In his book Caught in Fading Light, Gary Thorp recounts his quest to spot a cougar in the mountains of northern California. Using the literary form of nikki bungaku, a traditional Japanese diary-writing style, he explores what it really means to seek, to discover, and to find.

In his late twenties, John Muir was temporarily blinded in a freak industrial accident. This event was the catalyst in Muir’s life, changing him forever. Although he had written scattered notes to himself from time to time, Muir now began to keep a journal regularly. He seemed to be possessed of a new vision entirely, and began to sing the praises of light. “I know not a single word fine enough for light,” he said. He wrote of the “soul” of light, the “glories” of light, the “ethereality” of light, and even compared his own existence to that of “a flake of glass through which light passes.”

Tonight, I consider that I have squandered my time by reading of Muir’s many kinds of light when I seem to have so little of my own. I have been unable to discover, even, whether or not he’d ever seen a cougar. I have shoved his books aside so that I can sit quietly and brood about the stars. Their light brings history into the present. I can follow the calligraphy of their movements and can, by referring to a star map, even find specific stars by name. So why can’t I find a cougar? Why can’t I see an animal that breathes the same air as I do and shares the same ground? It is illogical and exasperating to think that my search might be as meaningless as the countless years that carry these distant points of light.

I have spent weeks studying blindness, perception, and the dark. I have walked, steeped in the dew of night, wondering about the many elusive things I can’t see. I have driven for miles, hoping to see a mountain lion but seeing only tree trunks, brush, broken glass, scattered buildings, deer, elk, raccoons, rabbits, mice, foxes, opossums, and a lunatic shrew.

John Muir said that the power of our imagination was what made us infinite, but my emotions are telling me that my own imagination may have led me into a wasteful blunder. I try to distinguish the differences between unrealized ambition and feckless desire. In many ways, I have changed mightily from the man who once sat in front of the nightly news. But something unresolved still bothers me. Perhaps it is merely that I am not yet aware of how many things I have learned, of how many ways I’ve changed.

After putting on a sweater, I step outside and take a cool breath of night air. The Zen teachers always said that one breath contains the answers to all our questions. I sit down on the rough planks of our front deck and fold my legs beneath me. Before long, my breathing regulates itself, and I pay it no attention. The night comes into me at the same time as blindness and ambition are expelled. I sit for a long time, maybe for an hour, and then the darkness subtly begins to lean its way toward morning.

From Caught in Fading Light: Mountain Lions, Zen Masters, and Wild Nature, © 2002 by Gary Thorp. Reprinted with permission of Walker & Company.

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