, filthy, violent Los Angeles. My plan had been to move back home to San Francisco, but things kept happening— a fight for my life with addiction, family, children, work—and when real estate skyrocketed there, it became an impossible dream. I would not get back home ever, I realized. Instead of a freeway,it was American capitalism that kept me from living the life that I somehow believed I needed in order to flourish and feel my deep connection with the natural world. 

It is not fair, obviously, to compare my modern, urban, and incredibly privileged human desires to the hard and fast needs and instincts of a mountain lion. But I found my own humanity in the dignity of P-22, who was somehow condemned to live an unnatural life. I loved him. In P-22, I felt the noble qualities of suffering, of being denied, of being rooted out by the viciousness of a greedy world and one that seemed appallingly indifferent to nature and our biological need for a healthy Earth.

When I felt frustrated by the trash in the street and the never-ending brown-tinged skies, the lack of care for the addicted, the mentally ill and the homeless, the gunshots, the freeway mayhem of L.A., I experienced a growing fear that I would die in Los Angeles away from the places I loved. 

I craved the windswept Northern coastlines of California, Oregon and Washington, the big trees of Sequoia and the California Coastal Redwoods, the deserted empty plains of Wyoming. It was then, in those dark thoughts, that I would sometimes flash on P-22. And I would see in the hard circumstances of his life his courage and his bravery and his endless suffering yet his refusal to give up. He would not be taken down and who knows, if he hadn’t been hit by that car, maybe P-22 would have been allowed to live just a little longer and die freely and peacefully on the land, however small and compromised, that he knew as home. 

I left my mother country to find my home. I will not die, like P-22, in a city besieged by its disregard for the wild and natural world around it like he did. I don’t regret leaving. And though I mourned, crying for days after P-22 died, my attachment to what I left behind also finally and resolutely withered and fell away when he died. 

I am in a new place of vast, empty terrain, feral, uninhabited landscapes to explore, a place of silence, wind, water. Fire. Ice. A place that ignites my curiosity and creativity. And I like to think I feel what life might have been for P-22 if he’d lived in an earlier time before humans, machines and pollution encroached on his world.

Iceland is not a perfect country but in my mind it is better than most. Key to the country’s staunch environmental policies is a commitment to cut emission by 55% by 2040. In Iceland almost all heating and electricity is provided by hydro and geothermal energy. Afforestation, revegetation and the reclamation of drained wetlands are key projects, and by now well-established in Iceland’s ongoing efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere. I think it is why so many Americans come here to live. Because we lost hope in America to do the right thing for our Earth and the creatures that should be given the respect, the land, and the freedom they deserve. 

When P-22 blasted off, I hope, to the pristine forest of his afterlife, a place where he can wander freely for the rest of eternity, I felt somehow deeply ready to let go all of the hurt I felt living in Los Angeles, and in a larger sense, America. I felt most of all, that l could put away the sadness that came from living in that city’s overriding disrespect and indifference of the Earth on which it sits, the suffering of its least represented humans, and the stubborn nature of its failure to look directly at its weaknesses and accomplish much significant change. 

I forgive myself for not staying, for not fighting harder. But I had lost hope. And for an addict, even one like me—free, finally of the disease that wanted me dead—to live with extended, deep hope-loss is not safe. Depressed and longing for uncrowded open spaces and a place that values and preserves them, I made my escape. Though P-22 didn’t make it out alive—none of us will—mine was a last-ditch effort to save my spirit for the years I have left. It was my way of choosing to live as he never could. Whenever I am out exploring a new glacier, discovering a hidden waterfall, or hiking to a remote natural hot spring, I like to think that P-22’s spirit walks beside me, enjoying the space and beauty he deserved.

About the Author

Leslie Schwartz has written two award-winning novels, Jumping the Green and Angels Crest. and a memoir, The Lost Chapters; Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time. She won the James Jones Award for best first novel for Jumping the Green and was named Kalliope Magazine’s Woman Writer of the Year. She has also been the recipient of many awards, including three artist-in-residence grants from the L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs, the West Hollywood/Algonquin Award for Public Service in the Arts, and a California Council for the Humanities Fellowship. Her two novels have been published in 13 languages. Angels Crest was also adapted for the screen and premiered in theaters in 2013. Her essays and articles have most recently appeared in SalonLitHubThe RumpusBrevity, The Washington PostGreat Weather for Media, Pithead Chapel and Narratively Speaking. She has taught writing at various universities and creative institutions, and currently offers private mentoring and editing services. Schwartz holds an M.F.A. in Writing and is at work on her fourth book, a novel. For the past three years she has also been working on a project that includes digital media, an art installation and writings on silence, nature and creativity. She lives in Iceland, and in a remote cabin in Mt. Hood, Oregon.

Visit her online at www.leslieschwartz.com.

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