13 June 2006

Icon of wildness

The snow leopard,” Attenborough says, “ is an almost mythical creature. It is an icon of the wilderness.”

In that apparently simple statement, he sums up so much of the importance and tragedy of wildness (I say ‘wildness’ to emphasise the quality, the spirit, while not wishing to downplay the physical nature of the concept—rock, ice, rivers, seas, jungles, deserts, and so on). The snow leopard as an icon; as an embodiment and reminder of what we long for; an idea that articulates that longing and need far more eloquently than any words. Perhaps there are no words that adequately say this. For so many people—people like me and most of my friends—the knowledge that snow leopards still live, wild and unseen—and unknown—is hope.

That’s much of the importance: while it is still possible to believe the icon exists in our world we can hope, and we can believe wildness, or wilderness if you will, still exists.

And there’s the tragedy. There’s something almost heartbreaking in those words; that the snow leopard is “an almost mythical creature.” Mythical creatures exist, but not in the world we believe to be real; not in the world we believe we experience. For the snow leopard to become a mythical creature would require the loss of one of the world’s greatest icons of wilderness and wildness. We’re so close to that—yet, for a while, there’s hope. Hope that hinges on a single word: almost.

“The snow leopard is an almost mythical creature.” A simple statement expressing the power of symbol; the value of what we’re so close to losing; the proximity and enormity of the loss; and still—hope. Hope that, just maybe, we won’t have to survive that loss.

I wake from a dream of tigers, aware of something heavy on the bed. I reach out and feel the fur, hear the chirrup and how it changes to a purr. Moonlight, and wind around the house.

The quote by David Attenborough comes from the BBC's Planet Earth. I was lucky to catch the documentary, with its astonishing footage of wild snow leopards. I think I remembered the quote correctly.

Photo (click if you want a larger image):
1. Fence and moon, Petone wharf, Wellington harbour.
I didn't have a photo of a snow leopard, and would need to think hard about my reasons for taking one. I probably would, but I don't believe the issues are as simple as "drawing attention to the animal's plight". I do know that I hope one day to be faced with the dilemma.

Photo and words © 2006 Pete McGregor


KiwiSoupGirl said...

I found that statement - while conveying that sense of hope that you described - deeply disturbing. Immediately that actual mythical creature, the unicorn, springs to my tired mind....and the numerous images we have in the industrialised world of these creatures that apparently never existed. We revere the myth...! Yet we see no images of snow leopards - or at least, very few. In that alone, perhaps, lies the hope. And how sad it is that animals and creatures need to be almost mythical to be a littler safer from our clutches....and that the image of the mythical unicorn is everywhere.... I have all kinds of incongruities going on with that comparitive....and none that feel good.

Thank you Peter - and that photograph is stunning (bleak and beautiful and paradoxical all at once)!

I'll keep my hope fires burning...it seems such a small thing, but at times the only thing...

yllstonewolf said...

i could not agree with you more that there is an immeasurable value in the simple existence of something so wild...even if we are never lucky enough to behold it with our own eyes. it gives our imaginations some place to play while we carry on our often mundane lives here in civilization. i've had this discussion so many times with my friend, the author, Gary Ferguson -about the innate value of a place or a thing that we may never have the luck to experience.

butuki said...

I think your discussion correlates to some my own thoughts about climbing the highest peaks in the world. I love climbing mountains and there is nothing quite like standing up there above the clouds with the curvature of the earth bending at the periphery of your vision. When you are up there you feel like you are in a different world, or at least the essence of what the world is made of.

However, I also believe that the highest peaks in the world should never have been climbed. I say this not because these aren't amazing feats, but because now, for the rest of humankind's existence, there will never be that mystery of the highest peak for all to dream about. The summit of Chomorangma (I refuse to call it "Mt. Everest") and others like K2 and Aconcagua have become common places, only equal to human endeavor and no longer the places of the gods that is their rightful heritage. Now for the rest of human existence there will never be the dream of the unclimbed highest peaks for following generations. The names of the summits have been sold for a few people's egos.

The recent development of commercial space flights, with the aim of reaching the moon and setting up "resorts" is especially unsettling. To think that the first connection with the moon would lead to a lunar Club Med literally makes me feel sick. I hope in my lifetime (or anyone else's for that matter) I never have to witness the privatization of the Sea of Tranquility.

Have we completely lost the ability to reserve at least a few places and creatures as sacred? What happens to the human sould when the world outside our minds is reduced to commodity?

pohanginapete said...

KSG: Unicorns — yes, they're the archetype of mythical creatures. Dragons, too. It's interesting to speculate about why those creatures, which never literally existed (at least not in the form we imagine them) should figure so prominently in our imaginations; why they should be metaphors for so much.

I'm very pleased you recognised those characteristics of the photo. The original was in colour and works very differently; I prefer this.

YSWolf: Exactly — the importance of knowing that places and creatures like those exist can hardly be overstated. Perhaps the greatest example is Antarctica, but it can exist on far smaller scales. For example, the knowledge that a secretive bird still inhabits a local wetland, even if it's known only from calls recorded by researchers, can be a source of great encouragement and hope.

Butuki: Wonderfully said. I no longer feel the urge to stand on the very summit of a mountain — quite the opposite, in fact. I actually delight in stopping just short; to put my feet on the very summit would seem like unbridled arrogance; moreover, for me it would remove an element of possibility. As for "resorts" on the moon... well, I don't think we'll survive long enough to see that. Perhaps that drive to exploit (sorry, "utilise") everything is a symptom of how "personal freedom" has become a religion? That, of course, requires a particular interpretation of freedom — namely, freedom as being allowed to do what you like; in short, "it's all about me". All about ego. I keep coming back to Eliot's quote: The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/ is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
Thanks for the thoughts, Butuki.

chuck said...

When we enter our own wildness, our unexplored dimensions, we begin to understand our spiritual dependence on wilderness, our enmeshment in it, and the sacredness and preciousness (beyond reckoning) of wilderness space.

Thanks, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Hey Chuck, good to see you here. It's always a huge encouragement for me — and a joy — to discover more people who understand the importance of these things. People who understand what I'm saying, and don't need me to spell it out. People like you.

MB said...

There is much that we humans need that we don't even begin to understand. You've touched on it here and I thank you for it. I appreciate the hope that your interpretation lends to what otherwise might be simply a grim statement. There is unarticulable value in the existence of wild things whether or not they play a visible role in our lives. Your striking photo is a perfect accompaniment to your thoughts, suggesting something unattainable, elusive and almost unreal, mysterious, that lurks just beyond our known environs... and yet, whose existence colors our daily lives in ways we're not always conscious of. Like the statement, I can't decide if the photo is hopeful or not. You make it so.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks MB, I really appreciate your perceptive thoughts. I'm particularly pleased you recognise there's still hope — and I'm encouraged by that.