Sunday, 10 February 2008

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright



The Tiger - by William Blake

TIGER, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

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?

What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,

And water'd heaven with their tears,

Did He smile His work to see?

Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

We are a good 250 years on from when Blake wrote about that fearsome animal. And even today, in the scraps of forest scrub that still dot part of our land the fear of the tiger continues.
I was reading a Ladybird book about lions and tigers to Asha and Enoch and got to thinking about the amazing way these animals are built. Their massive teeth that tear off the flesh of their prey and then swallow the chunks of meat whole. Their muscular limbs that spring with such force. The deep eyes that probe the undergrowth, while their nose and whiskers twitch, analysing the wind for news of prey or danger. We talked about how many people had worshipped these animals because of their strength and the fear they invoked.
What is it about these big cats that evokes such strong emotions? Fear, awe, reverence, passionate desires for protection - the whole gamut is there. Part of it must be the sheer beauty of muscle and sinew, the deep feline intelligence and the real frisson of uncertainty associated with the possibility of having those massive clawed paws swipe at us instead of at the deer or other prey the tiger stalks.
Blake questions whether the maker of the lamb made this killing machine. The question remains with us and I believe provides one of the reason for our fascination - we are drawn to the drama of life and death - and to see a large animal that lives entirely off the mammals it can stalk and kill resonates with something deep in who we are.

A clear-eyed look at creation includes the amazing set of relationships that make up the web of life - the myriad connections between living things. The presence of top-predators - as rare as they are becoming (especially in the ongoing saga of super-predator - man) - reminds us of the complex sets of food-linked relationships in nature. The fear in our heart, though, is more than just that of being eaten - is speaks of a deeper sense that we as humans have of the dimensions of death and beyond.

As we continue to lose our nation's tigers - we mourn the ruthless harvesting of them by poachers who send their parts for medicinal compounds in Chinese markets. At the same time, we yearn for some approach to their conservation that does not criminalise forest dwellers and place a higher value on the tiger than on the many who have succumbed the last few years to tiger (and leopard) attacks. How to balance these apparently conflicting demands of personal security for people living in and near the jungle, with the need to keep the local ecosystem - top predators included - intact - is a continued struggle.

Would that we don't have the tiger and others only remembered in poetry. But thank God for poetry and its ability to capture what is deepest in our souls.

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