Lessons of Peace from Wild Animals by Janet Marie Sola

Lessons of peace from wild animals  by Janet Marie Sola

This last fall I finally realized a long dreamed-of trip to see the mysterious and beautiful wild animals of the Serengeti in East Africa: the legendary lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, zebras, ostriches as well as some we had never heard of: the tiny antelopes called dik-diks, the four-foot tall secretary bird, so called because of its quill-like head feathers.

On the first evening walking on the footpath from my tent to the campfire, a menacing head appeared in the tall grass. I recognized the profile instantly: the upright spotted ears, the slouched posture: a hyena, not 20 feet away, staring right at me. I froze. What should I do? All of the images I had seen on endless nature videos came back at me: predators lying in wait for their prey, the heart-stopping chase (where you’re partly rooting for the gazelle to get away from the lion, partly for the lion trying to feed her hungry cubs.) Nature programs are all about the hunt and the kill: a cycle of appetite and instinct where animals live in fear and conflict. In fact, when you think about it, most media is about that, building an audience by focusing only on the drama. So much of our perception of the world is built around those images.

The next day, we rose in the dark and drove in 4 x 4’s along bumpy dirt roads. When the red and gold river of the sunrise began to flood the horizon, it illuminated the endless and seemingly empty grass plain of the Serengeti. But soon enough our guide’s trained eyes began to spot animals. A family of giraffes, moving like slow motion dancers, were nibbling on the shoots of the acacia trees. A cheetah appeared a shadow of gold smoke in the tall grass. She was still; she seemed to be contemplating a bare tree in her sight line as if she was meditating. (I knew it was a she. She was pregnant.)  Further down the road, a group of lions lounged in the shade. In a wetland’s shallow pond, an entire community of hippos lolled about, fat islands of contentment. When a sudden downpour came, they opened their huge mouths upward to capture the rain.

In the late afternoon, we stopped at a water hole, surrounded by low hills that were dotted here and there with bushes and flat-topped trees. A couple of long legged birds were poking around at the water’s edge. Then a zebra came over a hill, striking in its coat of black and white stripes, followed by another and another. Soon after a family of warthogs arrived, trotting purposefully as if they had an important message to deliver.  They all lowered their heads to drink.

It came to me not as a thought but a feeling—a peaceful afternoon of animals sharing a resource in their natural land.  While evolved strategies for food survival are part of their lives they are not all of it. The media focus on flight and fight aside, much of the time the animals of the great natural parks of Africa live in peace. Who is to say they do not NOT enjoy their time at the waterhole, the rain in their faces, and a lazy afternoon of contemplation? Who is to say they don’t also experience caring for their fellow creatures? Darwin posited that the emotions of all animals, including humans, evolved in a complex weave. Despite the later denial of the behaviorists, it is now widely accepted that animals have a wide range of experiences and feelings: mice can have fun, whales fall in love, and elephants suffer from PTSD. And empathy provides the social glue that binds creatures to each other.

In our time there, we saw two male lion companions, one without his right eye and a lame rear leg. His healthy brother was alongside him, turning every so often to make sure his disabled brother caught up with him. They had been together for years, our guide told us. 

             Caring for each other, and living in peace, really is a natural state, one we share with all creatures, part of our birthright. As A. A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame) said: “Some people talk to the animals. Not many listen though. And that is the problem.” Oh, and in case you’re still wondering about the hyena on my path, after staring at me for what seemed like a very long minute, he smiled his weird hyena smile and turned toward the more interesting view of the sunset. Perhaps just to contemplate it in peace.

Ashland resident Janet Marie Sola, a former journalist, now writes fiction. Her writing has been published in Painted Bride, Forge, San Francisco Chronicle and more. Her novel, The Overnight Palace, is a story of art, romance and transformation set in India. She can be reached at her website janetmariesola.com or at solajanetmarie@gmail.com.

 

 

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