Bruno D'Amicis - Dream first… (looong post!)
On February 2011, I have been sitting for a total of seventy hours over ten days on the same spot. Sitting on the very same turf almost every sunrise and sunset. In 2010, I had given up doing this much earlier. Motionless under a camouflage blanket, I had to pay attention not to breathe with my mouth to prevent condensation to form on the camera’s viewfinder in the cold winter air and to keep my mind active to not fall asleep.
Few people had observed it, some said “it happened right there” –in the nice forest meadow at 900 metres of altitude that I was patiently scanning with my eyes for the 10,000th time. I was waiting for something I had never seen, something I did not even know if was there: I was waiting for a dream to come true. Surely, it was not the first time I had been waiting in a hide for an animal to appear, just that this would have usually meant waiting for a more or less likely event, that I knew could occurr and where the odds were mostly on my side. Here, I was just hanging on a rumor; an idea; maybe, a dream.
“It is almost impossible to see one, let alone photograph it!”, that was pretty much all I kept on hearing when I made inquiries with biologists about the wildcat in my Region. Some rangers, loggers and shepherds had observed it once or twice in their life, and even I had one night an encounter with a sturdy, greenish cat with a ringed tail crossing in front of my car lights while driving through a forest: still, nothing to be sure about. That and some small footprints in the snow were all I could say about this animal, but they left me thirsty for more.
Even though it should not be very rare at middle altitudes in the mixed deciduous forests of the Apennines, Felis sylvestris is surely not an obliging species, one which makes itself renowned among people. Shy and elusive, we really do not know much about its biology and some even doubt its existence, this because of to the possible hybridization with the feral cats that apparently infest our woods.
“But what about all the fabulous pictures taken by French photographers like Fabrice Cahez or Jöel Brunet, or those by the Scottish Laurie Campbell?”, I was wondering… There should have been a way; it must have been possible! I was jealous of those images and desperately wanted my own wildcat experience. I was motivated, all right, but had no clue where to start. The only idea that kept growing in my head is that cats are animals of habit. I could testify this many times by observing my own cats at home: they basically do always the same things and move always following the same routes. Perhaps waiting for a wildcat on a place where it had been previously observed at a suitable time of the day could have been a good idea. Then, as soon as I heard of some reliable observation, I immediately went to investigate myself. The spot was perfect: an abandoned pasture all surrounded by oakwoods that stretched itself at the foothills of a steep, rocky slope covered in evergreen shrubs. For what I had learned from the few books and papers existing on the species (in the meanwhile, I did my homework…), it looked like a promising, wildcat paradise. And, most important, it was not far from my house.
That is how I came sitting at the rim of the meadow, concentrating my efforts during the species’ mating season (generally mid-February to mid-March) in 2010 and 2011, when the animals should have been more active. I had been going there so many times, both under a pale sun or the falling snow, and with not a single result whatsoever, that my girlfriend soon stopped asking me where I was going or, when I returned home, how it went. I saw just a hare once, a roe deer and a fox maybe a couple of times. Friends too were reluctant in asking me about my progresses: it became almost embarassing for me to call that “work” in front of others and, at a certain point, I started considering the routine of driving half an hour, walking twenty minutes to reach the place and sitting under the camouflage blanket for two-three hours, morning and evening, just as every other healthy exercises to be undertaken between long sessions at the computer. But, how long could it go on? When would the professional come and kick the dreamer away?
And then, one frosty morning, I heard it: a far, wild, almost extraterrestrial “meeeooow”! It came from the rocks on the slope, about two hundred meters from my position. Istinctively, almost to check if it was true, I answered to it, trying my best to imitate the call with my voice. Two minutes later, a ball of fur the color of the grass in winter came bolting out of the forest and straight toward me.
My hands were wet with cold sweat, my heart was drumming, my mouth was dry and my head dizzy, as I tried to keep the moving animal in the narrow field of view of my 500 mm. 40 metres: click… 30 metres: click… 20… The male cat was coming closer, eager to figure out where the “intruder” was hiding. Then it stopped, starring straight at me. Despite the hide fabric and the many layers of clothes I was wearing, I felt like naked: those eyes of jade pierced my heart through the lens. It was beautiful, in the morning frost. The ringed tail was there, so as the long black stripe along its back and the white patch on its throat. That and everything else matched the “official” description of the species. I could not believe my luck: it was there! And its existence was now a secret just between us two.
Then, as it is often the case, I made a clumsy movement with my shoulder and shook the hide fabric: just a little, but enough to scare the cat away and make it disappear into the bushes on the other side of the meadow. I was sorry, but exhilarated. The wildcat was not a dream anymore, but just five kilos of flesh, fur and wildness: now, the real “work” for me could start.
Yet, as I went back home and the images from that magic encounter were spinning in my head, I could not help myself from indulging just a little longer in that sweet, impossible daydream that had accompanied me for so long…
Location: Abruzzi, Italy
Tags: abruzzi, bruno damicis, felix sylvestris, italy, mountains, wild cat, wilderness, winter