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The young male lion’s skull lay forlorn on the edge of a hollow. It had once held water, but now it has dried to a desolation of cracked mud. Around, a calcific flat stretched away in scrub-mottled grey to a thin blur of trees on the horizon. It was a bitter picture.
I looked around. Nowhere on the bleached surface could I see even a single bone from the rest of the skeleton. Had the scavengers felt awkward about desecrating the countenance of the young king and avoided it, but carried off the rest to gnaw on guiltily, away from his gaze?
It was a tale of desperate struggle and defeat. The left upper canine was cracked and chipped. Perhaps he had taken a fatal kick from the mighty bull giraffe; perhaps he had been injured in a confrontation with the pride male and, hurt and banished, struggled on to a slow and terrible death. Or perhaps, still inexperienced, he had lingered for too long in this distant place and could not make it to water and nourishment; perhaps he had run afoul of the deadly mamba.
I stared into the macabre grimace. Whatever happened, it is unlikely to have been quick. Thoughts like cruel, sad, terrible, merciless, welled into my mind, but I knew those are concepts that do not exist here. The wilderness simply moves on with absolute detachment to its ancient rhythms,.
Fatalistic? Perhaps. But at that moment I was intensely aware that here, I am nothing and I know almost nothing. Not even this superbly adapted and bush toughened animal could make it. But I cannot plead vulnerability or ignorance for just a fraction of leniency. No-one and nobody can plead anything. There are no excuses, no-one of influence to call on, no right to demand, no hope of compassion. Whether I find a way to exist, or perish, does not matter in the least. I stand completely alone, exposed to my very marrow by the vast indifference that towers over me.
This is an immense, but simple truth to be aware of, alone in the wilderness. Robert Ingersoll said once, in nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences. Yet, it is more subtle, sometimes. Sometimes there is evidence of affection in wild animals in their natural state – even of tenderness, of loyalty, I allowed.
“Yes but beware of interpreting what you observe from a human perspective – more correctly, a Western perspective,” I scoffed at myself. Ideas like “cruel,” “sad,” “terrible,” or “affection,” “compassion” and “loyalty” are human-invented words – labels allocated to human concepts. We use them, together with our many other words, to give form to a model of our world and how we relate to it. This we then hold as reality. The words themselves acquire a status of truth that we dare question only at peril of deconstructing the understanding we rely on. But have those concepts, those models, those words, even the slightest relevance here, where I stand now?
Some would say, “Yes,” with unassailable confidence. Others, who had perhaps lived through more, would say, “perhaps,” or “possibly, sometimes,” or perhaps, “only by mere coincidence.”
As I stared over the pan with the dead lion, all I knew was the stark reality of life and death.