“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you.”
Book of Job, chapter 12
Just over the hill from our house is the famous San Diego Zoo Safari Park. I can't fully recommend you go there; it’s a very disturbing place (from the Latin disturbare, 'to throw into disorder'). At each visit, everything I'm supposed to believe--from biology, zoology, taxonomy, whatever the word is--gets utterly overthrown.
Here’s the problem: There is so much unconscionable waste there. I don’t mean the plastic water bottles; I mean the exhibits. Here we live in a universe, we're told, which only manages to survive by shedding inefficiency. But the zoo flaunts a ridiculous excess. Whatever its origin--Asia, Africa, America--every single species is guilty.
The entrance fee is $52 dollars, but it's paying to enter a Hall of Horrors (Old French, from horrere ‘to tremble, shudder’). Something haunts that park. An invisible interloper. An exploiter of beast and bird, forcing them to do all the talking. Signs are posted everywhere that warn of “extinction.” But there's another problem: the intrusion of a powerful, enormous, all-consuming Life.
Dear Safari Park: If you are going to charge me to get in, at least explain what I am seeing. I watch a dozen types of antelope roam the plain, and none of their antlers match. Where is the consensus? I walk an acre of cacti, from the grotesque to the quaint, and all you warn me about is thorns? Then there’s the volume, a deafening clamor of color. One cruel bird hoards four different hues on his beak alone! Whatever happened to courtesy? To customer service? I am cancelling my membership until I can recover.
I once heard a scientist explain the giraffe’s long neck. He said it evolved so that the giraffe would not starve; it needed to reach the upper leaves on certain trees. Then he said that the beast's relatives evolved to eat grass. And all I could think was, they both live on the savannas of Africa--why is the giraffe so fussy? Isn’t it faster to change an appetite than to evolve two meters of vertebrae? Why not just join the family for dinner?
At the park, not only does my head throb, but I start feeling really, really stupid. The only consolation is the girl who offers to paint my portrait to make me look like a cheetah. Afterwards, I can soothe my nerves with a $5 ice cream cone.
Bottom line: it's all terrible. From the Latin terribilis, 'causing awe or dread.'
I admit I'm out of my league here. I wasn’t a science major. In my department, you never got a purely rational answer to your questions; you were just assigned papers. So I've tried to sort this out in the only way an English major can: consulting a Romantic poet.
William Blake is helpful:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? And what dread feet?
What the hammer? What the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
....Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Blake made one very important word choice in that last echoed line: “could frame” becomes “dare frame.” I don’t know if Blake turned to, or fled from, this bold blacksmith, but he certainly sensed that the craftsman was terribilis.
It’s notable that even the gentle lamb gave the poet pause. And surely, there is something more awful (in the Old English sense) about a lamb than about any other creature. It bows at the foot of its shearer without complaint. It extends its neck willingly. And while it lies there mute, a dreadful voice thunders over its torrent of blood.