Written by guest blogger, Darren Johnson.
Darren Johnson is the author of Taking a Walk on the Wild Side, a blog born out of his personal love of nature and his desire to help youth and adults improve their lives through higher self-esteem, good decision making and strengthening family bonds by building a relationship with nature. He spends as much time as possible in nature activities such as hiking, photography, food plot and habitat development, and other conservation projects. Darren believes that an active relationship with nature is one of the best things a person can do to reduce stress while improving their overall health and happiness.
As I slowly moved through the dark field toward the forest, I heard the sound of running in the woods ahead. I stopped to listen, expecting that it was just a deer I had spooked in my pre-dawn clumsiness. Instead, what I heard chilled me to my core. The running got more intense, as if more than one animal was making the sound. This was followed immediately by sounds of a desperate struggle as if an animal was rolling around on the forest floor fighting to get up. Then something similar to a loud guttural scream pierced the air, followed by a short silence, then the sound of something large being drug across the forest floor.
I froze, totally consumed with fear. I hadn’t ever heard any sound like this before. My heart was telling me to turn and run to the safety of the truck but my body was froze motionless. I remember trying to be quiet but at the same time feeling like I was gasping for air. I slowly turned to look at my hunting partner to see if he had also heard it. I was hoping that somehow, I had imagined the whole incident but the look in his eyes told me otherwise.
By now, the forest was silent again as we stood in the field desperately trying to figure out what to do. My mind raced to try to rationalize the sound as something mundane and not dangerous. Try as I might, I kept coming back to the same conclusion, that we had heard a mountain lion bring down a deer on that pre-dawn morning.
Fear to a reasonable degree is a good thing. It is part of our internal defense system that works to prevent us from making poor decisions or getting caught up in dangerous situations. Fear is a good thing as long as we don’t let it dominate our thought processes and actions. Simply put, fear is one component of our internal risk management system where unconsciously, we assess the potential reward compared to the potential risk before taking action.
For much of my life, I have been exploring the fields, woods and waterways. That means that I have spent more than my share of time outside in dark conditions. I inherently have come to grips with most of the risks and subconsciously deal with them rather than fear them. These include minor things such as tripping over logs I can’t see, sliding down hillsides or falling into creeks. It could even include more significant risks such as coming in contact with venomous snakes or other predators.
By nature, I am a very analytical person (my wife would even say over-analytical and after intense analysis, I would have to say that she’s right) but on that fateful day, my analytical side abandoned me and my emotional side took over. Perhaps it was the magnitude of the sound in an otherwise silent forest, maybe it was the darkness or just the fear of the unknown. Maybe it was the combination of many factors but regardless of what caused it, fear consumed me for the moment.
This type of fear can be seen all around us on an almost daily basis. The media tries to create fear to gain audiences for their product. Living in Indiana, I am amazed how the local media tries to make every 1 to 4 inch snowstorm seem like a natural disaster. It works though, as TV weather forecast ratings go up and stores sell out of milk and bread in anticipation of the “white death” that is coming.
Parents try to create this fear within their children by making exaggerated claims like “if you don’t do well in school, you won’t make it into college and be able to get a good job so you’ll end up homeless!” Stores try to scare us into buying the latest fad or trendy product by saying things like, “Get yours now before we’re sold out and they’re gone forever!”
The media also over blows the coverage of deadly human interaction with predators. A single encounter makes the news for weeks while the multitude of murders, rapes and other abuses in our cities hardly makes the news at all. Again, it is the media trying to create an emotional attachment to the story so that their audience expands, a “fear factor” so to speak.
If we stop to think about any of these situations for just a moment, it doesn’t take us long to determine that the majority of the time, there is no real reason for fear. There is reason to prepare, and be cautious, but fear in these cases is nothing more than an impediment to achieving our goal.
It is the same with encountering predators in the wild. If you spend any length of time whatsoever in the wild, you will come in contact with predators. Most of the time, you won’t even be aware of this contact as the predator avoids you and all is good. Some times, you might see the predator as they are fleeing, which again presents no real danger to you. Only occasionally, a statistically insignificant portion of the time, does this situation present any potential for danger to you. For those few times where an adversarial meeting between you and the predator might happen, keeping a cool head and logically responding can mitigate any danger to you. Knowing the behaviors of each predator and how best to respond is more productive than fear ever will be. Dealing with this situation logically rather than emotionally puts you back in control of the situation and allows you to enjoy your outdoor activity.
To put it in perspective, think of the thousands of bears, mountain lions and wolves in the U.S. today. Next, think of the thousands of hikers, hunters, fishers and picnickers who hit the trails every day. The combination of people and predators being in the same general locale at the same time presents the possibility of many encounters each day. Yet when you count the actual number of fatal encounters with all of these predators combined in any given year, you can count them on your fingers. A handful of instances spread over thousands (maybe millions) of interactions make the fear of predators unfounded.
While we can mathematically prove there is not a significant risk of a deadly encounter with a predator, we do know that this fear exists in some people and must be dealt with. First and foremost is to acknowledge the fear and don’t try to deny it. Understand the statistical magnitude of the risk or in other words, realize how little at risk you actually are. Realize that the fear might not be as rational or justified as you originally thought it was. I believe the next step is to refuse to be defeated by the fear and decide to productively manage it. Then you can prepare by educating yourself on how to best deal with the potential threat. Knowing what to do, if the situation ever arises, will empower you to be able to enjoy your connection with nature to the fullest.
To illustrate the power of emotion and fear working together, let’s look at this question. For your children’s sake, which you should be more fearful of, a gun kept in a house with children (with ammunition present also) or the same house with children and a swimming pool? From an emotional standpoint, most everyone including myself, would initially be more fearful of the house with the gun. I own several guns but it just feels more dangerous than a swimming pool, which elicits thoughts of summertime fun. The statistics in the U.S., however, prove otherwise. Household swimming pools cause about one child drowning death for every 11,000 households with pools. Considering there are about 6 million pools, this means that on average 550 children die each year. Child gun deaths currently average about one for every one million households with guns. While there about 200 million guns estimated to be stored in households, this results in about 175 child deaths each year due to a gun kept in the house. So which has reason to be more fearful, guns or swimming pools? Clearly it is swimming pools with approximately one death for every 11,000 households compared to guns with one death for every 1 million households. In fact, swimming pools are about 90 times more likely to cause a child’s death than a gun but I bet you haven’t seen anyone on the news promoting a “turn in your swimming pool” program, have you?
Can guns in a household result in a dangerous situation? Absolutely, but the vast majority of gun owners are responsible people who use caution, education and logic to effectively manage the risk rather than fear. Can bears and mountain lions harm you? Absolutely, but you can effectively manage this risk also by means other than fearful avoidance of nature.
So, how did I deal with my “mountain lion” encounter that day years ago? After calming myself down, I came up with three possible scenarios. First, we had totally misunderstood the sounds and it was not what we thought (I didn’t believe it, but it’s possible). Second, we had interpreted the sounds correctly, but it was another predator, likely the much more common and smaller bobcat. Third, it had been a mountain lion but it now had a full stomach and that meant it was not on the prowl for more food. I don’t know which of the three is correct, but they all meant the same thing. It was safe to continue our expedition, which we enjoyed very much without any mountain lion sightings that day.
While you should definitely recognize your fears, you should work to manage them rather than be controlled by them. Now go live your life, not your nightmare!