One of the best things to happen to Iowa City this fall has been the mountain lion. I know, I know. There may not even be a mountain lion. Maybe people saw a big kitty, or a deer, or, heck, even a dog. It doesn’t matter. Whether ol’ Snagglepuss is as real as a downtown parking ticket or as imaginary as the white-cuffed-and-collared, pink-hued cartoon cat who just wants to exit stage left, it doesn’t matter. He (or she) has contributed much to the sense of the commons in Iowa City.
I’ll talk more about “the commons” next month in anticipation of the visit to our community by Jay Walljasper, author of the recent book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, on Nov. 8 and 9. (Mark your calendars!) Suffice it to say for now that “the commons” is, most simply, what we share. What we share brings us together and what brings us together strengthens our community. Our common interest in and “ownership” of clean air and water is one of the most significant examples of the commons. But the commons is also about the stories and experiences we share. And for the last few weeks, we’ve shared “the mountain lion.”
For those of you who have been living in a den for the past month, our community has been subject to several (unconfirmed) reports of a mountain lion prowling the streets, trails and grocery stores of Iowa City. In early September, the cat was spotted near Horn School on the west side of town. By later in the month, Kitty had moved on up to the east side, when a patron and two First Avenue Hy-Vee employees spotted the elusive feline on the grocery store grounds. (Hey, that’s my neighborhood!) These sightings spurred several other reports in subsequent days.
There might be a mountain lion (or cougar, or panther, or puma or catamount–I don’t know my cats well, but my understanding is these are all about the same thing) in Iowa City. It would be somewhat rare, though, especially if it were wild, as they are rather solitary and territorial and greatly prefer low population densities. If Big Kitty is lurking about Shakespeare’s Pub and Mayflower Hall, as the most recent reports (as of this writing) suggest, he or she is probably an escaped exotic “pet”–which is probably a bigger problem than a wildcat on the loose, as it really wouldn’t quite know what it’s doing and is more habituated to people.
Or there might not be a mountain lion. We have surprisingly impressionable and suggestible minds. The world is rife with UFOs, Nessies and Sasquatches, so why not a mountain lion in Iowa City? It wouldn’t be the first instance of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds.
So, Louie, welcome to Iowa City. I don’t care if you’re real or not. You’ve already provided a lot of social capital for our community. Some people have laughed with each other. Some people have been legitimately frightened and drawn their children and pets a little closer. Some people have posted funny things on Facebook. Some people have shared their stories of running or biking or walking past Iowa City police officers patrolling the trail behind Hy-Vee with shotguns. Some people have made a temporary hobby of looking for new cougar reports on the daily police log and sharing that information with friends and loved ones, just because. Some people have gone on the radio and TV to share information about what mountain lions are, their likelihood of being in our community or not and what you should do if you encounter one. Some people have engaged in “did you hear…?” conversations–out of concern or bemusement or amusement–over the backyard fence or in the grocery store.
And in the course of all these exchanges, the mountain lion has entered Iowa City lore and has provided a common experience, fanciful or not, for us to share, helping us weave small but important threads of story and community together. In so doing, the mountain lion has contributed to the Iowa City commons, in its own small way. Thanks, Kitty Kitty, wherever you are. Come on back anytime.