Monster of God – David Quammen

Walking downtown one day, a number of years ago, I was startled by a massive tawny head that peered around a concrete pillar and regarded me with a baleful, quizzical yellow glare. You don’t generally expect to run into a full-grown African lion in the heart of a teeming metropolis. I stopped dead, an act that attracted its immediate attention, despite the more jaded urbanites that crowded the sidewalk and barely glanced at this apparition of the savannah as they passed. There is something about being the focus of a predator’s gaze that puts a particular tingle in your day. Somewhere, buried very deep is that primodial recognition that there, but for the grace of God, go you….

Monster of God is a look at the role of the predator, in nature and in the mind of humanity, and the tenuous borders where the two uneasily mix. Author David Quammen looks at four “alpha” predators, creatures that live at the very apex of the food chain: The Gir lions of India, the crocodiles of Asia, Africa and Australia, the brown bear in Romania, and the Amur Siberian tigers of Asia. Monster of God looks at the relationship that the predator has with man, the social and cultural role of the predator, its key position within the natural world, and the deleterious impact the the burgeoning human population is having on the predator’s environment.

Monster of God is a thoughtful, intelligent and highly readable examination of how humanity lives with predators. Quammen looks at what is the acceptable role in today’s world for violent, essentially dangerous animals that can and quite readily do, kill people for food, their position as “keystone” species on the food chain, their position as totemic symbols within human history, language and culture (think about it, even today people are “lionized”) and how economic realities of hunting and farming may shape their future. He examines the disparities that exist across the world in attitudes towards alpha predators, particularly noting the fact that where predators and people most often, most tellingly meet, is among the poorer marginal fringes of human society, left to deal with the beasts that haunt the dark nights and quiet waterways. It’s easy to say “save the tigers” when you don’t have to cut wood in the forest to earn a living, or walk a cold trapline to support your family, hoping not to run into something hungry and toothy.

Here’s a brief excerpt: “Great and terrible flesh-eating beasts have always shared landscape with humans. They were part of the ecological matrix within which Homo sapiens evolved. They were part of the psychological context in which our sense of identity as a species arose. They were part of the spiritual systems we invented for coping. The teeth of big predators, their claws, their ferocity and their hunger, were grim realities that could be eluded but not forgotten. Every once in a while, a monsterous carnivore emerged like doom from a forest or a river to kill someone and feed on the body. It was a familiar sort of disaster – like auto fatalities today – that must have seemed freshly, shockingly gruesome each time, despite the familiarity. And it conveyed a certain message. Among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat.”

For more on the Gir lions, check out The Indian Wildlife Portal and the Gujarat Forest site.

For some further background on crocs, check out this site, or just hang out with the Crocodile Hunter.

One of the interesting facts that Quammen touches upon in his book is the hunting excesses of Romanian Communist strongman Ceausescu, who was notorious for, among other things, turning Romania’s wildlife managment system into his own personal game shooting park, slaughtering every large beast that came within reach, including 24 brown bears in a single day.

Check out the Chauvet Cave site for a marvelous look at some of the earliest known prehistoric art, featuring, among others, some superlative depictions of lions…

Finally, if you have a literary turn, you can always peruse the quintessential story of man versus monster – the tale of Beowulf, King of the Geats, in his rending, bloody battle with the fearsome Grendal…

My downtown lion? He was being used to advertise some new boutique that was opening. I don’t recall the name of the store, but I will long remember the grace, dignity, strength and banked, predatory gaze of that lion…even though he was sprawled across a mailbox of all things…

Comments are always welcome. Bloggers, please drop me a link if you like what you read. Thanks!

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